When then-soon-to-be NYC First Daughter Chiara de Blasio went public with her history of depression and substance abuse in a YouTube video posted on Christmas Eve, she took a bold and important step, especially for a woman of color.
“I’ve had depression---like, clinical depression---for my entire adolescence,” said 19-year-old de Blasio, daughter of new New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, in a video that has since gone viral, with close to a million views as of this writing. “It made it easier, the more I drank and did drugs, to share some common ground with people that I wouldn’t have. It didn’t start out as a huge thing for me, but then it became a really huge thing for me.”
With these words, the biracial de Blasio took aim at a culture of silence that has all-too-often enveloped mental health issues in our communities. Whereas members of African-American communities speak freely about physical health, there has long been a hesitancy to talk about mental health, largely due to cultural stigma. In a 1996 survey commissioned by Mental Health America (MHA), 63 percent of African Americans were found to believe that depression is a personal weakness, and 38 percent admitted they had not sought treatment because of embarrassment or shame. There is evidence that such attitudes and related beliefs persist. The results of a 2010 survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that African Americans were more likely to strongly disagree that mental health treatment is effective.
Such beliefs are especially dangerous in disadvantaged minority communities, where poverty, stress, and violence give rise to a disproportionate level of mental health issues. While African Americans make up slightly more than 12% of the U.S. population, they comprise 40% of the homeless population and 45% of children in the foster care system. Twenty-five percent of African American children are exposed to violence that meets the criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
As a professor of communication who specializes in minority health issues, I have seen the powerful impact of giving voice to personal challenges in other contexts. In one published study, I asked overweight and obese African-American women living in public housing to talk about their diet and exercise behaviors, with the goal of ascertaining how they process health information. During our early conversations, they repeatedly chastised themselves for not following through on diet and exercise plans. In our subsequent conversations, they came to realize that some of their challenges were environmentally based. For example, safety issues prevented them from walking carefree in their neighborhoods. Not only did talking help them realize that others shared their challenges, it moved them to focus on change they could control—I.E. instead of walking outside, they could walk inside a local community center.
By bringing this same openness to mental health—and on a public platform—Chiara de Blasio has jumpstarted a conversation that is long past due in the African-American community, where mental health challenges are pervasive. Suicide is the 16th leading cause of death for all African Americans and the third leading cause for young Black men in the 15 – 24 age group, according to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center. The pressing need for people to have an outlet to talk about mental health challenges becomes even more compelling in light of the fact that many areas have reduced funds for mental healthcare. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, for example, shuttered six of the city’s 12 mental health clinics in 2012.
New York Times’ columnist Nicholas Kristof recently identified mental illness as a “systematically neglected issue” that is deserving of significant attention in the year ahead, and Chiara de Blasio’s video is a welcome step in this direction. The website to which she sent her listeners is called, fittingly enough, ok2talk.com—a recognition that open communication is key to addressing mental health issues. It provides a list of partner organizations, such as the National Association of Broadcasters and Entertainment Industries Council, who use their powerful news and entertainment platforms to encourage the public and policymakers to talk about mental health. For all the evidence of how negative stereotypes is heartening to be reminded of the potential of mass media—new and old—to be a force for good.
Of course, openly talking about mental health in African American communities, and in other communities in which silence is often the rule, is only one component of addressing this far-reaching problem. But by bravely—and publicly—tackling this issue, Chiara de Blasio has certainly done her share to help pave the way.
Teresa Mastin, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Communication at DePaul University in Chicago, has written extensively about media advocacy in the context of minority health issues. She is currently a Public Voices Faculty Fellow with the OpEd Project.