Alexis Farmer: Spotting the blackbird

Tuesday, September 22, 2015 - 4:18pm

“I see you.”

These three simple words uttered in the first 20 minutes of the movie “Beyond the Lights” prevented a pop star from committing suicide. The film does not give a sophisticated portrait of the dimensions and complexities of mental health, but there are notable aspects of the storyline.

The star of the movie is a multiracial, British-born singer named Noni Jean who was bred for success as a popular new Billboard Award Artist. The pressure of fame compelled her to end her life. In the moment Noni decides to fall to her fate, a police officer who “sees” beyond her Hollywood persona rescues her, and throughout the movie encourages her to find the beauty in her own voice, which ultimately sets her free.  

Nina Simone’s song “Blackbird” is the underlying symbolic theme of the movie. The classic record metaphorically illustrates the resistance Black women face to define themselves in society. Beginning in girlhood, women are inculcated to bind themselves in the cage of gender roles and norms through mannerisms, educational attainment and social advancements based on society’s norms and values. These definitive molds of what women should be intensify the daily challenges that life presents.

Black women are particularly susceptible to this additional challenge, and are unreasonably assumed with the responsibility of being strong for themselves and everyone around them. This leads to a catch-22 as Melissa Harris-Perry notes in her book “Sister Citizen,” “On one hand, (the strong black woman) is a deeply empowering symbol of endurance and hope. Her courage in the face of seemingly insurmountable adversity emboldens black men and women when facing their own life challenges. But in her perfection, the strong black woman is also harmful. Her titanic strength does violence to the spirits of black women . . . When seeking help means showing unacceptable weakness, actual black women, unlike their mythical counterpart, face depression, anxiety, and loneliness.”

There’s an inadequate discussion about mental health in America, particularly within communities of color. In Black culture, being strong is the only way to survive. African Americans have had to survive slavery, segregation, mass incarceration and police/vigilante terrorism. Black communities have a history of negative experiences with the health care industry, largely due to the abuse of Black bodies for medical studies and experimentation.

Heinous examples of such abuses include the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Dow Chemical testing of carcinogens on (mostly Black) prisoners and using Black cancer patients to determine whether U.S. soldiers could survive a nuclear catastrophe during the Cold War. This exploitation and violence has lead to mistrust in medical authorities, because more often than not, these authorities don’t have Black people’s best interests at heart. To fill this void, Black people often share their burdens with their family members, friends and spiritual leaders. Yet it’s still all too uncommon for us to openly name any difficulties with mental health.

Mental health problems manifest themselves in many forms: anxiety, low self-esteem, ADHD, alcohol/drug abuse, suicide, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorders and eating disorders, just to name a few. Any of these disorders can be caused by biological, environmental or psychological factors. To the detriment of communities of color, politically induced environmental factors such as unemployment, lack of quality education and violence are additional external stressors that can trigger mental health disorders.

Too many people are suffering. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in 2012, an estimated 18.6 percent of African Americans, 28.3 percent of American Indians, 13.9 percent of Asian Americans, and 16.3 percent of Latinos reported experiencing mental illness in the past year. Too many people are hurting themselves and hurting others as a result of not obtaining the help they need.

There’s an absence of substantive discussions around mental illness, and if the discussion does surface, it seems to only be when major tragedies take place. More often that not, white people who perpetuate actions of mass violence are viewed as victims of mental health disorders, as if their violent acts were justified from having an impaired state of mind.

When Adam Lanza took the lives of 20 children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the media wanted to attribute Lanza’s horrendous act to a history of psychological or emotional disturbance. In contrast, Shannon J. Miles, a Black man with a history of mental illness who is being charged with capital murder for killing a suburban Houston police officer, is vilified without question, and met with the unwarranted campaign of “cops’ lives matter.”

If only someone had seen the signs early on. If only someone had paid attention. If only the phrases, “I hear you. I feel you. I see you,” were enunciated genuinely, we could save someone we care about from taking someone else’s life, or even their own. It isn’t normal to think about killing yourself or killing someone. But it’s becoming all too common.

What can we do? Connect with one another to find the approaches that work best. Increase access to therapy and medication, while being mindful that not everyone may need a therapist or medication. A friend, family member, mentor, religious leader, teacher or anyone else can serve as an emotional support system. It takes courage to admit our shortcomings that seemingly marginalize ourselves, but we all are more alike than we are different. Everyone experiences stress; how we respond to it differs.

It’s time to start talking about mental health. It’s time to encourage more Black Americans to talk with psychologists, and become psychologists themselves. It’s time to demand cultural competency training for our mental health professionals. Mental health services need to adapt to communities of color and ensure that the services and treatment are accessible, both in terms of proximity of providers to communities of color and costs. It’s time to speak up when we notice something.

Symbolically, blackbirds are known for having an acute sense of awareness and ability to use their senses. They’re mysterious and serious, and demand devotion and commitment before sharing their secrets. Maybe you know a blackbird that exhibits these characteristics. A blackbird may find it difficult to share their struggle because the world has told them it’s either flight or fight, and the blackbird cannot manage either one. It’s important to spot these blackbirds, so that they may receive the help, encouragement and love they need to fly. Then, everyone can really see the beauty they bring to the world. 

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu