Charlotte women work to end stigma of mental illness

08/25/2014 1:34 PM

09/01/2014 3:59 PM

Like so many others, Fonda Bryant was shocked to learn of Robin Williams’ recent suicide. But she also felt like she understood some of what he was going through.

The Charlotte grandmother has struggled with depression for years and considered ending her life more than once.

Bryant hopes the suicide earlier this month of Williams, the beloved comedian and movie star, will raise awareness about depression and reduce the stigma associated with mental illness.

She longs for the day when “people with mental illness no longer have to be ashamed, when the word ‘crazy’ is just as offensive to people as the ‘N’ word.”

Bryant, 53, traces her depression to childhood in Gastonia. She grew up knowing her father’s identity, but he didn’t live with her and her mother and wasn’t part of their lives. She often wondered: “How could he not care what happened to me?”

It wasn’t until 1995, when she was 35, that Bryant started feeling that “life was meaningless.” She loved her 12-year-old son and her job as a pharmacy technician at a local hospital, but her mood spiraled down. “I started getting quiet,” Bryant said. “I just wanted to go to sleep so I didn’t have to worry about anything anymore.”

Although not a drinker or drug user, Bryant planned to mix alcohol with enough muscle relaxers and pain relievers to end her life. But first, she called a favorite aunt, Kellie Davis, in Gastonia. They both liked shoes, wore the same size and often shopped together. So, when Bryant said, “You can have all my shoes,” Davis knew something was wrong.

She went to a Charlotte magistrate and had Bryant involuntarily committed to a private psychiatric hospital. Bryant remembers a police officer came to her door and “treated me like a criminal.” After a struggle, he handcuffed her and drove her to the hospital, where she was first diagnosed with clinical depression.

‘We all have a disease’

At first, Bryant said she didn’t believe she should be there with “alcoholics and drug addicts.” But as treatment progressed, she began to realize that “we all have a disease.”

Through therapy, she learned to take care of herself first before she takes care of others. “I live by that now,” she said, explaining that she works hard to get enough exercise and eat nutritious food. She’s proud that she was able to be there for her son, Wesley, now 31, who graduated from Wake Forest University in 2005, and to enjoy his 2-year-old son, Bryce.

But she has continued to face challenges. She was laid off from jobs in 2008 as a sales assistant for a media company and in 2014 as a mortgage specialist for a Charlotte bank. She said she has considered suicide again, but never as seriously as in 1995.

“I’m always going to have depression. But I’ve learned how to deal with it and how to handle it,” she said.

Helping others helps

In the past year, Bryant joined the Charlotte chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and helps organize events to raise awareness about mental illness. On Oct. 26, former NFL linebacker Keith O’Neil will speak at the Duke Mansion about having bipolar disorder.

These days, when Bryant feels “stressed out” or overwhelmed, she calls a friend or turns to her professional counselor. She also takes her own advice and checks on other people who appear to need help.

“You never know what people are going through,” Bryant said. “The best thing you can do for somebody is to reach out to them.”

In March, when her longtime friend Annette Albright didn’t answer the phone, Bryant kept calling and texting. Finally, they talked and Albright told her a good friend had died unexpectedly. Bryant continued to call daily, and a week later, Albright confessed: “The week you called me I was planning my suicide.”

“Fonda still checks on me most mornings and evenings just to make sure I am having a good day,” Albright said. “I wish I could have reached out to Robin (Williams) the way Fonda did with me and just told him to hang on.”

Albright, 48, who was diagnosed with depression 25 years ago, said it never interfered with her job or caring for her three children. But she had stopped taking medication “because of the stigma.”

Today, both Bryant and Albright work to reduce negative stereotypes associated with mental illness. For example, they say, African-American women often perceive depression as a weakness they should overcome on their own. When Bryant went into the psychiatric hospital, she remembers her mother telling her: “You just need to be stronger.”

But Bryant said that “old-school thinking” needs to change.

“The faces of depression are not just the people walking the street talking to themselves,” she said. “We get out there and work every day and lead productive lives. We just have an illness of the brain. I am not ashamed. I am not embarrassed. I just have an illness.”

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