Short Film Highlights Minority Mental Illness

Learn about Documenting Our Presence: Multicultural Experiences of Mental Illness, a short film about the cross-cultural impact of social exclusion.

Jacquese Armstrong was a 20-year-old junior at the University of Tennessee–Knoxville, majoring in chemical engineering, when she suffered a psychotic break, suddenly hearing voices and grappling with suicidal ideation and irrational thinking. Armstrong was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, but it would be 24 years before she found a medication that helped her. Although she is now doing well, Armstrong has changed career paths multiple times and is unable to hold down a full-time job.

An African American, Armstrong is one of several individuals and family members featured in Documenting Our Presence: Multicultural Experiences of Mental Illness, a 20-minute documentary produced by National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) New Jersey to more fully expose the struggles of members of diverse racial and ethnic minorities coping with a variety of mental health conditions. It was a project born out of the realization that the experiences of communities that are commonly referred to as “minorities” in the United States face more barriers to mental health care than do whites, in part because of a sense of social exclusion within each group.

“It transcends race and ethnicity,” says Aruna Rao, NAMI New Jersey’s associate director and an immigrant and family member of someone with mental illness. “There’s a powerful sense of shame and isolation. That’s why they don’t seek help—or when they do, it’s very fragmented and not particularly helpful in many ways, because when you’re trying to shroud everything in secrecy and prevent other people from knowing, it’s harder to gain any real benefit from treatment.”

Sharing Experiences of Social Exclusion

Rao, who had been hired in part to increase diversity among NAMI New Jersey’s membership, established four multicultural programs there: AACT-NOW (for African Americans), CAMHOP-NJ (Chinese Americans), NAMI NJ en Español, and SAMHAJ (South Asians). Each is offered in Spanish and supplemental languages, in addition to English. The programs provide individual support groups, as well as phone support, special education events, and social programs like picnics and celebrations that allow participants to socialize in a shame-free setting. Notably, NAMI New Jersey is one of only a few local NAMIs to reach out to Asian Americans. Rao recognized the possibility that a documentary would reach a broader public while exemplifying how members of such seemingly diverse populations are, in fact, sharing a common experience, as well as identifying the resources that are available to them.

Serving as producer, in 2007, Rao hired Aashish Kumar and Aabha Adhiya of Omusha Communications, filmmakers who had a history of focusing on advocacy issues. The real challenge was finding people to speak about their experiences in front of the camera; no one wanted to step forward, especially in the Asian community, says Rao. Eventually, she found people like Armstrong who were willing to share their stories.

At that time, Armstrong was just beginning to regain her health and had been volunteering with NAMI New Jersey for about a year. She agreed to participate as a simple act of compassion: “I thought, this will probably help somebody.” Later, she had some regrets about sharing her story with strangers, but in the end decided, “I’m all about people being open about their illness and sharing with other people so they can be educated.”

Omusha produced some 2,000 copies of the film; to date, 180 DVDs have sold and more than 300 have been donated to individuals and agencies. The film received several awards, among them the Ambassador Award from the New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma, the Award of Excellence (Promotional) at the Broadcast Education Association’s Festival of Media Arts, and the Media Recognition Award from NAMI. The film was also named an official selection at the 2008 Hoboken International Film Festival. All proceeds go to NAMI New Jersey’s multicultural programs.

Today, Armstrong is the coordinator of the Expressive Arts Poetry Program at NAMI New Jersey and conducts African American mental health outreach. She’s putting together another program that will present information about the onset of mental illness during the college years, based on her own experience. From time to time, she uses Documenting Our Presence as a resource while doing public speaking, but she admits it’s painful to watch herself at that point in her life. Yet she wouldn’t hesitate to participate all over again—and might, if Rao finds funding to update the film.

Armstrong is unique in that respect, says Rao, noting that although more people are participating in support groups, they generally continue to decline to be photographed or digitally recorded at special events. But Rao is hopeful that the more people see the film, the more they’ll understand that they are definitely not alone, and that when it comes to mental health, the commonalities across races and ethnicities are much more significant than the differences.

Learn more about Documenting Our Presence at NAMI New Jersey.

This article was originally published to highlight the February 2015 theme of Minority Behavioral Health Conditions. Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

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Sarah Zobel
Last Updated: 04/19/2016