Snapping the Chain: Ending Mental Health Stigma in the African American Community

November 2, 2012

As part of the Social Inclusion Campaign, PEERS is dedicated to promoting education and ending stigma around mental health in the African American community. Listen to the inspiring stories of DeWitt Buckingham and Brianna Williams, and learn more about this important social issue.

Snapping the Chain: Ending Mental Health Stigma in the African American Community


Brianna Williams: Cause sometimes when you have a mental illness you feel so different it’s like you’re not even… you know you feel so disconnected, like I couldn’t feel like other people feel, you know. When I would burn myself the sound of the needle hitting my skin and I could hear my skin burning it brings back that I am human. I am here because I can feel this pain.

DeWitt Buckingham: I went to prison twice. Both times it was drug-related. My first time going to prison is when they put all of the labels on me. The psychiatrist will talk to you for five minutes and give you a diagnosis and 9 chances out of 10, it’s wrong and you really shouldn’t be there because that’s taking the guy that has mental challenges and placing him with a guy that is just a straight up criminal. And you know what’s going to happen. There’s going to be trouble.

Brianna Williams: When I was 8 years old, my mother and father asked me who I wanted to live with and I chose my father and that really really hurt her. At that time she could not see that I was just a child. She just saw someone who she loved leaving her. And so as a result I hated myself for it.  It was a very traumatic event for me because I was simultaneously disowned by both of my parents. So I think that is what really brought about the depression and the anxiety because I couldn’t understand why I was even born, why I was even here. So I started to do a lot of self-mutilation. I looked really ugly and just disgusting. I just felt like I was just a worthless person.

DeWitt Buckingham: I can say the trauma and the scars that we carry and the pain that we carry and it’s not okay to talk about it you know and I don’t care cause the truth needs to come out.

Brianna Williams: I didn’t want to die without having my voice heard. I felt like there was some reason why I had gone through the things that I had gone through and there was some reason why I have depression and people need to understand that and I feel that couldn’t be something that could be written in a suicide note.

DeWitt Buckingham: So a lot of my experiences, I didn’t realize how painful they were until I became mature. You know, then I realized the hurt that I carried and the reason that I acted out in the way that I did.

Brianna Williams: This kind of self-hatred within ourselves, this perception that everybody else has around us, we’ve taken it in and kind of lived it out.

DeWitt Buckingham: I feel like it’s something wrong to admit that you have some form of mental challenge.

Brianna Williams: Taboo in the African American Community, it can be hard. Both my mother and father have that, that they’re carrying that weight of our ancestors of their parents and what they went through. So much mental damage was done to the African American community through slavery.

DeWitt Buckingham: They’d much rather tell you that they got AIDS before they’d tell you that they have some form of mental illness and it’s just that much stigma.

Brianna Williams: When you’re seeking help, when you’re trying to become well, if you get a deep cut and you go to the doctor, you don’t say, “Oh, that’s a white thing. I’m not gonna go to the doctor. My leg is bleeding and I’m losing feeling but I’m not gonna go to the doctor.”

DeWitt Buckingham: The first thing you have to do is remove the so-called “stigma” from it.

Brianna Williams: Because African American people need to really comprehend what mental health illness is before we can proceed with any other area of achievement in America.

DeWitt Buckingham: Today I am challenged because I suffer from major depression and I’m fortunate to find a man that treated the depression and not just zonk me out so I wouldn’t be a problem.

Brianna Williams: Everybody needs support. Everybody has that one person or that friend or whoever, relative or whoever that they call on when they just need someone to talk to somebody and that’s really what therapy is.

DeWitt Buckingham: And I finally started to believe that I had a chance, that I was going to be okay after so many people told me I would never make it. And I do mean so many people.

Brianna Williams: The moment that I actually found out that I was having a daughter I honestly cried. But now that I have my daughter, she is like my saving grace. I’m trying to focus on just letting Zion be a kid and focus on what I tell her, the words that I use because I think we kind of forget that our kids may be our kids but they are human beings in the making and the things that we teach them, the things that we do to them has a huge effect on what they do in their adult lives and what they are going to do to their children.

DeWitt Buckingham: Being a black man, it’s hard to show any kind of fear or show any kind of feeling sometimes because it’s just not socially acceptable and you got to be a man for those kids of yours. Yea, well I want my kids to be honest. I don’t want them to live the lie. The chain snapped with me. My boys will never go through what I went through.