joe-gibbons_web.jpgTo most people, the words  “mental illness’’ conjure up images of people suffering, speaking incoherently, behaving erratically, and simply being unable to function in society.

In reality, however, mental health encompasses a wide range of abilities from the truly debilitating to the barely perceptible. Among the more popularly known mental illnesses are schizophrenia, bi-polar and panic disorders, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and phobias.

Anyone can become mentally ill, and, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26 percent of American adults have a mental illness.

Although anyone can be afflicted with a mental illness, there are certain segments of the population that are more prone to it, including veterans, homeless people, children in foster care and prisoners.

According to Mental Health: Culture, Race, Ethnicity, a 1999 Surgeon General Report, black people tend to be overrepresented in each of these groups, including the homeless (40 percent of the homeless population are Black); the incarcerated (nearly half of all state and federal prisoners are black); children in foster care (45 percent of them are black children); and people exposed to violence (21 percent of black Vietnam veterans report symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome).

"[Mental illness] is something that is plaguing our community," said state Rep. Joseph Gibbons, D-Hallandale Beach, who will serve as moderator at the 15th Annual Conference of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators on Oct. 3.

This year’s conference theme will be “Black America’s Dialogue on Mental Health.’’

Among the conference's presenters will be U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, U.S. Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, and Payne Brown, executive producer of the documentary series, Black List Project.

The conference will take place in Indianapolis, Ind., and will be broadcast locally via satellite at the Hyatt Regency Miami.

Specialists will speak on mental health issues facing the black family.

“We're taking a holistic approach,’’ Gibbons said.

Traditionally, black people with mental illnesses have been treated less often than their white counterparts.

The National Black Conference of State Legislators has offered some reasons why this is so, including the fact that there is stigma to seeking mental health treatment, that poor African Americans do not seek treatment when needed and that even when they do get treatment, only one third follow the doctor’s advice.

By contrast, in the general population, 70 percent of those who are prescribed medication or other treatment follow through.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is a particular deterrent to getting the proper treatment among African Americans, Gibbons said.

“We don't treat it like it is an illness,’’ he said. “We look at it like the person’s dysfunctional.’’

But, he said, the more issues of mental health are discussed, the more attitude and policy can change to help treat those with mental illnesses.

“A lot of times, we just need information,’’ Gibbons said.

Photo: Joe Gibbons


WHAT: National Black Caucus of State Legislators Conference: “Black America's Dialogue on Mental Health.’’

WHEN: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3.

WHERE: Hyatt Regency Miami, 400 S.E. 2nd Avenue, Miami.

COST: Free

CONTACT: Register at