Mental illness, Chaundra Rush says, “is not a casserole illness.”

Rush was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, which involves symptoms of schizophrenia and a mood disorder, more than 30 years ago and has been in and out of mental hospitals many times. After a “normal” stay in a hospital, neighbors and friends often drop by with a casserole or other dish and some encouraging words. Not so, she says, after a mental hospital stay. After her first stay, she went right back to work; instead of a recognition of her illness, there was a sense, she says, that “this is just a show, you just want attention.”

One of her goals is to dispel the stigma surrounding mental illness, to make it OK to talk about it, to seek help. That stigma, she says, runs particularly deep in communities of color.

Due to unmet needs and other factors, African Americans are 20% more likely than the general population to experience a serious mental health problem, the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health says. But with a belief persisting among many that mental illness is a personal weakness or even punishment from God, help often is not sought, a NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) report on African American mental health notes.

That stigma in the black community has historical and systemic roots, Rush says. “If you start acting funny, our community was like, you’ve got to stop doing that, you’re going to get beat or killed. So as a matter of survival, you don’t show weakness at all.”

That stigma clouds the use of medications for mental illness as well, Rush says. “People would be like, are you taking medication? So I would dump my meds down the toilet.”

Sources of strength in the black community can also be barriers to seeking care, the NAMI report says. “Research has found that many African-Americans rely on faith, family and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals, even though medical or therapeutic treatment may be necessary,” the report says.

At one time, Rush felt lost in the chasm between faith and medicine. Counselors treating her for her illness would not know how to address her sense of dread and loss related to her faith. “And then when I went to the churches, it was kind of like you shouldn’t be dealing with this. If you’re a real Christian, you’re not praying enough or reading the Bible enough.” A key moment, she says, was when she accepted that she needed treatment for her illness and “that it didn’t lessen who I was — a child of God, a person of faith.”

She has seen progress in both worlds. “The whole idea of leaving your faith and spirituality outside the counseling room is so antiquated now, because you’re not treating the whole person.”

Rush seeks to educate people on mental illness through various roles, including mental health first aid trainer, mental health peer and family support specialist and an active NAMI volunteer. She also is the founder of Just Breathe, which offers wellness retreats for women.

That shroud of shame around mental illness must be lifted, she says. “We keep it hidden, we wear masks, make sure no one can see the pain. … The biggest message I would want to continually share is this is not your fault. It is not a moral failing. It is not a weakness. It’s not a choice that you had.”

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