By Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.
NNPA Newswire Culture and Entertainment Editor
The resolution was sponsored by Rep. Albert Wynn (D-MD) and co-sponsored by a large bi-partisan group to achieve the following goals:
• Improve access to mental health treatment and services
• To enhance and promote public awareness of mental illness and mental illness among minorities.
BeBe Moore Campbell, a New York Times best-selling author, was a fierce advocate of destigmatizing mental health in minority communities, going public with her struggle with raising a mentally ill child. While Moore is best known for her 1992 critically acclaimed novel Your Blue’s Ain’t Like Mine, in 2003, Campbell authored a children’s book Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry, which tells the story of how a little girl copes with a mother battling mental illness. The book won the 2003 National Alliance on Mental Illness Outstanding Literature Award. In 2005, Campbell’s bold novel 72 Hour Hold was released. The book chronicled an African American mother’s struggle to save her 18-year-old daughter from the devastating effects of mental illness (Bipolar disorder).
Campbell, the mother of actress Maia Campbell whose struggle with mental illness has been covered relentlessly by entertainment gossip sites, died in 2006 of brain cancer, before she could see how her activism around this issue planted the seeds that have sprouted this resolution and a myriad of organizations (No More Martyrs, Therapy for Black Girls, Black Mental Health Alliance, National Alliance on Mental Health) and individuals committed to destigmatizing and promoting awareness and treatment of mental health issues in the African American community. The recent explosion of the self-care movement driven largely by African American women, promotes mental health fitness as an important part of overall health.
Interestingly enough, two of July’s biggest news stories involved African American celebrities who struggle with mental illness – Kanye West and his quest to become president of the United States on the Birthday Party Ticket, and reality star and singer Tamar Braxton who recently attempted suicide before the launch of her newest WE TV reality show, “Get Ya Life!” chronicling her life after a tumultuous decade including the rise and fall of her singing career, a high-profile divorce and new romance, motherhood, bankruptcy, public hirings and firings and public feuding with her famous sisters and “The Real” talk show co-hosts.
Despite news reports of Tamar’s alleged suicide attempt supported by audio of the 911 call by her live-in boyfriend David Adefeso, WE TV debuted Braxton’s new reality show “Get Ya Life!” anyway, showing blatant disregard for Braxton’s fragile mental state. Braxton, who also stars on WE TV’s Braxton Family Values and co-hosts To Catch a Beautician on VH1, did not look like her “usual self.” During the first episode, Braxton met with Executive Producer Mona Scott Young, who had to cajole her into doing the show when Braxton expressed reservations about filming. Braxton in turn asked Young to manage her career since her former husband, who had helped usher her fledgling solo career into stardom, had also dropped her as a client. Braxton seemed like a shadow of her former bold, audacious and confident self to whom reality fans flocked in her earlier reality career. Braxton admitted she had lost everything and was starting over and it was clear she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. During the show, fans publicly questioned the network and Young on social media about why they would continue the show when the show’s star was hospitalized for attempting suicide due to misgivings about the show among other things.
Braxton is not the first reality star to publicly discuss mental illness or to beg the production company to release them from their contract before they harmed themselves. In 2018, Love and Hip-Hop Los Angeles star Moniece Slaughter begged to be released from her contract citing mental health issues and being “on the brink of another mental breakdown.” Fans, mostly black women, asked the network to release Slaughter from her contract fearing the worst. Subsequently Slaughter was moved to another franchise while she sought treatment for her mental health issues.
Like Slaughter, fans on social media, pushed back against the network until the network finally decided to suspend the show until September of 2020 in the wake of Braxton’s suicide attempt. Since then, Braxton, who added the word ‘Slave” to her Instagram profile has released a statement on Instagram thanking her fans for their support and calling out WE TV for ignoring her worsening mental health for ratings. Here is an excerpt:
“Over the past 11 years there were promises made to protect and portray my story, with the authenticity and honesty I gave. I was betrayed, taken advantage of, overworked, and underpaid. I wrote a letter over 2 months ago asking to be freed from what I believed was excessive and unfair. I explained in personal detail the demise I was experiencing. My cry for help went totally ignored. However, the demands persisted. It was my spirit, and my soul that was tainted the most. There are a few things I count on most to be, a good mother, a good daughter, a good partner, a good sister, and a good person. Who I was, begun to mean little to nothing, because it would only be how I was portrayed on television that would matter. It was witnessing the slow death of the woman I became, that discouraged my will to fight. I felt like I was no longer living, I was existing for the purpose of a corporations gain and ratings, and that killed me.
“Mental illness is real. We have to normalize acknowledging it and stop associating it with shame and humiliation. The pain that I have experienced over the past 11 years has slowly ate away at my spirit and my mental.”
Braxton who was hospitalized nearly two weeks ago for overdosing on alcohol and pills acknowledged her pain, desire to rediscover her authentic self, continue her journey towards healing and vowed to fight against the exploitive practices of reality television show production that led her down this path. Subsequently, WE TV has severed ties with the star and will run the show as taped and edited despite Braxton’s claims.
Braxton’s battle and transparency around her struggles with mental illness is a testament to the extent to which destigmatization has occurred around this issue in society in general and among African Americans in particular.
Another example is that of Kanye West who appears to be coming undone in his latest quest for the presidency of the United States. West has continued to spout anti-black rhetoric and to vacillate between extreme happiness and rage during the stops along his path. A recent stop in South Carolina showed West, who was without a microphone or podium, screaming at his supporters and lambasting African American women and his family members including his daughter along the way. Like the current mentally unstable occupant of the White House, West has used Twitter as a weapon against naysayers and caretakers like his wife, reality star Kim Kardashian West. The rapper/ fashion designer/preacher posted a series of now-deleted tweets in which he said he’s been trying to divorce Kardashian for two years prompting Kardashian West to release a statement on Twitter acknowledging her partner’s struggle with bipolar disorder and dispelling myths surrounding living with someone with mental illness.
Kardashian West was lambasted on social media for not doing enough to support or stop West, when in fact, as an adult, only he can seek help. The mentally ill person has to acknowledge their illness and seek help unless they are a danger to themselves and others. Braxton, who was clearly a danger to herself and acknowledges she needs help, is getting the therapy and help she needs to strengthen her resolve and manage her mental illness. West on the other hand fails to acknowledge help, refusing medication which stabilizes people who suffer from Bipolar disorder and has not gotten to the point where he wants to seek help. No one can legally make him do it – not even his wife or his mother – both of whom are often cited as the reason for his demise. “Kanye was fine until his mother died” or “Kanye was fine until he married Kim Kardashian” can be seen on many social media posts. Although Kanye’s mental breakdown is difficult to watch and has spurred a flurry of social media memes, Kanye is in freefall and won’t get help until he actually wants it.
Despite clear indicators that West is mentally unwell and arguably unfit to hold any office, West, a bonafide superstar, is covered voraciously by media while his political staff increases in size as he stumbles onto the next political stop leaving more carnage along the way. Kardashian West, whose career was built on the foundation of her wildly popular reality show Keeping Up With the Kardashians, has lived most of her adult life in the public eye, issued a statement on Twitter highlighting the complexities of living with someone with mental illness and the need for fans to support and not diminish West or his mental illness or his dreams.
Kardashian West writes:
“Those who understand mental illness or even compulsory behavior know that the family is powerless unless the member is a minor. People who are unaware or far removed from this experience can be judgmental and understand that the individual themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try.”
As someone with family members who suffer from mental illness, I can assure you the family is always worried and traumatized by the waiting and hoping that nothing really bad will happen before the person chooses to get help of allows you to help them. The stress of dealing with mentally ill people and not having the professional tools, social support or financial resources to do so are subjects for another article. Kim Kardashian West’s decision to not allow her reality show producers to film Kanye’s freefall is an indicator of how much she actually cares for him and their children. The constant abuse she and other women take online when dealing with mentally ill relatives is an indicator of the displaced anger towards women in general and women of color in particular when they don’t appear to be playing the caretaker role in the way society defines it.
Nonetheless, Tamar Braxton and the West’s willingness to deal with this issue in the public eye is yet another testament of the strides that have been made in talking about mental health issues and wellness in the African American community, which is obviously still needed.
As the we move farther into August and 2020, remember to take control of your mental health wellness, seek help if you need it and don’t be shy about letting people know you want and need help.
If you need help or are contemplating suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or online here.