Bebe Moore Campbell, who passed way from cancer in November 2006, was a best-selling author and a dedicated mental health advocate for underserved minority communities.

Moore Campbell’s long time friend, Linda Wharton-Boyd, was inspired by Campbell’s work and desire to end stigma and provide mental health information.  Wharton-Boyd suggested dedicating a month to the effort and the friends got to work outlining the concept of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.  Campbell and Wharton-Boyd held book signings, spoke in churches and created a National Minority Mental Health Taskforce of friends and allies.  Support for the idea continued to grow; however, the effort came to a halt when Campbell, who was struggling with brain cancer, became too ill to continue.

When Campbell lost her battle to cancer, Wharton-Boyd, friends, family and allied advocates reignited their efforts and National Minority Mental Health Month Resolution was announced by the United States House of Representatives in May 2008.

Below is a story written by Ms. Moore Campbell about a member of her family and his struggle with bipolar disorder.  This story may sound familiar to families who have a loved one struggling with a mental illness.

Bebe Moore Campbell: The Stigma of Mental Illness

A few years ago, a member of my family began to speak and behave in a bizarre manner. He stayed awake for days, talked non-stop and spent money recklessly. I was his passenger when he drove close to 100 miles an hour on the freeway. He laughed wildly as he dodged traffic, veered in and out of lanes and ignored my pleas to slow down. He seemed oblivious to the danger. I waited for things to return to normal, but they didn’t.

Gradually, my relative became psychotic and violent. One night, I had to call 911 and watch the police drive him to a psychiatric facility. The doctor diagnosed bipolar disorder, a condition characterized by extreme mood swings. The illness became our family’s deep, dark secret. Stigma had a hold on us, and stigma is as hard to control as bipolar disorder. “There’s nothing wrong with me,” my relative declared. It was shame that made him deny the problem and refuse treatment.

Many overwhelmed families can recount tales of calling 911 because of a psychiatric emergency only to have the ill person appear normal when police arrived. Once police appeared at my door moments after my relative had been raging and threatening, but as soon as he saw them, he went into normal mode. Seeing no one who was a danger to himself or others, lacking the criteria to impose a 72-hour hold in a psychiatric facility, the police left. And my loved one’s treatment was delayed once again.

The word “crazy” relegates people to a world of semi-human. My relative didn’t want to live there. No one does. Stigma is one of the main reasons why people with mental-health problems don’t seek treatment or take their medication. People of color, particularly African-Americans, feel the stigma more keenly. In a race-conscious society, some don’t want to be perceived as having yet another deficit. Others find it hard to trust medical personnel who don’t seem to understand their culture. Some studies show that Latinos and African-Americans are much more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than whites, even though the illness occurs in all races at the same rate. The psychiatric community must address inequities in treatment.

Once my loved one accepted the diagnosis, healing began for the entire family, but it took too long. It took years. Can’t we, as a nation, begin to speed up that process? We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African-Americans. The message must go on billboards and in radio and TV public service announcements. It must be preached from pulpits and discussed in community forums. It’s not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.

Article Appeared on NPR on November 27, 2006 in a Report About Ms. Moore Campbell’s Death. 

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