By Atima Omara-Alwala
Monday, February 18, 2013
The current gun-control debate could worsen the mental health stigma that already stops many women of color from seeking help, says Atima Omara-Alwala. It's necessary to get the facts right on mental illness and those who commit violent acts.
Credit: Geek2Nurse on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0)..
(WOMENSENEWS)--Well-meaning activists and elected officials do a huge disservice when they make assumptions about helping the mentally ill only in light of the extreme violence they are supposedly likely to commit.
For women in communities of color, already contending with higher rates of depression and other mental illness, this can be particularly harmful.
Who wants to come forward about your problems when National Rifle Association spokesperson Wayne La Pierre is saying you belong to a trigger-happy lunatic crowd whose names need to be kept on a registry?
Who wants to be lumped together with Adam Lanza?
The horrific massacre of school children and educators in Newtown, Conn., has spurred interest in mental health but the public discourse has spent very little time at the intersection of race and gender.
If we don't address mental health reforms overall aggressively, the current gun-control debate could bolster a vicious stigma that already blocks many in underserved communities from seeking help.
Clicking through my Facebook and Twitter feeds that awful December day, I saw a torrent of pithy comments on the need to do something about mental illness and gun control in the United States.
It's a tenuous link to make since an August 2006 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry shows only 4 percent of those considered mentally ill actually commit violent acts.
I grew up in a black immigrant family intimately affected by mental illness and disability. When I was a child, my favorite cousin, in her late 20s at the time, developed paranoid schizophrenia. Just before we knew she was ill, she came to stay with us, as she always had when visiting.
I was excited to see this cool big sister figure who took me shopping, to the movies and let me play with her makeup. I was shocked at what my pre-teen eyes saw. A healthy, vibrant full figured woman transformed into an emaciated, exhausted version of herself, her thick curly hair now rapidly thinning. Sores covered her once well-kept face.
I will never forget watching my parents grapple with her diagnosis and try to get her help.
As I grew older I saw friends grapple with the byproducts of mental illness: eating disorders to alcoholism and self-injury. In spite of my knowledge and experiences, the national stats are still stunning.
About 26 percent (57.7 million) of Americans ages 18 and older suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. That number translates into a sobering 1-in-4 adults. Yes, 1-in-4.
Major depressive disorder, or depression, is a leading form of mental disability in people ages 15-44 in the United States and is more prevalent in women, with women suffering two-and-a-half times more likely than men from depression.
The disparity in those suffering from depression widens significantly when you zoom in on female demographics.
Fifty percent more African American women are diagnosed with depression than white women,
according to the National Association for Mental Illness. It's raised such concern that at the 2007 Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference, mental illness and black women were discussed as a major topic because a study from Mental Health America showed a mere 7 percent of black women suffering from depression sought treatment, compared to 20 percent of white women.
The rate of suffering for Latinas is even higher than that of black or white women.
Psychological, biological and environmental factors combine to culminate in mental illness. Traumatic and stressful events, such as a death in the family or divorce or job loss, or even a presumably happy event such as getting married, can contribute to depression.
Unfortunately, the number of those who seek treatment is low, and even lower in communities of color. Here seekers can be more prone to finding mental-health services too expensive; not covered by insurance; or hindered by language and cultural barriers; compounding a larger problem further.
As a black woman, I am all too familiar with the belief that depression in my community can be especially seen as a "weakness."
Mental Health America's 2007 survey found that over half--63 percent--of African Americans believe that depression is a personal weakness. Only 31 percent consider it a medical problem that can be treated. Additional research from the National Association of Mental Illness indicates similar sentiments pervading the Latino and Asian communities.
To be clear I understand why the need for better mental-health treatment has been raised in the context of the Newtown and Aurora, Colo., and other mass shootings. And it's true that some are homing in on the particular problems of men, who commit up to 94 percent of murder-suicides, according to a 2006 study by the Violence Policy Center.
But we can't allow the discussion to get sloppy when it comes to mental illness.
Discussing what shifted in the lives of Lanza or Aurora shooter James Holmes to make them killers makes more sense than generalizing about the mentally ill whose percentage of violent crimes against others is low.
Far more frequently, those with mental illness torture and harm themselves.
I would be remiss as a person who has made her living in politics and advocacy if I didn't use this window, as President Barack Obama encouraged, to help "make access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun."
But we must also do our part to not stigmatize those in need so much so that they will not seek the help they need.
Atima Omara-Alwala is a political strategist, progressive and activist of 10 years who has served as staff on eight political campaigns and other progressive causes with a particular focus on women's political empowerment and leadership, reproductive justice, health care and communities of color. Her writings on the topics have also been featured at Ms. Magazine, RH Reality Check and Fem2pt0. Currently, she is national vice president of theYoung Democrats of America and serves on the boards of DC Abortion Fund and Planned Parenthood Metro Washington Action Fund.
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