For the past few weeks, a very disturbing video clip of actress Maia Campbell has been rapidly circulating through cyberspace. In the video, the former co-star of the sitcom “In the House” engages in a verbal altercation with an unidentified man. Throughout the exchange, Campbell looks disoriented and disheveled, behaving erratically and lapsing in and out of coherent speech. The video also shows her being verbally abused and threatened by the cameraman and another “friend” who drove her to the strange neighborhood and left her in a car to be ambushed by the mean-spirited paparazzo.
Even more disturbing than the footage itself is the story behind it. Since childhood, Campbell has struggled mightily with bi-polar disorder, causing great stress for herself and her family. Since the death of her mother, famed writer Bebe Moore Campbell, Maia Campbell has slipped further into self-destruction, failing to take her medication and reportedly slipping into drug addiction, theft, and prostitution.
Unfortunately, most of the public conversation about Maia Campbell has treated her circumstance as comedy rather than tragedy. From email chains to gossip blogs to Twitter and Facebook, there has been an endless stream of cruel jokes about Campbell’s recent behavior, as well as the state of her mental health. Outside of the Internet, many radio, print, and television journalists have been equally brutal in their discussion of Campbell’s condition. Such behavior not only reflects society’s continued commitment to representing Black women as irrational, immoral, and hypersexual, but also our stunning indifference to issues surrounding black women’s mental health.
The case of Maia Campbell is not isolated, but part of a consistent pattern of treating the mental health struggles of Black women as comedic spectacles instead of sites of concern and care. From Whitney Houston to Lauryn Hill, prominent Black women have had their falls from grace met with public ridicule and disdain. In the case of Lauryn Hill, who many have suspected to be suffering from clinical depression and bi-polar disorder, the very same press that hailed her genius and beauty now routinely mock her appearance and behavior. This is reflective of a long tradition of fetishizing and exploiting Black female bodies, then discarding them once they are no longer useful for profit or pleasure.
Sadly, this ridicule is not coming primarily from outside forces, but from within the corridors of our own community. In the case of Maia Campbell, nearly all of the negative attention that she has received has come from Black media outlets. Others, like Hill and Houston, have been regularly referred to as “train wrecks” “crack hoes” and “chicken heads” by Black commentators. In addition to being disrespectful, this type of language reduces mental illness (and addiction) to a moral failing rather than a medical condition. Also, by treating mentally ill Black women as “good girls gone bad” rather than human beings struggling with legitimate sickness, we only reinforce deeply held taboos about mental health within the our community.
Given our disproportionately high exposure to incarceration, violence, poverty, homelessness, and parental abandonment, Blacks are particularly vulnerable to mental illness. Although we comprise less than 12 percent of the population, we account for more than 25 percent of the nation’s mental health needs. Despite these staggering numbers, Blacks are among the least likely to seek mental health care. While this reluctance is partly to due to a lack of adequate health care and income, as well as a healthy distrust of the American medical establishment, our culture continues to frame mental illness as a sign of individual weakness.
This is particularly true for Black women, who have had to bear the social burden of being “strong” wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters in the face of various forms of inequality and abuse, both inside and outside of the home. As a result, the need for mental health intervention is often accompanied by feelings of guilt, shame, and humiliation. This is why, despite being 50 percent more likely to suffer from depression than their white counterparts, black women are considerably less likely to seek medical help. Instead, many ignore their symptoms or attempt self-medication through drug and alcohol abuse, all of which only intensify the problem. It is for these reasons that our treatment of women like Maia Campbell has such dangerous implications for the broader community.
We must begin to dismantle all of the stigmas that undermine our collective well-being. Once we’ve done this, we will no longer look at the Maia Campbell video as a source of comic relief. Instead we will be angry at the men who have abused and exploited her illness for their own gain. We will be outraged at the people who gave her illegal drugs and alcohol rather than prayer and intervention. Most importantly, we will replace our culture of judgment and blame with an ethic of love and support. Until we can do these things effectively and consistently, our entire community is in need of healing.