The importance of Black mental health

Emma Tanner, Managing Editor

Grief is not linear, nor is it confined to death. If anyone knows that, it is grief educator LeTanndra Thompson.

Thompson is a north Alabama native and 2009 UNA graduate. She obtained a degree in social work and started working with Safeplace, a local domestic violence shelter. She began working towards a masters degree from Alabama A&M a year later. UNA did not offer a masters in social work until 2020. She is currently obtaining a second masters in Thanatology, the study of death, dying and bereavement.

Thompson wears a lot of hats. She is a licensed social worker, stay-at-home mom, entrepreneur and part-time substitute teacher. She educates others on grief through her business, Renewed Minds Grief Education and Grief Support Services. She was certified for grief education through David Kessler’s training program.

“My goal is to educate the community about grief and hopefully be able to provide some support,” said Thompson.

When Thompson was 12 years old, her mother was diagnosed with brain cancer. When she was 15, her mother passed away. Prior to her death, her mother was in hospice. That was the first time Thompson ever met a hospice social worker. She knew she wanted to do that with her life as well.

“Ever since my mom died, I realized that people didn’t really talk about [grief],” Thompson said. “Nobody really asked me about my grief. Nobody really checked on me. I never got counseling or therapy or anything like that afterwards. I didn’t know what I needed at the time, but I knew I didn’t feel right. I knew I needed some kind of help as far as dealing with my mom’s death.”

She began educating herself on grief and mental health, attempting to figure out how to help herself. She did not know what her grief was supposed to look like. 

“I started looking on the internet to try to find out what I needed to do,” Thompson said. “That sparked my interest in not only trying to help myself, but trying to help other people and get other people to be more comfortable talking about grief so that they can help themselves and other people so nobody is left feeling like they have to grieve alone.”

Thompson’s goal is to normalize the grieving process. Grief is a normal part of life, albeit a difficult one. 

“I think that grief is an underlying factor in a lot of the mental health issues that we face,” Thompson said. “To think that, even if it’s not death related, people have depression and other types of mental health issues because of some time of loss they have experienced. There are so many losses out there that people can grieve about.”

Non-death related grief is not unfamiliar to Thompson. In August 2015, while pregnant with her first child, she was diagnosed with anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis. The disease occurs when antibodies attack NMDA receptors in the brain and can cause tumors of the ovaries. Thompson personally has no recollection of the months she spent in the hospital, but her husband released a book on his experiences. At the time she was only two months pregnant.

The illness posed a threat to the pregnancy itself. To treat it, she required chemotherapy, steroids and plasma transfusion. The decision to perform an emergency C-section at 28 weeks was ultimately made. Doctors removed the source of the encephalitis — a tumor on her right ovary.

Thompson experienced bouts of psychosis while affected. She was hospitalized for four months, eventually being discharged on Dec. 31, 2015. 

“I recovered, but things kind of got worse before they got better,” Thompson said. “The psychosis got really bad. I would never think that I would ever go through any type of psychosis. [The hospitalization] left me in pretty bad shape. Physically, I had lost nearly 50 to 60 pounds. I was about 150 pounds before I got sick. Afterwards, I went down to 97 pounds.”

According to Thompson, the worst part of her illness was the after effects. She developed depression.

“As a social worker, I was kind of ashamed of [my depression],” Thompson said. “I was like, ‘I’m a social worker. How dare I be depressed. Why am I in this condition? I’m never going to be able to be a social worker again. I’m too depressed. I can’t raise my child because I’m depressed.’ We learn a lot about depression in school, but to actually go through depression was the most eye opening thing. No matter how much I studied it in school, going through it was the worst.”

She saw a lot of misconceptions about mental illness firsthand. Reassurances that she and her son were alive did not help, as she was still suffering internally. It opened her eyes to how society interprets mental health. To Thompson, people do not realize the lack of control people have over their mental illnesses. Her own depression lasted two years.

“I was never suicidal, but I was to the point where some days I hated to see the sun come up,” she said. “I didn’t want to see the sun come up because it meant it was another day that I had to get through. It meant it was another day for people to try to call me or try to get me out of the house or try to get me to do things that I just was not ready to do. I wasn’t suicidal; I wasn’t willing to hurt myself, but there was a point where I was just like, ‘God, if I don’t wake up tomorrow, that’s fine with me.’”

Thompson was grieving. She was grieving the loss of her pregnancy, as she had little to no recollection of it and had longed for a pregnancy. Her son spent four months in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). She also grieved the loss of her job. She had started working her dream job as a hospice social worker just a month before falling ill. 

“One thing that was the most important was the loss of time,” Thompson said. “It’s something people really don’t think about. We think about all of those different losses. I really do feel like four months of my life were missing.”

Using her own experiences, Thompson is able to further educate those on mental health and loss. She has a deeper understanding of depression through her loss. It’s not just about death-related losses. While she didn’t go into a depression following her mother’s death, she did after experiencing many losses through her disease. She even felt a loss of identity, as she had lost everything that made her feel like herself. 

“I wouldn’t want to go through that again, but I am thankful for the meaning that I took from it,” Thompson said. “I don’t think people are being punished for things. I believe that life just happens and sometimes we have to hope that we can make it through. With the right support and help, we can.”

She was in the process of planning RenewedMinds when she fell ill. That further motivated her to educate others. As time went on and she began attending therapy, she began having a better idea of how she wanted to help others. She also realized how difficult therapy can be for people. Therapy is the kind of thing that someone has to be completely ready for, according to Thompson. It took her time to be prepared to ask for help. 

In the Black community itself, Thompson feels like that difficulty is amplified. It isn’t uncommon to want to feel some kind of commonality toward a therapist. 

“Especially in the Black community, a lot of times we’re taught that what happens in our house stays in our house,” Thompson said. “We’re taught that we’re supposed to be strong. I had someone ask me, ‘What happened to that strong person that you were?’… Grief does not discriminate. Death does not discriminate. However, historically, grief in the black community has been associated with discrimination and other forms of injustice. Grief is already complex, which makes it unique for each person even if they live in the same household and are grieving the same loss. So, when you have the added layer of discrimination and injustice, it can make it even more challenging to cope with.”

Dr. Larry Bates is a professor of psychology. He has been at UNA for 23 ½ years. He obtained a masters Clinical Psychology with a minor in psychopharmacology from Auburn University. 

“I think we are beginning to accept that culture has a much bigger impact on mental illness than we have thought in the past,” said Bates. “Culture defines what we call “normal” or “abnormal”, it socializes us to believe that mental illnesses are more problematic or less problematic, whether treatment is acceptable or unacceptable, and whether those with these disorders are ridiculed or rescued. Therapists provide treatment within their areas of competency, and in recent years we have started seeing cultural competency as a part of that, acknowledging that just because I can treat depression in most clients does not necessarily mean that I should treat depression in clients with whom perhaps I clearly don’t understand their ways and values, at least not without some supervision or additional training.”

Along with culture, race does play some part in the prevalence of mental illness. Of course, certain disorders affect certain people more or less depending on genetics, not solely race. The main factors when diagnosing mental health are biology, psychology and environment, among others. 

“ Perhaps the bigger issue is what happens when someone who has a mental illness goes forward from that illness toward recovery,” Bates said. “Whites utilize mental health services at about twice the rate of those of black and of Hispanics. That could be because of the higher rates of mental illness among whites, or something else. Mental health treatment options are generally not cheap and there are obvious areas of disparity in having medical insurance that covers these treatments. Asian Americans tend to have lower prevalence of mental illness and lower use of mental health services. But in all of these, again we aren’t sure if the actual rates of disorders are lower, if therapists have some bias toward or against giving certain diagnoses to some races, if there is greater shame or less acceptance of mental illness among various cultures, or it’s some other thing we can’t see yet.”