If Ebony Wilkerson Does Have A Mental Illness, Is It A Wake-Up Call For African Americans?

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By now, many of us have heard the news about Ebony Wilkerson, who has been charged with three counts of attempted murder.  She is being held on $1.2 million bail after she drove herself and her three children (two girls and a boy, ages 3, 9 and 10) into the Atlantic Ocean in Daytona Beach last week.

While it has not been confirmed, reports suggest that Wilkerson may have been suffering from a mental disorder, thus renewing public conversations on how the mentally ill should be treated by the legal system and society in general.

Ebony Wilkerson is sitting inside a Florida jail cell, but should she be viewed as a cold-blooded criminal or a mentally-ill person in need of long-term mental health care?  And, is there a stigma in the Black community concerning Mental Health and that’s why so many African Americans are either in denial or don’t get the treatment they need?

“The difficulty in the Black community is that we don’t get diagnosed,” A legal analyst and Birmingham, Ala.,-based criminal attorney Eric Guster said. “We treat mental illness as a horrible thing and never talk about it or get help. That makes it difficult in a defense because there’s not a diagnosis already. It’s much more difficult to use it as a defense. As defense attorneys, we have to depend on the client, their family and medical records to assist in raising this defense. Without the history, it’s much more difficult to prove the illness. A person can lie and say, ‘The voices made them do it,’ as opposed to a person previously diagnosed with a history.”

Wilkerson’s family said that she has no history of mental illness, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that African Americans are less likely to seek help from a mental health professional than Whites. The reluctance has much to do with the stigma attached to mental illness in our community–even if seeking help could be a life-saving decision.

“Our first instinct when something goes wrong is not to get evaluated,” Cheryl Donald, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Brooklyn, N.Y., told NewsOne. “Our first instinct is maybe see our pastor or go to ‘the word.’ Those are all cultural things that we tend to do.”

Alexis Clarke, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center in Chicago, says many African Americans view therapy as treatment for the weak.

“Black people, particularly because of our history, feel like we can just do anything and have the attitude, ‘if our ancestors could endure slavery, then I can get over this depression,” she said. “Unfortunately, a lot of African Americans have that view without the understanding that it’s OK to say that you need help because everybody needs help. It may not necessary be to the level of needing to take medication, but I believe everyone needs to be in therapy because everybody goes through something.”

The numbers that back Clarke’s claim are startling.

According to a recent study by Mental Health America of Colorado, 63 percent of African Americans view depression, for example, as a “personal weakness,” compared to the overall study average of 54 percent; only 31 percent see it as a health problem. When African Americans do seek mental health treatment, they’re often treated by providers who do not look like them or cannot relate to their cultural experiences. Only 5 percent of new PhD psychology graduates are African American, according to the 2009 Doctorate Employment Survey conducted by the American Psychology Association.

Clarke added that African Americans are often in situations where they are “working with a mental health provider who is not multi-culturally competent, so they end up having an experience that’s not helpful and they don’t want to go back. There is a high rate of African American clients dropping out of therapy because of this.”

Only 2 percent of psychologists, 2 percent of psychiatrists and 4 percent of social workers in the United States are African American, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Over the past 12 months, African Americans with a reported history of mental illness have made national news. One of the more notable cases is of 34-year-old contractor Aaron Alexis. He shot 12 people dead at Navy Yard in Washington D.C. before being killed by authorities.

While Alexis reportedly had documented mental health issues, he was never diagnosed for a mental illness, despite the fact he told officers he was “hearing voices” before the deadly shooting. Alexis’ family and friends said the former Navy man was not violent and that they never could imagine that he was capable of murder. But did they miss critical signs that something serious was wrong with Alexis? Did they miss the symptoms associated with someone mentally-ill.

Research consistently shows that the vast majority of people dealing with mental illness are not violent, but mental health professionals say it’s family and friends who are often in the best positions to identify mental illness symptoms in loved ones and urge them to seek help.

“Family members are critical in helping encouraging loved ones to seek mental health services because you know that person,” Dr. Sarah Vinson, a psychiatrist in Atlanta and assistant professor at the Morehouse School of Medicine, told NewsOne. “You know there is a deviation in baseline before anybody else will. So I think it’s important for people that if their loved one doesn’t seem like themselves or they’re not as interested in things or they’re not fulfilling their responsibilities the same way they would or are saying things that don’t sound like them not to blow it off and take the seriously.”

There is no significant relationship between mental illness and violence, but every situation is unique. Because a judge issued a gag order on Wilkerson’s child custody case during a hearing yesterday, we do not know her mental state. But, if reports of her having a serious mental illness turn out to be true, it has to be taken into account.

Donald, who has more than 14 years of experience dealing with African-American patients with mental illnesses, added that if Wilkerson was, in fact, abused by here husband, that could also trigger suicidal behavior.

“When we see members of our own community who are committing these acts and the notion of a mental health illness is immediately discredited, I would just caution the public to take a moment to think about what the symptoms of these mental health diagnoses are,” she said. “What are the symptoms of a person who is suffering from domestic violence? They experience low self-esteem, and many of them experience suicidal ideations and attempts. Many of them have feelings of hopelessness. A lot of these symptoms are there when those situations are occurring. I do not know what the situation is in regards to the fact that her children are young.We don’t know if there is any postpartum depression going on. Those symptoms are the same as the symptoms that we see with victims of domestic violence. And she was pregnant, so there’s a lot of things there that we can’t really ignore until we have an opportunity to talk with this person and take a look at her history.”

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