I’ll admit, while doing a bit of research on the origins of National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, I was more than a little ashamed to learn that it is in fact entitled Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. As someone who writes primarily about mental health and considers themselves to be an advocate — especially as it pertains to the Black community — how could I not know of her contributions? As I began to dive deeper, what I learned helped shift that shame to a sense of pride.
Bebe Moore Campbell was a best-selling author, journalist, and teacher who the New York Times describes as being “part of the first wave of Black novelists who made the lives of upwardly mobile Black people a routine subject for popular fiction.”
After leading a storied career as a journalist, having written for publications such as Essence, Ebony, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, Campbell transitioned into the world of fiction writing in the 1990s. Her work often sought to dispel the stereotypes of Black people, touching on real-world issues such as the lynching of Emmett Till. Campbell was a champion in showcasing the duality of Black women and most of her novels’ protagonists were high-earning and ambitious.
Her transition to tackling the subject of mental health took place in 2003, when Campbell released her first children’s book Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry, which highlights a young girl’s journey of living with her mentally ill mother. This release was the impetus for a shift in her writing to cover the nuances of being Black with a mental illness, a subject that hadn’t been so boldly dealt with in mainstream culture at the time. The book went on to earn her an Outstanding Media Award for Literature from The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
In 2005, she released The 72-Hour Hold, a novel that explores bipolar disorder. An issue Campbell tells TIME was inspired by a mentally ill family member.
Campbell’s advocacy for mental health expanded beyond the pages of her literature through her continued work with NAMI. Campbell utilized her acclaim to advocate on behalf of the organization by speaking out against the stigma often associated with mental illness in communities of color, promoting treatment, and family education. She went on to be a founding member of NAMI-Inglewood, today called NAMI Urban Los Angeles.
Research shows that only 31% of Black and Hispanic adults with mental illnesses are receiving care.
The aim to defeat the stigma surrounding mental health in minority communities became a driving force in her life, and in 2005 after a suggestion from a close friend — Linda Wharton Boyd — Campbell decided to push for its national recognition by creating National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. After outlining the concept, she galvanized her community and assembled a National Minority Mental Health Taskforce to help push it through to legislation. With the help of the D.C. Department of Mental Health and then-mayor Anthony Williams, she held a news conference to encourage residents to get mental health checkups. She spoke at churches, held book signings, and organized events targeted towards spreading awareness.
The journey, unfortunately, came to an abrupt halt when Campbell was diagnosed with brain cancer and became too ill to continue — leading to her eventual passing at the age of 56 on November 27, 2006, in Los Angeles.
Through the continued support of this task force, her vision lived on — and in 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives designated July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, in her honor. It aimed to focus on the need to improve access to mental health treatment, promote public awareness of mental illness, primarily within minority communities.
Given today’s “self-care boom,” the conversation on mental health awareness has become more accepted in mainstream society. And it’s steadily making its way to Black and Brown communities where the topic is often seen as taboo. Platforms like Therapy for Black Girls are popping up — coupled with social media influencers, public figures, and celebrities are rallying behind the push to boost the discussion on mental health. Most recently, Taraji P. Henson, who — through her Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation, hosted its inaugural “Can We Talk” conference and dinner to highlight the state of mental health in the Black community.
Yet, the work is far from over and research shows that only 31% of Black and Hispanic adults with mental illnesses are receiving care. A 2015 report by the American Psychological Association found that of psychologists in the U.S. workforce only 5% were Asian, 5% were Hispanic, 4% were Black and 1% were multiracial or from other racial/ethnic groups. So there’s still much more to be done.
Bebe Moore Campbell envisioned a world for us that transcended beyond the caged stigmas of society. She saw the potential in the self-actualization of Black people — the impact of doing the internal work. Said Campbell, “When we finally stop asking America to love us and begin to love ourselves, we will prosper as a people.”