Mental health in the Black community, Part 2

By Dr. CHRISTOPHER J. MORGAN

“I’m not the crazy one!” That was the response Karlene’s husband gave her when she suggested they go to couples’ counseling to help with the ongoing strain on their relationship and family.
For over a decade Karlene (not her real name) was on a journey trying to manage, cope with and recover from oftentimes debilitating bouts of anxiety and depression. It was taking a terrible toll on her, her husband and young children.

“It really hurt when he said that,” Karlene told me. When I asked her if she would be willing to share her testimony, her story about mental health, she said, “I believe talking about it can help me and help others.”

When did you first realize something was wrong?

I grew up with a lot of chaos at home. By the time I was 13, I started having thoughts of suicide. I didn’t even know what I was running from despite growing up in a dysfunctional family and being a victim of sexual abuse (as early as the age of 3) – I was not aware and I did not understand that this was the source of my strong feelings and harmful behaviour. I had my first anxiety attack at 19, but I had no idea that it was an anxiety attack.

By the time I was in my mid-twenties I would often get an attack in the middle of the night and the only way to help me was for my husband to take me on a long drive until I fell asleep in the car. We were both getting no sleep. The anxiety attacks became quite bad in my early thirties; I thought I was having a heart attack or a stroke. I had several visits to hospital. I remember on one of those occasions the emergency doctor said, “I’m going to give you a beta-blocker to slow down your heart rate, but you have to promise me you will go to the sixth floor.”

down your heart rate, but you have to promise me you will go to the sixth floor.” What’s on the sixth floor? The psychiatric ward. I did go to the sixth floor but the intake nurse was someone I recognized, someone who knew my husband’s family and immediately I thought she would tell others about my problem – I never went back.

I first sought out medical help in my mid-thirties. By that time I was a frequent ER (hospital emergency room) patient, sometimes going to more than one hospital on the same day. There were times I attempted suicide and I would be rushed to the hospital and they would pump out my stomach and the doctors would refer me for help but I would refuse because of the stigma attached to it – I thought it was a confession that I’m crazy.

Coming from a West-Indian background my perception of “crazy people” was very stereotypical because no one talks about mental health, no one talks about sexual abuse, or physical abuse, these are all taboo topics we don’t talk about. As a teenager I remember friends making jokes about 999 Queen Street, comments about the “Mad House” and “mad people” so it’s no wonder no one wants to be associated with a mental hospital or having a mental problem. So where do you go for help when you are the one having a problem?

Where did you go or turn for help and what was the response?

For many years there was nothing or anyone I felt I could go to for help, I couldn’t go to my parents, my aunts or uncles. I read a lot, even books about other people who wanted to die. At first my family doctor prescribed Paxil and other medicines, but it made me feel overexcited with feelings that I wanted to hurt bad people. I stayed on it for only two months. I remember calling hotlines and hospitals, and telling them I have suicidal thoughts and I need to be monitored.

My first help came when I was working downtown (Toronto) and I went to Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (WHIWH is a community health centre that provides health and social services to Black women and women of colour). On my first visit, the woman I met with asked if I wanted to see a therapist. She could see that I needed help. I broke down and cried. There I developed my first long-term relationship with a therapist. We did talk therapy, art therapy and group therapy. At first I resisted the group therapy because I thought I would meet stereotypical “crazy people” which would confirm that I am crazy and I can’t be helped. Eventually I went to the group session, which was presented as a photography class and I realized the other women were not “crazy” but just like me. I developed support and friendships there.

Later I moved to Malvern and my WHIWH therapist went on maternity leave and getting downtown on time for appointments was becoming difficult. At that time I heard that TAIBU Community Health Centre (TAIBU is committed to providing primary health care services to the Black community in the GTA) was coming soon to Malvern. I couldn’t wait for it to open. When it did, I became a client and found the help that the therapist and the nurse practitioner gave me was invaluable. They really helped my husband and I better understand the impact on our relationship. I still keep my yellow folder full of notes and tools I learned by my bed in case I ever need them. I haven’t had to reach for the folder for a couple of years now.

What was the most difficult aspect of your experience?

Feeling like you cannot help yourself and looking for people to help me and not knowing where to go. Feeling like I am “losing my sh*t”. I can’t control when the anxiety attacks are going to come, I can’t control when the depression is going to come. It makes you feel if I were dead this would all be gone. Support from family and friends is difficult, they can’t emphasize, they can’t sympathize, they don’t understand. It’s horrible when you have to face it alone. I think in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) you have a buddy, it would be a nice to have a buddy, someone you can say “I’m having a tough time, can you sit with me?” Until I can sit on my own and make it through it.

What helped you persevere through the tough times?

When I was younger I kept busy with crafts, I did a lot of reading, I read a lot of dark books or themes. Music also helped and continues to help. I also felt a sense of responsibility because at a young age I had to help take care of younger siblings and cousins – they needed me and I wasn’t going to leave them. The Bible helps me a lot, especially Proverbs and Psalms. But I still need support.

What have you learned from the experience?

In my mid-twenties when I decided to take my sexual abuse experiences to court, the response from family was very challenging and discouraging. The maligning and the bad talk was not helpful, even from the women. The men were not supportive in part because of what they themselves were up to. I must say the police investigators, who were male, were very professional and supportive throughout. It took 10 years but eventually I received the vindication and justice I sought both personally and in the courts.

Through all of this I learned that even though everyone has a breaking point, you can be repaired, you can find your strength again. But it’s a conscious effort to remind myself of that. I know it’s okay to feel weak at times, your past does not define you, you can get through this – as long as you want to. Now I know how to embrace and process my emotions and feelings.

What needs to change?

The lack of communication, the lack of understanding, more awareness (about mental health). We need to be able to talk about “taboo” issues. We need open and honest conversation to let people know that just because you suffer from depression, or bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, it is OK to seek help.

People need to know your children are not going to be taken away from you, you’re not going to lose your job and so forth. Some people need medicine to help manage their condition, some need to be in a medical facility for a time, and there are people like me, different levels of functioning but we all need support. Families need help to better support loved ones living with mental health difficulties.

Thank you, Karlene.

A few weeks ago, I shared a conversation with Kwasi Kafele, who has worked in the area of mental health and health equity for many years. Today, Karlene’s story adds to the conversation highlighting the challenges and at the same time revealing the strength, resiliency and successful encounters.

This Saturday, November 14, the Black Health Alliance will present “A Sound Mind: Mental Health in the Black Community”, a free forum for health professionals, community workers and community members, at the North York Civic Centre, 5100 Yonge St.

Brave “My Life, My Story” testimonials like Karlene’s will set the tone and ground the forum in real-life experiences, complemented by the keynote address: “State of Mental Health in the Black Community”, by Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Director of Health Equity at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and CEO of the Wellesley Institute.

“A Sound Mind: Mental Health in the Black Community”, runs from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Come and share your thoughts, become better informed and help the community better address mental health. The Black Health Alliance acknowledges Lundeck Canada’s sponsorship of the forum and we request participants to register online at eventbrite.ca. See you at the forum.

Dr. Christopher J. Morgan is the director of Morgan Chiropractic & Wellness, an interdisciplinary health centre in Toronto and the founder and former president of the Black Health Alliance, a network of community organizations, health professionals and community members working in partnership to advance the health and well-being of the Black community. He can be reached at 416-447-7600 or info@mcw4life.com

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