As part of our series on people who live with both racism and mental health issues, Max Maddox this week talked with Courtney Maupin, who has been a NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV) presenter in Denver for seven years. IOOV presenters work together in pairs to relate intimate, personal stories related to their own mental health. These are NAMI’s peer ambassadors to the public, representing the myriad ways mental illness can take hold of our lives — and be overcome with diligence and tenacity.
Courtney has delivered her harrowing story, a bilateral struggle with race and mental illness, to audiences all over Denver, from inpatient psychiatric settings to the Crisis Intervention Team Training (CIT) program with the Denver Police Department. Here’s part of it, as told to Max.
"I’m half black and half white. Our whole family has a history of mental illness. My mom did the best she could, being a single mom and a disabled veteran living with mental illness. When I was age 13, she just couldn’t handle it anymore. So I went into foster care for a while and then eventually I went to live with my aunt and uncle. They really tried to turn me against my mom, tell me she wasn’t sick, you know, put her down for everything she had gone through ...
"But at age 16 I had my own job, I was paying all my own bills, I paid for my car, insurance, phone — you name it. I was getting my own food at school and from my part-time job working fast food. I started taking care of myself at 16, graduated high school at 16, and went to college at 17. Then I became pregnant at 18, and had my daughter at 19. That’s when my symptoms really started.
"For the depression side of my bipolar type II disorder, it’s like I have these thoughts that just tell me, I’m not good enough, I should kill myself, Nobody cares about me, No one wants me around. I’m then sleeping all the time and can’t get the energy to get out of bed. It’s just a huge burden on my life. I don’t have interest in anything — it’s like, What’s the point of life? and Everything’s boring.
"Then with the hypomania, it’s just impulsivity. You can’t control it, and thoughts come with it, too. Like you think, Oh it’ll work itself out, or Oh it's not a big deal … I’ll feel better if I go on a shopping spree. You just don’t have the impulse control to think things through.
"Then I have mixed-episodes where I feel depressed, and with hypomania I can be really irritable, agitated.
"My aunt and uncle weren’t around for me — they only wanted to talk about how 'I wasn’t that sick' or how they really didn’t think anything was wrong with me. I knew I had to find a better support system. That’s when I found the NAMI support groups. That was awesome, the Connection Recovery Support Groups, because I had an instant support system. The people that understood, that knew, checked up on me. I’m glad I had that. I now had that validation and I learned your worth doesn’t depend on anyone ... anyone else’s opinion. And those were the biggest things I took from intensive outpatient therapy, on top of getting on medication and attending therapy.
"Recovery takes a lot of work, and that’s why I think people with mental illness are some of the strongest people out there.
"Recovery takes a lot of work, and that’s why I think people with mental illness are some of the strongest people out there."
"Just like anyone facing any physical illness, you have one more thing you have to overcome. But it’s such a different ballgame when your mind is working against you. For my symptoms of depression, some people think, 'Oh, depression is ’cause you’re sad,' or, 'You can be depressed and not be sad …' And you can go through grief — that closely emulates depression — but you don’t have a chemical imbalance.
NAMI is taking a hard look at its own struggles with diversity, and the knowledge that despite past efforts, we need to do more to reach further into the black and brown communities. Max asked Courtney what NAMI can do to be more inclusive — a question Courtney has grappled with deeply and personally.
"In terms of mental healthcare in the Black community, and minority areas in general, it’s not there. The support is not there, the stigma is even higher.
"So with NAMI, I just think it would be pulling in … minorities that we have already in the program, and allowing us to speak to these communities — and for people to see that there’s a different side to what they may have been accustomed to, or exposed to, with mental illness. You know, 'You need treatment' — let them know where treatment is available that works. Just like we do for everyone else in the community, but to really focus in on those areas.
"I think NAMI does such a great job with mental health advocacy, support, education ... again I think it’s going into those areas that really need to hear it.
"And we need to find more minority speakers. We need people who come from the Black culture who can be a testament to how they address mental illness and how they overcame it. We need IOOV in Spanish, and to get Hispanic people on board. We need to have them talk to the communities and reach out to support them.
"We also need to vocalize it. … What are the mental health providers? Where do people go to get help? What are the places that can partner with our Law Line, where can we hold Family-to-Family courses, where can we hold Peer-to-Peer classes? And how can we do this in all areas of the community, and expand even more?"