Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said that “of all the forms of inequality, injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane.”
For those of us diagnosed with mental illnesses and our families and loved ones, we know all to well the effects of these inequalities from personal and first hand experiences. For those of us like me, we also know of the extreme health and mental health disparities that exist within our communities of color. Within communities of color, the first introduction to mental health care is usually involuntary commitment to hospitals, and/or incarceration in jails, both resulting in trauma, humiliation and reducing the likelihood of voluntarily seeking services when needed.
Many people who, look like me, do not have access to basic health services and worse yet do not have access to mental health services. Our culture is so greatly impacted by self-stigma that we deny we have mental health issues and subsequently refuse to seek treatment.
If people have not experienced prejudice, discrimination and racism all of their lives, it might be a bit hard to imagine why the acceptance of mental illness is difficult. As people of color, our lives are filled with overcoming discrimination and the effects of racism, so adding yet another perceived negative “label” is unbearable.
A recent report from the California Racial Disparities in Populations Program titled ”We Ain’t Crazy, Just Coping With a Crazy System” uses the words of African-American stakeholders to capture our experiences accessing mental health care when we finally try to get help, and also our reaction to institutional racism.
As a person of color, a person diagnosed with a serious mental illness, and a woman – let’s just say I got a lot going on that impacts how am I treated. Yet, I am the CEO of Project Return Peer Support Network, providing peer services to people diagnosed with mental illness in Los Angeles County. We serve people in the state hospital, jail, IMD (institutes of mental disease), board and care homes, and those living independently, using peers to facilitate over 100 community-based self-help groups, the wellness recovery action plan (WRAP) to provide support on our warm-line, in our peer crises respite house and in a spanish language client and family run center. We are somewhat unique in that we provide family support by using family specialists in our programs as well.
I have also been very involved in NAMI, serving currently as the president of the national board of directors after serving on my local and state boards. I was trained as a mentor and presenter/trainer in NAMI signature programs, such as Peer to Peer and In Our Own Voice.
After a bout with homelessness, encounters with our local police, multiple involuntary hospitalizations, and being on and off disability, I took MLK’s words and turned them into action in my life: “if you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl but whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.”
What we know as advocates, families and people living with mental illness is that no matter our ethnicity, race, gender or age we are dealing with dysfunctional systems. Yet we disagree vehemently about the correct solutions – so much so that we miss the opportunity to effectively advocate collectively on areas of agreement. Terms such as “consumers” and “families” are now used as weapons to impose divisions that are intractable.
However, the Civil Rights Movement and the March on Washington gave us a clear example that a diversity of people can change a nation and they can do it together.
When is our March on Washington – over 200,000 people across all lines coming together to fight for real justice and equity in mental health care in this country – going to come?
I do not believe we can wait for another Newtown, another Kelly Thomas or another “slip through the cracks of a broken system” outcome! “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools” are the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Mental health advocates should use as our mantra to advocate effectively together.
Dr. King’s wife, Coretta Scott King, once said that “the greatest birthday gift my husband could receive is if people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds celebrated the day by performing individual acts of kindness through service to others.”
Perhaps this is also a day we can commit to coming together as people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds; consumers, families, providers and community members, to perform individual acts of kindness. This is our time to put aside our differences and find places of agreement to advocate for an array of humane, compassionate, effective, culturally relevant and timely services for people living with mental illness; residential and community settings that encompass the highest level of dignity and respect for persons living with mental illness and their families.
Is this too lofty? Idealistic? Perhaps even, some may say, a dream?
I say dare to dream. Dream big and turn those dreams into action and reality. I believe in the power of dreams. Why? Well guess who else had a dream?
“No person has the right to rain on your dreams” (MLK)
Let us make our dreams a reality – together.
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I’m not able to respond to comments, but hope people will respectfully
discuss. I will be checking in from time to time to read feedback.