Challenging the Stigma of Mental Illness

New campaign promotes awareness, discussion in black community

At the age of 12, former NBA player Thabiti Boone witnessed his severely depressed mother attempt suicide when she jumped from a six-story building and landed at his feet.

“When she was jumping off the roof, I took in all of the depression that caused her to jump,” says Boone, describing the incident in a public service video sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. He said that although he felt as if everyone was waiting for him to “break down” mentally, no one sat down and talked with him about how he was feeling.

Too often, Boone’s experience is echoed in the African American community when it comes to talking about mental health. Mental illness is brushed under the carpet, ignored, or stigmatized. But a new campaign by SAMHSA is designed to raise awareness of mental health problems among young adults in the African American community hopes to get more people talking about the issue — and ultimately getting the help they need.

The ads will encourage and educate young adults to step up and talk openly about mental health problems, and that they are not alone in their struggle. The television, radio, print, and Web ads feature real personal stories of African Americans dealing with mental health problems, and they aim to engage those in the community to support young adults who need help.

While 58.7% of Americans with serious mental illness received care in 2008, only 44.8% of mentally ill blacks received services, according to SAMHSA’s 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. The prevalence of serious mental illness is highest among those age 18 to 25, but according to SAMHSA, those people are the least likely to receive services or counseling.

“African Americans are more likely to delay seeking treatment until their symptoms are more severe and are more likely to discontinue or stop treatment once it is started,” says Paolo Del Vecchio, associate director for SAMSHA’s office of Consumer Affairs, which offers resources and programs to address mental health.

There are a variety of mental health disorders ranging from depression and anxiety problems to phobias and more serious issues such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, says Annelle Primm, director of minority and national affairs at the American Psychiatric Association.

Symptoms of mental instability can include changes in mood, sleep activity, energy level, or appetite; an inability to remember, concentrate, or think; and delusions or hallucinations. But Primm says that having just one of those symptoms in a fleeting sort of way, doesn’t mean that someone has a mental illness. But when the symptoms are grouped together over a long period a time a person should seek help.

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