When Joyce Coleman brings up her family’s history of mental illness, her elderly mother likes to change the subject.
“If I try to talk to my mother about it, she’s always like, ‘shhh,’” Coleman said with a laugh. “She doesn’t want to talk about that. As quickly as possible, she’ll switch the topic and say something like, ‘You know what? I just baked some brownies. Would you like to try a couple?’ She’ll do anything to move on to the next conversation.”
Though her mother’s evasive tactics make Coleman chuckle, she understands more than anyone that avoiding conversations about mental health isn’t funny. A committed mental health awareness activist and a HealthPartners care coordinator for people and families receiving treatment for mental illness, Coleman is committed to encouraging more conversations and less silence around mental health.
As a black woman, Coleman knows that while her mother’s approach isn’t all that unusual, it can actually cause more harm than good: Because African-Americans are less likely than other ethnic groups to seek treatment, she says that they suffer at higher rates from the negative effects of mental illness.
During their childhood in rural Mississippi, Coleman and her seven siblings watched as members of her extended family struggled to cope with untreated mental illness and chemical addiction. Though many would have benefited from treatment, it wasn’t an option they’d ever consider, she said. Mental health care was for other people. Coleman’s family kept their problems to themselves.
When Coleman left home at age 18 to live with her aunt in Minnesota, she began to understand that mental health didn’t have to be a taboo subject. As she worked toward a degree in psychology and family education at the University of Minnesota, she saw that the lives of many of her family members could have been improved if they had felt more comfortable asking for help.
Coleman’s family isn’t alone
“There is a mistrust” of the mental health system, Coleman said. “It makes sense and I understand that.” But suspicion to the point of complete avoidance only hurts the very people who need help the most. Because of that fact, Coleman is committed to helping people in the African-American community understand that seeking help for mental illness doesn’t have to be shameful — and that it can result in receiving the needed help. And she’s willing to put her story out there to do that.
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