Storytelling Saves Lives: Dismantling Stigma Around Mental Illness in the Black Community


Storytelling Saves Lives: Dismantling Stigma Around Mental Illness in the Black Community

Bravery comes in many forms: some loud and noticeable and others quiet and nearly invisible. For Dr. Kyaien Conner of the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy, seeking to amplify the more understated forms of bravery isn’t just an admirable mission. It’s vital to helping those suffering from anxiety and depression in Black communities survive.
“On a grand scale, I want to change the narrative,” says Conner, whose research has sought to illuminate the mental health issues faced by people of color and the healthcare disparities that discourage or prevent many from seeking treatment.
“There are cultural norms in the Black community and in other racial and ethnic minority groups that suggest mental illness or seeking professional mental health treatment is something that should remain private and not be shared with others,” says Conner. “But storytelling is a huge value in the African community. Much of our history isn’t written in books — it’s all told orally.”
It’s her combined love of the Black community, research, and dismantling barriers to mental healthcare that brought Conner to This Is My Brave in 2020 during COVID-19 and following the national reaction to George Floyd’s murder. This Is My Brave seeks to create community and connectedness through storytelling, and as Conner notes, this is a time when its mission is needed the most.

Storytelling and Mental Health in 2020

This Is My Brave is a national theater-based program that invites people living with mental illness and substance abuse disorders to come forward and share their stories on stage. Sharing stories of hope and recovery not only helps reduce stigma —it puts a relatable face on mental illness, which is often seen as a nebulous and taboo topic.
Before COVID-19, This Is My Brave went from city to city and placed a call for people to come and share their stories and for others to come and listen. Prior to national lockdowns, the organization had produced over 70 unique shows with over 800 storytellers. Those who present their stories on stage note reduced negative feelings towards their mental illness, while those who watch feel less stigma and more connectedness and understanding towards those presenting. Its work has been highlighted in courses in the Behavioral Healthcare Major in the Department of Mental Health Law and Policy as an innovative way to reduce stigma.
“When people can hear these stories, it might impact their decisions about getting help, staying alive, and helping other people,” says Conner.
However, Conner noted that few people of color shared their stories in This Is My Brave’s live shows.
“The Black community is less likely to seek help or talk about depression or feeling blue,” says Conner. Following the nationwide protests in summer 2020, Conner saw a message from This is My Brave and saw a path towards helping the Black community in a tangible way during a difficult time.
“It was after the first protest incident,” says Conner. “I came across an anti-racism message from Jennifer Marshall, one of the co-founders of This Is My Brave. It was blunt and to the point, and I thought the program was wonderful and inspirational.”
“I thought that with COVID, maybe her organization could do a spotlight and shine a light on stories coming from the Black community, so I reached out to This Is My Brave and the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network to work towards making it happen.”
Now, Conner and Dr. Tonica Freeman-Foster of the Central Florida Behavioral Health Network are co-producing a special edition of This Is My Brave focusing on voices within the Black Community here in Tampa Bay. Complications posed by COVID-19 will likely prevent a live audience, but Conner hopes that with funding, they will be able to bring participants to Tampa and film their stories in a local theater environment and capture the essence of what This Is My Brave offers and share with a broader audience.
This Is My Brave: Stories from the Black Community will focus on tales of recovery and will be streamed nationally via BraveTV (now available on the organization’s YouTube channel).

Now More Than Ever

“Often in the Black community, treatment is seen as a last resort, if it’s even on the table for discussion,” says Conner. “We need to normalize those conversations.”
That’s why programs like This Is My Brave is so important. “Seeing people that look like you talking about their experiences with going to therapy and seeking treatment, how it helped them, how it put them on a road to recovery… when people see those stories and can connect with them, it helps. My hope is that it can change the narrative around mental illness.”
Conner, whose research has focused on mental health services and treatment outcomes for older African Americans with depression, diagnosis and treatment for low-income communities, and mistrust in the mental health service delivery system, says we need to look past traditional research.
In recent years, there have been peaking rates of depression and anxiety. Suicide rates have risen, specifically with young Black males who are unlikely to talk about or seek treatment for depression or anxiety.
“I’ve been wanting to change the narrative about mental health in the Black community for a long time,” says Conner. “We see a lot of disparities around mental health in the Black community. People end up in crisis when they could have had their symptoms addressed in outpatient settings.”
“This model is culturally relevant. We need to normalize these conversations for more of the Black community because, in the long run, it’s about saving lives.” 

Tell Your Story

This Is My Brave: Stories from the Black Community is currently accepting auditions through August 31, 2020. If you would like to be considered to share your story, email a 5-minute audition video to Potential performers can find more information here: