It was three years ago when the death of her nephew completely changed Nikki Webber Allen’s life trajectory.
The two-time Emmy Award-winning television producer had worked alongside such industry legends as Dick Clark, Spike Lee, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Russell Simmons, Donny and Marie and Regis Philbin as a 20-year veteran of the entertainment industry.
On July 3, 2013, she lost her nephew, who suffered from depression and anxiety, to suicide. What her then 22-year-old nephew, a straight A student with academic scholarships to Morehouse College, Northwestern and University of Washington in St. Louis, didn’t know was that she had also battled depression for years.
She was the “cool aunt,” the aunt he looked up to and she didn’t want to show what she perceived then as a “weakness”. It’s a secret Webber Allen understood many families of color keep about their loved ones. People of color are constantly needing to put on a brave face to battle racism and often minimize symptoms of depression.
In 2015, she decided to create a non-profit entitled, “I LIVE FOR…” that would use storytelling and entertainment to help end the cultural stigma of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders in teenagers and young adults of color. The organization encourages young people to find their passion.
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“I LIVE FOR…is an incredibly important organization that offers much needed support to those who too often suffer in silence,” said scholar and board member, Michael Eric Dyson.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death in black males ages 15-24, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). According to the Centers for Disease Control, the suicide rate among black children has increased by 233 percent in the last 20 years. Latina teens have the highest rate of suicide attempts among all U.S. teen females, according to NAMI.
As we come to the end of July, Minority Mental Health Month, we talked to Webber Allen about what people of color can do to erase the stigma around mental health issues in our communities.
The Shadow League: In minority communities, people are often told you have to be strong or to just get over it or talk to your pastor—what have you been trying to do about the stigma around mental illness and what is it exactly?
Nikki Webber Allen: I think the biggest misconception is to associate a mental health issue with weakness. I think overwhelmingly, statistically, African Americans view depression and mental illness generally as a weakness. One of the biggest messages is to get across that it is a medical condition. It’s not a character flaw, not a sign of personal weakness, but it’s an actual medical condition.
TSL: What are the symptoms of depression and anxiety—how does it manifest itself? How would people, particularly in black communities understand the difference between “Oh, I’m just having a bad day,” which happens often to us given external stressors, to something deeper than that?
NWA: It’s so important that people talk to their doctors about it. It manifests differently in different people. It could be that you sleep too much, you can’t get out of bed. For someone else they have constant insomnia. One of the things that I learned from doctors that are my subject matter advisors—is to look for behavior that is different from your personal norm.
As a baseline I tend to be an optimist, so if I find myself through long stretches being pessimistic, then that’s something to check out. I tend to sleep eight hours a night, if I’m in a depressive period I can’t get to sleep for days on end.
Changes in your sleep patterns, your appetite, increased irritability or agitation, loss of interest in things you once enjoyed can all be indicators.
With males it can manifest with excessive anger. Anger is the only acceptable emotion for them to share culturally. They’re not allowed to say they feel scared, they feel hurt, they feel shame and as black people generally we are not allowed to express those feelings because we always have to put on a brave face. What we can do is show anger. That can be a sign of depression.
There are a lot of physical manifestations. With my anxiety I thought I was having a heart attack, I was having regular chest pains, headaches, nausea and my ears were ringing constantly. I had insomnia. All of these physical things were happening. I went to my internist and he was like this sounds like anxiety. I couldn’t believe it because I hadn’t heard of those symptoms being associated with anxiety.
TSL: Would it be useful in the same way we go to a primary care physician for yearly check-ups, should it be a regular thing where you go to a mental health professional to check in, to see if everything is going well and that you’re maintaining whatever outlook you have? Would that be something that would help to relieve the stigma if it were just a normal kind of thing where people checked in regularly?
NWA: Yup, I went to Morehouse School of Medicine to interview Dr. David Satcher, the former surgeon general, he is doing some amazing work. He is pushing for this idea that is a much more comprehensive approach to healthcare that does not separate physical health from mental health.
When you get your general exam it also encompasses a mental health exam. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death on college campuses. Pushing for college campuses to be a part of it. College kids get a regular mental health exam. I think that’s where we're headed. Mental illness has such a negative connotation and he was a proponent for the term, brain illness. It’s an illness to your brain. We look at it differently, but it’s a physical illness.
TSL: I often think that as a collective community we are suffering from PTSD. Is depression a result of stress, it is physical, or is it genetic?
NWA: I think it is a combination. I am not a researcher, but from my perspective and my observation, I think it’s a combination of everything. I think there’s some generational trauma and systemic trauma passed down from generations.
There can be a genetic component to mental illness, but that doesn’t mean that if you have that gene you will suffer from mental illness. You may not have the stressors in life that will lead you to it.
Just like if you’re an alcoholic, if you’re predisposed to it, but if you never take a drink, you won’t become an alcoholic. It’s a combination of genetics and stressors.
I do think that in terms of the black community—I think there’s a lot of trauma that gets passed down and we don’t openly talk about it in our families, I think because the stigma is so strong that if we are suffering we don’t get help and it gets worse. I also think access to good healthcare is important.
You can’t turn on the news or on social media without hearing about police brutality. Daily stresses that invalidate your humanity that can wear on you and particularly our young people. If we’re not engaging them and talking to them about their feelings, I think that can lead to real problems.
TSL: There’s the perception that mental illness equals dangerous.
NWA: Statistically, people with mental illness are much more likely to kill themselves than someone else. That’s why I’m so passionate about using my voice as a media professional to change the narrative in the media.
TSL: You said in 1/2 of the cases the onset of mental illness starts by age 14 and 3/4 of the cases by the age of 24?
NWA: People think about depression, oh you’re gonna stay in bed and you don’t get out of bed for a week. Oftentimes the changes are much more subtle.
My nephew died from suicide. He was a straight A student, outgoing, with swagger. It was gradual. It went from straight A’s to an A-. Then it was a B+. It’s not extreme. He socialized a lot. Things he was interested in, and that’s a big one loss of interest in things he was once very interested in.
He loved to play ball and hang out with his friends and go to concerts. He started to pull back. As a parent you might say, ‘I know something is wrong, but it’s just typical teenage angst.’
We don’t understand what it is because we don’t talk about it. It is critical that people like me share our stories so other people don’t have to go through what my family went through.
One statistic I read is the average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the 1950s. These kids are really struggling. Another statistic that’s really scary, I don’t remember the exact number, but it’s something like less than 50 percent of these young people would feel comfortable talking to a parent or authority figure about it. That’s why part of my campaign is to create safe spaces for them to talk.
My nephew was 22 years old when he died on July 3rd—three years ago this month. It just breaks my heart and hindsight is 20/20. If I just knew then what I know now. That’s why I’m so determined to teach everybody that I can what I know now. I couldn’t save his life, but I’m certainly going to try to save somebody else’s child’s life.
TSL: What are you guys currently working on?
NWA: We're currently doing an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, raising money to produce a documentary short featuring millennials of color who share stories of their experience with mental health disorders and advocate for mental health awareness.