The Mental Health Struggles of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Today is January 18, and a national holiday, one in which we celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Many wiser than me have opined on his legacy and it’s countless unfulfilled parts, and I won’t attempt to do so here. Suffice to say, I would encourage you to visit The King Center for more information on his life and his continuing mission. 

One of the under-explored aspects of Dr. King’s life is his mental health – and challenges therein. It’s something which, candidly, I never realized, but according to multiple accounts, Dr. King struggled with his mood and experienced significant highs and lows. I didn’t realize this, but Dr. King actually attempted suicide. He also missed time in high school that was attributed to his mental health struggles.

Furthermore:

As an adult, Rev. King experienced bouts of severe depression. The stigma against individuals with mental illness, which we still battle today, was even more profound in the 1960s. Concerned that people opposed to the civil rights movement would use it as a way to try to discredit him, his incidents with depression remained a closely held secret during his lifetime.

We have, of course, come a long way. I would hope that the words of Dr. King – that we must never fail to be loud in our battles for a better world – would serve as an inspiration for us all. I would certainly hope they inspire us to fight for better mental health, but particularly for minorities, who we know are far, far more likely to suffer from serious mental illness and less likely to get the treatment they need and deserve.

However, for those of you who draw inspiration from the life, struggles, and legacy of Dr. King, I ask you take a moment to additionally appreciate his struggles. This man was a suicide survivor. He survived at least one attempt on his life before being killed. He was under constant physical threat and arrested 29 times.

And yet…here we are, more than 50 years after his death, writing about the sections of his dream that were completed, and the large swaths of his legacy that remain unfulfilled.

Dr. King was someone special, a man of immense talent and power. But he only found who he was because he lived to see it. Because he didn’t die when he attempted suicide. Because he fought his demons. None of us are any more special than anyone else when we are born…we simply make ourselves into who we become. Look what Dr. King made. Look what you can make as well.

I wish I knew more about Dr. King and his mental illness, and I plan on doing more research into the subject. But I will say that there is clearly enough evidence to indicate that Dr. King suffered extraordinarily from depression. May his legacy serve to remind us to better care for all, but particularly those who are clearly still suffering from so much pain that they don’t deserve. 

John Lewis & Joy

As most of you are probably aware, Congressman and Civil Rights legend John Lewis died this weekend as a result of cancer. Lewis was 80. He was one of the original speakers at the March on Washington and until this weekend was the last speaker who was alive from that famous day. Congressman Lewis was commonly referred to as the “conscience of Congress” and one of the most powerful voices of the modern era on issues relating to race relations and civil rights. His absence, at this moment, leaves a hole in this country, but at least he died knowing that this country was a better place for his work.

My social media feed was replete with tributes to him – I suspect yours was as well. However, one clip, more than any other, really caught my eye:

To be clear, in this clip, John Lewis – then 76 – is crowd surfing. WEEEEEEE!!

“I just wanted people to keep me up….” That just clipped me in a big way.

I have absolutely zero idea what made Colbert or his producers go, “HEY, I have a great idea…but rock on!” It’s amazing and heartening to watch. And I’ll add this: As you can see in this clip, most of the audience is white. I would have killed to be in that audience and touch John Lewis – to, in his words, make sure that I kept him up. There had to be something so special about that. But there’s a deep sense of poetry there. John Lewis – a man who was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge while fighting for civil rights – being held up by men and women of the same skin color as the men who beat him. It says something about how far we have come.

Of course, as you may suspect, this wasn’t the only clip of John Lewis expressing a deep sense of joy & silliness. Here he is in 2018, dancing away:

Again, the internet is filled with stories of Lewis’s kindness, selflessness, and a sense of caring for other people. Numerous members of Congress spent time discussing the way Congressman Lewis went out of his way to say hello or drop them a kind word.

What does this have to do with mental health? Honestly, quite a bit. We live in very serious times and face seemingly insurmountable issues. Racism. COVID. Climate change. Inequity and more. Every day, brave men and women fight and die facing these issues, willingly or otherwise. John Lewis was one such man.

Lewis could have become an embittered man. Instead, he chose to spend the rest of his life fighting for a cause he believed in, making new friends and allies, new enemies, and more. If a man who almost died on a bridge named after a soldier to the Confederacy could become a public servant and fight the ghost of that Confederacy…what choice do the rest of us have? How can any of us look at the world and decide we must retreat into its shadows when legends like John Lewis fought on?

This doesn’t mean we must always be serious. It doesn’t mean that we forego self-care, reflection, and our own lives. But it does mean that we must use our down moments to lift ourselves back up again.

To paraphrase the life of John Lewis: You have to walk across that bridge to be able to crowd surf.

Find your joy while fighting your fight.

The Depression & Anxiety of Racism

Last week, I wrote a bit about the Black Lives Matters movement and the incredible stress and strain that racism is causing people of color. This is a topic that I really think demands further exploration.

First, I mentioned it last week, but check this article out in more depth. Rates of anxiety and depression spiked, hard, for African & Asian Americans in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Among African Americans, positive screenings for these disorders rose from 36% to 41%, while they increased from 28% to 34% among Asian Americans. Those are all significant increases.

Interestingly enough, it did not increase for members of the Hispanic population. I’d be curious to better understand why that is the case, but that’s for another day.

Tragically, the reason we have this data is because the federal government was attempting to track the impacts of COVID-19 on minority populations, which, as we know, has been hit particularly hard by this pandemic. One tragedy upon another.

If these findings are accurate and representative of the increasing rates of mental illness among the general public, it means that at least two million more people experienced mental illness as the result of the murder of George Floyd. These are horrifying numbers, but they really aren’t all that surprising.

We know, definitively, that external forces can increase rates of mental illness. Depression, anxiety, and suicide all rise in times of economic turmoil and it makes tragic sense that a group of people who are under perpetual attack at an individual and societal level would experience rising rates of mental illness when a horrific video showed a slow-motion murder.

What does this mean? Again, the good news…such as it is…is that we, as a society, are having a larger conversation about systemic racism. I worry that too much of the conversation has focused on police brutality and criminal justice reform. That is important, no question, and its the primary issue in front of us at the moment. However, we cannot lose sight of the impact that centuries of racism have had on countless other areas of life.

One of those must be mental health.

As a white man, I cannot personally understand the impact of racism on mental health. But the literature and personal experience of countless people of color are clear. Racism means lost opportunities. It means personal pain and lives destroyed. It also means the trauma of watching countless people who look and act like you being gunned down by the men and women who are supposed to protect you.

What’s my point of this entry? The article above proves it: Police brutality and systemic racism mean depression. They mean mental health. And as we have a conversation about what Black Lives Matters means, we cannot forget this vitally important component of addressing and ending systemic racism.