Actor Courtney B. Vance opens up about family’s mental health battle; encourages others to seek help


CHICAGO (NewsNation Now) — The holiday season can be a difficult time for a lot of people struggling with mental health issues, especially those in the African American community. Mental health problems have also been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Emmy-winning actor Courtney B. Vance is taking a break from the red carpet and encouraging others about the importance of taking care of their mental health and seeking professional help.

“I mean, when someone has the control of your entire being, they can do what they want to, and so doctors for us is not the same thing as doctors for someone else,” Vance told NewsNation. “Let’s just be real now, (African Americans) don’t have a great history of doctors taking care of people of color in this country.”

Mental health and minorities are two subjects that have a troubled past. The mistrust of public health for many African Americans began in Tuskegee Alabama, in 1932, because of what is known as the Tuskegee syphilis study.

About 600 Black men who were involved in the study were told they were being treated for “bad blood” and getting free health care. However, they didn’t know the government was studying the effect syphilis had on their bodies.

It wasn’t until decades later, on May 16, 1997, the government apologized.

President Bill Clinton issued an apology publicly on that day: “To our African American citizens, I am sorry that your federal government orchestrated a study so clearly racist. That can never be allowed to happen again.”

That apology wasn’t enough, and the stigma still remains. Vance said that needs to change, especially now during the coronavirus pandemic, which is on the verge of mass vaccinations.

“There’s a crisis going on. How are we going to deal with the crisis … even getting folks of color to do the trial. It’s something that we’ve got to talk our way through,” Vance said.

Vance has started that conversation, by revealing intimate and personal details he’s carried with him for nearly 30 years. His father took his life after years of suffering from depression.

“My father killed himself 25 years ago. My mother found him in the house; my sister and I, we were all in shock. He was the center of our lives,” Vance said.

Shortly after his father’s death, Vance’s mother suggested he and his sister seek professional therapy. Vance said he’ll never forget the advice his mother gave him, she said “This is not going to take us down, we’re going to allow it to take us up, and we’re going to come together because of it.”

To bring awareness to the issue, Vance has partnered with a licensed psychologist and Oprah Winfrey’s long-time resident therapist Dr. Robin Smith to spread mental health awareness.

“The lack of safety, the lack of trust, the lack of credibility for Black and Brown people to have reliable health care and mental health care, it has been a scary environment, to ever think that we could, trust someone with our lives, but really to trust them with our minds,” Smith told NewsNation.

In October, officers fatally shot Walter Wallace Jr., a 27-year-old Black man, in Philadelphia, after he ignored orders to drop a knife, according to police. Wallace’s mother said she warned police that her son was in the throes of a mental health crisis. Catherine Wallace said officers knew he was experiencing such a crisis because they had been to the family’s home three times that day.

“Someone was having a mental health episode and instead of being helped, they were killed. For the family or the people around you, we want to invite people to talk about how they’re really feeling, that can save a life,” Smith said.

In September a Lancaster, Pennsylvania officer shot and killed 27-year-old Ricardo Munoz. Munoz’s family says he had serious mental health problems and had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that minorities are less likely to receive a mental health diagnosis or treatment, and if they do, they often receive less than adequate care.

While Vance’s family sought professional help after his father’s suicide, he was forced to deal with similar circumstances for a second time, amid the pandemic, when his godson took his own life.

“The family was doing everything right. There is something about having access to good healthcare and good help, knowing where to go, what to do when somebody gives you a ‘no,’” Vance said.

Which is something Vance and Smith are working to change during these unparalleled times.

“We’ve been so afraid that if I let someone get to my mind, they’re going to mess me up. What we don’t know and what we don’t understand, is that the isolation in and of itself is killing us. We have to find the right person to tell our truth to,” Smith said.

If you are in crisis or know someone in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. You can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 and The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386.

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