We have got to retire those tired, old narratives of the strong black woman and the super-masculine black man, who, no matter how many times they get knocked down, just shake it off and soldier on.” —Nikki Webber Allen
Mental health issues often go unspoken due to the stigma associated with depression, anxiety, and trauma. But the reality is, many Americans fight these battles and do so in isolation. October 5th marked National Depression Screening Day, bringing awareness to this critical issue. We hope to keep the awareness going by sharing our recent conversation with Nikki Webber Allen.
Nikki is an Emmy Award Winning Producer with a powerful message about mental health. Her TED talk went live on TED’s homepage yesterday. I recently had the chance to catch up with her and learn about her journey towards her newest initiative, a documentary short film on diverse young people who reject the stigma on mental illness.
Pam: What sparked your interest in raising awareness for mental health issues, specifically for people of color?
Nikki: I struggled with my own battle of depression and anxiety. I didn't share that with anybody because of the stigma—there was so much shame around it. I believed that “it was a weakness and that I was supposed to be stronger than that.”
In July of 2013, I lost my nephew, Paul, to suicide. He had been battling with depression and anxiety for years. I had no idea. Paul and I were very close so his suicide was devastating. It completely shifted my priorities, my life, and my path. If this could happen to a kid like Paul, who had so many resources and a loving family, then what chance do the rest of our kids have? I had to do something.
My background in film and television brought connections to create a platform. I decided I would like to help young people struggling with these issues. They need to know that there are other people with the same issues that look like them. One of the biggest issues with depression is that you feel so isolated. You feel like you're the only person going through this.
Pam: Can you speak a little bit about how and why your work focuses around young people of color?
Nikki: Well, isolation is particularly true when you're a young person of color–specifically Black or Latino. Latina teens actually have the highest suicide rate of all young girls. For Black males between ages 15-24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. I focus on millennials and Generation Z. In half of cases, mental disorders begin by age 14, while 75% of cases form in early 20s. Earlier diagnoses help to treat these issues. If you wait, it can often lead to a more complex or severe mental disorder. We can’t wait any longer.
People don’t get diagnosed or treated till later because kids, parents, and caretakers don't often recognize the signs. Some people think “Oh, if you're depressed you're mopey and sad and you can’t get out of bed.” But that’s not necessarily the case- depression looks different with everybody. For example, I was a very high functioning person with depression. Men might manifest these emotions though anger—because that’s only the acceptable emotion to show culturally. African Americans have a 20% greater chance of developing mental disorders because of racism and socio-economic/healthcare disparities. We don't have the luxury of not talking about it.
Pam: And you’re very much coming from the position that this is an illness, correct?
Nikki: Yeah. I interviewed former United States Surgeon General David Satcher and he identified suicide as being a huge epidemic in this country. He linked it to depression because 90% of suicides are linked to depression. He talked about changing the term “mental illness” to “brain illness” because of the stigma associated with the word “mental”. There is a school of thought that supports replacing mental with brain because it is a physical illness.
We are on a spectrum. There is no such thing as perfect mental health.
Pam: What advice do you have for young people who might be struggling with brain illness?
Nikki: Talk to someone you trust. It may not be your parent—particularly in communities of color, where many people from older generations especially are reluctant to talk about the issue or to see it as a legitimate medical condition. Talk to a friend, a counselor, a teacher, someone you trust. Let them know how you’re feeling and ask for help. They can help you find someone with some training. There are free services and paid services. If your healthcare covers you, that’s great. If not then maybe through school or free services. There is help out there if you talk to someone.
If you're a parent: Listen to your kids. Check in with your children. See how they are doing. If you think that there may be some issues let them talk and don't just jump in. Give them the space and freedom to talk. And then try to seek help for them. Make sure they are part of that process. A harmful thing people say: “Let’s pray it away” Try to get help for your kid from a licensed health care professional.
Pam: You’re a very humble person with a lot of character and values. How have you navigated through such a competitive, cut throat industry?
Nikki: Well you may have just figured out why I struggled with depression. I say that jokingly, but there is some seriousness to that. I am very much an empath and am very sensitive. That doesn’t always play well in a very cut-throat field. I now have a tool kit of coping mechanisms: I am pretty consistent about doing daily meditation. Every morning I meditate for at least 10 minutes. I also do yoga three times a week when I am home. I am also pretty good at being mindful of what I eat. Food is also linked to mental health. I know limiting my sugar is helpful. And also I am not much of a drinker.
Pam: How can people find out more about you and your documentary?
I’m also looking for someone to take over social media for me. I’ve found that too much time on social media can trigger my anxiety. That’s not uncommon. Studies actually have found a link between extended use of social media and depressive symptoms, anxiety and low self-esteem.