July is the Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

Giving the lie to the common assertion that Congress accomplishes nothing, in the 110th Congress, in 2007, Rep. Albert Wynn, a Democrat from Maryland who represented the 4th district from 1993 to 2008, brought to the floor a bill for which he would soon have many co-sponsors, and which he would succeed in passing in 2008, 2 months after he announced he would be leaving.

The bill was important,  with the goal of “enhanc[ing] public awareness of mental illness, especially within minority communities.” For don’t we know that all too often minorities are overlooked, unheard, not counted.  Wynn is African-American, so he himself ought to know.

The bill formally begins:



JUNE 2, 2008


Expressing the sense of the Congress that there should be established a Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to enhance public awareness of mental illness, especially within minority communities.”

Sounds just right, doesn’t it?

But, as is so often the case, somehow, in some places, pieces just don’t get heard.  Using a conservative estimate of 11 million Wikipedia users daily, that’s a large swath of people who, if they check out former Representative Albert Wynn on the site, will find that: he voted for the 2002 Iraq War, supported the energy bill promoted by VP Cheney, and issued statements of support for integrating illegal aliens into society.  But you know what they won’t find? That’s right. There’s not one word about his role in the House proclaiming National Minority Mental Health Month.

I can’t say I’m all that surprised.

Even the namesake has an interesting twist to her story.  The Congressmen dedicated the month of July to author Bebe More Campbell, who had died in 2006. So July is eponymously called, in a most unwieldy fashion, the Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.

Apparently Campbell did put in her time when it came to mental illness–but that wasn’t something everyone knew.  When it came time for her obituary in the New York Times, entitled, “Bebe Moore Campbell, Novelist of Black Lives, Dies at 56,” writer Margalit Fox asserts that Campbell was a bestselling novelist best “known for her empathetic treatment of the difficult, intertwined and occasionally surprising relationship between the races.”  Mental illness makes such a sly, fast appearance that you’d better not blink or you’ll miss it: Fox, in listing all of Moore’s publications, makes a quick note that one (72 Hour Hold, published in 2005), was “about bipolar disorder.”

Apparently, behind the Times‘ back, things were rather different. Campbell was co-founder of NAMI (the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill) Urban Los Angeles (interesting that the Times didn’t see fit to mention), and NAMI claimed her as a national spokesperson.  And that book the Times threw in its listing of her publications?

That self-same one achieved NAMI’s 2003 Outstanding Media Award for Literature.

So, it seems fair to say she had two parts of her life – and don’t we all? But what I did find a little surprising, when we return back to the months between 2007 and 2008 that it took Congress to pass a bill that no one opposed, is what made the Representatives pick Ms. Moore Campbell, a woman who, thank the good heavens, never seemed to suffer a mental illness, and whose connection to such illness you’d have to be affiliated with NAMI to know.  Perhaps the bipolar relative who inspired Moore Campbell’s 72 Hour Hold was, unbeknownst to that suffering soul, the connection between all the parts of the story.

Now, it’s true Congress needed a minority , so John Nash (protagonist of A Beautiful Mind) Day is out.

And, come to think of it, he’s double-out, since they needed someone dead.

So I leave you with how we came to have a minority mental health day–and how it came to be named after Bebe More Campbell–but I encourage you to stop by as Minority Mental Health Awareness Month progresses, because I’ve looked up some of the data on mental health care for minorities in this country–and it’s something we all ought to know about.

Back to Ms. Campbell. (You can read this in greater length on NAMI’s very well-done website on National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month–I encourage you to scootch yourselves on over there. No hurt feelings on my end.)

Apparently Campbell, soon after that 2005 book the New York Times alluded to on bipolar disorder came out, was really ready for action. She and a long-time friend were busy organizing book-signing parties when the friend apparently suggested–either out of the blue, or tired of book parties–that they work to dedicate a whole month to minority mental health–and Campbell was ready to go along for the ride.

They’re the two who gave the month the tag-line (which I could have tried to fit into the title, but WordPress just wasn’t having it).  Early on they knew they wanted,  “Providing awareness, supporting families, and eliminating stigma.” [Greater fool I–all this time I thought the Representatives came up with these things.]

So, women on fire, they pitched the idea first to the D.C. Department of Mental Health–and then to the DC mayor at the time, Anthony Williams. Apparently it was really rolling–the two held book-signings, spoke in public, and created a National Minority Mental Health Taskforce of friends and allies, including key government players.

However, the brain cancer that would claim her life eventually prevented Campbell from continuing her fight. She succumbed at the age of 56. But she had inspired those who survived her. The taskforce members found the ear of Representative Albert Wynn (remember him, from way up top?),  who co-signed the legislation with Diane Watson [D-CA],  to create an official minority mental health awareness month.

The 6-page resolution, passed on May 21, 2008, ends thus:

“Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate 2 concurring), That it is the sense of Congress that—

 (1) improved access to mental health treatment and services and public awareness of mental illness are of paramount importance;

(2) there is an important need for improved access to care, treatment, and services for those diagnosed with severe and persistent mental health disorders and improved public awareness of mental illness; and

(3) an appropriate month should be recognized as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to enhance public awareness of mental illness and mental illness among minorities.

Passed the House of Representatives May 21, 2008.”

We are left to hope that the Resolution and the Month will one day–for most certainly we have not gotten there yet–accomplish what Bebe Moore Campbell saw as its potential.

What we need, Ms. Campbell told us, “is a national campaign to destigmatize mental illness, especially one targeted toward African-Americans. The message must go on billboards and in radio and TV public service announcements. It must be preached from pulpits and discussed in community forums. It’s not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.”

You know how sometimes the most profoundest things are the simplest? Ms. Campbell had a grasp on that here–and I leave you with her words, wise enough to be worth repeating:
“It’s not shameful to have a mental illness. Get treatment. Recovery is possible.”

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