Saturday, December 15, 2007

Healing the African American Mind

Just found this short piece in a Philly paper about a recent conference seeking to address the stigma surrounding mental illness among black Americans:

Debra Jackson tried desperately to get the words out yesterday.

"My son was . . . my son was . . . murdered recently," the 49-year-old Harrisburg woman said, weeping and gasping for air. "I am still grieving."

Those who stood behind Jackson to take their turn at the microphone during the Breaking the Silence conference at the Convention Center quickly moved in to embrace her and help prop her up.

That willingness to show support was the theme throughout the two-day summit that addressed an often-hidden and still-taboo topic within the African American community: mental illness and the dangers of not treating it.

Jackson, a minister and mental-health advocate, said she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder - a mental illness characterized by severe mood swings - six years ago. She has attempted suicide three times, she said.

Jackson said that her son's homicide on Oct. 24 - just three hours before his 33d birthday - has put additional enormous stress on her, and that just getting out of bed in the morning was difficult.

"My psychologist is really concerned I will go into a very deep depression," Jackson said after a panel discussion. "I'm in a state of shock." (Read the whole article here)

This sounds like a remarkable conference and I applaud the organizers for taking on a challenging issue. Whether one is talking about severe mental illness or suicidality or simply the chronic stress associated with living in a society where black humanity remains an open question, the need for healing the African American mind is an urgent concern. Dr Joy Leary's work on post-traumatic slave syndrome is one example of an attempt to meet this need, but so much more is needed especially when one considers the low representation of blacks within the mental health professions. This is part of what interests me in exploring connections between religion and African American mental health as a possible topic for my dissertation. I recently was able to take a very humble step in this direction through investigating a possible relationship between religiosity and resiliency among a sample of black evacuees from Hurricane Katrina. I'll end with a short portion of the Long Healing Prayer:

Sanctified art Thou, O my God! I beseech Thee by Thy generosity, whereby the portals of Thy bounty and grace were opened wide, whereby the Temple of Thy Holiness was established upon the throne of eternity; and by Thy mercy whereby Thou didst invite all created things unto the table of Thy bounties and bestowals; and by Thy grace whereby Thou didst respond, in thine own Self with Thy word "Yea!" on behalf of all in heaven and earth, at the hour when Thy sovereignty and Thy grandeur stood revealed, at the dawn-time when the might of Thy dominion was made manifest. And again do I beseech Thee, by these most beauteous names, by these most noble and sublime attributes, and by Thy most Exalted Remembrance, and by Thy pure and spotless Beauty, and by Thy hidden Light in the most hidden pavilion, and by Thy Name, cloaked with the garment of affliction every morn and eve, to protect the bearer of this blessed Tablet, and whoso reciteth it, and whoso cometh upon it, and whoso passeth around the house wherein it is. Heal Thou, then, by it every sick, diseased and poor one, from every tribulation and distress, from every loathsome affliction and sorrow, and guide Thou by it whosoever desireth to enter upon the paths of Thy guidance, and the ways of Thy forgiveness and grace. Thou art verily the Powerful, the All-Sufficing, the Healing, the Protector, the Giving, the Compassionate, the All-Generous, the All-Merciful.