Why Communities of Color Must Undo The Stigma That Misreads Depression as Weakness
“We have got to retire those tired, old narratives of the strong black woman and the super-masculine black man, who, no matter how many times they get knocked down, just shake it off and soldier on.” — Nikki Webber Allen
Pam: What sparked your interest in raising awareness for mental health issues, specifically for people of color?
Nikki: I struggled with my own battle of depression and anxiety. I didn’t share that with anybody because of the stigma—there was so much shame around it. I believed that “it was a weakness and that I was supposed to be stronger than that.”
In July of 2013, I lost my nephew, Paul, to suicide. He had been battling with depression and anxiety for years. I had no idea. Paul and I were very close so his suicide was devastating. It completely shifted my priorities, my life, and my path. If this could happen to a kid like Paul, who had so many resources and a loving family, then what chance do the rest of our kids have? I had to do something.
My background in film and television brought connections to create a platform. I decided I would like to help young people struggling with these issues. They need to know that there are other people with the same issues that look like them. One of the biggest issues with depression is that you feel so isolated. You feel like you’re the only person going through this
Pam: Can you speak a little bit about how and why your work focuses around young people of color?
Nikki: Well, isolation is particularly true when you’re a young person of color–specifically Black or Latino. Latina teens actually have the highest suicide rate of all young girls. For Black males between ages 15-24, suicide is the third leading cause of death. I focus on millennials and Generation Z. In half of cases, mental disorders begin by age 14, while 75% of cases form in early 20s. Earlier diagnoses help to treat these issues. If you wait, it can often lead to a more complex or severe mental disorder. We can’t wait any longer.
People don’t get diagnosed or treated till later because kids, parents, and caretakers don’t often recognize the signs. Some people think “Oh, if you’re depressed you’re mopey and sad and you can’t get out of bed.” But that’s not necessarily the case- depression looks different with everybody. For example, I was a very high functioning person with depression. Men might manifest these emotions though anger—because that’s only the acceptable emotion to show culturally. African Americans have a 20% greater chance of developing mental disorders because of racism and socio-economic/healthcare disparities. We don’t have the luxury of not talking about it.
Pam: And you’re very much coming from the position that this is an illness, correct?
Nikki: Yeah. I interviewed former United States Surgeon General David Satcher and he identified suicide as being a huge epidemic in this country. He linked it to depression because 90% of suicides are linked to depression. He talked about changing the term “mental illness” to “brain illness” because of the stigma associated with the word “mental”. There is a school of thought that supports replacing mental with brain because it is a physical illness.
We are on a spectrum. There is no such thing as perfect mental health.
Pam: What advice do you have for young people who might be struggling with brain illness?
Nikki: Talk to someone you trust. It may not be your parent—particularly in communities of color, where many people from older generations especially are reluctant to talk about the issue or to see it as a legitimate medical condition. Talk to a friend, a counselor, a teacher, someone you trust. Let them know how you’re feeling and ask for help. They can help you find someone with some training. There are free services and paid services. If your healthcare covers you, that’s great. If not then maybe through school or free services. There is help out there if you talk to someone.
If you’re a parent: Listen to your kids. Check in with your children. See how they are doing. If you think that there may be some issues let them talk and don’t just jump in. Give them the space and freedom to talk. And then try to seek help for them. Make sure they are part of that process. A harmful thing people say: “Let’s pray it away” Try to get help for your kid from a licensed health care professional.
Pam: You’re a very humble person with a lot of character and values. How have you navigated through such a competitive, cut throat industry?
Nikki: Well you may have just figured out why I struggled with depression. I say that jokingly, but there is some seriousness to that. I am very much an empath and am very sensitive. That doesn’t always play well in a very cut-throat field. I now have a tool kit of coping mechanisms: I am pretty consistent about doing daily meditation. Every morning I meditate for at least 10 minutes. I also do yoga three times a week when I am home. I am also pretty good at being mindful of what I eat. Food is also linked to mental health. I know limiting my sugar is helpful. And also I am not much of a drinker.
Pam: How can people find out more about you and your documentary?
I’m also looking for someone to take over social media for me. I’ve found that too much time on social media can trigger my anxiety. That’s not uncommon. Studies actually have found a link between extended use of social media and depressive symptoms, anxiety and low self-esteem.
Pam: Shifting gears, can you speak about your background, and how you came to be a producer?
Nikki: I wasn’t necessarily the black sheep of my family, but I was a different. I come from a very interesting community called Shepherd Park in DC. In the 50s they lifted bans that kept Blacks and Jews out of the neighborhoods. My father was a judge. People were very “successful,” but it wasn’t the track I necessarily wanted to go down. I was creative and artistic but my parents wanted me to be a lawyer or a teacher.
I was obsessed with music and I also really loved TV, so I thought, “Hmm…maybe I’ll go into TV.” At the time, music videos were first starting…the beginning days of MTV. My first job was as a production assistant on music videos. So I worked on music videos for years. I worked for anybody who in the 90s was really hot—Stevie Nicks, to Tony Braxton, Rod Stewart, Snoop Dogg, NWA, Mary J Blige. I worked one Whitney Houston video for 20 hours straight. I was always hustling for work.
When the reality show craze hit, I switched to that. I started working on ElimiDATE—a dating show. I was a casting producer on that. That was the early 2000s. I worked also as the Supervising Producer on “Who wants to be a Millionare? and won 2 Emmys with that show. I’ve had a pretty diverse background in entertainment.
Pam: Any advice for young women who are interested in a career in production?
Nikki: I think it can be difficult to wake up and think, “I want to be a producer.” It’s a really tough industry to get in, because you really have to know some people. If you’re younger, intern for a company and meet people. If that isn’t an option, call people. That’s honestly how I got my first job. I kept calling the top music video director at the time, Lionel C Martin until I wore him out. I was calling him so much because I wanted to work for him. He called me back and said, “Just to get you to stop calling me, I will try you out and let you act as Production Assistant for the day. I was a Master’s graduate sweeping floors, but I had a great attitude. Have a good attitude and don’t think you are too big to do “menial tasks”. If you work your behind off and make sure the right people notice it will pay off.
You can directly support the creation of Nikki’s documentary here!
Interview with OITNB actor Emily Althaus: acting, race and politics
Recently I had the chance to interview Emily Althaus, the actor who plays Maureen Kukudio (Crazy Eyes’ love interest) in OITNB. We made plans to meet at a café in Harlem. As I exited the subway, I couldn’t tell whether I was sweating from nerves or the summer heat. When I finally arrived at the café, Emily was sitting at a small table outside wearing a red top and bellbottoms.
Awkwardly, I smiled and nodded to let her know it was me. She extended her arms for a hug. My nerves scattered, and then melted away into the Manhattan heat. Emily exudes a rare sense of warmth that makes you feel like you’ve known her forever. The next two hours flew by as we became immersed in conversation. Her intelligence and acute self-awareness became apparent as we discussed a broad range of topics, from her upbringing and politics to racial inequality and beauty standards. Emily is in the know about the complicated world we live in. These fragments from our conversation should give you a glance into her bold, nuanced and effortlessly humorous mind.
ACTING CAREER & OITNB
Pam: Did you always know you’d be an actor?
Emily: As long as I can remember. Even as a kid, I was always interested in being somebody else.
Pam: What does pursuing an acting career look like?
Emily: Being perpetually unemployed [laughs]. I’ve always said that my plan would be to move to another country and work at a bakery in my mid-to-late 40’s if acting didn’t work out.
Pam: But acting seems to be working out for you?
Emily: It’s a grind. There were years of no work. Sometimes, you sit for a year and nothing comes up. And you bartend and nanny and keep your head down and think something will happen. It’s some sort of a delusional hope thing, that something is coming. That something was OITNB for me. It was my first TV gig.
Pam: How did you land it?
Emily: I was originally meant to play Pennsatucky’s mom in a flashback. Then the writers said they wanted to write something else specifically for me. There was a moment when I thought, “That’s so sweet of them. They must just feel sorry for me.”
Pam: Tell me about your initial experience on set.
Emily: The character of Kukudio wasn’t fully described. I showed up and they said “these are some lines, go in and say some”. When they kept letting me return, I thought “well this is good feedback! I’m coming back, it’s ok.” Five episodes in, the writers asked if I knew about the character. I said “I’m making this up!” It seems from the lines she could be somewhere on the spectrum. It felt very collaborative. The writers are smart masterminds in the way they write so I’m sure they saw this all coming together long before I did. They don’t tell you how to do it exactly. It leaves room for each party to be creative. It feels like a safe space to mess up. What is messing up? It’s a playground.
Pam: Is there going to be a back story on you in Season 5 of OITNB!?
Emily: I don’t even know. I couldn’t even spoil the surprise.
Pam: Are you friends with the cast?
Emily: I always joke…it’s like joining a funny sorority that you didn’t know you were pledging. All of a sudden there’s your little family. Nick Sandow, who plays Caputo, is so grounded and wonderful at what he does. I think he was one of my favorite characters this season. There’s moments when I want him to come back from the dark side but you can see his heart is in the right place; you can tell he’s trying.
Pam: Totally, it’s one person fighting a system.
Emily: Yes, he becomes the everyman.
Pam: Though I don’t like his new girlfriend, Linda.
Emily: When she pulled that gun, I thought “absolutely not. You break up with her right now!”
Pam: Can you discuss the transition from theater to television?
Emily: I moved to New York to do theater, which is all I had ever studied. Growing up, I didn’t know there could be a space for me on television. It’s not that I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t until I got to New York that GIRLS became a thing, where there were different body types. I’m a very animated person. Being on stage, you need 2,000 people away to hear you. That does not translate on television. One of the OITNB writers uses this finger signal that means “a little less”.
Pam: You’re doing a great job. Kukudio has a subtle way about her.
Emily: That’s going in my diary. You don’t even know. It’s been a struggle.
Pam: I’m glad some shows are starting to move away from socialized beauty standards.
Emily: You’ve got to see yourself represented. You can’t just see white Barbies. Our show [OITNB] is ideally the first of many to be inclusive. I think it’s good to talk about it because we’re still in a time where tides are starting to shift. But I’m excited for the future when this isn’t even a topic.
Pam: Mental health in jails and prison is a significant real-world issue, especially for women. How does OITNB explore that issue?
Emily: I’ve had friends who are on the spectrum write me and ask what I think of Kukudio. It’s tricky. When you suffer from a mental illness, there’s research to be done. What’s interesting with the show is that it doesn’t always pin it down. They never say exactly what is going on. I like that we’ve gotten away from some of the labels. They’re very sensitive about the stigma of mental illness.
Pam: I think it’s tough for most people to conceptualize mental health as an issue that weaves through all of us.
Emily: My mother has a sleep disorder in which one’s body goes to sleep at any given moment. Thankfully with medication, one can be a functioning person but the disorder impacts mental health. I grew up in an area of Kentucky where mental health is severely stigmatized. I recognized at a young age the way people behaved around my mother. It wasn’t fair. It’s a systemic issue with large implications. I have so much respect for humans that break with their traditions to get the mental health care they need even if it’s stigmatized.
Pam: You mentioned earlier that OITNB approaches mental health in interesting ways. Can you expand on that?
Emily: OITNB digs into it in palatable ways. You find yourself digesting the information without realizing you’re being fed, which is art. I love this image in my head of art as candy coating. It’s not always sweet. But the coating around the real pill, you have to have it. We’ll sing and dance about it if you want. But it brings these topics to the forefront.
Pam: You were at the Blacks Lives Matter march at Washington Park?
Emily: Growing up, I learned about the Civil Rights Movement in school in the following way: these were the issues and there was a movement and now it’s over. There was never this tag “and also, racism is till a thing” or “and also, this is where racism comes from”. It was very much checking a box.
If you told me at age 12 that I would be marching for the same fight, I would have been so confused. I am still confused as to why we haven’t been talking about the issues that brought and keep us here.
Pam: What was marching like?
Emily: I marched with my brothers and sisters of all races and ethnicities. It’s a moving thing to be around people who are awake and understanding it. But it’s also sad. At one point, we were in the middle of Times Square. I was sitting in the intersection of the city I dreamed of moving to my whole life. New York represents a pillar of diversity and uniqueness. To think that those present at the march are a tiny swath of the country. There’s not enough of us now. It’s going to take many more to effect actual change.
Pam: What compelled you to be vocal about race on social media?
Emily: I posted about it on Twitter because I have this sliver of a platform. And if I’m not talking about it, then what am I doing? There are 13-year-old kids that are looking at me in a dress that I don’t actually own and makeup that I didn’t put on myself. That’s a thing I struggle with but that is part of this business so I do it. But this movement is real life. That’s my real life. We have all got to care. We can’t survive without it.
Pam: I completely agree. That’s what makes me sad about “All Lives Matter”.
Emily: I want to know—and it’s genuinely a dialogue I am open to—what is it that you feel this takes away from you? When you see this phrase [Black Lives Matter], how does it scare you? I know people who genuinely come from a “but I just want us to all be equal” place. But the issue with that is that the people saying that to me all happen to be White. The reason that’s the first thing in their mind, in my opinion, is that we were taught that everything is judged by the standard of Whiteness. Whether we realized that was happening or not, we as “Whites” were raised to believe we were human. We weren’t called “White”; we were called human.
Now when we look around and people are like “but what’s this BLM movement?” They’re missing the point. The point is that black people grew up as “other”. And you grew up as the standard by which the “other” was judged. People saying that “all lives matter, duh” remind me of the statement Jesse Williams made that it doesn’t take the recognition of your bother’s pain for the pain to be real.
If people are saying they feel that their lives are at jeopardy and being treated differently. Other groups don’t get to say “oh no, they’re not. No, you don’t feel that way.” That’s just now how it works. When you’re in a relationship and your partner says “you hurt my feelings.” You don’t reply with “no, I didn’t”. There’s a dialogue that can happen and things to be learned from but you don’t get to make their pain go away by not acknowledging it. That’s what All Lives Matter is to me. It’s whitewashing someone’s pain and saying “you’re wrong.” It’s not even a real option.
Pam: People have a real hard time coming to terms with their privilege.
Emily: I talked about this with my sister at breakfast the other day. We were talking about the knee jerk reaction people have to “privilege”, which is a dirty word to some people, this idea that you can’t acknowledge that you have certain privileges based on the color of your skin. I see that in people I knew growing up. I hear them say things like “oh but I had a really hard childhood and I worked really hard.” No one is saying you didn’t. The fact is that you still were given a leg up. That’s just the facts.
Pam: Speaking of privilege, what are your thoughts about Trump?
Emily: Trump will say anything. I don’t know whether that makes him scarier or less of a threat. I was also genuinely frightened by Ted Cruz because his beliefs are ideology for him. The stuff he said he was going to do, damn it, he was going to do it. Republicans created the landscape for Trump. And now they act like they don’t know where he came from! That’s interesting because they created an entire group of people that didn’t believe our President was born here. The conspiracy theory, which was been out there for a decade, is what led us here. That’s the sad part – we can shut down Trump and another radical will pop up. There’s still a base for people that vote for him.
Pam: Have you always been into politics and current events?
Emily: I spent time without actually knowing what was going on. It’s making me a better citizen. I can use this critical thinking brain that I have, that we all have. Now I’ve reached this next phase of action.