April 1, 2006
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