By now you’ve probably heard that R&B superstar Chris Brown has allegedly been diagnosed with several significant mental health disorders, including Bipolar Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. As the world discusses this new development in this ongoing saga, certainly the conversation will now focus on making sense of Brown’s troubles as it relates to his mental health. Given that Brown’s medical records are only privy to his mental health providers and legal team, it's hard to say for sure if any of the reported diagnoses are accurate.
Brown’s antics over the years, especially his propensity for violence, have given the public much fodder to fuel a discussion about mental illness. Though Brown is one of many celebrities who have recently shared or displayed their struggles with mental health publicly, these displays have merely provided entertainment as myths and stereotypes about mental illness still rule the airwaves. Likewise, there have been no African-American celebrities who’ve come forward to discuss their experiences with integrity instead what we see are caricatures whose mental illnesses are criminalized or depicted as addiction stories, as in the cases of Bobby Brown and Kat Williams. Maybe Chris Brown’s most recent struggle offers an opportunity to discuss two prevalent mental health disorders and have an honest discussion about Black men and mental health.
Most people think of Bipolar disorders as largely related to a person’s moodiness, depression, impulsivity, or overall erratic behavior. These symptoms are indeed associated with Bipolar disorders however there are other factors. People living with Bipolar are also known to be highly productive, can be short-tempered, overly energetic and can be a bit “extra” at times. Brown has been identified as having Bipolar Type II, which is a milder form and sometimes considered the “preferred” Bipolar since there is no severe mania and the major symptoms are the excessive "I’m King of the World" feelings, decreased need for sleep, hypersexuality, and increased productivity. Before you start thinking of ways to trigger that good Bipolar consider the reoccurring bouts of depression and moodiness associated with this type that are beyond your control. Further, if you’re African-American and male and struggling with this type of Bipolar you’re more likely to be misdiagnosed and, similar to Brown, more likely to be placed in the judicial system instead of receiving appropriate mental health services.
In fact, this form of tracking may start in childhood as African-American boys are more likely to be diagnosed with behavioral/emotional problems prompting more punishment, structure and control whereas White male youth who display the same symptoms are more likely to get specified diagnoses, like ADHD, that are considered less intractable with more treatment options. Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Isaiah Pickens, who supports youth through his organization IOpening Enterprises admits “there is an overdiagnosis of conduct disorders that categorize behaviors like anger outbursts or aggression that are likely better accounted for through understanding the impact of trauma in a young man's life and assigning a more appropriate diagnosis such as PTSD.” As in the case of Brown, core symptoms of PTSD may be dismissed as a case of bad behavior or poor personality. Given that our national conversation around PTSD is isolated to veterans, it is no surprise that many people find it hard to understand that a person’s current behavior can be affected by past, less traumatic experiences. Understanding that the major symptoms of PTSD, reliving the event, avoiding memories, and hyperarousal, are specific to the individual’s life experiences helps to explain the diversity in PTSD symptoms.
As a psychologist in the juvenile justice system, Dr. Pickens emphasizes that, “there is often an underappreciation of the risk for mental illness among black males who are in high stress environments that demand a brand of masculinity that promotes violence and shuns emotional vulnerability. Each of these stigmas can easily lead to criminalizing the behaviors of Black males who are searching for ways to survive in environments where threat is perceived as constantly present.” Overall, we underestimate the impact of our everyday chaos. Though you may have grown accustomed to living in an area with high crime and violence or living with an abusive relative, it doesn’t mean that these experiences haven’t impacted you. Chances are you may have developed coping skills to manage these situations like being hyperaware of your surroundings or using aggression to protect yourself. The difficulty comes when you attempt to use these coping skills in all settings.
At the end of the day, I am not Brown’s psychologist nor do any of us know the intimate details of his life. What we do know is Brown’s behavior is not unfamiliar. We may recognize his actions in our sons, brothers, nephews, or even in ourselves. What I hope we also see is that Brown is taking the necessary steps to address his situation by participating in a therapeutic setting and taking public steps to address past missteps. Though many might see taking the path of psychotherapy as an attempt to avoid responsibility, it is important to understand that a mental health diagnosis or seeking therapeutic treatment is not an excuse or explanation but an opportunity to understand, heal, and grow. Our males need those opportunities too…maybe Brown will serve as an example and, in a strange turn of events, become a role model for others.
Dr. Anissa Moody is a psychologist and educator in New York City. She has published papers and given talks on the practice of mental hygiene and the social constructions of race, health, and gender among many topics. By sharing her expertise on current topics, Dr. Moody aims to raise awareness of mental health and highlight the importance of mental hygiene in enriching people's lives. Tweet her: @frameofmind