Sorority Lifts Veil on Mental Illness

Alpha Kappa Alpha

by: James Wright Special to the AFRO jwright@afro.com
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When 50 people assembled for a symposium dealing with mental illness and the law, they expected a presentation from experts in both fields. Instead, they got touching testimony on the impact these affiliations have on family members and friends.

The Xi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority of the District of Columbia, in partnership with The Pearl and Ivy Foundation and the Reed Smith Law Firm held a symposium, “The Intersection of Mental Health and The Law” Nov. 3 at Reed Smith’s offices. Lavdena Orr, president of the chapter, said that mental health issues need to be addressed with a sense of urgency.

“This issue is not a singularly but is multi-disciplinary,” Orr said. “As a pediatrician, this is an issue that we are concerned about.”

Clubhouse International estimates there are 60 million people who live with a form of mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder. Theresa Donaldson-DePass, who moderated the program and is the chapter’s health promotion leader, said in her presentation that one in five Americans will personally deal with mental illness during their lifetime.

According to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Blacks are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population.

Alpha Kappa Alpha and the National Alliance for the Mental Ill entered into a partnership in 2015 to spread the word among Blacks about mental illness, the best ways to approach it, and to debunk outmoded ways of thinking and dealing with the affliction such as “praying it away” and “getting over it.”

Judy Harris, who is White, isn’t a member of the sorority but was a speaker at the event. Harris, an attorney at Reed Smith and is married to famed political writer and scholar Norm Ornstein, talked about the struggles she and her husband had with their son, Matthew. “My son Matthew died at the age of 34,” Harris said. “When he died he was trying to earn back God’s love. We tried to get him to use prescription medication but he would not do it.”

While Matthew seemed like a gifted, well-balanced young man, she began to notice changes in him. It would appear that Mathew hit a psychological wall when he possessed photos of the slain children of the Holocaust and had his family go through a strange personal ritual honoring them. Harris said she called the police and throughout the process of being a patient at the Sheppard-Pratt facility, he began to distrust his parents and authority.

As Harris shared her story, Natalie M. Tao began to weep. When she spoke, she sympathized with Harris. “This is not a Black problem or a White problem,” Tao said. “This is everyone.”

Tao said her son was a typical teenager until he started talking strangely and quoting the Bible, which was out of character for him. She cited an incident where her son was found naked and trespassing on someone else’s property.

Tao said the man was about to do serious harm to her son but stopped when her son begged to be killed. Like Matthew, Tao worked to get her son to the Sheppard Pratt facility and lamented the changes in her child. “My son had an onset of schizophrenia and was bipolar,” she said. “But you would not know that by looking at him. You cannot tell whether someone has a mental illness by looking at them.”

By conventional standards, Melinda Hasbrouck would seem to have it all. A longtime District resident, she has a bachelor’s degree from Towson University, a juris doctorate from the William & Mary School of Law, and a master’s degree in public health from the George Washington University Milken School of Public Health.

However, Hasbrouck suffers from mental illness and wanted to be optimistic about her story.

“I am here to deliver a message of hope,” said Hasbrouck, who is in treatment for bipolar disorder, bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicidal tendencies. “At one point I was living in a car and even paying rent in two places.”

Like Harris and Tao, she blamed an ineffective mental health system. “I was abused in the system and survived in the system,” she said. “The last time I went to the psych ward was in 2009. I’m better but it’s not over.”

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