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Hudson River Tragedy Puts Mental Health in the Black Community Into Focus

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By Cyril Josh Barker, Special to the NNPA from the New York Amsterdam News –

The recent tragic death of a woman who drove herself and her children into the Hudson River in Newburgh, N.Y., still has people asking, “How could she?” And, while there are no easy answers for this terrible act, it is increasing the conversation on depression and mental health in the Black community.

Reports indicate that LaShanda Armstrong, 25, drove herself and her four children into the Hudson River after an incident at her and her boyfriend's apartment. Armstrong was upset because she thought her boyfriend was cheating on her.

The children in the minivan were 10-year-old La’Shaun Armstrong, 5-year-old Landen Pierre, 2-year-old Lance Pierre, and 11-month-old Lainaina Pierre.

“If I'm going to die, we're all going to die,” Armstrong reportedly said before driving her family into the Hudson River.

As the car sank into the river, La’Shaun was able to swim out of the vehicle to safety, leaving his siblings and mother behind. La'Shaun, who knew how to swim, feels a heavy load of guilt for not being able to save his siblings who could not.

Upon reaching the shore, La’Shaun went into the street and flagged down a car for help. Soaking wet, he quickly got the attention of motorist Meave Ryan. La'Shaun explained to her what happened and Ryan called the police.

After an hour, the City of Newburgh fire and police departments found the minivan under 10 feet of water, 25 yards from the shore. La’Shaun told police officers what had happened, and spoke of his regret and guilt over not being able to save his young siblings. The guilt-stricken boy said that, during the final moments as the water began to fill the minivan, his mother began to scream words of regret, but it was too late.

The family’s tragic story is actually just the face of mental illness and the depression that often results from it that so many African-Americans are dealing with. According to statistics, 63 percent of African-Americans view depression as a “personal weakness.” Only seven percent of African-American women seek treatment for depression, while 92 percent of African-American men do not seek any help for depression.

Factors that can lead to depression include financial issues, traumatic life experiences, health problems and being a victim of abuse, violence or poverty. Left untreated, depression can be fatal.

Terrie Williams, author of the acclaimed book, “Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting,” said that there is a stigma in the Black community around mental illness. It is perceived that a person is insane, which prevents many Black people from seeking the help they need.

“We're all very fragile,” Williams said. “A lot of depression begins from a basic place. All of us move through the world with unresolved wounds from our childhood. Many of us have not opened up and we don't have any coping skills.”

Williams added that in Armstrong’s case, things most likely became too much for her and she felt a sense of worthlessness. While she was probably aware of the anger and rage that she felt, Williams said it was not a case of her not loving her children—she was probably pushed over edge by dealing with issues in her relationship without seeking outside help.

As for 10-year-old La’Shaun, Armstrong’s only surviving child, Williams said she believes that, with the right help, he will be alright.

“He's mourning the loss and dealing with the trauma from what was going on,” she said. “He's going to need some help because he can't do that by himself. We just can't leave him to his own devices and expect he's going to be ok.”

Famed psychologist Dr. Jeffery Gardere added that several factors may have come into play in the lead-up to Armstrong's actions. Stress from motherhood could have been a likely factor. Armstrong was 25 years old at the time of her death—her oldest child was 10 years old, making her only 15 when she first became a mother.

The financial and emotional stress of having four children might have been too much for her to bear. Coupled with an already fragile personality, Gardere said, Armstrong likely had a nervous breakdown that ended in tragedy.

“She loved her kids, and for her to do something so heinous to herself and her children—this is someone who had lost touch with reality,” he said. “With the lack of emotional support, and financial issues, she felt very alone in her misery. This was an unhappy woman.”

Gardere said that La’Shaun is going to need at least 15 to 20 years of therapy and that the traumatic experience he went through might lead to difficulties with relationships with others later in life.

“He'll have flashbacks for years. This will stay with him forever and impact his life and whoever he is involved with—he's going to be unable to make a full commitment [to a relationship] only because he feels she's going to leave him the way his mother left him. There is hope for him and he may become a much stronger individual, but he may become so strong that he shuts out other people,” Gardere said.

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+2 # Guest 2011-04-26 11:03
This is such a great tragedy and an ordeal for La'Shaun. From my experience with my own family, I know that mental stability is valued highly and we as black people do not want to show weakness and especially of the mind. My mother would tell me that we are just stronger mentally than others due to what we had been through in our history.

Typically, black people frown upon seeking medical care for depression, which is something which we do not recognize as a serious illness but see more as a passing phase. We are not so keen or trustworthy of subscriptions which have an effect on the mind.

I have heard jokes about depression as though it was a hoax or a phantom illness used for sympathy, however the effect can be so mind altering that it leads to events as above and that is the real tragedy.

As black people we really need to become more comfortable with seeking professional help for our problems when needed.
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