Evanston Women Determined to Break The Silence on Mental Illness in the Black And Brown Communities

I'm so glad that Mary Gavin and the Evanston RoundTable covered this story. I attended two of the meetings organized by Janet Alexander Davis and Delores Malone. They were powerful.

Congratulations to these two strong and courageous women for all their work shining a light on the stigma of mental illness in Evanston's Black and brown communities.

You can read The Roundtable story below, and here.

Janet Alexander Davis and Delores Malone know first-hand the pain of having a family member suffer from a mental illness. They have experienced the confusion and that accompanies the onset of an episode of mental illness, the frustration of finding the right professional and then the right medication for a loved one, and then the isolation from the unspoken rule that the topic is taboo in some parts of the black community.

“Mental health is so a part of everyday life,” Mrs. Davis said, “Within our country we are not kind with understanding that ‘I have a mental illness.’” She likened the stigma of mental illness to the stigma other illnesses used to carry. “Even back in the 40s, if you had cancer people would say, ‘I don’t want to talk to you, because I might get it.’”

A chilly reception to even discussing mental illness in the black and brown communities led Mrs. Malone, Mrs. Davis and four other women to “break the ice” on that topic.

Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Malone met in 2008 in a 12-week family class sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).

“The Family-to-Family class really changed my life,” Mrs. Malone said, “because at that time I really didn’t know that mental illness was a lifelong illness and that it can be so difficult to get the right diagnosis, which will hopefully lead to getting the right medication.”

She also said she noticed “there were not a lot of black people coming to the classes. I think Janet and I were the only ones of 30 people.

“After I took the class I was asked to teach the class,” said Mrs. Malone, by profession an early childhood educator. “And later when I was teaching the Family-to-Family class in Des Plaines, black families would tell me they wanted to get away from Evanston to talk about [mental illness] – get away from the stigma.”

When she joined Sherman United Methodist Church, Mrs. Malone said, the pastor, Reverend Dr. Barbara Morgan, suggested she start a mental health ministry, which might offer workshops on mental health in communities of color.

Mrs. Malone and Mrs. Davis met in July 2018 to begin discussing what to do. A month later, they were l joined by four other women of Sherman UMC. In September, some of the committee members attended two-day workshop, “Coloring Mental Health Collective”: which included, “Telling Our Untold and Unacknowledged Stories: Reflections from Black and Brown Bodies,” at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. The focus was mental health in the black and brown communities.

“Discussions were centered on what mental illness and mental health meant to us as people of color. That was phenomenal,” Mrs. Malone said.

By November the six committee members had decided to present a workshop the following April.

Talking About Mental Health Is “Normal”

“We want to make talking about mental illness as a normal thing,” Mrs. Davis said. “Breaking the Ice – Unlocking Mental Health and Mental Illness in the Black and Brown Community” was born.

The April session was well attended, Mrs. Davis said, but time ran short. In addition to the 50 attendees, there were mental health professionals from the The Family Institute at Northwestern University and NAMI and a representative from the James B. Moran Center for Youth Advocacy.

“We asked three questions,” said Mrs. Malone. The first was “What do you do for good mental health?” The second, “What happens when good mental health cannot be sustained?” was answered by the mental health professionals, who described some signs of an onset of a mental illness.

The third question reflected the genesis of the workshop: “Why do some black and brown people fail to seek help from the mental health community?”

Time ran out before the planned breakout session, at which those in attendance would be able to tell their stories, “So we invited 20-30 back for the June 8 session,” Mrs. Malone said, adding, “What I saw was there were so many people needing to talk. More than anything, we’re saying, ‘People can tell their stories.’”

“As Sick As Our Secrets”

Some of the 20 people who attended the June 8 session broke the ice. “We talked about how mental health and mental illness have affected people,” Mrs. Malone said. “Janet opened the door; she talked about her own experiences.”

Mrs. Davis said, “There was an eruption of emotion. People who didn’t plan to speak spoke. … You haven’t admitted [the problem]. … You may find yourself saying things you didn’t plan to say.”

The reaction to this outpouring of emotional stories was gentle, Mrs. Davis said. “These are kind people – kind faces and that helped.”

“People had been harboring their experiences,” Mrs. Malone said. “We talked about how when we were growing up, you didn’t talk about what’s going on in your home.”

“We can be as sick as our secrets,” said Mrs. Davis. She also said, “I wonder if some of that comes from slavery – or later – from the 30s and 40s and 50s, when people could be killed for talking about what went on in a house.”

Next Steps

Mrs. Davis and Mrs. Malone spent part of the summer reviewing feedback and planning their next steps.

There will be more sessions, the two agreed; the challenging part is prioritizing the options.

Mrs. Malone said, “People are very positive about bringing in speakers and about having a place to come to. We plan to continue to involve NAMI, The Family Institute, and the Moran Center. We plan to provide information on resources, such as Erie Family Health Evanston/Skokie Health Center, which is a great resource.”

Other things under consideration are getting more men involved, perhaps through a men’s grou