Last week, TV show creator Mara Brock Akil told The New York Times that she aims to portray black women who are "black on purpose." Previously, she did so with her "highly underrated" (to quote Roxanne Gay in Bad Feminist) now defunct sitcom Girlfriends, which aired from 2000 until 2008 and tackled the dating lives and friendships of four black women. Currently, she's doing so with Being Mary Jane, which stars Gabrielle Union as a single, successful, primetime news host named Mary Jane Paul, who deals with the complexities of seemingly having it all—except a healthy relationship. In the most recent episode of the show, Brock Akil also tackled something a little bit deeper, an issue rarely portrayed with normalcy and depth on television, and still somewhat touchy subject for the black community: Mental health and suicide.
In "Sparrow," the episode that aired on Tuesday, Mary Jane loses her childhood friend Lisa Hudson (Latarsha Rose) to suicide. Lisa was a doctor who had been struggling with depression since season two, and had attempted to kill herself with pills once before. In a eulogy for her friend, Mary Jane revealed that Lisa had lived her life in pain, dealing with molestation, unrequited love, and being ignored. Mary Jane admitted: "I used to ask her a thousand times… ‘How are you?’… ‘HOW ARE YOU?’ But I don’t know if I actually wanted to hear her truth."
Mary Jane also lost a friend to suicide in season two: Terrance Mitchell, who took his life after being exposed as a fraudulent journalist. In that same season, a prominent lawyer struggling with mental illness killed himself after being fired from his job, leading Mary Jane to further explore the issue of successful black men and suicide on her primetime TV show. Brock Akil uses the show as a platform to expand on issues that are specific to the black community—and has mastered humanizing statistics by bringing the numbers to life through relatable characters who can easily be your best friend, your mother… or you.
Brock Akil was inspired to create Being Mary Jane, according to The New York Times, after "a misconstrued statistic began to circulate, about how 70.5% of black women had never been married." Regarding depression, consider this from Baltimore psychologist Marilyn Martin, in a 2011 article in Psychology Today, :
"Sixty-three percent of blacks see depression as a weakness, a problem only white girls can afford," she reports. "We're supposed to 'bear up.' And if we don't we are being disloyal to our community in general and our aunts and grandmothers in particular."
On Being Mary Jane, fictional character Lisa had probably taken the opportunity to seek professional help—she had prescription pills. But according to a 2012 study published by the American Psychological Association:
“Past research has indicated people with higher education levels are more likely to seek out and receive mental health services. While that may be true for whites, it appears the opposite is true for young adult blacks,” said study author Clifford L. Broman, PhD, of Michigan State University.
Specifically, suicide rates among black men are constantly increasing, with it being third cause of death for black males ages 15-24 according to the CDC in 2010. Most recently, there has been an increase in the suicide rate of black children, specifically black boys: According to CNN, the rates among black children (ages 5-11) have doubled in the last two decades, with the number for boys increasing from 1.47 to 3.47 per million from 1993 to 2012.
A couple of months ago, I tried to tell a close friend that she should seek professional help; I could no longer hold my tongue regarding her mental state. It didn't end well—a combination of my approach (I regretfully used the word "crazy" to describe her behavior) and her interpreting my concern as an insult. Talking to my family about psychological issues—even my own—usually means getting a response suggesting that prayer or a good church will solve the problem. Which reminds me of another Mara Brock Akil moment: On an old episode of Girlfriends, when Joan Clayton (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) confides in her friends about considering a therapist, Maya Wilkes (played by Golden Brooks) shoots back: "black people don't go to therapy, they go to church."
In Mara Brock Akil's world, black people can do both. She continues to portray lovingly authentic black characters, no matter how dark their truth—and will hopefully spark more intimate conversations about black women and mental health. For that, I am thankful.
Tahirah Hairston is a style writer from Detroit who likes Susan Miller, Rihanna's friend's Instagram accounts, ramen and ugly-but cute shoes.