The (Continuing) Education of a White Writer Regarding Black Americans and Mental Illness

This post is for two of the best women I know, the New York actor and activist Madeline McCray and her close friend Terrie M. Williams, the author of BLACK PAIN: IT JUST LOOKS LIKE WE’RE NOT HURTING.  

Terrie Williams and Madeline McCray

Madeline and Terrie, you tried to put me wise to the special challenges of African-Americans who suffer from mental illness. You reached out to me as I began research on NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE.

You provided me with sources. You tried to educate me. I promised you that I would look deeply into this topic in my book. But in the end, I did not look deeply enough.

Recognition of this truth arrived, appropriately enough, on Mental Health Day, October 10. It arrived in the form of a young woman in Cleveland, an African-American service-staff employee at the Intercontinental Hotel. It arrived just minutes after I’d finished addressing an exemplary civic group on—well, on the topic of education. Education about mental illness. How important this kind of education is.

(from left) David E. Weiss, board chairman; Honoree Fleming; Ron Powers; Elizabeth Newman, president and CEO at The Centers for Families and Children Benefit Luncheon 2017.

It took a three-minute conversation with this soft-spoken young woman to make me realize that my own education has been incomplete.

This is a rich irony—or a well-deserved comeuppance, depending on your point of view. I wrote NO ONE CARES essentially as an effort at education. After schizophrenia invaded my family and attacked both my sons, triggering the suicide of one of them, my wife and I realized that we’d become citizens of a “sub-nation”: the largely opaque nation of the afflicted and their families. Years later, when I recovered my willpower, I decided to write the book as an attempt to widen public understanding (and my own) about the nature and the reach of serious mental illness. That, and to illuminate the gross deficiencies in the American systems of mental health-care, criminal justice, and political willpower in addressing the problem.

As I’d hoped, writing the book educated me—but incompletely, as I now understand.

It is not as though the book ignores the particular ordeal of mentally ill black Americans. At least the public symptoms of that ordeal. It covers the epidemic of fatal shootings, by police, of unarmed and psychotic black men on the street. It portrays the overcrowding of the nation’s jails by juveniles, mostly black, who have been charged with crimes but not yet tried; and the violence visited on them by wardens and guards.

All of this is important. Yet in merely evoking these familiar abuses, I failed to cross an elusive border: the border that defines the daily realities of a sub-nation within a sub-nation. The lives of African-Americans struggling with mental illness amounts to unknown territory—unknown, at least, to most white Americans, of which I am one.

Ron Powers – keynote speaker at The Centers for Families and Children Annual Benefit Luncheon

I was ushered across that border in Cleveland on Mental Health Day.

My guide, the young service staff member, approached me just minutes after I had finished speaking at the annual luncheon of the Centers for Families and Children at the Intercontinental. (I am withholding her name. It’s a sad possibility that in these hair-trigger times, her employment could be jeopardized by the very fact that she spoke up to me about a racially charged public issue.)

Woodlawn Avenue, East Cleveland

The Centers deserves a moment of illumination here. It is a sterling civic institution. A nonprofit with an annual budget of $55 million, it reaches out to the poor, the hungry, the under-educated, the sick, and the troubled—some twenty-five thousand clients—in a city striving to overcome chronic post-industrial poverty entrenched racial tensions. The racial stress is burned into the city’s history along lines of segregation in its housing patterns: most of its black and poor population is concentrated in the near East Side, and most of its white population farther west. Cleveland’s incidents of fatal police gunplay in recent years, highlighted by the shooting of the 12-year-old Tamir Rice in 2014, have deepened black Cleveland’s distrust, bordering on paranoia, toward the mostly white police department.

David E. Weiss

Amidst these overwhelming challenges of poverty and racial unease, the Centers for Families and Children persists as a national model of enlightened civic service and hope. Its board chairman, the lawyer and businessman David E. Weiss, ranks among the most socially engaged civic leaders in the country. Its new director, Elizabeth Newman, has re-ignited its six hundred volunteers with her own passionate sense of mission: to help people find job opportunities and early-education conduits for their children, provide food for hungry families, dispatch pharmacists to households to help manage nutrition and medications, find treatment for substance abuse, and summon emergency services in crisis situations.

And to co-ordinate intervention and help in the crises of the mentally ill. Elizabeth Newman explained this cornerstone service to me in detail:

Elizabeth Newman

“The Centers is equipped to support people with serious mental illness, this skill set actually sets us apart in the community. We routinely assist people living with schizophrenia. We have psychiatrists on staff, in addition to relationships with the local/regional hospital systems and emergency rooms. In terms of onset of psychosis, we are outpatient providers but work in partnership with inpatient providers, so it really depends on the level of severity.  Another agency in town runs the mobile crisis unit, but we receive referrals and connections to clients directly from that unit.”

Which brings me (in my round-about way) to the topic of this blog.

Ron Powers

As mentioned, I had completed my remarks and was standing amidst the departing luncheon attendees when she emerged from the mix of people. She wore the brown uniform of the hotel’s service corps, and her manner was hesitant; yet it was clear that she had something she wanted to say.

What she said was, “Thank you for speaking about schizophrenia.”

I sensed the urgency behind this polite comment and asked her: “Is there a history in your family?”

She hesitated for a moment, as if trying to decide whether she could trust me with an answer, and then:

“My mother. And my brother.”

There is no way to prepare for a response like this, no matter how much you expect it, no matter how often it comes. One rule of thumb is to avoid “condolences.”

I asked her the only questions that seem fitting, and necessary:

“Are they getting treatment? Are they on medications?”

She smiled just a little before answering; and the smile should have told me everything I needed to know. But she spelled it out anyway.

“Black folks don’t like to get treatment. Black folks see it as a white man’s disease.”

While I was digesting this, she added: “Black men don’t like to talk about mental illness. They see it as a sign of weakness.”

And then, as if recognizing the need to explain the obvious to a blockhead (accurate, I suppose, in this instance): “So, no. They aren’t getting any treatment.”

And there it was: a key to the inner realities of a sub-sub-nation. The culturally learned set of attitudes that makes it all the harder for doctors and psychiatrists to intervene in the mental-illness crises of African-Americans. African-American men in particular, who routinely suffer violations of their self-respect, their safety, their very humanity, at the hands (and guns) of those who view them as inherently alien, dangerous, unworthy of inclusion in society.

Which, when you think about it, is exactly the same way that many people view the mentally ill in general.

 

I left the Intercontinental Hotel in Cleveland as the educated educator. I thought of my friends Madeline McCray and Terrie Williams, and about the exasperation they must have felt at my failure to cross that border. Felt silently, without rebuke, in the way many African-Americans experience the myopia of their white friends.

Back home, I sought to verify the viewpoint of the young service-worker at the Intercontinental in Cleveland. Below are some samples of what I came up with. There are more, many more, as a Google search of “African Americans mental illness” will show.

–That African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population, owing in part to the exceptional stress they experience just living their lives. The problems include major depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, recourse to suicide, and post-traumatic stress disorder (this last because African Americans are especially likely to be victims of violent crime).

–That many black Americans misunderstand what a mental health condition is and don’t talk about it. Many thus believe that a mental health condition is a personal weakness punishment from God.

–That stigma—which knows no color lines—triggers especial reluctance among African Americans to discuss mental health issues and seek treatment.

–That a pervasive deficit of information—education—causes many African Americans to have trouble recognizing the symptoms of mental illness and to underestimating its dangers. Some may think of depression as “the blues” “or something to snap out of.”

(The above examples are taken from https://www.nami.org/Find-Support/Diverse-Communities/African-Americans)

–That black Americans’ distrust of doctors has some factual justification: Blacks are “over-diagnosed with schizophrenia, frequently misunderstood by their psychiatrists, and largely disenfranchised,” in the opinion of William B. Lawson, the distinguished African-American professor and chair of psychiatry at the Howard University College of Medicine. (https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/768391#vp_2)

 

A Closing Thought

This has been far from an easy blog entry for me to write. No one likes to own up to failures of understanding, especially in the fraught arena of of racial relations. As with NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE itself, I at first resisted writing it at all. Then I decided I had to write it because it was the truth. I hope that it is read with an understanding that writers are often fallible—just like ordinary people.

________

The full recording of the interview with Elizabeth Newman and Ron Powers is available here: http://www.ideastream.org/programs/sound-of-ideas/finding-the-cure-for-aids-book-no-one-cares-about-crazy-people.

Additional coverage of the Luncheon in The Plain Dealer, the daily newspaper for Cleveland: http://www.cleveland.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2017/10/putting_a_renewed_focus_on_men.html

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