Honoring Dr. King: Standing Up to the Stigma that Kept Him Silent

As we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on what would have been his 92nd birthday, we are going to take a deeper look into one aspect of his life that is seldom mentioned. We all know the impact he had on our world. Imagine going through all he achieved while hiding a mental illness. Researchers say that’s exactly what happened.

According to the website Medscape, in late 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. was sitting at the dining room table in the upper Manhattan brownstone of his personal physician, Dr. Arthur Logan, who had a serious concern: “Martin, I think you’re depressed,” he said. “I think you would benefit from specialist treatment by a psychiatrist.”

No one was surprised by this news. They could see the sadness.

Dr. King looked around the room to his two closest advisors for guidance. Ultimately, they agreed that a depression diagnosis would be seen as a sign of weakness and his enemies would use it to discredit him.

However, this researcher and several others I found do not believe the diagnosis stopped at depression. Dr. King is said to have experienced severe highs as well as lows: running on a few  hours of sleep, drinking, and having many sexual encounters.

Those traits can be characteristic of mania. Running on highs and lows was once called manic depression. Today, we know it as bipolar disorder.

Although we’d like to think we’ve come a long way in stomping out stigma, that isn’t necessarily the case. In 2018, I wrote an article for The Chronicle News, “Mental Illness Stigma Stings Black Community.” For my research, I interviewed Ashley Allen, a therapist in Jackson County, Michigan. What she revealed to me was astounding. Allen told me only 5% of her clientele is Black, even though African Americans are 20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the overall population.

Common mental health disorders in the Black community include: major depression, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, suicide (among young Black men), and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because African Americans are more likely to be victims of violent crime.

Allen said that even though there is a superwoman syndrome among Black women, it also affects men and boys. “Boys don’t cry, they are told to suck it up, man up.”

About 25% of Black adults seek help as compared to 40% of whites, according to NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Allen got help for herself later in life when she realized she couldn’t do it alone.

Dr. King never had the chance. It is doubtful psychiatric care could have done anything for a Black man in 1968. As we honor his legacy, let’s promise to help our loved ones or get help for ourselves. No one should have to do this alone. Thank you, Dr. King. I am so sorry for all your pain. You truly did make a difference.

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