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My friend called me up to tell me she had to leave her office for a while because she had become overwhelmed by the first two clients she had seen.  She called me because of the long standing friendship we have and because she knew I had worked for many years with youth that were homeless, gang involved, abused and neglected.  She thought that I could offer some insight and support. She works with pregnant and parenting teens in Tennessee.  She explained that her first client was a fifteen year old that was pregnant with her fourth child; she didn’t have to say any more about that one. 

It was her second client that had caused her so much consternation that she had to leave her office for the rest of the day. The young lady was seventeen years old and seven months pregnant.  She had received no prenatal care besides an ultra sound to determine the sex of the child.  My friend asked her how the pregnancy had progressed; if she experienced morning sickness and how much weight she had gained. The young woman appeared annoyed by her questions and answered each with an attitude.  My friend shared with her that at seven months, she should be feeling significant movement and asked if the baby moved a lot.  Her answer sent my friend into a tailspin she would not soon recover from. 

The girl responded with the following: “Yes, she moves a lot and whenever she kicks me, I just bop her” she then demonstrated by punching herself in the abdomen.  My friend was understandably shaken by this and could barely respond and after hearing this story I could deeply empathize with her.  It is likely that this particular youth was accustomed to violence and physical abuse, either as a witness and or, as a victim.  The bad news is that this teen mom may have already done irreparable damage to her unborn child.  The good news is, she can learn and change with help.  And it is the ‘help’ that I wish to focus on here.

Some of us may feel that the responsibility lies with the parents alone, that it’s nobody else’s business. We are living at a time when we may be seeing multiple generations of teen parents, where there is often a protracted absence of mature adult guidance and protection.  This does not necessarily spell doom but it requires all of us to pay attention.  It requires the “village” that I often speak about; others may call it ‘community’ however we term it, this coming together to embrace, guide and protect our children is vital.  Our children and youth are resilient and you would be amazed how well they can recover from seemingly insurmountable troubles.  Sometimes all it takes is one caring adult to make a positive difference in the lives of a young person.  Never give up on them, to do so, would mean giving up on all of us.  Together we can save the children! 

Your Sister,

Joy

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It is no secret that the United States disproportionately arrests, convicts, and imprisons African Americans and other people of color.  It is also apparent that there is significant antipathy and fear of African American males in particular, by the police and other law enforcement officers, as stated so clearly by ex police Chief Norm Stamper in his book Breaking Rank:

Simply put, white cops are afraid of black men.  We don’t talk about it, we pretend it doesn’t exist, we claim “color blindness,” we say white officers treat black men the same way they treat white men.  But that’s a lie.  In fact, the bigger, the darker the black man the greater the fear.  The African American community knows this.  Hell, most whites know it.  Yet, even though it’s a central, if not ‘the’ defining ingredient in the makeup of police racism, white cops won’t admit it to themselves, or to others (p. 92)

Race and Class discrimination are all too real in every phase of the criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing. Impoverished black defendants are far more likely to wind up on death row than rich or middle-class whites. Of the 3,700 inmates now awaiting execution nationwide, 43 percent are African-American. Black defendants are not accorded the same due process rights as whites, their cases are not given the same scrutiny and consideration afforded white defendants. Not now, not ever, not in this country! (p. 54).

According to the above statistics, simply being black and male in the U.S. is a sentence to be harassed, detained, or arrested.  Now add mental illness to this picture and a frightening reality emerges.  The United States currently incarcerates approximately 1.25 million individuals that are mentally ill. Many of those who are diagnosed with mental illness will never receive any medical treatment unless they harm, or become a potential harm to themselves or others.

Most families in America have been affected in some way by mental illness and despite the lack of discussion mental illness remains a serious issue in the black community.  I grew up during a time when people rarely talked about mental illness.  Occasionally I heard the all too familiar diagnosis of the “nervous break down,” which happened to be the one and only mental disorder that the people in my world seemed to believe existed.

I have seen a devoted, well educated and loving black mother reduced to homelessness, deprived of her parental rights and arrested due to her untreated mental illness. I have followed the amazing academic and artistic career of an aspiring black youth who after frequent bouts with psychosis and fits of anger and paranoia was arrested and charged with a felony.  This was soon followed by his incarceration and a future of many years behind bars.

But what new horrors await the increasing numbers of those who are psychologically fragile in these prison industrial complexes?  What fresh calamities will this new bondage present to their already tortured minds and hearts? And if they should ever be freed from such a vile place, how will they find solace in their freedom? What will normal life mean to them who have lived in isolation and punishment for their mental chaos and the corollary aberrant behaviors that accompany their confusion? And more importantly, how will those like you and I receive them back into our communities, out homes, and our lives?

We do not punish or imprison people for having diabetes or high blood pressure, we treat them!  We can treat mental illness but only when we are willing to accept that it actually exists and then we must insist that those suffering from this condition receive the proper medical attention, education, and support.

We must become the voices that speak and the ears that hear…..for them!

Your Sister,

Joy

Additional resource:

Frontline’s documentary, “The Release”.

A rare and intimate look into the lives of mentally ill offenders struggling to make it on the outside.  This year alone, hundreds of thousands of prisoners with serious mental illnesses will be released into communities across America.  Within 18 months, nearly two-thirds will be re-arrested.  Click here to learn more.

Dr. Joy DeGruy

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