Mental Health: Let's Talk

April 25, 2011

Over the past year we have seen shootings and suicides on various campuses, including here at the University of Texas at Austin, and the shooting in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Each of these events has led to reviews of practices for dealing with mental illness. It has also led to people being more willing to talk about these issues. A columnist in the Austin newspaper recently decided to "come out" and discuss her own battles with mental illness. This prompted me to think about how mental illness has touched my life and family, and the taboos surrounding these issues, particularly in the black community.

Many studies have shown that blacks tend to suffer from higher levels of stress than other ethnic groups, which leads to high blood pressure and other physical ailments. However, we have a tendency to ignore the brain – rather than seeing it as part of our bodies, we see anything that affects the brain as a behavior that can be controlled. After reading many books on brain function, in order to understand issues in my own family, I came to realize that it’s something that can be treated, like any other physical ailment, such as asthma. This realization has also helped me better understand my family's struggles over the years.

My mother passed away last May, and over the last few months I have been working through many of the issues that I have dealt with since childhood. My mother had borderline personality disorder, but it wasn’t officially diagnosed until after my father passed away in 2001. Mental illness was something that affected nearly everyone in her family of eight children. However, I also take into consideration that these people lived during very difficult times: born during the depression in the South under Jim Crow and then having to go to work at an early age to take care of their families, during times of war. It’s a miracle that so many people from that generation still have their sanity. When people talk about the "greatest generation" I think of those who had burdens that those of us in the current era can't begin to comprehend.

My mother also raised seven children while having to move every two to three years because my father was in the military. She relied on her religious faith and the support of her husband to make it through, but there were tough times for all. All I can hope to do is develop a better understanding of my family and the challenges that have led us to where we are today, particularly knowing that many of these issues came about due to physical illness, rather than simple bad behavior.

I was recently discussing these issues with a friend over lunch, and we both lamented the fact that so much of this discussion is considered taboo. It's difficult to discuss these issues within families, let alone outside of families. However, we both felt empowered in being able to talk about these issues with each other, and in supporting organizations that help individuals and families with mental health issues.

Of course, all communities deal with issues around mental illness. But we need to keep in mind that mental health is a continuum. We all go through difficult times in our lives, whether it’s the student who is struggling with grief or the colleague who is a new parent and trying to get tenure.

In the university environment, there are many stresses and strains on both students and faculty. I'm not advocating that faculty start sharing their personal stories with students, but they should remain vigilant for signs that students are under stress when they come to office hours, or are behaving strangely in class. Faculty need to be aware of the resources available to both students and faculty for counseling, and what can be done in more difficult situations (and, of course, to use 911 in the case of an emergency). The University of Texas has developed a behavior concerns advice line for situations when faculty or students have concerns and aren’t sure what to do.

However, we should all remain aware of the taboos that remain around discussions of mental health issues and work to break down some of the barriers. I realize that the stigma that is attached to mental illness is difficult to overcome. My own experience has made me more compassionate towards those who struggle with these issues. I certainly don’t expect everyone to share the same views on the issue, but it’s important to have a dialogue where possible and maintain awareness.

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