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Janet Alexander Davis and Delores Malone know first-hand the pain of having a family member suffer from a mental illness. They have experienced the confusion and that accompanies the onset of an episode of mental illness, the frustration of finding the right professional and then the right medication for a loved one, and then the isolation from the unspoken rule that the topic is taboo in some parts of the black community.
“Mental health is so a part of everyday life,” Mrs. Davis said, “Within our country we are not kind with understanding that ‘I have a mental illness.’” She likened the stigma of mental illness to the stigma other illnesses used to carry. “Even back in the 40s, if you had cancer people would say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you, because I might get it.’”
A chilly reception to even discussing mental illness in the black and brown communities led Mrs. Malone, Mrs. Davis and four other women to “break the ice” on that topic.
Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Malone met in 2008 in a 12-week family class sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
“The Family-to-Family class really changed my life,” Mrs. Malone said, “because at that time I really didn’t know that mental illness was a lifelong illness and that it can be so difficult to get the right diagnosis, which will hopefully lead to getting the right medication.”
She also said she noticed “there were not a lot of black people coming to the classes. I think Janet and I were the only ones of 30 people.
“After I took the class I was asked to teach the class,” said Mrs. Malone, by profession an early childhood educator. “And later when I was teaching the Family-to-Family class in Des Plaines, black families would tell me they wanted to get away from Evanston to talk about [mental illness] – get away from the stigma.”
When she joined Sherman United Methodist Church, Mrs. Malone said, the pastor, Reverend Dr. Barbara Morgan, suggested she start a mental health ministry, which might offer workshops on mental health in communities of color.
Mrs. Malone and Mrs. Davis met in July 2018 to begin discussing what to do. A month later, they were l joined by four other women of Sherman UMC. In September, some of the committee members attended two-day workshop, “Coloring Mental Health Collective”: which included, “Telling Our Untold and Unacknowledged Stories: Reflections from Black and Brown Bodies,” at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. The focus was mental health in the black and brown communities.
“Discussions were centered on what mental illness and mental health meant to us as people of color. That was phenomenal,” Mrs. Malone said.
By November the six committee members had decided to present a workshop the following April.
Talking About Mental Health Is “Normal”
“We want to make talking about mental illness as a normal thing,” Mrs. Davis said. “Breaking the Ice – Unlocking Mental Health and Mental Illness in the Black and Brown Community” was born.
The April session was well attended, Mrs. Davis said, but time ran short. In addition to the 50 attendees, there were mental health professionals from the Family Institute at Northwestern University and NAMI and a representative from the Moran Center.
“We asked three questions,” said Mrs. Malone. The first was “What do you do for good mental health?” The second, “What happens when good mental health cannot be sustained?” was answered by the mental health professionals, who described some signs of an onset of a mental illness.
The third question reflected the genesis of the workshop: “Why do some black and brown people fail to seek help from the mental health community?”
Time ran out before the planned breakout session, at which those in attendance would be able to tell their stories, “So we invited 20-30 back for the June 8 session,” Mrs. Malone said, adding, “What I saw was there were so many people needing to talk. More than anything, we’re saying, ‘People can tell their stories.’”
“As Sick As Our Secrets”
Some of the 20 people who attended the June 8 session broke the ice. “We talked about how mental health and mental illness have affected people,” Mrs. Malone said. “Janet opened the door; she talked about her own experiences.”
Mrs. Davis said, “There was an eruption of emotion. People who didn’t plan to speak spoke. … You haven’t admitted [the problem]. … You may find yourself saying things you didn’t plan to say.”
The reaction to this outpouring of emotional stories was gentle, Mrs. Davis said. “These are kind people – kind faces and that helped.”
“People had been harboring their experiences,” Mrs. Malone said. “We talked about how when we were growing up, you didn’t talk about what’s going on in your home.”
“We can be as sick as our secrets,” said Mrs. Davis. She also said, “I wonder if some of that comes from slavery – or later – from the 30s and 40s and 50s, when people could be killed for talking about what went on in a house.”
Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Malone spent part of the summer reviewing feedback and planning their next steps.
There will be more sessions, the two agreed; the challenging part is prioritizing the options.
Mrs. Malone said, “People are very positive about bringing in speakers and about having a place to come to. We plan to continue to involve NAMI, The Family Institute, and the Moran Center. We plan to provide information on resources, such as Erie Family Health Evanston/Skokie Health Center, which is a great resource.”
Other things under consideration are getting more men involved, perhaps through a men’s group, and focusing on the experiences of young adults.
Mrs. Malone has applied to be a support leader through NAMI, to help facilitate the meetings.
Mrs. Davis said “What I saw [at the June 8 meeting] was there were so many people needing to talk,” she said.
“The feedback we’re getting is, ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,” said Mrs. Malone.
Mrs. Davis added, “More than anything, we’re saying, ‘People can tell their stories.’”
While mental health resources in Evanston and nearby are plentiful, said Janet Alexander Davis, not all of them are geared toward the specific cultures and challenges of the black and brown communities.
Mrs. Davis said, “What happens in a lot of families is that one person breaks down, and someone thinks, ‘Oh, my gosh, what’ll we do? Where do we go? As black Americans, it’s difficult for some of us to tell the truth about what’s going on – or we don’t even know what we’re looking at. … So it’s good to put out there some examples of someone who might be having an episode or a breakdown. …
“For black and brown people, do we know enough about where we could go where our culture is more understood? … Some might say, ‘She’s saying, “Only a black person can help another black person.”’ That’s not what I’m saying … I need someone who speaks the language I can understand.”
Mrs. Malone added, “What you are saying is really true. There are not a lot of resources for black and brown people where our culture is understood.
“One of the white women at the April workshop couldn’t understand why we needed this. I said, ‘We are the only people who didn’t come to this country because we wanted to. … We were really ripped from our lands in Africa. The whole trauma of slavery, I think, needs to be looked at … Your family could be sold at any time. Even the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t work. There were still poverty and lynching – things that didn’t affect other cultures. … Why don’t we seek help from the dominant culture? Psychologists and psychiatrists who are not Black need to study this so they can understand it.”
Mrs. Davis said, “Some might say, ‘That was 400 years ago – get over it.’ But the fear that someone could come into your home and take you – it’s those things that I know … This needs to be looked at with compassion.”
Both Mrs. Malone and Mrs. Davis encourage anyone who believes there is a mental illness in the family to seek help. Even if the person with the illness will not accept help, other family members may need help in coping.
Mrs. Malone recalled a facilitator’s giving “flight-attendant” advice. “As the flight attendants say ‘Put your [oxygen] mask on first or you won’t be able to help the person who is going to need help.’ Getting help for yourself might help you understand your loved one with a mental illness.”
NAMI, 1801 W Warner Ave Suite 202, Chicago, IL 60613. 312-563-0445.
Erie Evanston/Skokie Health Center, 1285 Hartrey Ave., Evanston, 60202. 847-666-3494.
The Family Institute at Northwestern University, 618 Library Pl, Evanston, IL 60201. 847-733-4300.