Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
Minority Mental Health Awareness Month just got a little more interesting. Tonight TV One premiered the well-received movie, “The Secret She Kept”, about a young professional woman who has hidden her mental illness all her life but now faces a crisis of exposure of her family’s well-kept secret.
The fact that a black-owned network tackles this challenging subject matter at all is laudatory enough. The layered treatment of the issues—including involvement of law enforcement in mental illness crises, generational mental illness, stigma against support groups, therapy, and taking medication, and enabling behavior of family members—creates a favorable environment for open and realistic discussion of these issues and more like them. Best of all, the movie highlights several actionable takeaways to move the community forward in addressing mental health, serious mental illness, survivor advocacy, and family caregiving.
Trying to keep mental disorders hidden only further compounds the emotional and mental pressures of the illness itself. Tia, the main character in the movie, resorts to lies—including telling her husband that she’s pregnant rather than reveal her diagnosis—and manipulation to protect the secret of her mental illness. The longer she tries to keep the deception going, the more her symptoms rise to the surface. The stress of deceiving someone she loves, being pressured by her mother to maintain the lies, all the while attempting to manage a law practice and running for political office heightens Tia’s paranoia and triggers episodes of aggressive behavior that no one can seem to de-escalate once they get started. Most importantly, it prevents the person affected from initiating or continuing life-saving treatment, and isolates them from invaluable support both from survivors like them and from healthcare resources. While it’s easy to see the importance and benefits of disclosure of one’s mental disorder, the film offers a sobering reality check of what it’s like for the survivor to live with the illness every day. In a therapy session towards the end of the movie, Tia explains to her psychiatrist and mother that she sees the looks others give her, and she knows people wonder what’s wrong with her, or have already labeled her as a disease. There is truly much at stake for survivors and families, but preservation of life is the critical factor.
Enabling behavior, while well-intentioned, is ultimately deadly. One of the best ways to support persons confronting mental challenges is to help them face truths and realities about their conditions while still directing their focus to hope and recovery. Tia’s mother is not atypical in her overwhelming desire to protect her daughter. But she is also not atypical in allowing her fears to dominate her caregiving to the point that behaviors done from a place of love become serious deterrents to the health of the person that needs help. Family support gets more complicated when dealing with young adults because everyone around them wants to honor their adulthood and personal autonomy. When Tia’s mother tells her she needs to start taking her medication again and Tia refuses, it presents a difficult situation. Legally, in most situations, a person cannot be forced to take medication so family and friends must rely on influence rather than authority to persuade the person to comply with their treatment protocol. On the other hand, actively helping someone avoid treatment and remain in denial about the seriousness of their condition can only exacerbate an already stressful situation. Loving but firm boundaries about the limits of one’s involvement in deceptions and avoidance behavior are necessary. Also, education and support from groups like the National Alliance for Caregiving provide strategies and best practices for people supporting and providing care for others.
Being proactively educated about mental health and illness can avoid delays in support and treatment. Once Tia’s husband can no longer deny that something serious is happening with his wife, his sister encourages him to get educated about mental illness so that he is better equipped to assess her behaviors. Up to that point, he has explained away Tia’s emotional instability and puzzling impulsivity by reasoning that she is stressed about the competing demands in her life, and that’s “just how she is”. Education relieves emotional pressure by replacing speculation with concrete, actionable information. Once he researched various conditions he could better deflect her family’s attempts to exclude him from decision-making. As long as he remained uninformed, effective intervention to get Tia back on track stalled, but once he knew how to interpret what she was experiencing, he was prepared to assertively advocate for his wife. There’s a saying to the effect that it’s better to open the umbrella before it starts raining. Becoming educated about symptoms of various mental illnesses and emotional disorders is equally important as knowing the signs of a heart attack or stroke.
As more stakeholders become actively involved in mental health and illness, stigma will recede and create a culture of acceptance, recovery, wellness, and hope.
Three Critical Realities (Besides Racism) Taking a Toll on Black Mental Health
Take it From Me: Making the Decision to Disclose, or “F (ight) Stigma”
Ourselves | Black Mental Illness Library:
Bipolar Disorder: http://ourselvesblack.com/bipolar-disorder