Psychology Professor Discusses Her Own Experiences Facing Mental Health Stigma

African American psychology professor Lisa Whitten recounts the stigma and inaction she experienced during a mental health crisis.

Ashley Bobak, MS
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In a new article published online in advance in Psychological Services, Lisa Whitten, Associate Professor of Psychology at State University of New York/Old Westbury, describes her experiences as an African American psychology professor experiencing bipolar disorder. She highlights how her experiences as an African American and the stigma associated with ‘mental illness’ negatively affected her colleagues’ ability to intervene when she was in crisis. She outlines steps that administrators, staff, and faculty can take to better support their colleagues who are experiencing acute symptoms of mental health crises.

Describing a mental health crisis she experienced at a department meeting, Whitten writes:

“My highly atypical emotional outburst was the mental illness equivalent of a heart attack, a seizure, or a stroke. In any of those instances, everyone would have launched into action, calling 911 and the Student Health Center. That’s the type of response I urgently needed. Three experienced, licensed, practicing clinical psychologists were present in the room with whom I had worked for 10 to 15 years, yet none of them was moved to respond to my distress.”
Lisa A. Whitten, PhD

Whitten narrates her lifelong struggle with mental health issues, highlighting the pain and self-consciousness she experienced as a child, which continued into her adolescent and adult years. She describes her experiences with psychiatric medication and how an experience with a mood stabilizer propelled her into a manic episode and mental health crisis.

Sadly, although in the midst of a psychiatric emergency, and despite being surrounded by colleagues who were licensed clinical psychologists, Whitten did not receive the interventions that she so desperately needed during this time. Fortunately, she received support from her psychiatrist and was removed from the problematic medication, and ultimately reached a place of healing and wellness.

Whitten highlights a number of insights that she has gained through her experiences and describes steps that can be taken to provide needed support to colleagues in the event of a mental health crisis. She highlights that considering how a medication may be impacting, an individual’s behavior is key to consider when encountering someone in crisis.

Whitten also describes how keeping a regular record of life events, mood, and medication changes can be beneficial in an emergency. She encourages individuals to have this information saved in multiple places, including online, so that it does not get misplaced.

Further, Whitten suggests that individuals with mental health issues have a list of trusted persons to call in the event of changes in their mental health status, including descriptions of what that change might look like. She emphasizes the need for intervention before a mental health crisis and how being able to intervene early, right as changes are noticed, is crucial to preventing a crisis. Along with this, it is recommended that the list be shared with colleagues and placed in one’s Human Resources file so that individuals can have access to it if the list is needed.

This is contrary to the standard protocol involving protected health information, and encourages individuals to include a signed and perhaps even notarized consent form along with the list so that no concerns of overstepping boundaries or breaking privacy laws prevent help from being sought.

Moreover, Whitten encourages individuals to share their crisis plans with friends and family, outlining steps they should take if they notice changes in behavior and/or problematic behavior. She promotes the resource Wellness Recovery Action Plan, which offers guidance on how to anticipate and manage mental health crises and work towards wellness.

Self-disclosing experiences of mental illness to colleagues working in mental health settings has been explored by others elsewhere, with such work highlighting how self-disclosure can help reduce mental health stigma. As Whitten explores through her own experiences, others have also examined how mental health stigma can impede recovery, which further emphasizes the need for active steps to reduce stigma – with one such step being promoting psychosocial explanations of mental illness.

Whitten describes how her experience as an African American woman “means that I am often stigmatized and subjected to a different level and type of scrutiny and evaluation by students, colleagues, and the larger society. This reality always informs my behavior.”

She discusses how she has found strength in Kwanzaa’s second principle, Kujichagulia, Swahili for “self-determination,” which reflects a sense of “defining, creating, naming, and speaking for oneself.” Elsewhere, others have written about steps that can be taken to practice anti-racist mental healthcare, which provides a path to alleviate the added stigma people of color face when struggling with mental health issues.

Whitten shares about how she has learned how to attend to and regulate her moods and behavior through the help of therapists and has found a supportive community in her family, friends, and colleagues. She emphasizes how, through their support, she avoided hospitalization, which may have led to further stigma and issues.

Whitten concludes:

“I believe that sometime soon, living with a mental illness will be seen as different—maybe even unusual—but not as a deficiency or as worthy of stigma. Shame, the efforts to mask one’s symptoms, and self-stigma drain valuable energy that could be better devoted to self-improvement and to building strong families, careers, and communities. One of the principles of Ntu psychotherapy, an African-centered model developed by a late past president of ABPsi, Dr. Fred Phillips, is authenticity. I hope that by reducing and ultimately eliminating stigma, we can provide space for more people with mental health issues to be their authentic selves.”

 

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Whitten, L. (2020). Stigma matters: An African American psychology professor comes out of the mental illness closet. Psychological Services. Advance online publication.        https://doi.org/10.1037/ser0000486 (Link)

28 COMMENTS

  1. “My highly atypical emotional outburst was the mental illness equivalent of a heart attack, a seizure, or a stroke. In any of those instances, everyone would have launched into action, calling 911 and the Student Health Center. That’s the type of response I urgently needed. Three experienced, licensed, practicing clinical psychologists were present in the room with whom I had worked for 10 to 15 years, yet none of them was moved to respond to my distress.”
    Well of course she needed support, but then most likely, because emotions and response to stress is not science and perhaps she was surrounded by psychologists that lacked true empathy and ability to connect but rather were uncomfortable delivering the “trained material” to a colleague who was also trained.
    The fact is, many people do not get moved. And one wonders if the “mental illness” resides in coldness disguised as “stability”? Your colleagues should have rallied or at least called someone that had an understanding of humanity.
    “Sadly, although in the midst of a psychiatric emergency,”
    NO, it was not a “psychiatric emergency”.

    “She emphasizes how, through their support, she avoided hospitalization, which may have led to further stigma and issues.”
    Amazing how psychiatrists might try to keep one of their own out of an ass-ylum. Sorry but the use of the word “hospital” is ridiculous. Nothing medical happens in an asylum. Indeed it would lead to further “issues”.
    The word “stigma” is a selling and snowing job by psychiatry itself.

    “Whitten also describes how keeping a regular record of life events, mood, and medication changes can be beneficial in an emergency. She encourages individuals to have this information saved in multiple places, including online, so that it does not get misplaced.”

    They are NOT medications and NO, people should not put their “illness” metaphors out there. HOWEVER, they might indeed be wise to foster trustworthy relationships with people who are not tied to the industry or even belief in that industry….so that should they need support, it will be the kind that acknowledges the many parts of people and is not interested in suppression or oppression. One who will protect you from throwing yourself to the wolves.
    Of course having a degree in psychology or psychiatry or a high ranking doc or politician does insulate quite a bit.

  2. “My highly atypical emotional outburst was the mental illness equivalent of a heart attack, a seizure, or a stroke. In any of those instances, everyone would have launched into action, calling 911”

    This is everything psychiatric survivors are fighting against. I would NEVER call the police on a person in mental distress, most certainly not a Black person. The odds of her receiving help drop dramatically with that action. Secondly, this is a medicalization of environmental distress. An emotional outburst should be met with compassion and a time out for the person who needs help. It is NOT a medical event. Last, the fact that she was apparently having a medication reaction is buried deeply in this story. We do not live in a culture where drug effects are seen as adverse reactions. The likelihood is that she would have been taken in distress to a psychiatric unit and had more drugs added, not had the offending drug removed. Her colleagues appear to have done exactly what most of us survivors Would have wanted, which is to mind their own business if they couldn’t provide genuine assistance. She is very lucky that she was allowed to deal with her own problem with her own doctor and not had law enforcement and emergency medical personnel barge in and make a bad situation worse.

    I can’t express enough how dismayed I am to see this published here. It’s like one step forward and two steps back with MIA.

    For god’s sake, do not call 911 on a Black person in emotional distress unless you actually want the police to show up and shoot them! Have the messages from Black Lives Matter not gotten through to anyone here?

    • That too. What we need to also realize is that psychiatry IS the police and fight the equally odious notion that instead of (or in addition to) the “real” police we should send some sort of shrink or shrink surrogate armed with a syringe full of ketamine or whatever. If someone is armed and attacking people it seems they should be able to afford some martial arts experts trained in disarming people, or at least issue tasers to all cops (though that also makes me shudder).

      • Incidentally my impression (nothing to document it with offhand) is that many “BLM” identified groupings tend to embrace the nurturing of “mental disorders” and tell people things like “mental health is real.” A great way to defuse resistance.

        • I have noticed this as well and I’ve seen push back against it from educated folks. It seems to be coming from a place of wanting equity in healthcare from those who aren’t maybe as knowledgeable about the harms of the mental treatment system. But it’s why I always say that the Black community is not a monolith any more than any other grouping of people. Although I have been surprised at how much more educated some very poor Black communities are on systemic harm than white communities tend to be. Poor white people are much more likely to attribute their problems to being down on their luck than poor Black people are. So it’s a mixed bag.

          • I had to walk out of a talk by Marc Lamont Hill where he was urging Black people to get therapy at their local CMH center, with the emphasis on the race and consciousness of the individual “practitioner” rather than the political context. A mutual acquaintance offered to hook us up sometime to discuss it all. But it’s not a lone case, the local Black talk station is also constantly encouraging community people to individualize and medicalize their oppression and get “treatment.”

      • I think psychiatric practitioners who “treat” imprisoned “patients” are worse than the criminal justice system. At least alleged criminals have to be “Mirandized” and can have an attorney present during questioning, get a full trial and have to be convicted “beyond a reasonable doubt,” and have a specific and limited sentence. The “committed” have almost no rights, other than a “preponderance of evidence” trial in front of judges who are generally heavily biased against them. And they can be “held” indefinitely, or at least as long as their insurance holds out.

        • And to boot, once labeled, one is always at risk, in hundreds of ways, because any label at all is used to “discredit” people.
          So the psych industry really would not be comfortable having “ill” people work for them, or learn from them, or have them therapy “ill” people. Because really, only the “normal” have the authority, and rational objective views.
          It takes a lot of work to hide an “abnormalcy” and for some it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like for those It is scary that there are people that think they are “normal”.
          Sure Lisa might be tolerated in the industry, and thinks she is doing something about “stigma” and thinks that being “tolerated” is her success in fighting this “stigma”. She does not realize that the label and treatment were the stigma. It scares me to think she sends people to shrinks for their “official” discrediting.
          I can’t help but wonder what she saw or felt from the “diagnoser”. I mean she has the training to assess people, even if she does not have the official label giving approval. So she must have assessed her diagnoser as being valid and correct in his observations. Completely putting her trust in him, that he somehow knows more about her than she does. That he has the ability to know what the thing is called, the thing that she has.

          What does a shrink do when he falls apart? I think going to a shrink if you’re a shrink, might be super uncomfortable, because now the lie is right there, on the table, like a huge elephant, with the suffering shrink and the diagnoser both just staring at this massive roadblock.
          Must be why one shrink tells much to one of my massage therapists. Which is commendable, but really, as a practicing shrink, he should suggest to his subjects to see a massage therapist. Many shrinks just cleverly hold it in or are not insightful. Those would be the “normals”, as in not “sick” or “disordered” to distinguish from the abnormals.

        • Yeah Steve,

          The percentage of wrong convictions is also waaaaay lower. >95% of alleged suicidals who get hospitalized involuntarily would not have killed themselves anyway. If a judge would have a rate of >95% of his convicted being not guilty, I’d expect him to quit his job on the spot.

        • It’s really the ultimate trap in an extremely punitive criminal justice system. When the choice is between going into “treatment” for your “illness” or doing hard time behind bars, it would be tough for anyone to choose to do time or to choose a harsher sentence when they could divert to a mental health court.

          I would say it’s also a very hard choice for the severely traumatized to take ownership and culpability for poor behavior or affective states that have obviously been influenced and driven by outside factors. I certainly used the mentally ill excuse for many years, and many of us have. It seems hard enough for the average person to say “I was wrong” or “I behaved poorly, I’m sorry”. But even more so for those who have been out of control emotionally to move beyond the resultant shame.

          There’s also the conflicting messaging. We hear from some quarters that it’s ok to not be ok. But it can be dangerous to admit you’re not ok. When not being ok gets the police called or gets you committed against your will. And then there is the push to screen people at every opportunity and it’s impossible to know beforehand whether what you say will be used against you. What a terrible catch-22. No wonder some people want to blame their illnesses and others want nothing to do with the system even if they really aren’t ok!

          There is no logical rhyme or reason to any of it either. You learn cause and effect and to not do certain things because there is a natural reaction. Don’t touch fire because it burns. We all learn this as humans sooner or later. But there’s no consistency within our cultural response to distress.

          But as for the mental health courts, this is definitely one of those progressive ideas that has backfired terribly as more and more folks get swept up into mental treatment for issues that are largely environmental and cultural.

  3. “She highlights that considering how a medication may be impacting, an individual’s behavior is key to consider when encountering someone in crisis.”

    Absolutely true, and this is likely one of the biggest problems with psychiatry. They have an army of non-medically trained psychologists, therapists, social workers, et al – all of whom have been misinformed by the psychiatrists and/or big Pharma about the common adverse and withdrawal effects of the psychiatric drugs. Which has resulted in millions of people having the common adverse and withdrawal effects of the psych drugs misdiagnosed, by these non-medically trained DSM “bible” believers.

    For goodness sakes, Robert Whitaker pointed out a decade ago that the ADHD drugs and antidepressants can make people manic, in other words, they create the symptoms of “bipolar.”

    And the neuroleptics / antipsychotics can create the negative symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via neuroleptic induced deficit syndrome. Plus the antipsychotics and antidepressants can make a person ‘psychotic’ and hallucinate, positive symptoms of “schizophrenia,” via anticholinergic intoxication syndrome poisoning. Yet neither of these medically known syndrome are even listed in the DSM. Thus they are ALWAYS misdiagnosed by the “mental health” workers.

    Non-medically trained people should NOT be “diagnosing” (stigmatizing, in the case of the “mental health” workers) people with anything.

    “I hope that by reducing and ultimately eliminating stigma, we can provide space for more people with mental health issues to be their authentic selves.”

    The only real way to eliminate stigma is to get rid of the “invalid” and “unreliable” DSM.

  4. If I were addressing Ms. Whitten directly I would suggest that what she calls “stigma” is a synonym for “bigotry,” and that it is not something someone “has” but something that is done to them.

    Further, that by accepting psychiatric “mental illness” labels such as “bipolar” one is guaranteeing that they will will be met with such bigotry, as they have defined themselves as damaged goods, which are never valued much in capitalist culture.

    • Incisive yet again oldhead.

      But the alternative path is to seize the labels from the quacks and wear them with pride, as other communities suffering bigotry have done with words like ‘queer’ and ‘nigger’. Of course you’ve got to start by owning them. As in “I am not a person afflicted with bipolar disorder. I’m bipolar. It’s part of me.”

      And the fact is, no serious deviance from the accepted consumerist mean is ever accepted in production line capitalist culture. Unless you toe the line and drink the Kool Aid they’ll just find a new label to beat you about with. That’s why you should always gush over reality TV shows that promote consumerism as mental health therapy.

  5. I’d like to know more about her story before I believe she’s “mentally ill.” Maybe she’s experienced hardship and reward and so has “mood swings.” Maybe she just has emotions and that hasn’t been considered acceptable in her social circles. And psychiatric drugs can definitely make people “mentally ill.”

    I can appreciate why she might want to take on a label of mental illness, as I fell for it myself. Maybe she’s made mistakes in her life and has been heavily socially punished for them. Maybe her life didn’t turn out in a way that was pleasing to her. Maybe she needs a good excuse as to why she isn’t and hasn’t been literally perfect in every moment of her life. Trying to appeal to people for mercy on the basis of being mentally ill may seem like a winning strategy, but it’s dis-empowering and reduces people’s humanity to a label that does nothing to heal people from genuine distress. It also, ultimately, puts all of the blame for whatever society-wide problems that catapulted someone into “mental illness” on the “mentally ill” person, while absolving everyone else. It’s like labeling rape victims and veterans with PTSD. I would like to know what is the mentally health response to rape or war? Should people fight for more psychiatric “care,” or against rape and war? Rapists have parental rights in 31 states, but people sometimes lose custody of their children for being “mentally ill.” I guess you wouldn’t want to deprive a good father of his rights to his child.

      • I know. I guess I was just poorly expressing the idea that behind every “mental illness” is an actual person with actual humanity and reasons for their distress. I no longer believe in the concept of “mental illness,” but I feel that people can still be attracted to the concept for various reasons. It’s sometimes a way of saying to the world, “I’m not literally perfect. Can that be okay??” Uncomfortable emotions, difficult life situations, etc. don’t sit well with a lot of people. So, this label of mental illness can sometimes be used by the “mentally ill” to assert their own right to their own humanity, full and flawed as humanity is. People who have never suffered much of anything don’t usually want to be bothered with people who have. The mental health industry wouldn’t have become so prevalent and powerful if there weren’t also aspects of it that appeal to some of the people who have been given these labels.

  6. ‘Kwanzaa’s second principle, Kujichagulia, Swahili for “self-determination,” which reflects a sense of “defining, creating, naming, and speaking for oneself.” ‘

    If this second principle were put into place, the DSM and the standard of “care” in the “mental health” system would be immediately put to rest. The DSM’s purpose is to “define, create, name, and speak” for the “patient” and prevent the patient’s voice or viewpoint from being taken seriously.

    The author may actually have been fortunate that her colleagues didn’t immediately call the authorities and allowed the author to exercise her own self-determinism in deciding how to proceed with the assistance of her psychiatrist. I was a bit disturbed to hear her talking about the “stigma” of “mental illness” and even moreso being “stigmatized” for being black. I think the proper word here is “discrimination”, not “stigma!”

      • Making it a point to “figure out other people” is most often at the expense of one’s own self-awareness.

        At the time of my training, which was over 20 years ago, I was buying into this stuff hook, line, and sinker before going through my own experience and discovering it as a huge fail to humanity. It was a rough awakening because of the dual role I was playing. I was suddenly questioning everything I thought I knew and finding my way through these paradoxes to clarity took many years of learning a variety of different perspectives of healing and personal growth, spiritual issues and evolving consciousness, how energy works, etc., and applying these to my own life situation and experience to make shifts in consciousness I needed to make in order to once and for all heal and get back to creating my life with a sense of ownership and self-agency, and being in the flow of it freely, as I desire to be.

        But looking back, my graduate psych program may as well have been “Stigma 101, Advanced Stigmatizing, How to Scapegoat Others” (as in, “othering”), etc. That was about the extent of it, to what it always boils down. I discovered first from the education, and then from my personal experience on the receiving end, that this is exactly what this entire field is based on, inherently creating this social division more and more by “assigning” (projecting) labels, false traits, powerlessness, whatever, onto clients. Lots of ways to create a scapegoating dynamic, and this is a perfect set up for it. It is the nature of the beast, it cannot be helped. The self-protecting denial factor is over the top, as this article perfectly illustrates.

  7. This article (although here it is being covered by a researcher who read it) is typical of what I have been seeing coming from people who are involved in these professions but are also trying to take them in new directions.

    It is confused. On the one hand, they want to believe that the basic assumptions of the subject they have devoted their lives to are sound. And on the other hand, they see that when confronted with a real life challenge, professionals in the field (at least academic professionals) act like helpless children.

    Their awareness has come up to the point where they realize something is wrong, but not up to the point where they really know what it is or what to do about it.

    Amazingly, it has been my experience with academics from all manner of disciplines, that most of them choose to live in an information bubble. I wish this topic were more explored on this website. I can’t really speak for them. I can’t explain why a being supposedly attracted to the academic world by the lure of expanded awareness of life and thought would end up putting self-imposed limits on that awareness.

    I make a point to seek out those rare ones who are less inclined to limit themselves, and I find them very rare indeed.

    Kwanzaa is mentioned. I had to look it up, thinking it was some sort of ancient African tradition that I had overlooked, like Vodun. It isn’t. Kwanzaa is a modern (1966) American re-interpretation of African tradition. It is a secularized version, tinged throughout by the nuances of Critical Theory, a cognitive construct created (ironically?) by mostly white European psychologists and sociologists who sought to somehow bring the ideas of political thinkers like Marx into other areas of the humanities. The whole construct has proven to be highly problematic. I would not take it seriously, but many academics take it very seriously.

    I suppose there is a kind of arrogance in thinking I know better than these people. “We each have to find our own way,” right? I am concerned, though, that our time to accomplish that is running out.

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