• La Shawn L. Splane-Wilburn, Founder of Homagi


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The first time I encountered someone with a diagnosed Mental Illness and it wasn't part of a whisper was when I became a case manager for a non-profit in Los Angeles, California. I worked for the school district and was looking for a part-time job for the summer as we had summer months off and I was introduced to someone who worked for a non profit who needed case managers.

I began my first day of work attending a "drug & alcohol" meeting at one of the "independent living" homes they had. I was introduced to my first "consumer" who had 3 children who were living with her mother while she "got her life together". She was 40, Haitian American, first generation, a recovering "drug" addict, ex-prostitute and that was the extent of what I was told. I was told I would take her to medical appointments, assist her with grocery shopping, paying her bills, managing her house chores (once she was in housing), helping her to read and study for the GED, and accompany her to her AA meetings, drug diversion and testing.

The first night we met she fielded me with questions about where I lived, did I have kids, how old I was, and why I wanted to help her. We talked and I gave her my background and as much information as I could so that she knew who would be in and around her and her children.

I took her home that night, met her dad, mom, and children. Her mother fixed me a plate while they asked about me and my background. At the time I was a Head Coach for LAUSD, and I volunteered on the weekend with at risk children through the police departments flag football league. The parents at ease welcomed me into the "family" and I would see "Brenda" (I will use that name - Tupac inspired of course) on our next visit. The next visit we sat down with a representative from the Regional Center, and I was filled in on the many challenges "Brenda" faced. Her physical challenges, her education challenges, her mental health challenges, and I tried to remain calm as I was told that she was diagnosed Schizophrenic and depression. I was told early on that there were developmental challenges of the clients only. In my mind I thought about my security? Part of that was stigma and part of that was personal experience. As a child in elementary school I was attacked by a woman who "faught" her way onto the school campus injuring the principle, a few aides and I was her last victim. We would later find out she was on "PCP" and Schizophrenic. So needless to say I had concerns about my safety. I listened intently jotted down information in my folder, made a note of the caseworkers name and number as well as other resources we would be utilizing and "Brenda" and I made our way to the elevators. I was surprised however about the newfound discovery of "Brenda" having Schizophrenia. I'd ridden in the car with her on two separate occasions, we had breakfast that morning before we went to the appointment and she seemed fine, a little shy but overall fine.

I prayed about it, knowing that God doesn't give us what we can't handle. What stopped me in my tracks was "Brenda" asked me as we waited on the elevator, "...are you still going to be my case manager? I saw your face when she said I have Schizophrenia and you didn't look happy". She seemed really sad and worried. I'd talked with her at breakfast and learned about so much she had overcome from having learning disabilities and being bullied, to domestic violence nearly destroying her, and escaping life on the street after becoming addicted to drugs. I knew how hard she was trying and she was so eager and excited about being accepted by the organization.

I first reassured her I wasn't leaving, I told her about my experience with the woman when I was in elementary school, I asked her to tell me more about it. She told me that she heard voices telling her to kill herself alot. She said they told her to run out into traffic and other things, she said the medication she was on was helping her and because she was off the drugs and drinking she was feeling "stronger". We agreed that she would always be honest with me about how she was feeling and if she was "hearing voices" and I agreed to always be honest about how I felt.

We would go on to working together and I would see "Brenda" through getting into her own apartment, getting a job, and getting custody of her children back, through mental health appointments, doctors appointments, drug and alcohol meetings together, late night calls, weekend visits, life skills trainings and the like I learned so much from her. She and her children went on picnics and trips to the beach with me and my children. I would go on to have four more cases and learn even more about developmental disabilities and the resilience of people who battle physical and mental challenges and you would never know unless someone told you.

I was still battling my purpose at the time and left for "Corporate America" in the chase of more money and better benefits. I got an offer I coudn't pass up and after going back to school for a position and career in IT. I continued with HOMAGI as a way to help homeless women and children. Looking back it was never an accident. I learned so much during that time and a great deal of what I learned at that organization gave me the tools for what my son and where HOMAGI will have a huge impact on the lives of it's client consumers.

There are people who are working right next to you who are diagnosed and on medication but are keeping it a secret because of the stigmas attached to mental illness, and how it may result in their abilities to perform their jobs being called into question.

Mental Health Awareness Month not only brings to the forefront discussions about mental illnesses, but it also showcases people who are living and managing their mental illnesses.

A diagnosis is not the end of your life, it is the beginning of getting the treatment that you need so that you can live a healthy and full life. The same commitment given to our physical health must be given to our mental health. When we talk about mental health it opens the store to erase the myths and misconceptions about mental illness, it allows someone who may have never come forward to ask for and receive help.

As An African American woman it is doubly important to me because of the "double stigmas" within our community. I live for the day when we are able to freely discuss mental illness amongst ourselves and be a "community" wrapped around those who are mental health survivors. That is part of my passion as an advocate.

Keep talking about mental health and keep mental health a priority. The day will come when someone who is a survivor of mental health gets the same respect as someone battling other lifelong physical illnesses.

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