D.C. Council Brings Attention to Mental Health

Makula Dunbar | 8/11/2010, 11:55 a.m.

Residents Join in National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

Crowds gathered at the John A. Wilson Building in Northwest recently to honor a writer who used her novels to bring attention to a health issue that often goes undiagnosed in minority communities. The D.C. Council honored the late BeBe Moore Campbell, an accomplished author and stalwart in the mental health field with a series of events that kicked off Tue., July 13.

"Nearly 60 million Americans, roughly 20 percent of the U.S. population will suffer from one mental illness or another in their lifetimes," said Council member Michael A. Brown (I-At-Large). "Unfortunately, only a fraction of these people seek treatment."
Politicians, mental health advocates along with community members attended a press conference and resource fair at the Wilson Building to draw attention to the critical health care issue. Church leaders signed on to discuss the importance of mental health and the need to become more knowledgeable about identifying warning signs during their upcoming Sunday services.

The following week, the Council held a public forum to discuss mental health within minority communities in honor of Campbell on Thu., July 22. National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month is modeled after the work that Campbell, a New York Times best-selling author and activist, conveyed through her speaking engagements and literature.

Brown opened the Thursday evening program at the Wilson Building by pointing to Campbell's bright smile. The upbeat author's face displayed on two large TV screens reminded the audience of Campbell, who battled and eventually succumbed to complications from brain cancer at the age of 56.
"Let's give Bebe a hand for all of her wonderful work," Brown said. "Today it's more than just honoring her. We want to pick up the baton and let folks know that we're going to continue her work."

Before her death in 2006, Campbell penned two books and a play related to mental illness. Her children's book, Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry (Penguin Putnam Inc., 2005) and 72 Hour Hold, (Knopf, 2005) focused on bi-polar disorder, a condition that plagued a member of Campbell's family. In May of 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives named the month of July in her honor.

Marjose Carrasco, M.P.A., director of the Multicultural Action Center at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) located in Alexandria, Va., participated in the forum. She stressed the importance of encouraging individuals to speak up.

"Coming to NAMI helps people realize that they are not alone. We have programs and we know how stressful it is to deal with mental illness," Carrasco said. "If we talk about it more, it's going to lose some of the stigma attached to it. That's what Bebe did. "

Campbell often discussed mental illness in the Black community during her book tours. She shared her personal experiences and doled out much-needed advice to audiences. Campbell, co-founded NAMI Inglewood in 2003, which was later renamed NAMI Urban Los Angeles.
"We need more leaders like her," Carrasco said.

Dr. Annelle B. Primm, M.D., M.P.H., deputy medical director of minority and national affairs at the American Psychiatric Association recommended that mental health practitioners become knowledgeable about the different ways mental health disorders affect minorities.

"Stigma and shame can be very strong in people of color," Primm said.

"Verbal and non-verbal communication is very important in mental health care, how people express their symptoms is driven by culture."

During the forum, the panel elaborated on reasons as to why minorities experience difficulty being treated and diagnosed with mental health conditions.
The biggest problem, panel members said, stems from practitioners being unaware of cultural differences when symptoms are displayed.

For example, Barbara Bazron, deputy director at the D.C. Department of Mental Health said that African-Americans may express changes in moods as a symptom of depression opposed to Whites who may express feeling dizzy or fatigued.

Also, language barriers that Hispanics and Asian-Americans face often get in the way of successful treatments. Frequently, minorities are overlooked because they fail to participate in studies, panel members said. Minority absence results in under-representation in terms of research and ultimately impairs proper treatment within the African-American, Asian American, Hispanic and Native American communities.

Although it's a known fact that people of different cultures are not one in the same, Carrasco said that symptoms and diagnosing practices that correlate with diverse cultures have been poorly researched in past years. Primm's report, Why is Mental Health Important to Culturally Diverse Families? revealed that 5.6 percent of Americans that are of mixed race have experienced a mental illness in the past year.

However, 44.8 percent of African-Americans, 39.4 percent of Hispanics compared to Whites at 64.6 percent actually receive treatment for mental illness.

"Minorities are two-thirds more likely to have a problem because of racial issues, life conditions, poverty and so on," Bazron said. "We want everybody to spread the word that mental health is treatable. If your leg was broken, you wouldn't hobble around on it and continue to injure yourself."

Bazron said that one of the D.C. Mental Health Department's ongoing missions is to provide mental health care to low-income individuals and families who would not otherwise seek treatment due to health insurance concerns. Collectively socio-economical issues, fear, and lack of support all contribute to minorities seeking and receiving treatment.

A report issued by the Office of Minority Health within the U.S Department of Health and Human Services disclosed that suicide rates among African-American adolescents have increased dramatically. As a whole, African-Americans are 30 percent more likely to face psychological distress than Whites.
In closing, Primm said that education remains key.

"We need to do some educating to help people become aware of what mental illness is so when it occurs in them or in their family member they can know that it's time to get help, rather than suffering in silence and getting to the point where it becomes a crisis."

Bazron said that background plays an integral role in the effective treatment of mental illness.

"Culture matters. When we are providing services we need to be able to step inside your cultural frame and respond appropriately."

Guests were encouraged to "take it to the streets" and provide friends and loved ones with information. Carrasco urged guests to approach loved ones with care and the utmost consideration.

"Always share information. Take pamphlets to your family or congregation, you never know who can benefit from that information."