The U.S. health care system has long neglected minority mental health. It continues to do so during this time of coronavirus-wrought isolation, economic hardship, and social unrest. Paying homage to he-roes and she-roes in the long struggle for equal rights in mental health care offers hope.

One such beacon of light is Bebe Moore Campbell, a prolific writer, historian, rhythmic storyteller, and advocate for equitable mental health treatment and services. Recent maneuvers to remove her name from highlighting national minority mental health are just plain wrong.

Campbell’s novel “72 Hour Hold,” a New York Times bestseller in 2006, detailed the epic struggle of mothers and fathers who faced a perilous fight against an unjust mental health system. The events chronicled in the book experienced by fictional characters are inspired by real-life warriors: parents who were willing to confront forces that prioritized white privilege and not colored pain.

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This landmark work, along with her book for children, “Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry,” illuminates the struggles of Black and brown individuals plagued by mental health conditions. The characters experience incarceration, economic hurdles, and stigma in their journey from illness to wellness, exposing a convoluted struggle for equity in access to care. Campbell, a stalwart visionary for mental health education, awareness, and advocacy, revealed that the mental health system was fractured at its core.

Before her untimely death from cancer in 2006, Campbell advanced a national movement to designate each July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

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We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African Americans … it is not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.

Bebe Moore Campbell in 2005

In 2007, Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.) introduced a resolution into Congress to declare July as the Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. The following year, thanks to tireless advocacy and 89 co-sponsors, a unanimous and bipartisan vote approved Congressional Resolution 134 to recognize Campbell for her commitment to promoting public awareness of mental illness.

This commemorative month grounded communities of color in a mental health crusade and motivated national efforts to address effective treatment options, open up access to services, provide peer support, and improve community outreach. It continues to give voice to the voiceless. Campbell’s unyielding dedication to inclusivity was the heart of this achievement to champion just and unbiased mental health care.

A viral push by several organizations aims to unofficially rename this month as the Black, Indigenous, People of Color Mental Health Month. This unilateral act of erasing Campbell’s name is co-opting a movement that evolved more than a decade ago.

Vacating the past circumvents the intent of Congress. Campbell sought to unite communities and expose our two-tiered mental health system. The abrupt substitution of “BIPOC” for “Bebe Moore Campbell” aims to capitalize on media attention on racial injustice following the death of George Floyd. Yet using BIPOC overlooks Campbell’s efforts, reinforcing the systemic racism that National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month seeks to expose.

Minority vs. BIPOC

The architects and early adopters of the term “Black, Indigenous, People of Color” claim the word “minority” is cringeworthy. We agree that overuse and misuse of the term can be problematic given its pejorative connotation. In actuality, it’s a misnomer today, given that as of 2019, more than half of U.S. children under 16 are non-white or Hispanic.

While it may be time to reevaluate minority as a label, the use of BIPOC in designating Minority Mental Health Awareness Month is an example of revisionist history. Further complicating the removal of “minority” from the commemorative name is the intent of Congressional Resolution 134 and other federal designations, such as the Office of Minority Health and the National Institute of Minority Health and Health Disparities, that specify protected classes for research, data collection, and funding eligibility. The indiscriminate use of the term BIPOC is problematic, and using it to rename mental health awareness month invalidates the foundation of a national focus on the mental health of “minoritized” populations.

Terms used to describe non-white people in the U.S. have evolved: Negro, colored, African American, Black, and now people of color. Temporal limitations of these terms notwithstanding, they don’t work forever and don’t work for everyone. BIPOC doesn’t fix everything that was wrong with “minority.”

The legacy of Bebe Moore Campbell engenders hope

We believe that the legacy of Bebe Moore Campbell is a wellspring of hope. She spearheaded a change to ensure national recognition for minority mental health. The emergence of the term “Black, Indigenous, People of Color” is not without merit, and will have its uses — but not as a replacement for Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

“72 Hour Hold” revolutionized the narrative for Black families. Speaking openly about mental illness proved to be cathartic and brought to life stories previously unheard. Touched by stories of empowerment, individuals with mental illness and their parents, peers, caregivers, and advocates recognized they were not alone. This history, grounded in truth, gives rise to power and levels the playing field for cultural sensitivity and reconciliation of the past. The disregard of Bebe Moore Campbell and a unified, bipartisan act of Congress renders invisible a Black woman luminary. It is our collective duty to honor her name and history.

Annelle Primm is a psychiatrist, board member of the Black Mental Health Alliance, and former deputy director of the American Psychiatric Association. Courtney Lang is founder of the public affairs firm Langco + Partners and former board member of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Urban Los Angeles. Keris Jän Myrick is a nationally renowned mental health advocate and former national board chair for NAMI.

  • Mental illnesses are real and can be hereditary. Agree that environmental factors including trauma and racism can trigger and exacerbate mental illness and negatively affect mental health. This is true for people of all walks of life. Treatment works whether in the form of medication and/or psychotherapy and related modalities. Bebe Moore Campbell made this clear for people of color in her novel, 72 Hour Hold, a fictional account inspired by real life events.

  • Good timing; I’ve been thinking a lot about the shift MHA made to rename it BIPOC- does seem very strategic but minimizing to the history of the movement- and while I agree on the focus and the term in many uses, it also minimizes the struggles of those of us who are immigrants, children of immigrants and struggle(d) with similar issues on top of language barriers across skin colors.

  • The problem with the use of the term mental health as with its older precursor is that it automatically designates the problem as mental or in the brain.
    This in turns allows both humans and organizations to avoid the pitfalls of systematic racism , gender ism, and other isms in shared responsibility.
    Environment does affect one’s self! Maria Montessori found this out when she worked in urban Rome with disabled children. Family history and culture affects one. Trauma and abuse affects ones mind soul and body. Relegion and it’s mystical side can create altered states. Seesaw life experiences are part and parcel of a creative life.
    Neurons do not only exist in the brain but in the digestive system as well.
    Toni Morrison’s ghost baby that remained to haunt the family is an overarching symbolic metaphor of the trauma of slavery and oppression. Throughout history there was indanticide for a number of reasons. Look at the animals. Many species care for the disabled. Look at human history and compare and contrast.
    The term mental health is oh so very convient with Pharma and others who want to put profit above all things and erase the role of trauma in human history.
    It also does not allow ANY exit strategy. By putting a mental health label on a human being like the concept of blood being part of your race. And there really is no race yes? Just shades of skin color.
    Don’t fight a battle that is wrong. Open your eyes.

    • Mental illnesses are real and can be hereditary. Agree that environmental factors including trauma and racism can trigger and exacerbate mental illness and negatively affect mental health. This is true for people of all walks of life. Treatment works whether in the form of medication and/or psychotherapy and related modalities. Bebe Moore Campbell made this clear for people of color in her novel, 72 Hour Hold, a fictional account inspired by real life events.

  • Excellent commentary on a much needed subject ( Mental Health)
    No need to change the name of the Congressional Bill. Campbell was and is one of the few Chief Warriors of color fighting this Mental Health fight many times alone. It will be taking down a Black Woman statue if her name is removed. Leave it be and take the fight to the next level it is so needed across all communities of color. The fight is not in the name(BEBE did this already)the fight is in the Action to educate and get mentsl health assistance now! Shout her name, Bebe Moore Campbell for her contionus advocacy and hard work speaks volumes. Let the world know who she is and her legacy that this Mental Health crisis must be expanded to all communities of coloe. Action to do the right thing not destroy a warriors name. What are you doing right now to assist in mental heslth causes in your community?

  • Excellent and timely article, thank you! Having served on the Board with Bebe of the NAMI Urban LA, her gift to us was her novels that are timeless and significant always in our communities of color.

  • EXCELLENT !!!! This is a very important reminder for everyone especially those who like to abbreviate long and meaningful titles! Much thanks to these 3 authors for emphasizing Bebe’s legacy. Bebe was my friend and a vital Co Founder of NAMI Urban LA with me and others . THANK YOU for this well written remembrance !!

  • —-We need a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness

    Frankly I’d rather fight those taught and teaching there is a stigma.

    Harold A Maio, retired mental health editor

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