A woman wearing a black hoodie, black pants, black boots, and black-framed glasses sat alone in the front row of a room at the East Oakland Senior Center on a Saturday morning. She leaned forward with her arms crossed and resting on the table, patiently waiting.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, was one of the first people to show up at the “Help for Family Caregivers Coping with Mental Illness or Substance Abuse” workshop, hosted by the African American Family Support Group. She was seeking information and resources to help her 19-year-old-daughter—who suffers from co-occurring schizophrenia and drug abuse and is currently homeless—find the help that she needs.
“I hadn’t been to an African American event yet, so that was very important. I had gone to [a family clinic] and it was very white [and] middle-class. Nobody had issues with homelessness or substance abuse, so I really wanted to come here because I felt like both of those things would be addressed within the context,” said the woman.
At the workshop, about 50 attendees received information and advice from local mental health and substance abuse professionals. They also got to hear and share their personal stories with other attendees and with members of The African American Family Support Group. The group is free and confidential, and meets monthly to provide emotional support and share information with family members of people with mental illnesses. Expert speakers, such as psychiatrists and legal experts, are often at the meetings to answer questions and give qualified advice.
“It is known that African American clients of the [Alameda] County Mental Health Services are served in the most restrictive ways. In other words, they are more likely to be forcibly hospitalized to 5150’s, or to be incarcerated,” said Margot Dashiell, a facilitator for the support group. (A 5150 is an involuntary psychiatric hold, during which a qualified officer or clinician can confine a person who shows signs of a mental disorder and who might endanger themselves.) The intention of the event was to bring awareness to the African American community so its members can receive better and earlier services, according to Dashiell.
The information session covered basic questions such as what is mental illness, what causes it, information on psychiatric medications, how these work, their potential side effects, and alternative treatments.
Aaron Chapman, a psychiatrist and medical director at the Alameda County Behavioral Health Care Services, was one of the speakers at the event. He answered a broad spectrum of questions from the public, like whether or not a mental illness is a choice for those affected by it, questions on the common sedating effect of antidepressants and other psychiatric medications, and specific questions about patient and family rights that people encounter when aiding someone who has a mental illness.
The woman sitting in the front row asked a very specific question about mental health conservatorship, the living arrangement that provides individualized treatment and supervision for people with serious mental illnesses. A conservatorship ensures that the individual’s rights are protected, while making another adult or family member responsible for their legal, health, and financial decisions.
Towards the end of the workshop, the woman said that was something she was considering for her daughter. “That’s the next step, to get even more specific. I got my answer about the conservatorship. Unfortunately, my daughter is not going to qualify for that at that stage. Which let’s me know to try and find other services,” she said.
Although the answer to her question was not what she was hoping to hear, she pointed out that she appreciated the support and understanding from the group. “What was most important being in a space where I know everybody here are dealing with the same type of issues that I am. So I don’t feel ashamed, to say, ‘Hey, my daughter is homeless.’ And people don’t look at me and go, ‘What did you do wrong? Because you’re an African American single mom, you must be doing something wrong,’” she said as she made her way into the breakout sessions led by the Family Education Resource Center and the Magnolia Women’s Recovery Program that finalized the workshop.
The African American Family Support Group is the first stop for many families to get informed about mental health and medical resources. “All I have to do is pick up the phone and someone is there,” said Peggy Hart, a member of the steering committee for its outreach program. She spoke about her experience living with her son, who she said has suffered from schizophrenia since he was a teenager, and since has been in and out of the hospital.
“You have to have a village of support,” said Hart.
The subject of racism and the vulnerability of the African American community in the health care system was a topic that arose several times during the workshop. “How do you cope with 400 years of oppression?” a member of the audience asked Chapman. He admitted he did not have an answer. “People of color have to display remarkable resilience,” he later told the audience.
The program was sponsored by the Mental Health Association of Alameda County, and supported by funds of the Mental Health Services Act, a California law passed in 2004 and provides funding to expand and improve mental health service systems. The session was the second of five sessions that will happen this year, with the next one to be held in March.
The African American Family Support Group holds meetings the fourth Tuesday of each Monday at 5:30 p.m. at 954 60th St., #10, Oakland. For more information contact Steve Bischoff at the Mental Health Association of Alameda County at 510-835-5010.