Honestly Talking About Black Mental Health

Mental illness does not know how to discriminate. Yet many still think mental disease only affects a certain type of person. It is not something that is supposed to happen to a lovely, talented, bright, Black female artist and mother. But this is Bassey Ikpi. Living with Bipolar II disorder and depression, she was moved to become a vocal activist for mental health awareness when her friend’s 15 year old daughter, Siwe, lost her battle with depression and took her life. Soon after, Bassey founded The Siwe Project, a global nonprofit dedicated to raising awareness and opening dialogue about mental health and treatment throughout the African diaspora. Bassey spoke with Progressive Pupil about her mission.

One unique aspect of The Siwe project is that it addresses the mental health of Black people on a global level. Do you find differences in the way various Black populations throughout the world address mental health issues?

Absolutely! I spent part of the summer in Nigeria and what I realized is that Nigerians don’t even want to admit that mental health issues exist. Even with obvious mental illness literally roaming the streets, they still believe it’s a character defect or spiritual flaw rather than a medical condition. In the United States, it’s like Black people know it exists but think it’s for White people or if they accept that it exists, they don’t want to talk about it at all. So The Siwe Project has to approach the US and African countries differently. Sadly, the one common denominator is this idea that it can be prayed away.

siwe projectWhat is the biggest challenge in promoting mental health  awareness in the Black community?

Getting people to listen. I get a lot of resistance. People want to challenge me about what causes mental illness and how to treat it. They challenge me about whether or not it’s a “White thing” that we were given during slavery. And the last bit is valid because there are generations of mental illness and trauma in the community but that does not translate into ‘so there’s nothing we can do about it.’ Which is usually what their point is and I fight against that. I push and push treatment and management so that we can live bigger and fuller more healthier lives [sic]. I feel like Black folks feel like [what they’re] suffering [from] is a birthright and that is killing us. You don’t talk [a] diabetic out of taking insulin or seeing a doctor, why do it for an illness that affects your head?

You have been bold and brave about your own journey with mental illness.  Recently you traveled back home to Nigeria, your birthplace.  Did knowledge of your story affect how you were treated?

Absolutely not. I’ve been so vocal about it that it’s just a part of who I am. It’s not the loudest or most visible part [of me] and that’s actually my point. I have on these sick shoes, this bad outfit, hair done, I have a great career and oh yeah, I’m treating and managing a mental illness. That’s how I want it to be seen. The Siwe Project’s tag is “It’s not who you are; it’s what you have” and that’s what it boils down to.

For many Black people around the world, medicine is a luxury and therapists are unavailable. What do you think are their alternatives for treatment? 

I suggest you call the Behavioral Health Unit of your nearest hospital and ask for help. The Siwe Project’s in-house therapist, Dr. Lisa Jones, also suggests calling Planned Parenthood. I’m not a doctor so I can’t suggest alternatives. I just know for me, meds [sic] and therapy have saved me – but I also watch what I eat. I take meds [sic] and I meditate. You can do both.

How can people help support The Siwe Project and become an advocate on a personal level for mental health awareness and treatment?

On a personal level, I think staying open. If  you feel like someone you love is dealing with a mental health issue, talk to them about it, they may get mad at you but let them be mad. There are places you can call, like hotlines, to ask about how best to deal with a loved one with illness. You can email me and I’ll forward it to Lisa. And honestly, help erase the stigma by being sensitive to illness. I see a lot of jokes on twitter about “Crazy people” and I spend a lot of time correcting them. Share your story. Protect and support your loved ones.

by Clarissa Cummings

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  1. Published Work | Clarissa E. Cummings

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