The Siwe Project’s Global Black Mental Health Initiative

By Guest Contributor Rob Fields, cross-posted from Bold As Love

There’s still things black people don’t talk about in 2011 and, to our collective detriment, mental illness is one of them.  I mean, for a people who have survived colonialism, the Middle Passage, slavery, Jim Crow and institutional racism, it would be surprising if we perfectly fine mentally and emotionally after all of that.  And many of us are alright.  But there are just as many who aren’t.

I’ll say upfront that I don’t know Bassey Ipki (above) personally.  What I know about her is that she’s a respected poet, writer, performer (multiple Def Poetry Jam appearances, to say the least) and a fierce mental health advocate who’s been bracingly honest about her own struggles with depression. We’ve had a few short Twitter conversations, and that’s about it.  Just knowing this about her, I thought the launch of this effort made perfect sense.  But I found out the impetus was something beyond her.  It was the suicide of a friend’s 15-year-old daughter.  Here’s what Bassey wrote about it:

Over the summer, I wrote about Siwe Monsanto, the amazing, beautiful, talented 15-year old daughter of my friend, Dionne. I wrote about what a wonderful human being she was. I wrote about how funny she was. I wrote about what a wonderful mother Dionne was. I wrote about how sad Siwe was at times. I wrote about how she took her own life. Since Siwe’s death, I’ve been struggling with ways I could do more as a human being and someone who loved her. I’ve thought about ways that I could use what few talents I had to do something more to honor Siwe’s memory and to prevent deaths like hers. In August, just 2 months shy of Siwe’s death, I came up with the idea of The Siwe Project, a global non-profit whose aim was to spread mental wealth awareness and education in the global black community. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it. I’m only a writer. I have no admin experience but I knew it needed to be done so I began talking to some people.

The project had a kickoff event this past Wednesday in DC. Bassey goes on to say this:

This is just a soft launch, we will be sharing our mission and plans for the future. We will announce our slogan and photo campaign. We are starting small in order to stay focused and on task but we hope to do big things. We need to erase the stigma of mental illness from our communities. We must learn to love and cherish our mental health as much as our physical health. We must encourage and support those with mental illness so that they may manage and seek treatment without fear or shame. These are imperatives. Too many of us our dying or the walking dead. This isn’t about pushing medication or specific forms of treatment on anyone. What works for me, may not work for you. But find something that works. Face it. Treat it. Then live.

The promo video is a version of her poem “Choices,” which chronicles her struggles with mental illness. It was directed by the very talented Pierre Bennu:

A great closing thought from Bassey: “Mental illness is not who you are. It’s what you have.”

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  • Janine Stinson

    Seeing this video has given me the assurance that what I’m doing — accepting my illness and working with my meds and my therapist to not let it run my life, and not being afraid to tell others I’m ill without lying about the illness — is the right path. Thank you so much for placing this chunk of gold on a long and difficult path.

  • miga

    That poem was beautiful.  And i’m happy to say that I listened without bursting into tears at how raw it made me feel.  

  • k.eli

    I’ll start by admitting that this was a bit difficult for me to read because I myself am currently coming to terms with my mental illness and I certainly feel like it’s something that’s seen as too taboo to talk about with anyone. In my personal experiences, I’ve found that the biggest barrier to an open discussion on mental health is religion.

    My mother is very religious (Christian), so in her mind my breakdowns and depression were due to my less-than-stellar church attendance record which apparently equate to having a poor relationship with God. It didn’t matter how many times I told her that she was wrong and that she was over-simplifying incredibly complex problems – she was (and still is, sadly) convinced that all mental illnesses are simply demonic spirits that need to be cast out.

    I think that, unfortunately, this is the view that many religious people have and because so many African-Americans do identify as being religious, it’s not hard for me to understand why there is so much silence in the community. But, it still frustrates me to no end. It’s hard enough to ask for help; it’s even harder to get someone to actually listen.

  • jen*

    Just a note…I’m pretty sure Bassey’s last name is Ikpi.  
    Otherwise, I’m glad that she started this project.  If it helps just one more person find someone to talk to, and find a way to stay alive, it’s worth it.

  • Val

    We’ve all heard the jokes about the uncle in the back bedroom (the film Soul Food actually had a mentally ill uncle who lived in the back bedroom) that no one talks about. Mental illness is hard to talk about for many African Americans because one of the labels that was put on us  was ‘crazy’. So hopefully campaigns like this one will gain traction in African American communities.