“I LIVE FOR…”: Ending The Cultural Stigma of Depression

It was three years ago when the death of her nephew completely changed Nikki Webber Allens 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.

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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, didnt know was that she had also battled depression for years.

She was the cool aunt, the aunt he looked up to and she didnt want to show what she perceived then as a weakness. Its 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 FORis 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 pastorwhat 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. Its not a character flaw, not a sign of personal weakness, but its an actual medical condition.

TSL: What are the symptoms of depression and anxietyhow does it manifest itself? How would people, particularly in black communities understand the difference between Oh, Im just having a bad day, which happens often to us given external stressors, to something deeper than that?

NWA: Its 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 cant 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 advisorsis 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 thats something to check out. I tend to sleep eight hours a night, if Im in a depressive period I cant 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. Theyre 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 couldnt believe it because I hadnt 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 youre 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 thats where we’re  headed. Mental illness has such a negative connotation and he was a proponent for the term, brain illness. Its an illness to your brain. We look at it differently, but its 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 its a combination of everything. I think theres some generational trauma and systemic trauma passed down from generations.

There can be a genetic component to mental illness, but that doesnt 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 youre an alcoholic, if youre predisposed to it, but if you never take a drink, you wont become an alcoholic. Its a combination of genetics and stressors.

I do think that in terms of the black communityI think theres a lot of trauma that gets passed down and we dont openly talk about it in our families, I think because the stigma is so strong that if we are suffering we dont get help and it gets worse. I also think access to good healthcare is important.

You cant 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 were not engaging them and talking to them about their feelings, I think that can lead to real problems.

TSL: Theres the perception that mental illness equals dangerous.

NWA: Statistically, people with mental illness are much more likely to kill themselves than someone else. Thats why Im 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 youre gonna stay in bed and you dont 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 As to an A-. Then it was a B+. Its not extreme. He socialized a lot. Things he was interested in, and thats 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 its just typical teenage angst.

We dont understand what it is because we dont talk about it. It is critical that people like me share our stories so other people dont 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 thats really scary, I dont remember the exact number, but its something like less than 50 percent of these young people would feel comfortable talking to a parent or authority figure about it. Thats 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 3rdthree years ago this month. It just breaks my heart and hindsight is 20/20. If I just knew then what I know now. Thats why Im so determined to teach everybody that I can what I know now. I couldnt save his life, but Im certainly going to try to save somebody elses childs 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. 

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