Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

What Martin Luther King, Jr. Knew But Never Said

This Five on Friday is from last year, and bears repeating.

On Monday, we pay tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. Stories and accolades will fill every form of media. Appropriately so. We will celebrate this legendary leader’s commitment to nonviolence and his extraordinary legacy of fighting for racial justice in the US Civil Rights movement. Renowned for his passionate and inspiring speeches, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a gifted preacher who moved people to create a more inclusive and just world.

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There is one thing Martin Luther King, Jr. never touched in his great orations even though he knew a lot about the subject privately. That is mental illness.

1. Two suicide attempts in his youth. Although the particulars of MLK’s lifelong battle with mental illness remain a mystery, there are some things we do know. He attempted suicide twice before age thirteen. One attempt was precipitated by the death of his beloved grandmother, who died of a heart attack. MLK had broken his promise to stay home with her and instead had snuck out to see a parade. After returning home and learning that his grandmother had passed, racked with guilt, he jumped from a second-story window. MLK’s suicide attempt is a good illustration of why one of the most effective strategies to reduce suicide rates is the removal of easy access to lethal weapons. What might have happened to the course of history if a gun were in the top drawer of his parents’ night table?

2. Depression in adulthood. According to biographers and historians, although he was never officially diagnosed, MLK suffered from serious bouts of depression in his adult life. His mental health became sufficiently compromised just before his assassination that several people close to MLK attempted to secure mental health services for him. He refused. When we consider the extreme stress that MLK endured, including death threats from the public and a blackmail letter from the FBI, MLK’s experience with depression is not surprising. Severe and enduring stress are clear risk factors for depression – a condition that afflicts nearly one in five people over the course of their lives.

3. Stigma and Secrecy.  MLK kept his depression a guarded secret, known only to those closest to him. He was concerned that if his bouts of depression became public then civil rights opponents, critics, and adversaries would use it to discredit him, and the overall civil rights movement would be hindered. These are common fears fueled by deep-seated stigma. In fact, the number one reason given by most people who did not seek treatment for their mental health needs is fear of being found out by others in their community.

4. Race and Gender. Racism, discrimination, bigotry, and marginalization all increase risk for mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Negative association between mental illness and weakness, fallibility, and instability make talking about mental illness especially challenging, particularly for Black men. These are issues MLK faced in his lifetime. These are issues that continue to burden the Black American community today. Reports from the US Office of Minority Health indicate that Black American adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than White adults. However, available mental health services are not effectively serving this segment of our community, with Black people less likely than White people to seek treatment, and more likely to end treatment prematurely.  Furthermore, when Black Americans do seek help, they are more likely to encounter barriers to mental health care, and ultimately, receive suboptimal care. Efforts such as those led by Dr. Sidney Hankerson and The Confess Project demonstrate innovative ways to better serve the mental health needs of Black men in our society.

5. Mental Illness and Public Success are not polar opposites. One of the most common fallacies is that successful people – however you measure success – are impervious to mental illness. And conversely, if you have a mental illness, you cannot be successful – however you measure it – in your life. It is true that certain severe and enduring mental disorders can dramatically interfere with one’s functioning. Still, in the majority of cases, mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety, live side by side with love, meaning, and success. MLK’s legacy is a case in point.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a dream. At its core, his dream was a call for equality and justice. He dreamt of a world where all people were respected and included. These same ideas apply to our work advancing mental health today. This Monday, January 16th, we are invited to celebrate the strides we have made, and grapple with the work left undone. MLK’s life and legacy invite us to dream – and to act.

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Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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