It was a crime so heinous, so hideous, that it defied many, if not most people’s imagination.

A disturbed Washington, D.C., mother had apparently killed her four African-American daughters, ages 5 to 17, and left their bodies rotting in their home for seven months while she went about her daily routine. The bodies were discovered during an eviction in January 2009.

Later, the mother, Banita Jacks, 35, told homicide detectives that she believed demons possessed her daughters, and she was confident that they would return from the dead when the demons died.

Prior to the murders, Jacks had never been recognized with or treated for mental illness.

It is such cases and every day issues related to mental illness that bring U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin to Howard University Tuesday to kick off a national campaign to tackle mental health in the African-American community.

Benjamin and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) will bring the subject into focus at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, in the second floor conference room of the Howard University Cancer Center and the Towers Auditorium at Howard University Hospital during a nationally broadcast telecast.

Benjamin and SAMHSA, working with the Ad Council and the Stay Strong Foundation, will unveil three new television public service announcements to coincide with the first HBCU National Mental Health Awareness Day and discuss the issue plaguing African Americans.

The launch will be telecast simultaneously to colleges and universities nationwide and will include an hour-long panel presentation by the Howard University Department of Psychiatry.

Participants will be able to ask questions in person, via television from their universities and through the Internet.

The purpose of the event is to raise awareness of mental health problems among young adults in the African-American community, said sociologist Donna Holland Barnes, an instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at Howard University director of the University’s Suicide Prevention Program.

“Unfortunately, many African Americans do not recognize this is a significant problem within our community,” Barnes said. “We are less likely to seek help. If we do seek help, we’re less likely to comply with treatment.

“The result can be fatal, and can lead to either suicide or homicide.”

Mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, are widespread in the U.S. and often misunderstood. According to SAMHSA, in 2005 there were an estimated 25 million adults aged 18 or older living with serious psychological distress, an indicator highly correlated with serious mental illness.

Mental health problems are particularly widespread in the African-American community. In 2004, nearly 12 percent of African Americans ages 18-25 reported serious psychological distress in the past year. Overall, only one-third of Americans with a mental illness or a mental health problem receive care and the percentage of African Americans receiving services (nearly 7 percent) is half that of non-Hispanic whites.

The prevalence of serious psychological distress is the highest in the adult population among 18-25-year-olds, yet this age group is also the least likely to receive services or counseling.

SAMHSA’s Campaign for Mental Health Recovery partners include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the National Institute of Mental Health, state mental health agencies, leading researchers on stigma and a broad coalition of stakeholders, including organizations that represent provider organizations and consumer and family member groups.

A resource guide, entitled “Developing a Stigma Reduction Initiative,” is also a part of the campaign and is based on the evaluation and lessons learned from the Elimination of Barriers Initiative. Copies of the guide can be obtained by calling SAMHSA’s National Mental Health Information Clearinghouse at 1-800-789-2647.