Schizophrenia is a group of severe brain disorders in which people interpret reality abnormally. In men, schizophrenia symptoms typically start in the teens or 20s. In women, schizophrenia symptoms typically begin in the 20s or early 30s. And despite African-Americans being 1.5 times more likely to suffer some schizophrenia than whites, the topic of this mental health disorder and other illnesses are often cloaked in silence.
But Ashley Smith, 24, founder and executive director of the non-profit organization, Embracing My Mind, has made it her mission to get Black people talking.
BET.com talked with Smith about her own battle with schizophrenic, the importance of seeking quality care and treatment for mental illness and how we need to overcome the stigma.
BET.com: When were you diagnosed with schizophrenia?
Ashley Smith: I was diagnosed in 2007; I was 20 years-old. I was having a lot of symptoms then — emotional chaos, ups and downs, hallucinations and strange thoughts — all of which went undiagnosed and untreated. One day, I stole a truck from a local airport and went on a high-speed chase with the police. I was eventually arrested and was in jail for five months and then a state hospital. It was there that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and was given treatment.
I was so sick, I was catatonic, hearing voices and delusional. But now, I am doing really well and I take my medication. Thankfully I have a strong support system from my family, my doctors and the support groups I go to. Not everyone is so lucky.
In past interviews you have said that your deep faith in God was a barrier to you recognizing your symptoms. Why?
I believed many of the stories in the Bible and believed I had special abilities, could read minds and could find God in everyday experiences. At one point, I even thought I was Jesus. I thought this was normal.
My mother commented and noticed my mood swings — thinking it was PMS or maybe bi-polar disease, but that was it. And it's interesting because I have family members who have mental illness. But no one used the term "mental illness." It was just called bizarre behavior.
Why is mental illness so stigmatized in the Black community?
Many people believe that we can just pray away mental illness and that it's not a real medical concern, which leads to poor communication around the disease. I hear so many people say that they knew something was wrong with a loved one, but they shrugged it off and did nothing. We are not taking it seriously.
And then I hear a lot about people distrusting the medication, worrying about whether or not it will work, and what are the side effects are. Then there is the cost of treatment, they are every expensive and people worry that they their health insurance isn’t going to pay for it.
Why did you start Embracing My Mind and what does your organization do?
I wanted to give back to my community. At Embrace My Mind, people who have a lack of support can be taught life skills, take cooking classes, receive employment support and anger management classes. We have mental illness education classes and support groups for people so that they know that they are not alone.
We partner with other community programs who work with the homeless and transitioning housing, in order to really strengthen the community. Most importantly, I partner with the law enforcement, because there are a lot of homeless people who ends up in the legal system and it's important for police to be knowledgeable of mental illness, when they are apprehending someone who may be showing symptoms. We have a lot of people who are in the prison system who are undiagnosed and not receiving the treatment.
What should people know about mental illness?
That it's not a character flaw. It's a mental disease that can affect anybody. And while this disease is difficult, recovery is possible. Family members and loved-ones need to be supportive, and not judge, meet people where they are in the stages of their recovery.