It’s not often you’re presented with an opportunity to do something you care about, but the moment you are- run towards it. When I saw the advertisement for an internship at Active Minds, I fervently applied. I yearned to participate in a cause that affects my life and community. This week, as I began writing a piece to commemorate Black History Month, I became curious about the birth of mental health awareness in black communities. I googled and found some research online surrounding slavery and early mental institutions. However, I was surprised to find little to no advocacy during the Civil Right’s movement for mental health awareness.
The Civil Rights movement will forever be a profound era in American history. Most of the movement was televised for all of the nation to see. There was no escaping the tense atmosphere. The media coverage of the Civil Rights era included scenes of peaceful protesters being water hosed and attacked by vicious dogs, students shot on university campuses by government forces, and charred buses that were burned by cocktail bombs. Americans were traumatized, especially Black America.
Black America was in the process of transitioning from slavery and the reconstruction era to paving a way for their communities when it became obvious they were not getting a fair chance at achieving the American dream. As they fought for equality, hardly anyone had a moment to notice the mental trauma that many were experiencing from stress, anxiety, and fear. Activists quietly struggled to hold on to their mental peace so that they could make societal strides in their communities.
During my research, I came across one outstanding advocacy effort on behalf of the mental health of Black Americans. In 1967, following a series of urban insurrections, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a speech to the American Psychology Association challenging social scientists to take action. He did so to change the context in which social scientists currently viewed issues of race in America. He called the speech “The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement.”
Social Scientists of the time were faulted for playing no role in the revelation of trauma experienced by blacks, and for leaving the Negro Action Movement to reveal the truth behind black unrest in urban communities.
Before he addressed the issue of urban riots, Dr. King powerfully stated,
“The decade of 1955 to 1965, with its constructive elements misled us. Everyone, activists and social scientists underestimated the amount of violence and rage negroes were suppressing and the amount of white bigotry the white majority were disguising.”
Where riots took place, within the cities, black individuals were facing disparaging conditions:
“When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments; he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services. The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of the white society; Negroes live in them but do not make them any more than a prisoner makes a prison.”
Riots were a result of Northern blacks adapting their own form of rebellion. The peaceful demonstrations in the South of the United States could not ease their contained frustrations from being ill treated and marginalized. When an opportunity came to express themselves, they exploded with violence and anger. In his speech Dr. King references Kenneth Clark’s theory on suicidal instincts that arise when rioting. Can you imagine feeling so deprived that you risk your life to take part in the destruction of public and private property around you?
At the end of his speech, King called on Social Scientists to do the following: suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome black community (lower income and more affluent black unity); examine political action in black communities; and examine psychological and ideological changes in blacks as they transform from being dependent on the white majority.
I don’t believe social scientists have addressed King’s wishes. Riots in the black community have continued to occur since the civil rights movement. Many of these riots surround issues of police brutality, a very common phenomenon that occurs within black neighborhoods and beyond to blacks in upstanding communities. Most recent for us, are the riots in Ferguson and Baltimore.
While Dr. King did not mention specific illnesses in his speech, it is evident that the social and economic degradation were triggers for what we know today as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, severe anxiety and OCD disorders in the black communities. Medical and academic knowledge on this subject continues to grow slowly, but the examination of this is underrepresented. Social Scientists remain silent.
Rioting is not only practiced by displaced African Americans. We have seen it in the early beginnings of America, on college campuses, protests over new government policies, and even more recently in D.C the day of the inauguration of an unfavorable leader.
As mental health awareness and knowledge for treatments expand, we must do our part as a community to end the issues that cause mental trauma. It is evident that our current dilemmas with racial, social and economic inequality (while they have advanced) exist at a greater level than we anticipated. I applaud those who desire to lace up their boots to participate in something impactful.
I challenge you to neither riot or silence your voice. I’ve found my outlet here as an intern at Active Minds. I understand how damage to mental health from bottled emotions affects our local communities. Here at Active Minds we seek to increase awareness of mental health among all college students across the nation and share the stories of teenagers who are experiencing trauma. We encourage you to reach out to us and share your stories as we are all bracing for what appears to be another time of uncertainty for this country.