Michael Jacksonâs Niece Raises Mental Illness Awareness

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Like most people, for many years Yashi Brown was silent and secretive about having bipolar disorder. Coming to terms with her mental illness was complicated in and of itself, but when you’re from one of entertainment’s most prominent musical families, the Jacksons, the fear of being judged and having to hold it together can weigh on a person like a ton of bricks.   

For Brown, finally breaking her silence to become a mental health advocate has been liberating. It’s an opportunity to let others who live with bipolar disorder know that they are not alone.

“I know there’s somebody out there. I might be able to save somebody and give them hope who is about to kill themselves. I will definitely say something before that happens,” says Brown, who is the daughter of Rebbie Jackson, the eldest of the Jackson dynasty. “If I can save one individual it’s worth it, because I know what it’s like to get to the point where you don’t want to live anymore. I knew if I could find a way to beat this, I had to tell individuals like myself.”

Brown is far from alone. Actress Jenifer Lewis has been very vocal in discussing her battle with bipolar disorder. Best-selling author Terrie Williams has been a soldier on the battlefield as a mental health advocate. Most recently actress Catherine Zeta-Jones disclosed her diagnosis.

A comprehensive global study, the first of its kind about the illness, shows that the United States ranks the highest in rates of bipolar disorder, which affects 2.4 percent of adults worldwide. Characterized by cycles of depression and mania, it was formerly referred to as manic depression.

Cultural awareness plays a tremendous part in psychiatry. African Americans, unfortunately, are often more reluctant to discuss mental health due to shame or embarrassment.

“I felt the stigma. I felt afraid. It’s kind of like you’re living a double life,” says Brown, who “checked out of reality” and was diagnosed at the age of 23. “I started to feel sick in my head during my first episode. The racing thoughts were breaking me down mentally to the point where I was not myself in as much as being able to convey thoughts. I was in another state of mind. I became detached from reality.”

Having a strong support system in her family coupled with medication and counseling have been a saving grace for Brown. But being the artistic soul that she is, her creative juices also have helped her to cope. Black Daisy in a White Limousine is her book of poetry (www.yashibrown.com). It was an outlet for her to release.

“You get to see the journey of somebody that’s gone through a lot of pain, a lot of heartache but then laughter,” says Brown, who along with her mother travel the country raising awareness about mental illness. “Poetry helped me to release these emotions. I knew it was going to be a catalyst for me to be able to be healthy. Then I also write music. The creative outlets helped. I knew these would be ways to reach individuals and help others like myself.”

She created People of Poetry (POP), which is an organization that hosts an open mic poetry showcase every Wednesday at the Hollywood Studio Bar & Grill on Sunset Blvd. “I know this is a healing process and an avenue for a lot of individuals with severe depression and bipolar and other major illnesses,” said Brown. “This is an art form that’s not recognized as much as other art forms. So my vision was to have an organization or a group that brings attention to poetry and the healing/emotional aspects of it.”

Brown also serves as a spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Kristen Brooks Hope Center, PostSecret.com and Project Return Peer Support Network, an organization ran by people with a mental illness for people with mental illness who have recovered and want to give back.

She encourages others who are dealing with mental illness to seek treatment. There is life after diagnosis.

“This is very humbling because I knew where I could possibly be if it wasn’t for my mother and family. People need to realize sometimes you can be a heart beat away from the individual that is on the street talking to himself. I want to reach the people who might have taken the path of self medicating through drugs or alcohol and maybe don’t want to. Give the medicines a try. There is a way through this. And I’m an advocate for that route.”