• La Shawn Wilburn

BLACK HISTORY MONTH – MENTAL HEALTH SERIES: Why It’s Time To Take Mental Health Seriously in the Af


“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

― Frederick Douglass, Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings


We are two weeks into Black History Month. Timelines, Tweets, and Instagram’s are full of “black history facts”. Chefs are covering culinary history facts. Makeup artists are covering beauty history facts. Teachers are covering education history facts and so on and so forth. This month our eyes will pour over factual, statistical, and historical data. Pride will flow. Some of the information we will retain and some we’ll remember when we see them next February. If we are not careful the cycle will repeat itself every year. What is it that is keeping us from this information all year long? What are we doing with what we learn? What are we passing on?

This is where we were, this is where we’ve gone, and this is where we have to go cannot result only in creative “memes”. What we need throughout the year is:

“Africa is where we came from. This is Africa’s history. This is where it was interrupted. This is America’s history. This is where we fought to be free. This is what we did after we became free. This was segregation. This is how we beat segregation. This is what our fight is today. This is where we are. This is why. This is where we need to go. This is how.”


I as many do, enjoy Black History Month but not nearly as much as I once did. In fact I miss the times when history was a part of the day every day. Growing up in California on the cusp of where South Central and Watts meet, my teachers, regardless of their nationality, shared African history with us. Our history was shared by the elders. My grandfather, my grandmother and great grandparents shared music played with wash boards and spoons while telling old folk stories. I can still remember my great grandfather Jimmy and his song, “Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy, what you got to gimme’, corn and peas and that’ll be a plenty.” The stories of briar rabbit and briar fox my grandfather told us as we sat in his lap and at his feet. How those stories came about.

I remember having a teacher who wore Dashiki’s to school every day with her leather handmade sandals, wooden beads and fragrant patchouli. She had a medium sized red afro and was Jewish. To hear her speak with your back to her you swore she was a little old African American lady. She knew more about African History than our principle. I remember her correcting him at an assembly on a quote from Malcom X. Every year when we had a concert complete with Conga drums and dancers along with foods from Ghana, Nigeria, and and various other places; she would make us practice over and over again until we got the dances right. She was adamant about us having pride in our culture. She and another administrator Mrs. Busby an older black lady who was my mentor in the PIE program, were good friends. I remember walking in on them having lunch together in the library and they were sharing a plate of greens and cornbread, eating with only their fingers and listening to a man speaking on the turntable (the little one with the handle teachers carried from room to room) as the album spun I remember thinking I wanted to have a friend like that when I was “old”. During those times storytelling was how our history was passed on. That was the 1970’s.

Moments like that were common. People cared about one another. There was adversity but people were holding each other up. On our street my mother was the youngest homeowner. A single mother who saved her money and bought a small two bedroom home with a huge backyard for us to play in. Our neighbor Viola Holmes had been there for over twenty years already having raised all of her children there. She and her husband “kept” foster kids, three little boys. They had two apartments behind their house. She would “keep an eye” out for my mother on the house and on us until she got home from work. I remember walking home with my younger sister and seeing Mrs. Holmes in the window watching as we walked by. Don’t let us be late, we had to explain why and she’d already called my mother at work. Sometimes she would be in the yard working on her rose bushes and asked about our day.


On the weekends my mother and Mrs. Holmes would pile all of us kids up in their cars and off to Gemco we would go to use the coupons they’d cut out that past week. They would buy surplus. We’d come home and stack the garage up with all my mother bought. The deep freezer would be filled to the brim. Every summer they would exchange vegetables and fruits from their gardens. They would share succulents, cactus, rose bushes, and juniper trees. There was Mrs. Smith on the other side a great grandmother who’d raised all of her children there and she would come out to the fence with them during their weekly “discussions”. Ms. Shirley from up the street, Mr. Coleman from across the street, and Net from on the corner would join in. Someone would invite everyone over to the house, more often than not Mrs. Holmes, and they would sit at the table and snap peas and “talk”. Kids were taken to the park and the mothers would all bring a “component” to the picnic. One brought potato salad, another a lemon cake, another hot dogs and buns and so on until there was a full spread; everyone took home plates that’s how much food would show up. Daddies and husbands would bring the grills, and extra tables. Whoever had a truck would make rounds picking up the bikes for kids to take with them if the mothers didn’t have a car or couldn’t fit them in their cars.

Stick with me…I’m going somewhere with this…

I remember Ms. Shirley, who was also a single mother with two sons who lived in the apartments next to Mrs. Smith, was crying one night at the gate. Her son had been sick with an inner ear issue and her family refused to help her to take him to the hospital (Ms. Shirley was Irish and her children were bi-racial), I remember them asking what was needed. She needed a ride and she needed someone to watch the youngest son while she was at the hospital with the older boy, she needed a ride, and she didn’t have gas money. My mom would later take her to the hospital, and Mrs. Holmes kept her younger son. There were many more instances of the women sticking together and helping each other. Sharing food, giving rides, looking out for the children. The men in the neighborhood would cut the grass (Mr. Victor is old as cooter brown and still cutting grass to this day), Mrs. Holmes would send Mr. Holmes over to see about a plumbing issue and he knew someone who knew someone to fix it, sometimes for $20.00, sometimes for some groceries out your freezer. The mechanic in the neighborhood would fix your brakes at your house in your driveway for $50.00, a beer, and a plate of “whatever that is you cookin.” There are countless examples of “community support” I could share.


I’m sure there are stories that come to mind of days past of the “village co-op” for you. We have to share these with our young people. We have to resurrect that “community life” for this new generation. Those neighborhoods nourished the children and strengthened our communities. If I had food for my kids so did you. I cannot count the many times a “pot of beans, rice and cornbread” fed multiple families at our house. How my mother would call her girlfriend and say, “I have some bacon, flour, sugar and beans, what you got over there?” In the car we would go and Brenda’s, who was married with 3 sons, and she would put on that pot of beans with the bacon, Ann would show up with fish and cornmeal, Brenda’s chicken, and Joyce would bring more meat and rice and her children and husband and cards would come out, kids were kicked out into the yard. By the end of the night all of our bellies were full, we were tucked away in the cars and headed home with plates covered in foil. My mother was the only single one of her friends at that time, but they held her up and they kept her socialized and they checked on her and they included her when they went out. I can remember taking a road trip to Louisiana with Brenda and Sam her husband with their children. We all piled into that station wagon and that was our family vacation.


People cared for one another. People shared what they had. People didn’t let people suffer alone or feel lonely.

When I think about where we are today it scares me. Social media has made it easy to forget the need for human contact. Sending a text consisting of three words, “how you doing?” or “What’s up with you?” is now common place.


There was a time when our families and neighbors got involved. Think about the many discussions at the dinner table about Mrs. Williamson’s daughter being on that stuff again and having the social worker show up at 3a.m. to bring the kids to her, and her needing a little extra help from the food line this month. How the women banded together to give her support. Going in their children’s closets to give clothes and jackets. Gathering groceries to take over for the kids. Giving the Mrs. Williams a ride to the school and helping to enroll her grandkids on an emergency permit. Braiding the children’s hair to take the stress off the grandmother getting them ready for school. Those times were literally about mental health, we just didn’t know it.

The “clique-up” at the family “function” in the corner with the matriarchs discussing why uncle Junior is in the “Pen” again and how he said, “…I just feel more safe in there, I don’t have to watch my back on the streets..” Discussions about care packages and visiting hours and helping his mother since he was the one caring for her, going to the store for her, taking her to doctors appointments. That’s institutionalization, it’s also mental health.

The auntie who “went off and tore up the corner store” and was arrested because, “…you know Reetha ain’t never been right in the head…Lord who gonna take care of these babies…” That’s a mental health discussion.

“Rodney always talking bout’ they said something about him, when ain’t no one said a darn thing to him. He be trippin’…I think all that “sherm” is catching up to him. That’s a mental health discussion.

“Lori hasn’t been right since she had that baby and Boobie got sick. All she do is stay locked up in that room. She come out take the kids to school and go lock up in that room again…” That’s a mental health discussion.

We are having these discussions already. We know what they are already. It’s time to “get real” about them. It’s time to call a spade a spade. It’s time to do the work. At one point we assembled to discuss what to do for family members and friends. If you didn’t hear from so-and-so, no one had to tell you to go by and check on them, you just did. I can remember a many of times my mother bundled us up and took us with her to check on a girlfriend who’d experienced a bad divorce and was depressed, they called it the “blues”, and wasn’t answering her phone.

I remember my grandfather clearing the room and dispersing the women and children because he needed to have a discussion with my uncles or cousins. I can remember seeing the look of concern on his face one night when one of my uncles “broke down” and all of my uncles and grandfather stood to hold him up, while my grandmother and aunts ushered us all outside with them. I remember seeing them embrace at the close of the evening in the front yard as we all piled into our cars.

What about the grandmother who gave loans to help out the kids for school clothes, she pestered until it was paid back but she loaned it. We will have and not share now. How does that help us progress? How is there a surplus in the community and poverty next door? That’s not right. When did we start putting pictures up of boxes upon boxes of shoes and expensive purses and luxury cars and homes; yet drive past children huddled from the rain with their mothers still in work uniforms on bus stops? We still have “community” in us I believe that with the deepest of hearts.

There is a cry in our communities for guidance from the “elders” and the elders are fatigued. My generation, us forty something’s were supposed to pick up the torch and we dropped it. We are at fault. Look at the reality shows, look at the music, we got technology and got lazy. We text each other instead of calling. We play Candyland online together instead of card parties and dominoes on Friday nights, and Saturday picnics with food and social time. Having so much contact with family, friends, and neighbors that sitting at the table with Charles and noticing he is “off his game” tonight and asking what’s bothering him and being genuinely concerned, or offering a few dollars from everyone to get him to his next payday is common. Why can’t we shoulder our communitys needs?


What happened to having rent parties for friends who were struggling during an economic downturn, or putting together groceries out of your cabinets because Shelia lost her job and she has to feed those kids?

We have always been taking care of one another. We have always been having discussions about mental health, we just didn’t know what to call it. We have been addressing addiction by raising the kids, letting uncle Ronney stay in the garage converted to an apartment, or baby sister run in and out of the house leaving the kids each time she’s found another love interest. What if we embraced her. What if we didn’t give her a pass and made her accountable. What if we addressed her Bipolar Disorder? Encouraged staying on her medication and accompanying her to the therapy appointments.


Some of us got out. Some of us are functioning in spite of depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, disassociation identity disorder, seasonal disorders, bipolar disorders, bulimia, self-harm, psychosis, and other mental disorders. Some of us have found ways to fake it out. I talked to an associate once who said, “…I have always heard voices. I remember when I was young and washing my sisters hair and a voice told me to turn on the hot water and burn her but I refused. I hear that voice tell me to do things all of the time but that is the devil and I just don’t listen. My faith keeps me from acting on what the voices tell me to do.” I tried convincing them to speak with their primary care physican who they said they had a good rapport with. It was more about fearing and giving into “demonic forces”. Many people thinking folks are possessed because they are depressed or are hearing voices. That drives people to isolate themselves. Poking fun of them drives them to suicide.

That brings me to the final motivating factor we need to get on board with our mental health for: Spirituality. The first place people run to when suffering is the church or place of worship. The devil doesn’t want to hear about how God is going to save you, erase your pain, or love you in spite of your faults. Stop telling people their faith isn’t strong enough to get them through. Stop telling people they are possessed. You are adding more pain to the misery. It’s time for our “religious” leaders to get on board. People are suffering.

It is not a failure in faith to admit to having a mental health issue and seeking help for it. If your friend had cancer and told you they were tired of fighting day in and day out with chemo therapy and they just wanted to die would you say, “…it’s not as bad as you think. You have to think happy thoughts and you will feel better. You are just over reacting.” Would you instead do research on helping the nausea go away, natural alternatives to pain relief, massaging or holding them until they felt better? Why would you not do the same for someone who says, “…I’m tired of always being sad, feeling sad, and not able to feel better. I just want to die.”


When your family member has diabetes, you make sure to help them make healthy choices. You research ways to improve their quality of life and enjoyment of food. You buy cookbooks for them. You make special dishes for them when you have a dinner party, you’re considerate of their special needs when you make plans for them. Why not do that for your friend who is battling a mental illness? Why not scratch the alcohol at a dinner party in support of your friend who is battling an addiction?

Is mental illness scary? YES. To your friend or family member fighting it! Are your fears justified as well? Of course. I’m not saying not to have some concerns about what you know nothing about. That is normal. There is anxiety about things we don’t understand until we understand them. There are way too many tools available to become informed. There are support groups you can join along with a family member or friend to understand their walk. It is rare that someone who is mentally ill will harm you. More often than not psychosis will cause your family member or friend to fear you if it isn’t treated properly, instead of hurting you. Movies pick out the scary and extreme cases of mental illness and capitalize on it for money. Drugs more often than not are the causes of violence because of the side effects and that’s even for persons with no history of mental illness.

It’s time to give a name to the discussions we are having. It’s time to seek help and be supportive. No more casting out those who need us. No more excusing away an illness. Call this “opponent” by its name, assume power over it. Mental Illness you will not destroy our friends, families and neighbors anymore!

Community thy name is strength, compassion, empathy, love, long suffering, unselfish, loyal, supportive, embracing, protective, nurturing, and rejuvenation. There is no excuse for where we are. There is no one to blame but ourselves. We can no longer wait for someone to come along and rescue us. We must rescue ourselves. We must invest in ourselves and in each other.


The change starts with us within our communities. Mental health is a priority just as Hypertension, Diabetes and Cancer is, treat it with the same urgency. It is killing people just the same.

The next time you comment, whether in person or online ask yourself, “Am I building or am I tearing down?” If you are tearing down WHY?

Yes there will be people who continue the foolery. The focus is not on them. It’s on those who will change the many and create a better life for all.

No more excuses. No more lives lost. No more neglect. #StopItPERIOD


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