Ending mental illness stigma

With help of NAMI, author Campbell tries to increase awareness in black community

December 02, 2005|By LINELL SMITH | LINELL SMITH,SUN REPORTER

Long before she wrote 72 Hour Hold, a searing account of a mother struggling with her child's bipolar disorder, novelist Bebe Moore Campbell fought her own suspicions that a close relative had a mental illness. At many points, she says, she would have felt devastated, but relieved, to discover a drug addiction was behind the erratic behavior she encountered.

Mental illness suggested a grim, out-of-control future she couldn't imagine.

"My loved one was manifesting mania and recklessness," she said by phone, requesting anonymity for her relative. "I remember sitting in the car with it zooming up to 100 miles an hour, while my loved one was laughing and zooming in and out of traffic. I thought we were going to die."

There was impulsive behavior as well: "This person would say, `Oh, I'm going to need a new car,' then pull off the road and buy it right then." She was also frightened when her loved one "said bizarre things and talked a mile a minute."

But whenever life seemed normal - "even a broken clock is right twice a day" - Campbell would deny her fears, never sharing them.

One day her relative's behavior became so physically dangerous that it led to a 911 call and the first of a series of psychiatric hospitalizations for what was revealed as bipolar disorder. (The title of her new book, 72 Hour Hold, refers to the amount of time patients can be held in a mental hospital without their consent.)

Eventually, as her relative began to receive therapy and medication, Campbell discovered the healing world of the National Alliance On Mental Illness, a nonprofit organization that helps educate the public about mental illness and helps families cope.

Campbell will speak at 7:30 p.m. tomorrow at a NAMI-sponsored event at the Church of the Redeemer on North Charles Street. (Admission is $10. For details, call 410-435-2600.)

"NAMI has given me a really good education about what's going on in your loved one's brain," the novelist says. "It's a wonderful network of people who are going through what you've gone through."

Determined to increase awareness of the struggles of those with mental illness (one in five families is directly affected by mental illness, according to NAMI), Campbell has used her book tour to rally support for patients and their families. Often speaking to congregations at such churches as Baltimore's Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, she has targeted African-Americans, who, she says, are still struggling to receive equal social treatment - much less equal treatment for a condition considered taboo.

"Crazy is the new `N' word," she says. "Nobody wants to be crazy. I think mental illness is far more stigmatizing than HIV. Many people think mental illness is a matter of character."

Curtis N. Adams Jr., assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, says African-Americans often think mental illness implies losing control - and that's particularly unacceptable for black women.

"Our culture says, `You have to go on no matter what' - if you're limping, if you're physically ill, if you're psychologically ill. As a consequence, getting help for yourself competes with meeting your other obligations."

Despite sensitivity toward patients from different ethnic backgrounds, there are still cultural hurdles, says Majose Carrasco, director of NAMI's national multicultural action center.

"An African-American or Latino talking to God could be perceived as a sign of mental illness in the wider culture whereas talking to a Supreme Being might be the norm in their cultures," she says.

Research suggests doctors may misinterpret behavior that is culturally acceptable in African-American, Hispanic and Asian communities for symptoms of a psychiatric disorder. A recent study of roughly 135,000 patients with mental illness in a Veterans Affairs registry showed that blacks were four times more likely to receive a diagnosis of schizophrenia than whites. Hispanics were three times more likely.

In addition, many blacks are fearful of being mistreated. For decades, the U.S. Public Health Service abused nearly 400 black men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study by allowing them to believe they were getting free medical care.

Nearly 60 percent of older African-Americans do not use the services they need for their mental health, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of the Surgeon General.

"By the time somebody comes to see me, they have tried practically everything else," says Adams. "The drugs didn't work, the alcohol didn't work and now they're finally getting around to the idea that what I have to offer may help."

Campbell often preaches the benefits of mental health education and medical treatment at church, the place where many blacks seek their mental health "prescriptions."

Maxine Cunningham of Baltimore turned to NAMI after her talented teenage daughter fell into the abyss of depression. NAMI has provided her with information about mental health and coping strategies.

"I wanted my family to love my daughter, not to reject her as strange," Cunningham says. "Their attitude used to be, `There's nothing wrong with her that a good switch couldn't correct.' Or they would say, `You spoil her.'

"It's amazing how many people don't talk about mental illness in their families. There's so much unnecessary suffering. You do have to cope. You do have to manage."

linell.smith@baltsun.com

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