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Urban League panel encourages attendees to keep talking about mental illness

Susannah Lohr
St. Louis Public Radio

Mental illness is real in the African-American community and needs to be talked about.

That was the message of the final panel at the National Urban League conference, which wrapped up in St. Louis on Saturday. All three speakers were celebrity women of color who had had their own struggles with mental illness.

"People are hurting. They want to talk about it, but they're afraid to talk about it," said Shanti Das, an music industry executive who founded the mental health initiative Silence the Shame earlier this year. "Nobody wants to be labeled. But we've got to get over the shame and stigma and worrying about what everyone else is saying."

Das' father committed suicide when she was an infant. Her family never dealt with it, she said, and she was ashamed of how he died. She herself was "ready to check on out " two years ago. That incident prompted her to start Silence the Shame.

"I tell people, we can't just pray it away either," Das said. "I need God, and sometimes I need my antidepressants to keep me on track. And that's OK."

Ishmaiah Moore, 16, was one of about a dozen people who attended the panel discussion. Moore, a mental health advocate at Hazelwood West High School, said some of the stigma around mental illness in her community comes from the way the media portrays African-Americans who have mental illness.

"They're the crackhead on the street. They're the crazy person who is causing all sort of problems. And sometimes even being used as comic relief," she said. 

Moore called it empowering to see people who look like her talking about struggles with mental illness.

Although stigma is a big barrier to seeking treatment for mental illness, other factors can be more important in St. Louis, said Darrell Hudson, an associate professor at the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University.

People are generally supportive of friends and family getting treatment, he said, but that treatment can be hard to access.

"It's the affordability of care, whether they're covered, whether care is acceptable and appropriate to them, those are factors that will weigh heavily for research participants that I've interacted with," he said.

For example, Hudson said, most of the places to get treatment in St. Louis are located in the central corridor. 

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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