Have you ever thought about how mental health and mental illness impacts people in the Black community in particular? Mental health advocate Stacy-Ann Buchanan has started a conversation about this very topic with her documentary “The Blind Stigma“. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Stacy-Ann at a support group in Scarborough, Ontario. She spoke in depth about her own lived experiences with depression and anxiety and her mental health advocacy work, mentioning her work on the film. I was so inspired by her speech that I immediately ordered a DVD copy of The Blind Stigma. (Seriously. I was on the bus home when I purchased it.) I also included Stacy-Ann in the list of women who I admire for their mental health advocacy in honour of International Women’s Day. Her story just really stuck with me. So today’s article is the review that I’ve been meaning to write about this fascinating film. Please keep in mind that this is just trying to be an objective review of a documentary so that, if you are interested, you will watch it and learn more directly from the source. I am not trying to claim that I truly understand the lived experience of mental illness in the Black community. I do have a few guest contributors who are writing about this topic so stay tuned!
I’ve included a five-minute snippet from the film that is available on Stacy-Ann’s YouTube channel. It gives a small glimpse into the stories shared by the main cast:
- Chivon John, a woman who has overcome her struggles with an eating disorder.
- Freddy King, a spoken word/ hip-hop artist who has experienced a lot of discrimination and stigma faced by the Black community, in particular Black men. This has led to feelings of depression and other mental health issues.
- Lisa Gibson, a woman with bipolar disorder who has also experienced post-partum depression and other mental health issues, in particular related to being in an abusive relationship.
- Pauleanna Reid, a writer and mental health advocate who has experienced depression and suicidal thoughts, as well as mental health issues related to sexual assault and abortion.
- Stacy-Ann Buchanan, the film’s director, who has experienced anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts.
There are also interviews on the street from people in the community, as well with mental health professionals and a bishop.
The consensus among all of the interviewees was that mental health is not really talked about in the Black community and that people aren’t actively seeking to address the problem. Several of the women said that they always thought anxiety or eating disorders were not a “black girl” thing. Mental illness was also described as a “silent killer” because people don’t acknowledge it and try to keep it hidden. In addition, many people said that their community sees mental illness through a polarized view – you are either fine or absolutely crazy.
I was particularly impressed by the bravery and candidness of each cast member, as well as the awareness of their own emotions. A couple of phrases really resonated with me: “I feel like a survivor, I feel empowered.” “I live, I don’t suffer with my mental illness.” “I thrive, I don’t just survive.” “The best teacher I have ever known is life itself. No matter what has happened, it has taught me the best lessons.” It was clear to me that Stacy-Ann, as a director and filmmaker, chose her subjects carefully. Their individual stories, while each quite different, collectively demonstrated a group of powerful people with the ability to change lives through their words.
“The Blind Stigma” also discussed faith, the church and families and their relationship to mental illness in the Black community. For many of the interviewees, their family’s reaction was to pray about the mental illness. Often, their family was disgraced because of the illness and they feel so ashamed that they do not seek help. However, the church as an institution often tries to help through prayer and counselling, providing families with an outlet to address their mental health concerns.
Every person who appeared in the film agreed that to address mental illness in the Black community, we need more awareness. By talking about it and not keeping it inside, more people will see that mental health is just as important as physical health. They also agreed that the Black community should be more vocal and give a voice to their mental illness, and that more funding and resources are needed. One suggestion to improve mental health was to show examples of successful black people who could be role models. This might encourage people not to stay in the closet or keep their mental illness a secret. Another proposal was to hold seminars in the Black community, in churches or community centres, so that people build the skills to advocate for themselves and build the communities they would like to see.
Much of what was discussed in the film could honestly apply to any group of people, which makes sense. Mental health issues are often universal and do not discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality, etc. However, what particularly stuck out to me was when the film offered small nuggets and wisdom about issues that are unique to the Black community. For example, a cast member discussed the stigma around young black men, who are trained not to share their feelings in order to appear tough, therefore having to deal with their issues alone. As well, they also brought up the fact that not being able to find employment because of where you live or what you look like can have a severe impact on your mental health. Furthermore, not seeing yourself represented in the history books in school can truly influence a person’s self-esteem and other areas of mental health.
I loved this film because it ended with a positive, empowering outlook, encouraging the viewer to take action and #ChangetheStigma. It encourages the viewer to remove their own mask and break the cycle of stigma around mental illness. “The Blind Stigma” inspires its audience to have faith in the fact that recovery is possible. While I am not a member of the Black community, as someone with a mental illness, the film’s message very much transcended race and ethnicity and made me feel as I am not alone in my own struggles. The film is educational in its nature and showcases a diversity of voices within the Black community. I am confident that this documentary will play a crucial role in the conversation on mental illness on a local, national and international scale.
I strongly believe that politicians and community leaders need to see this film so that they can use their own influence to make changes that accurately reflect the needs of the Black community. So please, if this topic interests you, share with your friends and family and social networks!