Mental Illness in the New Orleans Black Community


You are in the French Quarter.  You notice an African American man pacing about Royal and Canal Street with a sheet wrapped on his head.  He is claiming to be Moses the Prophet and he wants to save the world from the antichrist.  The truth, however, is this: before becoming Moses, he had been trying to save himself for over a decade.  He was desperately looking for the help that he needed and deserved.  He fell between the cracks of a system that failed to recognize his condition.  You see, his real name is Jessie Smith,III.  He could be characterized as well spoken and smart – contributing factors that kept professionals from further examining him during the peak of his tribulations, ages 17 to 30.  He did not “fit” the general mental illness profile, yet Jessie found himself on the streets of New Orleans in a deep state of psychosis.

Jessie has come a long way since his mental breakdown in the French Quarter.  He is now a certified peer specialist in mental illness for NAMI (National Alliance of Mental Illness – New Orleans).  He joined NAMI in 1982, when it was known in the city as the Friendship Club.  In a discussion about mental illness in the African American community, Jessie describes his experience.  He characterized it as “being ostracized, being stigmatized, being the ‘black sheep’ of the family…trying to stay in the classroom and complete your classwork and the professor comes to you and tells you, ‘this is your third suspension from the University – don’t come back.’”

Nancy and Bethany Moore, mother and daughter respectively, journey through NAMI – New Orleans with their personal experience with mental illness as African Americans.  Bethany has had three suicide attempts, despite appearing to close friends and family as if she were very well pulled together.  Bethany explains, “In the African American community there is no such thing as mental illness…I am really proud of my mother because she didn’t know.  She comes from the generation where she didn’t know [about mental illness].  I was angry with them for a very long time for allowing me to go through what I went through.  I had three suicide attempts.  They watched me go through life pretending to be this person that I wasn’t because I was doing well in school.  Because I was making money – I looked like I am ok on the outside.  But I was dying on the inside.”

Her mother, Nancy, a NAMI Board Member and co-teacher for NAMI’s Family-to-Family education courses, describes generational differences in the perceptions of mental illness.  With regard to her own generation, she says, “You already had enough to deal with – prejudice, discrimination, Jim Crow…to label yourself as having a mental illness was just one more thing that somebody could hold against you.”

Mental health issues affect everyone; mental illness is indiscriminate of variables such as race, ethnicity and gender.  However, there are factors particular to the African American community that can perpetuate the predisposition.  Mental Health America reports the following:

“People who are impoverished, homeless, incarcerated or have substance abuse problems are at higher risk for poor mental health.  Despite progress made over the years, racism continues to have an impact on the mental health of Black/African Americans. Negative stereotypes and attitudes of rejection have decreased, but continue to occur with measurable, adverse consequences. Historical and contemporary instances of negative treatment have led to a mistrust of authorities, many of whom are not seen as having the best interests of Black/African Americans in mind.”

Consider the following data on New Orleans’s African American population, as reported from The New Orleans Prosperity Index – Tricentennial Edition:

 As of 2016

  • Poverty rate

○     Black New Orleanians = 32%

○     White New Orleanians = 9%

  • Children at poverty line

○     Black New Orleanians = Nearly 50%

○     White New Orleanians = 9%

  • Black households earned 63% less than white New Orleanian households
  • Half of all black families in New Orleans earned less than $25,324
  • Since 1980: the rate of employment for black men has fallen from 63% to 52% in 2016

New Orleans’ African American demographic suffers from life factors that condone the potential for mental illness.  Further, the statistics suggest African Americans have financial hardships that may limit the availability of resources to help their conditions.  The Prosperity Index goes on to report that as of 2016, 14% of black New Orleanians were uninsured (as compared to 10% of white New Orleanians).

Nancy speaks on African Americans’ historical inability to afford to deal with mental illness.  “We didn’t have the money to spend on mental health.  We were too busy trying to get from day to day.”   The stigma behind going to the doctor also exists for black New Orleanians.  Nancy and Jessie speak about the 3rd floor at Charity Hospital.  Socially, black people did not openly discuss a family member’s admittance to the 3rd floor – the psychiatric ward.  Nancy says there is a general distrust toward the medical community.   “A parent may have felt they did not have the time to take off of work and take their child to see a mental health doctor,” she says, adding the child may be told to “straighten up and get it together – because I don’t have time for this!”  It becomes very difficult for a financially strained family to prioritize mental health issues that may legitimately exist.

For so many people, it is too late to help a loved one.  Bethany and Nancy had this experience with a relative that passed away at an old age.  This family member “exhibited the difficult personality characteristics that are often associated with Bipolar disorder.”  Nancy’s involvement with NAMI Family-to-Family education helped her learn about the spectrum of mental illnesses.  She realizes now it was more than likely that her relative suffered through her life with undiagnosed bipolar disorder.  Nancy would like families to have the help that she had while supporting her daughter, Bethany, through her challenges with mental illness. Advocacy is an important part of the future of helping African American families know what is the treatment for bipolar disorder and seek this treatment for their loved ones.

As a peer support specialist for NAMI, Jessie also has a desire to further move the psychiatric community from the socially condemned nature in which so many view it.  He says, “You are not a moral failure.  You are not some type of freak.  You are not lazy…I educated myself.  I had to do it on my own.  Thank goodness I had the background of NAMI, the Friendship Club.  Thank goodness I could read a book.  Thank goodness I reached out to a psychiatrist and a therapist that finally acknowledged after so many years of failing that, ‘hey brotha, you have a mental illness…even though you fell through the cracks…you are now going to get the help that you so deserve.’”  The help he always deserved.

Resources for help with mental illness and more information:

Volunteer / donate to NAMI New Orleans:

Be sure to check out the famous event, NAMI WALKS (happens October 6, 2018)

Volunteer and Education Coordinator – Shannon Williams, MPH can be reached at


Editor’s note:  Be sure to read Big Easy Magazine’s prior piece on living in New Orleans with mental illness from our first issue!

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