Talking through mental illness

Stacy-Ann Buchanan, mental health advocate, speaks to Centennial College students

She thought it was something that only happened to white girls.

But after experiencing debilitating anxiety attacks and falling into a depression, Stacy-Ann Buchanan realized that no one is immune to mental illness — not even members of the black community.

“When I started to get mental illness, I didn’t know what it was,” she said during a recent visit to Centennial College’s East York campus, where she shared her story with a journalism class. “I honestly thought anxiety was something that only happened to white girls.”

She soon learned that that wasn’t the case — not for her, and not for other members of the black community. That realization led the actress and filmmaker to publicly explore her struggles in an award-winning documentary called The Blind Stigma, which looks at the misconceptions about mental health in the black community and society at large. The film documents her personal journey through depression, as well as telling the stories of several other members of her community.

“I wanted to put everything I think about out there into the world,” she said.

Buchanan’s struggles with mental illness began when her acting career was not going the way she wanted. She started having anxiety attacks and became depressed. At first, she didn’t understand what was going on.

She wasn’t alone in her confusion and disbelief. Her father, like many members of her community, was frightened. He didn’t get it, and he didn’t want her to talk about it.

“My dad’s…remarks actually saved my life because he said, ‘Since you like to chat so much, how about you tell your business to strangers?’ and that’s exactly what I did – tell my business to strangers,” Buchanan said.

She believes the key to breaking the stigma around mental illness is to talk about it without skirting around it and making it sound like a taboo topic.

“My goal (with the documentary) is to cultivate positive conversations and raise awareness about mental health,” she said.

Buchanan recently made a Facebook post asking parents about the appropriate age to talk to kids about mental health. To her surprise, many people replied that there was no need to talk about it because kids need to be kids.

“Parents need to start talking with their kids. If they’re showing signs, you gotta nip it in the bud or you gotta nurture it and talk about it,” she said.

Buchanan has received an overwhelming response and support from her community, she said, and people from as far away as Australia have reached out to her to thank her for making a change.

Because of the success of the documentary, the opportunities came about for me to tell my story,” she said in an interview. “I became more passionate about public speaking and raising awareness for mental health and became determined to make a difference.”

Buchanan’s documentary has changed her own life and the lives of many people within her community. She’s planning to continue along this path by making part two of The Blind Stigma.

“The documentary starts a conversation,” she said, “but it only scratches the surface, because it goes a lot deeper.”