‘Am I Supposed to Be the Representation?’: A Black Mother Navigates Our Convoluted Mental Health System

Waiting for Tearah, a short documentary about how a black family navigates the labyrinth mental health system in Hartford, Conn., is symbolic of mental health dysfunction on a national level—and a testament to the beauty, innovation, and the sheer determination and grit of black mothers who walk through walls for their children.

The 22-plus-minute film chronicles a slice of the life of Shayna Wilson, a single mother of three girls then aged 16, 10 and 3. We come into their lives as Shayna’s oldest daughter Tearah, who is deaf and has developmental delays in addition to a mental illness, has to be placed in a psychiatric Emergency Room and then into a hospital in Rhode Island. The film shows Shayna’s journey to get her daughter back home to Hartford, and the toll that Tearah’s mental illness takes on the entire family.

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In Shayna and Tearah’s case, there was an appropriate “bed” for Tearah right in Hartford—right at the school she attends—but no one would pay for it. The film chronicles how her family worked through that challenge.

“She needs the consistency of this level of programming to have a decent quality of life. And they still were like, ‘Nah, we don’t think we ought to pay for it,’” explained Wilson.

“She was not able to come home because she was dysregulated. When we talk about dysregulation, she was physical with the other two children I had in the home. She herself was admittedly willing to say ‘I’m not in the right headspace,’ her medications were not being regulated properly because again, in Connecticut we didn’t have someone who would prescribe, someone we could see on a regular basis, given that she was still very young at the time and we were using the school’s psychiatrist on a consulting basis. ”

Columbian-American filmmaker Juliana Schatz Preston, who is one of two inaugural recipients of the Frontline/Firelight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, says Shayna and Tearah’s story is one that is common but hidden.

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“It’s a problem that affects so many people but it is not talked about. It exists beneath the surface,” says Preston. “There remains so much stigma for parents who are doing the best they can, who want to provide the best care possible for their children but are unable to. And everyone I’ve spoken to—and I’ve spoken with parents not only in Connecticut but across the country—they think they are the only ones this is happening to; they have this extraordinary shame and guilt that they are unable to provide for their child. When in fact, it’s our institutions and health care systems and the way they’re set up that is failing these parents and their children.”

Preston said she came to the subject matter through a friend who is an emergency room doctor, who went on social media to talk about how shaken he was at the number of children in psychiatric crises who ended up in the ER and stayed there—for days, weeks, sometimes months on end.

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“I just couldn’t fathom the dysfunction,” says Preston. “I mean, we’re all so cynical, but this is something that surprised me, that we could fail children to this degree.”

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Even though Preston rightfully notes that mental illness affects all families, regardless of race, class, education or socioeconomic status, clearly as black women, Shayna and Tearah live at the intersection of the prejudices of the systems supposedly designed to help them. From all-white support groups that were hours away to blatant disrespect, Wilson has seen it all.

“They offered us respite care and I’m like, alright, maybe. Maybe she needs a break, maybe I need a break. I live in Hartford. The nearest respite care was where UConn is...and that’s an hour away. I said ‘Where’s the representation in my community? And am I supposed to be that representation?’”

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Sometimes, says Wilson, being a black woman navigating the mental health system can be even more insidious.

“Let’s start with being oversexualized,” says Wilson. “It may seem like a reach. But my first encounter with the system was where I was vilified, where I was being treated differently, was with a woman who looked like me. In her mind, I was a single mother living in the city of Hartford, which is the capital of Connecticut, and I had three kids, so what do I know?”

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Wilson says she is in the process of starting a nonprofit, NEXTIZNOW, to empower parents, and to let them know that they are in control.

“I want them to know that information—from agencies, from educators, from schools, from public service providers—should be given to them and then shared equally among everyone ... to really make a decision based on the wellbeing of the entire family,” says Wilson. “Not just one child, right? So providing respite for those families, providing parent advocacy, providing parent support groups, helping to read IEPs. I want parents to look at this [film] and say, ‘I gotta do something different in that I’m not by myself’, and ‘It’s OK to say I don’t agree with that.’”

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Preston says that in presenting Tearah’s story in a short doc could be read as offering no neat solution. But the filmmaker says that there are places in the country that are doing well by families.

“There are solutions to this. There are ways to fix this. And there have been examples in New Jersey, for example, and other states who are not perfect but have taken the initiative to solve things. And I think that Connecticut is attempting to go in that direction now,” she muses.

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“I think that it’s a very challenging thing to do because I think that there are many politicians and policymakers who have just accepted this dysfunction and the status quo as the way that things just are. But there is a solution. And then we have that example in New Jersey. And it took them years to do it, but they did it. And so there’s no excuse.”

Wilson reports that Tearah is now 18 and thriving at her school. She is back at home, and they are now preparing her to one day live as independently as possible.

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“We’re really proud of Tearah, because she had to be there day in and day out without us,” says Wilson. “And [so getting reacclimated is] going to a be process. I have to have a really supportive team around us as the documentary is released because it brings up all those feelings again, right? We’re over that, but wow, that actually happened.”

Waiting for Tearah will premiere at the 2019 Double Exposure Film Festival in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 12 at 5 pm. More context on the film is also available on Frontline here.

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.