With Bebe Moore Campbell

No matter your gender, class, ethnicity, race or religion, mental illness doesn’t discriminate. According to the National Mental Health Association, an estimated 2.3 million Americans have bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). The rate of bipolar disorder among African Americans is the same as all Americans, except African Americans are less likely to receive a diagnosis and, therefore, treatment.

Bebe Moore Campbell, 56, a best-selling novelist whose works include Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine and What You Owe Me, understands the struggle of dealing with mental illness, having taken care of a family member afflicted with one since 1998. Campbell’s personal experience of seeing her relative go in and out of facilities inspired her to write her latest novel, 72 Hour Hold (Knopf; $24.95), a story about the owner of an upscale Los Angeles clothing shop whose teenaged daughter is diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Campbell says her personal mission is to educate and eradicate the stigma behind mental illness and to be an advocate for victims and caregivers. As a part of that mission, she co-founded the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Inglewood, California. BLACK ENTERPRISE recently caught up with Campbell to discuss mental illness and the black community.

What is it that most people don’t understand about mental illness?
People don’t realize that when there’s a person with a mental illness, there are really two victims of the disease: the person with the illness and the person who loves and cares for the victim.

Is the issue the elephant in the room? We don’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to talk about it, either. I went into denial. I was ashamed. I was very stigmatized by this illness that had no business in my family. But it was. So I had to confront the stigma. And it took me years to come to grips with it and to control the impact it had on my life. And those were years of secrecy and shame.

If we suspect mental illness in a relative, what should we look for? Depression is the person who cannot get out of bed, the person who doesn’t bathe, the person who isn’t eating or who is overeating, or the person who is irritable or always angry. It’s simply a withdrawal from whatever gave them pleasure before — joylessness.

On average, when do the first signs start to appear?
People with mental illness have many normal moments, maybe as many as they have when they’re engaged in abnormal behavior. The average age of manifestation is in the late teens and early 20s, although there is early onset and late onset.

And if that person is in denial?
First, we have to stop being in denial ourselves. The struggle has to be to de-stigmatize mental illness. It’s the main reason that people don’t seek treatment or don’t remain in treatment once they begin. But no one can persuade someone in the grips of mental illness to get help. It’s very difficult because the stigma is so great and the illness itself makes

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  • I’m glad that. I read Bebe Moore Campbell’s intro.
    on mental illiness. I have been struggle with the
    disease for over 50, yrs. this disease run in my
    family, but it was never talked about so it went
    un-detected. I knew that it was something wrong..
    but didn’t what so. I tried to live a normal life
    as possible somewhat in denial as. I got older an
    had my own kids, that when reality kicked in. I
    realize that. I was sick but refuse to talk about
    it because. I knew it would be the stigma would be
    to hard for me to deal with so. I keep it to myself and did my best to deal with it on my own
    because. I knew that my kids, needed me to care for them. I was raised in a dysfunctional household and felt very sad growing up had a learning disability but. I was determine not to let that get in my way because. I had to be a mother. I would like to continue exlpaining my experience living with this disease but it would take the rest of my life. I was hit wth the new 25, years, ago that my only daughter, was diagnosis with this disease and it almost killed me because. I had to see her go through so much pain but the good thing was that. I had went back to school and took a class in phycology and. I thank God, for the strenght to manage to learn more about mental illiness it help me to get my daghter, the treatment that she needed and today she’s on medication after going in and out of the hospital and be given one medication after another until we found the one that work for her and. I say we because. I worked very closely with the doctors, and monitor my daughter, mood swings and hung in there with her refuse to put her into facility it has been along jounery for both of us but she has come a long ways and. I’m very much in her life very protective. I don’t have a life she’s my life. I give God, the glory for keeping strong and giving me guideness all of these years, well that’s my reply to this mental illiness topic there is so much more that. I would can share but. I’m still hoping to see that day when. I can stand before God, and be judged me for the love, and the hard work through the pain and the heart aches, and tears, that. I’ve endure in my life time. thanks for letting me share my mental illiness experinces.