Nikki Webber Allen: How Can We Dismantle The Stigma Of Mental Illness?

Feb 23, 2018

Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Confronting Stigma.

About Nikki Webber Allen's TED Talk

After her nephew's suicide, Nikki Webber Allen began to speak out about mental illness — including her own. She explains why the stigma keeps people, particularly people of color, from seeking help.

About Nikki Webber Allen

Nikki Webber Allen is a two-time Emmy Award winning TV producer with over 20 years of experience in the entertainment industry. She is a passionate mental health advocate and founder of the "I LIVE FOR ... FOUNDATION, INC." a nonprofit that uses storytelling and media to address the stigma surrounding mental health in communities of color. She's currently working on a documentary film on the subject.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on the show today, Confronting Stigma - ideas about why we judge or cast aside certain behaviors or choices or even conditions, like depression.

NIKKI WEBBER ALLEN: Depression, anxiety, mental illness - none of that was talked about in my house.

RAZ: This is Nikki Webber Allen. She's a filmmaker who also runs a non-profit that works to end the stigma around mental health, particularly among people of color.

ALLEN: And I think that that is why I was under the impression when I struggled - first was diagnosed with it that, you know, this was just something that was unique to me. And that this was just my own weakness. Most people in the black community believe that that's what it is. So much of it is - like, particularly if you're from more of a disadvantaged background where you're trying to figure out how to pay the bills, how are you going to put food on the table, the last thing you have time for in your mind is self-care. It's absolutely seen as a luxury. I think another part of it, though, is our complex history in this country.

Coming from slavery and Jim Crow and, you know, institutionalized racism, we pride ourselves on our strength and our mental toughness and our resilience. That's what's gotten us through and what's helped us to achieve, you know, so many things that we've accomplished over the last 200 years. So for us to not have that, you know, we can't not have that, you know what I mean? So it was really distressing for me when I first found out and I felt really alone, like I had let the family down and that I needed to just kind of get over this and tough it out on my own. But it wasn't getting better on my own.

RAZ: At the time, Nikki was a successful TV producer. She'd even won two Emmys for her work. So on the outside, it seemed like everything was fine. But on the inside, it felt like anything but.

ALLEN: It was like - I remember what it was like to be happy when I was younger, and I'd gotten to the point I think in my - by 30, I was to the point where I was like, well, I guess that's just something that, you know, kids are happy. But once you get older and you get a job, you're just never going to be as happy again as you were when you were young. And I still didn't realize that was the depression talking, you know? So it wasn't until I went to the doctor and the doctor suggested to me, you know what? A lot of your symptoms sound like they're related to anxiety and perhaps depression. I totally pushed back on him because that's not something that happens to me. That happens to other people.

And I had in my head, you know, that narrative that people with mental illness, those are the people you see standing on the corner and talking to themselves. That's not me holding down a job and a good job. And it just didn't jive with what I knew mental illness to look like. But still at least I did go to the therapist, but because of the stigma, I didn't talk about it. I just went to therapy on my own and didn't share it with anyone, not even anyone in the family.

RAZ: But that all changed one day when Nikki learned that someone else in her family had silently been suffering from depression. Nikki Webber Allen picks up the story from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ALLEN: On July 4, 2013, my world came crashing in on me. That was the day I got a phone call from my mom telling me that my 22-year-old nephew Paul had ended his life after years of battling depression and anxiety. There are no words that can describe the devastation I felt. Paul and I were very close, but I had no idea he was in so much pain. Neither one of us had ever talked to the other about our struggles. The shame and stigma kept us both silent.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: He had been struggling with depression and anxiety for a few years. I don't know exactly how long because we never actually talked about it. So, you know, in the same family, we were very close but because of the shame and stigma, I was afraid to talk to him. I wanted to be the cool aunt, you know? So I didn't want him to think that something was wrong with me, so I never - I was never open with him about it.

RAZ: About your own depression.

ALLEN: About my own depression. And then it wasn't until after he died from suicide that I learned about his depression. Now, he had told his parents, but he had asked his parents to keep it quiet and not share it with the rest of the family because he didn't want people to think that he was weak.

RAZ: He was ashamed.

ALLEN: He was ashamed. And so that just broke my heart. After that happened, I just thought, you know what? This is something that I have to change. I have to figure out a way to change this, to open up these conversations about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ALLEN: For black Americans, stressors like racism and socioeconomic disparities put them at a 20 percent greater risk of developing a mental disorder. Yet they seek mental health services at about half the rate of white Americans. One reason is the stigma, with 63 percent of black Americans mistaking depression for a weakness. Sadly, the suicide rate among black children has doubled in the past 20 years.

Armed with this information, I made a decision. I wasn't going to be silent anymore. With my family's blessing, I would share our story in hopes of sparking a national conversation. A friend, Kelly Pierre-Louis, said being strong is killing us. She's right. We have got to retire those tired, old narratives of the strong black woman and the super-masculine black man who, no matter how many times they get knocked down, just shake it off and soldier on. Having feelings isn't a sign of weakness.

Feelings mean we're human. And when we deny our humanity, it leaves us feeling empty inside, searching for ways to self-medicate in order to fill the void. These days, I share my story openly, and I ask others to share theirs, too. I believe that's what it takes to help people who may be suffering in silence to know that they are not alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's a little bit like one of the - one of the sort of tenets of treating fear is exposure, right? Like cognitive behavioral therapy, they talk about exposure. So people who have anxiety, they'll just force themselves to stand up in front of audiences and speak.

ALLEN: Do a TED Talk.

RAZ: And do a TED Talk, right?

ALLEN: (Laughter).

RAZ: And, I mean, it's - the idea that if you are depressed and if you keep it hidden and closed, it makes total sense that it would get worse.

ALLEN: Absolutely.

RAZ: But if you talk about it, which is, like, this huge obstacle for so many of us, it actually is the pathway to healing, right?

ALLEN: Absolutely. Yeah. Shine a light on it and own it because you find that you're not alone.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALLEN: Since I've been really open, I can't tell you how many friends have reached out to me. Family friends have reached out and said I've always struggled. I've been struggling for 20 years. I just never talked about it. Or remember how we said Uncle Butchy (ph) died from cancer? Well, actually, it was suicide. We just didn't want to talk about it. Like, this - time and time again, I can honestly say there's not a week that goes by that I don't hear from someone I know personally or someone who reaches out to me because they saw the TED Talk to tell me about their own experience.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

ALLEN: I will always regret that I couldn't be there for my nephew. But my sincerest hope is that I can inspire others with the lesson that I've learned. Life is beautiful. Sometimes it's messy, and it's always unpredictable, but it will all be OK when you have your support system to help you through it. I hope that if your burden gets too heavy, you'll ask for a hand, too. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Nikki Webber Allen - she's a TV and film producer, and she also runs the I Live For foundation, which works to end the stigma around mental health. You can see her full talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.