Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor
Media focused on black mental health is exploding. Whether it’s social media, visual media, or the written word, discussions about and portrayals of what it looks like to be black and experience anxiety, depressed mood or depression, fear, or Bipolar disorder have been on the rise since late 2016. People are rejecting the shame and stigma typically attached to mental disorders and illness and are openly admitting to struggles. And it’s about time and right on time.
It’s no secret that media of all types is a powerful vehicle for exposing issues, provoking dialogue, and even suggesting solutions and productive strategies. In 1977 Roots, The Miniseries hit the airwaves and became a media and social juggernaut, with estimates that it racked up an audience of 80-100 million viewers for its last episode, and plenty of anecdotal evidence that it sparked much-needed and overdue dialogue. “Roots provided one of those rare sit-up-and-wake-up moments in American culture. After the show, hundreds of schools used the series as a history lesson. Whites…used it as an eye-opening exercise”, reported Teresa Willtz in a 2012 article on the show's 35th anniversary.
The weekly television dramedy, A Different World, which aired from 1987 to 1993, had a distinct and measurable impact on enrollment in historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Dr. Walter Kimbrough, a former president of Philander-Smith College, describes this impact in a 2010 Q & A session on the New York Times blog, The Choice:
From the debut of “The Cosby Show” in 1984 until the end of “A Different World” in 1993, American higher education grew by 16.8 percent. During the same time period, historically black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent—44 percent better than higher education. But in the 11 years after “ A Different World” ended, while all of higher education grew at a robust 20.7 percent, historically black colleges and universities reward only 9.2 percent.
Racism and black higher education are two seminal issues of our time. The results of the 2016 presidential election, escalating and more visible episodes of police brutality against black citizens, threatened rollbacks of hard-won civil rights gains in voting and health care create a perfect storm to precipitate chronic challenges against the mental and emotional wellbeing of African-American and other-origin black people. Increasing numbers in the black community view protection of minds and hearts as the vital acts of resistance required now. Open discussion of pressures being faced is arguably the most important first step in making this a reality. Young filmmakers, writers, bloggers and artists are leading the way in producing media that has the potential to affect change similar to what happened with shows like Roots and A Different World. These are just a few.
SHRINK Web Series, Created and Written by Katrina Smith Jackson (British)
The social media profile describes SHRINK as a “new digital drama series created by Katrina_SJ about a troubled therapist battling with her own mental ill-health and the intertwining lives of her clients.” The first season’s six episodes tackled a what’s-what of top issues blacks have faced for decades. Episode five, ‘Pretty for a Dark Skin Girl’ deals with colorism and its often devastating effects. Natasha, the lead character therapist has a client whose face gets disfigured from skin bleaching chemicals and has trouble coping with the embarrassment of the injury.
Episode two, ‘Some Sort of Arrangement’ shows a real-life application of the problems with deep-rooted stigma and shame among blacks about having mental health challenges. Natasha’s client is visibly disturbed by being at the therapy appointment, barely looking up at all during the explanation of the mood self-assessment she is given to complete. Complicating matters, Natasha’s coworker blackmails her bY forcing a sexual relationship to keep her own secret of mental illness hidden. The show has both anthological and episodic elements, drama and humor.
Each episode on average runs between 15 and 20 minutes but is packed with relevant issues and suggestions that can be used both for introspection and for public discussions.
Giants Web Series, Created and Written by James Bland
(Episodes release on Wednesdays)
Giants is a weekly web show that follows a group of black millenials as they navigate young adulthood facing very adult issues like hiding from who they think is the landlord because they are late paying rent, encountering the truth about themselves in ways and from sources they’d rather not deal with, trying to find the right path to the dreams they have for their lives, and yes, doing life with a diagnosed mental illness.
The most appealing aspect to this show is its unapologetic authenticity. There’s lots of profanity (which is how millennials talk), the situations are sometimes bracing but still not unrealistic (Malachi, one of the main characters, feels compelled to take a job as a sexual surrogate for a middle-aged white couple), and they don’t hide the physical and emotional manifestations of mental illness (Journey, the female lead, can’t get out of bed and cries and throws up when she’s having a particularly rough depressive bout).
Mental health and illness is definitely front and center in this series and that fact is bound to get people talking and hopefully acting on behalf of themselves and others who face these challenges every day.
AFFIRM Podcast, Created and Hosted by licensed therapist Davia Roberts
Biweekly episodes on SoundClou
This is a brand new media offering—2 episodes in—that was developed to provide safe-space conversations on topics for women of color who value and pursue wholistic wellness, and who want resources and content to support them. Ms. Roberts recognizes the need to have information and resources available especially to women who might be unable to pay for mental health services.
Her last episode covered self-care, and there is also a self-care webinar scheduled for Thursday, March 2: “Self Care for Surviving 45-A 60 minute we binary for the woke, broke, and folks just trying to stay afloat.”
Check out and refer others to these media. Participate in your own mental health and help others participate in theirs.