Recent headlines surrounding the suicide of suspected Cleveland killer Steven Stephens have once again brought the topic of mental illness back into the national conversation. But this psychiatrist warns we should approach the topic with care.
“We should not wait for a tragedy to begin a conversation about mental health—this can add to the stigma,” says Dr. Gail A. Mattox, a professor of psychiatry at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta.
According to Mattox, these stigmas, such as the belief that Stephens just “snapped” or that “crazy” people kill for no reason, contribute to the reasons why so much mental illness goes undiagnosed and therefore untreated as people fear being labeled as mentally ill.
According to authorities, Stephens, who posted a video to Facebook of himself fatally shooting 74-year-old Robert Godwin, took his own life after a police chase, thereby ending a three-day manhunt. Based on Stephens’s Facebook post, he was reportedly upset with his girlfriend, and an acquaintance of Stephens stated in an interview that he suspected Stephens was struggling with a mental illness for some time.
What’s interesting to note, Stephens was an employee of a behavioral health agency, so the mental health awareness was likely there. But if awareness isn’t enough to overcome the stigma to seek help, what is? The common misconception among African-Americans is that white people are the poster children for mental disease and that Blacks cope better with depression. So, many were left questioning what would drive such a seemingly normal Black man to such terrifying actions. As details are still emerging regarding the killer’s mental state, Mattox offers this caution.
“Such events are rare,” says Mattox about the Cleveland murder. “Usually there are individual contributing factors along with signs and symptoms [of mental illness], and we should not ‘generalize’ such events.”
Mattox believes more details will soon emerge to help illuminate the “precipitating events” in the Cleveland incident. Though she doesn’t speculate on Stephens’s health and motives, Mattox does suggest that increased community awareness can certainly help with early intervention for future outcomes.
“We should be proactive in talking about mental health, emphasizing that treatment and resources are available,” she says. “Mental illness should be viewed the same way as a physical illness, such as asthma, diabetes or hypertension.”
With more celebrities and even churches making strides to address the topic openly, she believes the African-American community overall is making grounds to challenge stigmas and improve mental health care. And you, too, can have your role in spreading awareness. As one of the most common mental illnesses affecting about 6 percent of the American population, you should not only recognize the signs of depression but push yourself or your loved ones toward treatment.
“If a loved one is experiencing difficulty sleeping, depressed mood, trouble concentrating, appetite changes, thoughts of self-harm or unusual thoughts, then it would be important to see a health care professional,” concludes Mattox.