Nikki Webber Allen: Changing the Conversation in Communities of Color

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Nikki Webber Allen lost her 22-year-old nephew to suicide. He was a promising college student who had suffered with mental health issues for years. Allen who had worked in television and film and who had won two Emmys was prompted to shed light on these issues in communities of color. His suicide forced her to also admit her own anxiety and depression and seek help from a therapist.

“Applying the label of depression bothered me,” said Webber Allen. “After researching it and talking to a family member about it, it helped me to see depression and anxiety as common mental disorders. This helped me get past the shame about the diagnosis.”

Many people in communities of color see depression and other mental disorders as a weakness or a character flaw than a legitimate condition.

“There are also barriers in terms of being able to access treatment and understanding what treatment is,” she said. “There is a fear and distrust of the healthcare industry in general.”

Webber Allen said that there is this notion in communities of color that because of all they’ve been through historically that they can pull themselves out of anything.

“We are incredibly strong but at the same time, we are not super human,” she said. “Our ancestors experienced mental illness but had no opportunity to get help. While they didn’t have the opportunity, we do. We need to empower ourselves to seek the treatment we need.”

When Webber Allen sought to find a therapist, she knew she was looking for a black woman who understood the black experience, feeling marginalized. She had insurance so she researched the list her provider gave her. She asked herself “are they a good fit for me, and am I a good fit for them” and proceeded as if preparing for a job interview.

“You can also find someone who shares your religion in common.” For her, her first therapist used yoga and meditation as part of the healing.

Webber Allen made creating a conversation around mental health issues in communities of color one of her passions. She started the I Live for Foundation which has a web site and social media where people can share their stories. She also is creating a documentary, currently titled I Live For profiling young people of color who have struggled with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation and each found a way to channel themselves to healing.

“There is no bigger honor in the world than to help people with something you create,” Webber Allen said. “It’s about young people who found their passion and are actively engaged in their sense of purpose.”

She wants to encourage young people to ask themsleves “What makes you happy? instead of Who should you be?” She wants to help young people to figure out passions so they have them when times in life get rough. One woman in the film uses yoga and meditation to do this. She studies in a ashram and now teaches at-risk children yoga. Another profiled in the film is a photographer out of Boston who channels her pain in her work.

“One of the messages of the film is that symptoms [of mental health issues] are not one size fits all. Everyone’s symptoms looks different. And so does everyone’s treatment,” Webber Allen said.

It’s rare when we get to use one passion to help the cause of another passion. Webber Allen uses her talent for filmmaking to serve her passion for mental health advocacy.

“It helps to manage depression to do things for other people, it makes you feel better,” she said.

To reach the I Live For Foundation, click www.ILivefor.org. The documentary will be out in the summer 2018. Listen to Nikki Webber Allen’s TED talk on “Don’t suffer your depression in silence” on her foundation’s web site.

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