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.
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.
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.