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January 12, 2024

On MLK Jr.: Even Our Hero Suffered from Depression

Happy MLK Day 2024!  Best known for leading the Civil Rights Movement in the United States from the mid-1950s until his death by assassination in 1968.  His actual born day was January 15, 1929.    Little know history fact: birth name Michael King Jr.  His namesake father changed both their names to Martin Luther King after learning about the protestant revolutionary, Martin Luther in Germany.

MLK Jr was definitely a revolutionary figure, and a highly sensitive person.  His life and what he stood for are examples of how we can still experience a joyful life in spite of dealing with mental stress, including racial inequity.  MLK’s name has come to mean the fight for basic human rights  — to be civil and respectful as the bare minimum courtesy that humans can give each other, to deal with each other from a pace of acceptance and open mindedness. 

At the same time, his silent and non-public challenge with depression is a model for breaking the negative stigma associated with mental distress.  He called his mental distress a maladjustment.  According to a times article he attempted suicide twice as a child.  While his struggle with mental distress was internalized and real, his brilliance blows away any stigma that says that people who suffer with mental illness are less than, dangerous, unpredictable, dramatic, overly sensitive, weak, or  spiritually disconnected.

I read an article about MLK, they stated “He feared his political and social justice accomplishments would be overshadowed or discredited if news of his struggle with mental health came to light.” Despite these personal and professional obstacles, Rev. King never altered his convictions, nor faltered from his objectives. If anything, he believed that his ‘maladjustment’, a term he used in a keynote speech for the American Psychological Association in 1967, strengthened his resolve to continue the fight for equality.

Yet despite his work, fortitude and life sacrifice, in 2022 highly melanated people / people of color still face the rat ta tat tat of racial disparity on their psyche on a daily basis.  Because more people in the public eye are speaking out about their personal struggles: Naomi Osaka, Simon Biles, Cardi B, Ariana Grande and more, we can now more openly have the discussion of mental health on the level that leads to more balanced lives. Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma  We see it in healthcare, in the judicial system (with the penal system and law enforcement, in the workplace, in finances, in education, in community services.   Studies show that experiencing discrimination, especially when chronic, is associated with diverse negative physical and mental health outcomes, including anxiety, depression and traumatic reactions, and psychosis -varying from low, medium or high levels of experience. 

Today in 2024, so many are still in denial of the role and impact of racism. I still hold the dream that I’ll live to see a more civil society. It starts with each one of us.

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