Penetrating the isolation of mental illness


Like a lot of kids, Ramon gave his folks trouble. And like any earnest parent, Lanice Palmer-Cole tried various methods to rein him in. She thought she knew her son well, although he was “different.” Palmer-Cole says, “He was a deep, deep thinker.” She felt hopeful that her son would grow up to be a productive member of society.

But then a significant thing happened to this Detroit family and “Ramon lost his mind,” Palmer-Cole tells us in a confessional voice, speaking for the first time in public as she narrates the story of her mentally ill son.

Last Thursday evening, December 4, while most people were hunkered down in their homes, a couple dozen concerned citizens braved the bitter cold to gather at United Church of God and Christ in St. Paul. They came to hear the stories of those grappling with mental illness and to network with one another as webs were woven in an effort to catch those individuals, especially those within communities of color, who too often fall through the cracks.

Pastor Celester Webb, a retired firefighter and the seven-year pastor of the church hosting this National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) event, spoke up. He explained to the audience how his awareness and understanding of mental illness developed.

“Out of the blue, after a surgery, I developed panic attacks,” said Webb. “But I’m macho, so I knew I wasn’t supposed to be feeling this way. But I did [have these issues]. Now I’m dealing with this,” he acknowledged.

The evening event was organized by Matthea Little Smith, African American Outreach Director at NAMI. Held in a church precisely because the evening’s focus was on faith-based initiatives that examine the stigma attached to mental illness, the goal was to dispel those bigoted ideas and find ways to circumvent the prejudice that thwarts those who suffer from mental illness from finding help to overcome their illness.

Pastor Webb spoke forcefully about these prejudices: “The attitude had been, when we see folks who suffer with different illnesses, we have in the past just turned our heads and said, ‘Let him be.’ But we need to help one another.

“Even though we really don’t want to talk about it…growing up, we didn’t go to see a psychiatrist because we thought, ‘No, that’s White folks’ way,’” Webb continued. “But we don’t need to be offended that we need help. We need to wake up in the faith community and see that there are those who need help,” he declared.

Palmer-Cole confirmed Webb’s assertion as she shared her story about Ramon.

“This is how we get through whatever we need to get through: We pray,” she said. So, when Ramon disappeared, Palmer-Cole called on her family and friends.

“Pray for me and Ramon,” she begged.

Despite Palmer-Cole’s trust in prayer, she still couldn’t surmount the idea that her son needed psychiatric help. “[Although] he started talking about killing himself, I’m still thinking that these [medical] people don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m still in denial. Is this something that happens to Blacks? It’s not talked about in the home,” Palmer-Cole said.

Eventually she found herself with no other alternatives. “I found myself having to call the police [seeking psychiatric placement],” admitted Palmer-Cole. Society’s voice in her head tried to reinforce the myth that outside help is betrayal. “Mom, you don’t give up your kids to nobody,” the voice screamed.

“But I thought about this service, and I had to do it,” said Palmer-Cole. “I felt guilt for years until I started accepting it.” She described Ramon: “He’s a beautiful person, and you wouldn’t think that he suffers with what he suffers. He’s not just acting a little strange, but he’s really ill and needs help with that.”

Tonda Daggs sat next to Palmer-Cole in front of the room, both sharing their stories; Dagg’s story was different, however — she spoke about herself. “I was different,” she told us, but I couldn’t figure out why I was different.”

Although her mother was bipolar and self-medicated with alcohol, Daggs grew up under the guidance of her grandparents and, in her words, “got a job, married, had children.” She didn’t recognize the illness in herself.

“But then the bottom started to drop out, and I self-medicated,” Daggs revealed. After 15 years and a divorce, she admitted that what she was doing to help herself wasn’t working.

“I wanted to get fixed up,” decided Daggs. So, she “got clean and sober and started the right medication.”

She realized that “secrets keep you sick.” With that insight, Daggs assured the audience that “as long as I take my medication and keep my faith in God, I’ll be okay.”

But, she also acknowledged that the journey to mental stability was aided by others. “There are two people that really helped me get back on track. Firstly, the people at the treatment place help me. Also, my ex-husband had been gone for years, but when I got sick, he was right there. He bailed me out of jail and took me to treatment,” she said.

Debra Jacoway, another panelist and an employee of Hennepin County Public Health Services as a faith and community services liaison, knows how important it is to create a web of support. “I’ve realized that this is all about isolation,” said Jacoway as she sought to understand how people with mental illness failed to find help.

Jacoway led the audience in a tutorial, providing information about signs of mental illness and resources to obtain help. In doing so, Jacoway expressed her belief that “We’re perking up our ears, tuning up our hearts so that we can listen and help one another.”

She further acknowledged the obstacles to treatment: “Isolation can be right there in the house; a person not knowing where to turn for help creates isolation. In depression, one is physically disabled from reaching out,” she explained.

When we open our hearts and minds and increase our sensitivity, we are knocking down those barriers, Jacoway suggested. “We don’t have to be a doctor to make a compassionate assessment of our loved ones,” she maintained.

From the audience a question arose: “What should we be doing as a community?” someone called out. Pastor Webb responded, “We’ve got to learn not to dismiss it with comments such as, ‘Come on, brother, you’ll be alright.’”

Webb stated that we need to do a better job of identifying mental illness. NAMI provides public forums to educate the public on mental illness. However, said Webb, “Some people have a romance with ignorance, and they don’t want to break up with it.”

Ending the isolation of mental illness begins with understanding. “There are some treatable illnesses, and the stigma should not be there,” said Webb. “It’s a falsehood that if one uses medication, then they haven’t got faith.”

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