Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Black History Month: A Historic Call for Action

By Lynda Cort├ęs-Avellaneda, NAMI Multicultural Action Center Program Manager

The New Year is moving quickly and February is already nearly half way through. Aside from the arctic weather conditions, the heart-shaped balloons and the Sochi Olympics, this month is a very unique time to recognize and celebrate the significant role of African Americans and their outstanding contributions to the United States throughout history.

In 1926, African American historian and author Carter G. Woodson initiated the celebration of Black History Week, which, unsurprisingly, coincided with the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Civil War President Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, the year of the nation’s bicentennial, the week grew to encompass the entire month. Since then, every U.S. president has officially declared February as Black History Month.

The Significance of February

Many key events in African American history  took place in February. Here are just a few:

  • W. E. B. Du Bois, civil rights leader and co-founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was born on Feb. 23, 1868.
  • The 15th Amendment was passed on Feb. 3, 1870.
  • The first African American senator, Hiram R. Revels took his oath of office on February 25, 1870.
  • The NAACP was founded on Feb. 12, 1909.
  • After being refused service, a group of African American college students remained in their seats at a Woolworth's lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., on Feb. 1, 1960.
  • Malcolm X, a prominent Black Nationalism leader, was assassinated on Feb. 21, 1965.

While six points in history are far from capturing the African American struggle for freedom and justice, they are a snapshot of events and people, both known and anonymous, that helped transformed this nation. The process they established continues to challenge our nation’s perception of equality and social progress. Hence, the significance of Black History Month lies in looking back and understanding how far we have come to draw the strength and wisdom necessary to move forward.

The Case of Mental Illness

Mental illness, without any further distinction, affects one in four Americans. However, experiences of mental illness vary across cultures and there is a need for improved cultural awareness and corresponding competence in the health care and mental health workforce.

  • Social circumstances often serve as an indicator for the likelihood of developing a mental illness. African Americans are disproportionately more likely to experience these social circumstances.
  • African Americans are often at a socioeconomic disadvantage in terms of accessing both medical and mental health care.
  • Culture biases against mental health professionals and health care professionals in general prevent many African Americans from accessing care, due to prior experiences with historical misdiagnoses, inadequate treatment and a lack of cultural understanding.
  • African Americans tend to rely on family, religious and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though the latter may at times be necessary. Furthermore, the health care providers they seek may not be aware of this important aspect of African American culture.
  • Mental illness is frequently stigmatized and misunderstood in the African American community. African Americans are much more likely to seek help though their primary care doctors as opposed to accessing specialty care.

Sensitivity to African American cultural differences, their unique views of mental illness and propensity towards developing certain mental illnesses, can improve African Americans’ treatment experiences and increase their utilization of mental health care services. To learn more, please visit NAMI’s African American Resources page.

How You Can Become the Change Starting Today

Observe African American History Month proactively.   

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Here's What People Are Saying

By Mary Giliberti, NAMI Executive Director

Last month, in my first blog entry as NAMI’s new executive director, I wrote that I was deliberately spending much of my time listening to NAMI members and others and learning from them. So far, it has been an energizing process.

It has included working on the NAMI HelpLine and attending NAMI Delaware’s state conference where I talked with leaders and members of the state organization and learned about their programs, including their work to provide affordable, permanent housing.

I’ve met with Dr. Saul Levin, CEO and Medical Director for the American Psychiatric Association (APA) and his staff to discuss our organizations’ ongoing relationship, mutual interests, and trends in mental health care. I met with former U.S. Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who was the lead sponsor of the federal mental health insurance parity law enacted in 2008. He remains keenly committed to its full implementation and enforcement.

I’ve read messages sent to and talked to both past and present NAMI National Board members who have invested so much time and energy into our cause. Here are some of things I am hearing:

  • A strong desire for NAMI to be a voice for people affected by mental illness and stand up for change.
  • How NAMI education programs and support groups are making a difference for individuals and family members.
  • How NAMI members appreciate our public service announcements and want us to do even more to get the word out about NAMI and what we do.
  • The need to ensure implementation of parity and close monitoring by NAMI.
  • An anger and frustration with the lack of evidence-based programs such as Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) despite the need.
  • The difficult experiences of individuals and families when they encounter the mental health and criminal justice systems. Many talked about problems with discharge practices from hospitals into homelessness, jails, and nursing homes and lack of services for them or their loved ones. Problems accessing care for people with both mental illness and substance use disorders was highlighted as well.
  • A desire for NAMI to be aware of different groups, including lesbian, gay, transgendered and bisexual individuals, and how mental illness is experienced by these groups in the context of “dual stigma.”
  • Support for a holistic approach to recovery, looking at spirituality and a focus on interfaith efforts to help local faith communities address mental illness.

What I hear on the NAMI Helpline is especially powerful. On Fridays, I have been working on getting trained to help callers. This past week, I returned voice mail messages with the help of an experienced HelpLine staff member. I heard from:

  • A woman whose son had just been hospitalized. She apologized for how frantic she sounded on her voice mail messages, but she urgently wanted to find a NAMI Family-to-Family education class. She felt she needed support. On the NAMI website, she did not see any classes offered in her home county so we talked about other nearby counties and how to find and contact the NAMI State Organization to get more information. Her need for support and education was raw and immediate.
  • A woman with schizophrenia who was using a certain medication and wanted more information about it. She also was interested in faith and spiritual healing and wanted information from NAMI FaithNet. She was working hard to make improvements to her life; she was interested in information on health and wellness. We sent her a number of packets with information printed out from the NAMI website because she did not have access to the internet.
  • A woman whose niece was in jail after experiencing psychosis. Her niece had young children and the caller was so worried that her niece would be tried without any understanding or discussion of her mental illness. We urged her to contact her niece’s attorney, but also referred her to the NAMI State Organization and her local NAMI Affiliate who would be more likely to know the local situation to help provide guidance. Her fear and concern about what would happen in a criminal justice system that was not designed to deal with her niece’s problems came through.

These are the concerns on people’s minds. This is the nature of the life experience of millions of individuals and families affected by mental illness. They are some of the reasons that NAMI exists—to provide education, support and advocacy to help improve their lives.

I want to hear more. What kinds of concerns would you like to share? Please send comments or suggestions to I may not be able to reply to every comment I receive, but please be assured that I will read all of them. I will be writing more blog entries as part of an ongoing dialogue. I hope you will continue to join me in those discussions.