Photography courtesy of Shelly Diafuana
The short film ‘Gramercy’, shines a light on mental illness within the Black community at a very crucial moment in time for black people in this country’s current state of unrest. The film was released earlier in October of 2020, and was directed by Jamil McGinnis and Pat Heywood. The title ‘Gramercy’ came from a settlement in New York City in the 19th century where freed African Americans and Irish immigrants lived together peacefully. The film features a young Black man, Shaq, who struggles with depression as he returns to his hometown in New Jersey.
This short film looks at a completely different narrative within the Black community than what is most commonly shown in the media. More often than not, the Black community is portrayed as thugs and criminals in shows and movies. ‘Gramercy’ takes a look at the mental health and inner turmoil that the Black community endures. Society needs to shine a light on and destigmatize mental health in every community, especially the Black community. Black adults are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health issues and complications. The stigma around mental illness almost eliminates the acknowledgement of its existence entirely.
Studies have shown that African Americans are least likely to get treated for mental disorders (Neighbors et. al., 2007).
Natasha Kersey, Public Relations specialist at Eight 18 Agency, believes that from a young age the Black community is taught harmful ideals. “As Black men and women, you're taught to hold things in, remain strong, and always have a poker face. This mentality damages our communities,” said Kersey. The constant pressure to put on a brave face and hide your emotions decreases the mere realm of the existence of mental illness entirely. Black Americans are forced to have thick skins to combat the constant discrimination and racism they experience.
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Because of recent events and the systemic oppression in this country, Black parents often have tough conversations with fairly young children about police brutality and racism, Dr. Fletcher told me. “We are raised to believe that we have to walk outside with a tough skin at all times to survive in the world.” Our culture has taught Black Americans that they do not have the privilege of being vulnerable like other communities. As a society we need to open up a dialogue about mental illness in the Black community.
Dr. Stacy Haynes, E.D. LPC, ACS believes that parents are instrumental in the mental health of their children. Her blog, Raising Black Genius and other parenting blogs, educate parents of Black children about the achievement gap, mental health, and concerns that impact Black children. Dr. Haynes has experienced first-hand the school-to-prison pipeline and mental illness in her own family. If the mental health of children isn’t treated, it risks that child of becoming a troubled adult and even incarcerated. If treatment is sought out at all there is an extreme lack of representation of the Black therapists.
Sabrina Valdivia, Soul of Purpose, grew up with the perception of mental illness as a sign of weakness. Valdivia was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. “I think that actually happens a lot in the black community,” said Valdivia. “We are told that we need to snap out of it. That any ongoing distressing emotions are because we are unable to handle the situation.”
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She believes that the film can help break the detrimental stigma and barriers that result from mental illness for African Americans. “Movies and short films have done a lot to shape how we think and how we act within our society. “If this is the case, then that means that it does have the power to ignite change in how we seek support for our mental health,” said Valdivia. Simply by starting the conversation can draw attention to an issue that affects so many.
Dr. Kira Baskerville-Williams, one of the co-founders of Evolution Mind Therapy, a Black-owned mental health therapy practice in New Jersey has had people close to her experience mental illness on varying levels. “Mental health is an important topic because it is something that touches everyone's lives, directly or indirectly,” said Dr. Baskerville-Williams.
She ponders the question if we as a society, ‘Would be more willing to get help if we normalize the conversation around mental health?’ We as a society need to rewrite the definition of what it means to be strong and our perception of mental illness. If this issue is normalized, fewer people will go untreated. She believes that film can transform the narrative surrounding mental illness. By, giving certain characteristics of mental illness more context, it’ll humanize and make people who battle the illness more understandable, eliminating the ‘abnormal’ stereotype.
For Christian Sismone, this is a subject close to home as he grew up with a mentally-ill grandmother, mentally-ill and drug-addicted parents, and he himself experienced depression and anxiety as he got older. From personal experience, Sismone believes that Black people aren’t seen as human beings. “Without shedding light on this topic within the community more people will maladaptively cope with drinking, drugs, overworking, over-churching, etc. Many Black people especially women don't see themselves with human empathy therefore, they are unable to seek treatment or they are too scared of the label as it can feel as though you're broken,” said Sismone. He attempted to end his life 10 years ago. He didn’t care for his needs because he ‘wasn’t supposed to need help.’
“One's story in this world is truly something that can open the eyes of those who wouldn't otherwise be able to connect the dots,” said Sismone. He craves the opportunity to have his own platform and share his experience in hopes that it will be impactful both in and outside the Black community.