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Karyn Washington and the truth on black mental health

AT JUST 22, Karyn Washington was a dark skinned woman who became an online sensation by turning her own painful experience with colorism into a website to encourage and celebrate black women.

By all accounts, Washington helped thousands of women to acknowledge black beauty while sharing black pain. But when her mother passed away, depression reportedly took hold, and on April 8, Washington died of an apparent suicide.

Perhaps Washington’s death can do what years of warnings could not. Maybe it can convince African Americans to admit that too many of us suffer silently with all kinds of mental illness, including depression.

Why mental health is killing us

There are many things that affect mental health outcomes for African Americans, but there is one overriding factor that can’t be ignored. Black people, by and large, do not trust doctors. Our historical experiences with misdiagnosis, inadequate treatment, and outright exploitation have made us that way.

[blocktext align=”right”]”When her mother passed away, depression reportedly took hold, and on April 8, Washington died of an apparent suicide. Perhaps Washington’s death can do what years of warnings could not. Maybe it can convince African Americans to admit that too many of us suffer silently with mental illness.”[/blocktext]We remember the Tuskegee experiments, which saw black prisoners injected with syphilis. We recall Henrietta Lacks’ cells being appropriated without the permission of or financial compensation to her family. We noticed the study by the National Institutes of Health that confirmed what we knew all along—that “implicit race bias among physicians … may contribute to racial/ethnic disparities in use of medical procedures…”

None of this would matter, except for the fact that we all have come in contact with mental illness. We’ve seen it in our own families.

Karyn Washington was not alone

As a child, I saw an uncle of mine—a brilliant and talented man—sink to the depths of mental illness as my family struggled to deal with him. At first, there were subtle changes in his behavior. Then he disappeared from our lives for a time, and when he returned, he carried with him a rage that was frightening to behold.

In response, we did what African Americans do. We tried to handle it as a family.

My grandparents took him in and tried to deal with him with patience and love, with prayer and hope. Eventually, his angry outbursts became too much for the family to bear. My grandparents barred him from their home. We lived next door at the time, and we were forced to bar him, too.

I remember the nervous, frightened whispers of our friends and neighbors. I remember wishing for the return of the engaging, normal uncle I’d known so well as a child. I remember beaming with pride as the fractured portions of his life began to come back together. I remember the sadness I felt when he died far too young.

What we must change

We don’t talk about mental illness as a community, and that has to change. The mental health community already knows that the racism we endure causes an ongoing, underlying stress that eats away at our mental wellbeing. The poverty that afflicts more than a quarter of us makes us more likely to live in psychological distress. The disproportionate numbers of African Americans who are imprisoned, homeless, or drug-addicted often deal with mental health issues, as well.

That’s the reality, and that’s why we can’t spend another minute sweeping the black community’s mental health issues under the rug.

As Surgeon General David Satcher, an African American, said in reference to his 2001 report on minority mental health disparities, the history of racism, discrimination and poverty combined with fear and mistrust can keep minorities from seeking and receiving appropriate care. But solving that problem is not just about changing the behavior of healthcare providers. Our community’s behavior must also change.

“If you or a loved one is experiencing what you think might be symptoms of a mental disorder, seek treatment and seek it now,” Satcher said. “Insist on the kinds of services that can and should be available to you, whatever your language, your income, your geographic location, your race or your ethnicity.”

Perhaps, if we do that, Karyn Washington’s death won’t be in vain.

solomon thumbnailSolomon Jones is an Essence bestselling author and award-winning columnist. He is the creator and editor of Solomonjones.com. Click here to learn more about Solomon.


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Cyndee Sturgis Landrum

Having grown up in a similar situation with aunt beloved aunt, I appreciate this post. There needs to be more open and honest discussion about mental health issues period, but especially among ethnic and linguistic minorities. In addition to preventing the premature loss of young people, like Kayrn Washington, we need to address the fact that many forms of addiction are attempts at self-medicating undiagnosed mental health disorders.

Solomon Jones

Cyndee you are so right about self-medicating. One of the facts that jumped out at me as I was researching this column was this: People of color are overrepresented in shelters and jails partly due to untreated mental illness. This health problem has led to social constructs that trap poor people in cycles of dependency because traditional treatments are unreliable, not trusted, or simply not there.