My friend Marissa is one of my heroes. She constantly demonstrates her strength of character, courage and intelligence, in the face of a very severe mental illness. She is an interesting person whose life experiences have matured and deepened her character. Mental illnesses often steal people’s lives, but Marissa fights back every day.
Having a severe mental illness means taking heavy medications with side effects. Among other things, her medications give her seizures so she doesn’t sleep well – and if she doesn’t sleep well, she is very vulnerable to a relapse.
Despite all her challenges, Marissa is an excellent mother who is raising her child in a very conscious and reflexive manner. She also is going to college, one or two courses at a time, and hopes it will be a good role model for her child.
Intersectionality: Race, gender, social class, and mental illness
In addition to having a severe mental illness, Marissa is a black woman, a single mother, and lives on government assistance. All these elements of social location interact with each other.
Lets look at some school-related issues as an example.
Her medications make it impossible for her to get out of bed in enough time to get her 6 year old daughter to school on time, which has caused many problems. And let me note that Marissa is sending her child to a school that — despite the diverse student population– only has white teachers.
In December, the teacher had the children write a letter to Santa with their gift requests. Marissa was angry. This activity was a real set-up for a parent on social assistance. How could she live up to the expectations this teacher was setting up regarding Christmas gifts? But if she had gone to the school to complain, she would be an “angry black woman”. And remember, she’s already in trouble because her daughter is always late for school (although her daughter is at the top of her class).
Marissa, as a black single mother with a mental illness, is also very vulnerable to having her child taken away from her. It is no secret that child welfare systems are systemically racist and that black families are over-represented in these systems.
What happens if she has a relapse?
She recently had her first relapse in five years – a severe and paralyzing depression. Because it was over Christmas, she was unable to get hold of her doctor when she felt it coming on. By the time everyone got back to work, she was too depressed to reach out for any more help. Luckily her mother visited her, sensing she wasn’t doing well, and admitted her into the hospital. Although she is out of the hospital, she has lost custody of her daughter. We hope that as she stabilizes, she will be able to get her daughter back. The little girl misses her mommy and cries for her, even though grandma is very good to her.
Something is really wrong with this picture.
The need for community support
Marissa is not a victim. She is an independent woman and proud of it. She has worked very hard to get to this place. But if she just had some better community support – not even an intensive support – a hospitalization could have probably been averted. If someone could help her solve everyday problems, like how to get her daughter to school on time, her stress would be greatly reduced. A month-long hospitalization is very expensive. An ongoing community support worker who would meet with her once every week or every other week is not expensive.
Does the system expect Marissa to do it on her own? Do they not care that a child’s welfare is also part of the picture – if mom stays well, the child stays well. It’s just easier to yank the child away from the single black mother when she is sick, than to make a small amount of effort to keep things on an even keel.
I’ve got practice experience and research knowledge about mental health.
But nothing makes a social problem come alive as listening to the experiences of people who go through it.
Mothers with Mental Illness by the Canadian Mental Health Association
Parenting, special issue of Visions (BC’s mental health and addictions journal)
Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey through Depression by Meri Nana-Ama Danquah (book)
Depression and Black Women from The Best of Dr. Marvin (blog)
© Silvia Straka and A Just Society, 2009