May is Mental Health Month #OurWholeHealthMatters
In case you didn't know May is Mental Health Awareness Month! No, mental health isn't directly related to cleaning products, but it is under the umbrella of whole health and in my public health wheelhouse:-). I decided to share a story about my own family's struggle with mental well-being.
It started in 1911 in Emporia, Va. It would end 42 years later in Steelton, PA. It was a Sunday afternoon when my great-grandfather decided to end his life with a self-inflicted gunshot wound as my great-grandmother came in the door from church. Mental health matters.
Three generations later, almost every unanswered question posed that day by others is still unknown to me. Over the years, my list of questions grew and no matter who I queried I couldn’t get any answers. It was and is frustrating, but I understand. Pop Pop’s suicide took an unquantifiable emotional, mental, and physical toll on my family across generations. Individually and collectively, they were traumatized and carrying unspeakable grief, shame, and stigma. Remember, this was the 1950’s in a working-class neighborhood with mostly Eastern European immigrants with a growing African American population in central Pennsylvania. After my great-grandfather’s suicide, my grandparents had to fight to keep their own homeowner’s insurance as they were now seen as a “risk.”
Like many African Americans at that time who were 1-2 generations removed from slavery but still steeped in sharecropping, my great-grandparents where poor and uneducated. My great-grandfather’s father was White. I don’t know if his parents were married or if the relationship was consensual. I just remember hearing murmurs about him feeling “hurt” or “embarrassed” because he was fatherless and looked different from his other siblings. My Nana’s mom died when she was 3 years old giving birth to her younger sister in their home. Like so many, my great-grandparents experienced a great deal of trauma during childhood. Heading north, held the promise of growth and an opportunity to leave the past behind. They wanted better for themselves and as married teen parents, they wanted better for their only child—my grandfather. They were a part of the Great Migration, sometimes known as the Black Migration—the movement of six million African Americans from the rural South to urban hubs in the North and West. Dreamers, doers, and believers, they were committed to escaping the chokehold of racism, Jim Crow, and endemic poverty.
Although just 5 hours away, I can only imagine that Steelton must have seemed like a very different time and space from Emporia. The steel industry was booming and Harrisburg just a few minutes away, was a growing city with a small but thriving Black middle class. Gone were the endless miles of farms and dusty roads.
My great-grandparents were not a part of that Black middle-class enclave. They were solidly working-class folks. Pop Pop was a hotel clerk and Nana was a domestic (detest that word) for 2 local Jewish families 6 days a week. By all accounts, he was quiet but very kind. Pop Pop was also known to drink quite a bit at times. Nana was outgoing, “sweet as pie” and gregarious. I knew her. Nana took me on my first out of the country trip. We took the bus from Harrisburg to Montreal, Canada along with some of the members of her church. What a blast! I didn’t’ realize at the time but at 7, I was an international traveler courtesy of my great-grandmother😊. She was always smiling and laughing.
Were there warning signs?
Could my Pop Pop’s suicide have been prevented?
I don’t know..but what I do know for sure is that some of the risk factors that were present then are still present today. The good news is that mental illness is talked about as a real health condition in many circles. Many times, it’s now woven into our daily conversations in both personal and professional spaces. The last decade of tireless work by many mental health-focused organizations along with the onset of Covid-19 accelerated the conversations and call-to action.
Like many families, my cousins and I work to be intentional about identifying and interrupting the “legacy” of historical and generational trauma in our own families. Sometimes we are walking blindly in unchartered territories, but that’s okay-- some call that faith, blind faith.
How will you interrupt generational trauma or promote mental health awareness this month? What’s your call to action for the #MayisMentalHealthMonth observance?