Mental Illness Nightmare: Are You the Next Victim?

The Forward Times has been covering the issue of mental health in the Black community for many years, and once again, another case has made the news involving a Black person who appears to have been dealing with mental illness, leaving the community searching for answers as to why this happened.

This past Friday, 29-year-old Dekitta Holmes called her niece and told her that she “had harmed four people” and that she wanted “to make sure the kids were not separated.”

The niece didn’t know why Dekitta initially made the disturbing call, but eventually found out why after police reported that four individuals had been shot and killed, and that one person was critically injured – one of those fatally shot was Dekitta.

It is believed that Dekitta, who many individuals describe as a smart and wonderful mother, drove to Fresno, TX, and went to the home of her 48-year-old sister, Carolyn Holmes, and fatally shot her. Fort Bend County Sheriff’s deputies found Carolyn dead of a gunshot wound, after performing a welfare check at her home.

Investigators then say that after killing her sister, Dekitta got back in her vehicle and drove to her home in southeast Houston, where she then shot and killed a man who she had reportedly been living with.  According to police, Dekitta then walked down the street to her mother’s house, and shot both her mother, Laverne Holmes, 64, and her mother’s boyfriend, Robert Lee Wesley, 65.

Wesley died, but Laverne survived and is reportedly still in critical condition.

It is then believed that Dekitta ended the shooting spree by pulling the trigger and committing suicide. The actions of this young mother have left many people asking questions and trying to make sense of this tragedy.

How could this seemingly fine Black woman, with a degree in criminal justice, and no police record or criminal history, choose to kill her family and then take her own life? More importantly, how could this 29-year-old mother of three leave her children behind, without a mother after committing such a horrific and unthinkable crime?

Investigators are still trying to determine a motive for the triple murder/suicide/shooting, but several people close to Dekitta are saying she had been a troubled young lady, and had recently been taking medication to deal with those issues.

Sadly, mental illness has been a taboo subject in the Black community for years, and the only time we usually hear about mental health cases are when they involve some high-profile individual. The reality, however, is that mental illness affects average, every day people, and unless detected and treated, mental illness could pose an extremely dangerous risk to the individuals who are suffering from it, but to those they are directly connected to as well.

Mental health treatment is often underutilized, with patients usually reluctant to seek these services. Insurers are also typically reluctant to pay for these services. Research has suggested that less than 1/2 of the people with serious mental illness receive treatment, primarily because they don’t have the money to afford the treatment.

However, there are several issues that impact the majority of Black people who suffer from mental illness directly, that can’t be ignored.

Poverty has an impact on the mental health status of African Americans. When Black people live at, or below the poverty level, it affects their overall mental health status. In 2010, studies showed that adults who were living below the poverty level were three (3) times more likely to report that they had serious psychological distress, compared to adults who were over twice the poverty level.

Another issue that impacts Black people more than any other group, according to studies, is that Blacks have less access to mental health services in their communities. One study reported that nearly 60 percent of older Black adults were not receiving needed services.

The following statistics are from the “Mental Health: Culture, Race and Ethnicity Supplement” to the 1999 U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Mental Health.

  • Blacks of all ages were more likely to be victims of serious violent crime than were Whites. One study reported that over 25 percent of Black youth who were exposed to violence met diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • While Whites were nearly twice as likely as Blacks to commit suicide, suicide rates for young Black men were as high as those for young White men. Moreover, from 1980 – 1995, the suicide rate among Blacks aged 10 to 14 increased 233 percent, compared to a 120 percent increase among comparable Whites.
  • Black people were less likely to suffer from major depression and were more likely to suffer from phobias than were Whites. Expressions of symptoms of physical illness that cannot be explained in medical terms are more common among Blacks (15 percent) than among Whites (9 percent).
  • Among Vietnam War veterans, 21 percent of Black veterans, compared to 14 percent of White veterans, suffered from PTSD, apparently because of the greater exposure of Blacks to war-zone trauma.

In 1996, Mental Health America, the leading advocacy organization addressing the full spectrum of mental and substance use conditions and their effects nationwide, commissioned a national survey on clinical depression.

The survey explored the barriers preventing Americans seeking treatment and gauged overall knowledge of and attitudes toward depression. The survey revealed that:

  • Only 31 percent of Blacks believed depression was a “health problem” and Blacks believed depression was “normal” more than the overall survey average
  • 63 percent of Blacks believed depression was a personal weakness, which was significantly higher than the overall survey average of 54 percent
  • 40 percent believed it was normal for a husband or wife to feel depressed for more than a year after the death of a spouse
  • 45 percent believed it was normal for a mother to feel depressed for at least two weeks after giving birth
  • 56 percent believed depression was a normal part of aging

In the survey, Blacks identified several barriers to the treatment of depression, which consisted of: denial; embarrassment and shame; not wanting or refusing help; a lack of money or insurance; fear; lacking knowledge of how to get treatment or deal with the problem; and a feeling of hopelessness.

Lastly in the survey, Blacks were less likely to take an antidepressant for the treatment of depression, in that only 34 percent admitted they would only take one if it were prescribed by a doctor.

Racism also continues to have an impact on the mental health of Blacks.

Negative stereotypes and attitudes of rejection have decreased, but continue to occur with measurable, adverse consequences. Historical and contemporary instances of negative treatment have led to a mistrust of authorities, many of whom are not seen as having the best interests of Black people in mind. Historical adversity, which includes slavery, sharecropping and race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources, translates into the socioeconomic disparities experienced by Blacks today. Socioeconomic status, in turn, is linked to mental health.

The public mental health safety net of hospitals, community health centers, and local health departments are vital to many Blacks, especially to those in high-need populations.

Black people of all ages are underrepresented in outpatient treatment but over-represented in inpatient treatment. Few Black children receive treatment in privately funded psychiatric hospitals, but many receive treatment in publicly funded residential treatment centers for emotionally disturbed youth.

Here are a few other important details about mental health and African Americans:

  • Nearly 1 in 4 Black people is uninsured, compared to 16 percent of the U.S. population. Rates of employer-based health coverage are just over 50 percent for employed Blacks, compared to over 70 percent for employed Whites. Medicaid covers nearly 21 percent of Blacks.
  • Overall, only 1/3 of Americans with a mental illness or a mental health problem get care. Yet, the percentage of Blacks receiving needed care is ½ that of Whites.
  • Blacks are more likely to use emergency services or to seek treatment from a primary care provider than from a mental health specialist. Moreover, they may be more likely to use alternative therapies than are Whites.
  • People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health.
  • Black doctors are five (5) times more likely than White physicians to treat Black patients. Black patients who see Black doctors rate their doctors’ styles of interaction as more participatory. Black people seeking help for a mental health problem would have trouble finding Black mental health professionals.
  • In 1998, only 2 percent of psychiatrists, 2 percent of psychologists and 4 percent of social workers said they were African Americans.

The reality of mental illness has been a major issue in the Black community for years, and is not going to go away, especially if the strategy is to simply ignore it.

The Black community must be more responsive, and has to become more educated on the issue of mental illness in order to effectively address this epidemic.

The realities and the results of mental illness are beginning to produce the type of fruit that is not healthy for the Black community as a whole. People who are struggling with mental illness, and the family members who have loved ones who are struggling with mental illness, need support, encouragement, and information to know where to go to receive assistance.

The Forward Times will continue to highlight this extremely important issue, and work collaboratively with organizations and experts to address it head on.