On Bobbi Kristina and Family Cycles of Mental Illness and Addiction

by Yirssi

On February 11, 2012, the world responded with deep sadness as media outlets reported beloved singer and entertainer Whitney Houston’s untimely and tragic death. Almost three years later, her daughter, Bobbi Kristina Brown, was found in eerily similar circumstances: unresponsive in a bathtub in her Georgia home, before being transported to the hospital in an attempt to prevent history from repeating itself. While news about Bobbi Kristina’s current status has been inconsistent and rumor-based, millions of people are praying that she makes a full recovery.

It is difficult to not compare the two situations. Besides the similarity in where and how mother and daughter were found, reports suggest that a drug overdose is also the cause of Bobbi Kristina’s current health crisis. Thus, many of us wonder if Bobbi Kristina followed in her mother’s footsteps as an addict, and what other underlying issues may have caused this.

Substance addiction is a mental illness in and of itself, but can also be linked to others such as depression and bipolar disorder. Although communities of color don’t discuss addiction as a mental health issue, it absolutely is—one that many people of color deal with, along with other mental health problems. But why don’t we frame them as such? According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, “[while] Caucasians experience depression more often, African American and Caribbean women experience greater severity and persistence.”
It’s not only time that we have complex discussions around mental illness within the Black community, but we should also discuss how these issues are often passed from generation to generation. Although multiple members within the same family may struggle with similar issues, it’s very rare that any of them will open up about the problems they’re facing.

That’s certainly the case in my family and in my community, as mental health is disregarded. We hear things such as, “therapy is for white people,” “you don’t need a therapist,” “you need Jesus,” and “pray about it.”

If families are not willing to be open and honest about mental illness, not having a support system makes suffering from psychological issues even worse. Without the proper emotional and interpersonal support, many people turn to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain. As Carolyn McKenzie, Founder and President of Mental Health in the African American Community (MHIAAC), explains: “The stigma of mental illness is preventing people from getting help, so they self-medicate. Most people don’t speak about the mental illness, or the substance abuse, and rather than figuring out what’s going on, they [add] on layers and layers of problems” in their misguided attempt at feeling better.

Mental illness and substance abuse also create a neverending cycle, that triggers and re-triggers the other. For example, while providing temporary relief or “highs,” the adverse consequences of most drugs exacerbate depression and anxiety when a person “comes down” from them. They can also cause other problems such as paranoia and diminished cognitive ability over time, in addition to the previous, untreated mental illness. To combat this pain and anxiety, addicts will continue to indulge in their addiction, needing more of whatever substance they’re addicted to, to achieve a high and relieve their anxiety, therefore falling deeper into the hole. This reliance on substances to feel better, along with poor decision-making while under the influence and the inevitable diminished quality of life that comes with addiction may lead to individuals having poor self-esteem while sober—further compounding the problem.

As McKenzie explained, when people self-medicate in this form, “[They are] doing it to cope. But when dealing with substance abuse, we have to deal with that layer before even dealing with the mental health issues, because [people may not] know they have a [pre-existing] mental condition affecting the chemicals in the brain.”

While the two subjects of mental illness and substance abuse are tied together, it is also important to look at the intergenerational issues that cause these two problems. While seldom talked about in communities of color, it has often been found that there is a genetic predisposition to mental illness, which sometimes means that mental illness “runs” in families. It is believed that “psychiatric conditions are some of the most heritable of all disorders.” However, while genetics play an important part, it is not the end all, be all. Other factors can influence or trigger mental illness in a person, who may or may not have an inherited susceptibility to it. These factors can include anything from abuse, stress, and past trauma. While we may never know for sure, the trauma of losing her mother prematurely most likely caused depression and may have led Bobbi Kristina to self-medicate with narcotics or other illicit substances—which she already had a predisposition of becoming addicted to, because of her parents’ addiction problems.

This information is important to know and address for all families, but especially for black families. Black families generally do not speak about these issues because of the stigma attached to mental illness in our communities. We also have preconceived cultural notions about mental illness, influenced by our history of having to be strong enough to survive slavery, Jim Crow era racism, and other institutional forms of oppression. In focusing so much on survival, discussions around mental health can often feel indulgent. However, we fail to realize how traumatic all of these structural issues can be on our emotional health.

The conversation needs to change—or in many cases, begin—as more of us realize that mental illness is just like any other medical disorder the requires treatment. In the same way that our communities have become well-versed in preventing and treating diabetes or heart disease, we need to apply this same consideration to understanding mental illness and addiction. By discussing and addressing it, people with a predisposition to mental illness can get the care they need and begin to heal, preventing history from tragically repeating itself, as it often does within many families.

Our communities deserve to thrive. And it’s only by tackling mental illness generation by generation that we can make sure this happens.

Photo: Joe Seer / Shutterstock

Yirssi is a writer and regular contributor to For Harriet. She’s currently working on a project to showcase the positivity, resiliency, and exuberance of the people of the African Diaspora. Check out her blog PowerMinority.com in April to learn more.

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