You Are Not Alone: An Interview with Antoine Craigwell
Thanks to our friend and past guest Etu Evans for introducing journalist, activist, film maker, and CEO Antoine Craigwell to Mental Health News Radio. Antoine’s passion for the behavioral health field is inspiring to behold. Join us for a discussion about his career and work as an advocate and the message he is spreading globally to raise awareness about mental health issues.
What is your name and briefly, tell us about yourself?
My name is Antoine Craigwell, and I’m the founder, president and CEO of DBGM, Inc. I am originally from Guyana – which celebrated its 50th Independence Anniversary in May, the former British colony known as British Guiana. For those who often confuse the names, it is located on the opposite side of the Atlantic on the South American continent, and is NOT Ghana, which is located on the West Coast of Africa. While Guyana is the only English-speaking country on mainland South America, it is politically, historically, socially and economically a part of the Caribbean. Notoriously, Guyana was thrust onto the world stage when the Californian preacher of the People’s Temple, the late Jim Jones – not the singer – encouraged several people from the United States to take up residence in Guyana, and in November 1978, to resist a Congressional investigation and prosecution, he ordered his 970 followers to commit suicide by drinking cyanide laced Kool-Aid.
As a Guyanese, my outlook on life and philosophy was formed through growing up in a rural town, with a mother, now deceased, who was a nurse at the country’s hospital for those struggling with various forms of mental health issues, and who taught me, strength in times of hardship and resilience, and how to celebrate, enjoy and laugh. Later in life, I was a member of a Roman Catholic Religious order, wherein I learned the “jesuitical” style of thinking, which was formed by the experience of the initial 30-day spiritual retreat, following along the prescripts set out by the order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola. A part of my training, as an exercise, was to write my obituary, which forced me to step outside myself, look at who I am objectively, and write my life’s story as I imagine others would speak or write of me – who would they say I am? What would they say about me?
How did you become involved and committed to doing this particular type of work?
When I reflect, looking back over my life, I realized that my interest in the working of the human mind goes back to the mentally ill people I saw as a child, often wondering what was going on in their minds, what were they thinking, feeling. Later, while in religious life and providing spiritual direction, which involved listening and placing people’s life experiences in perspective and in relation to scripture, that in 2009 I met a friend for lunch, and after speaking with him, and hearing others talk about their lives, I realized that many were stuck in a rut, they were seemingly spinning their wheels and not progressing with their lives. I wondered what was happening in their lives. As a journalist, I thought to write an article on depression in Black gay men, but as I embarked on the research, I learned that there were no books addressing this issue; there were many academic articles, reports on studies. Yes, it was niche and tightly focused, but I became aware that many Black gay men were also committing suicide, and often not much was being said or done about these deaths, except people showing up at the funerals, well dressed and enjoying the food at the repast.
I realized that many were struggling with depression, some knew and were in denial and others didn’t know. I decided, using my journalistic training, to interview as many Black gay men and write a book. The book is still being worked on, as I struggle to identify an agent and a publisher interested in Black, gay and mental health. After being rejected by agents and publishers, I decided to transform the book project into a documentary. I asked some of the men who interviewed for the book if they would be willing to sit in front of a camera and tell their stories. Several agreed and after hiring a director, writing a script based on the interviews, to re-enact them, that the documentary was produced.
Following several screenings around the country, I came to realize that key themes emerged from the post-screening discussions, such as sexuality, sexual orientation, manhood and masculinity; sexual abuse, religion and homophobia, HIV, growing older as a Black gay man, and bullying, including cyber. Also, I became aware that many men expressed their regrets and doubts, and often these contributed to their lack of self-acceptance – which stemmed from their relationships with their mothers.
It was in recognizing a need that the organization DBGM was formed.
What is DBGM and how did it come to be?
DBGM began in July 2010, and after a series of community discussion forums around the country, raising awareness of depression in Black gay men, that in March 2013 the organization was formalized as a registered non-profit. As an organization, its mission is simple: “DBGM is dedicated to recognizing and articulating the mental health issues of LGBT people of the Black diaspora, through the collective strengths and wisdom of professionals and supporters; to address the issues affecting these communities.” DBGM’s motto is: “If by what I’m doing, one Black gay man could be prevented from killing himself, then my job is done; his healing begins.”
Why is DBGM important/relevant?
As an organization with a niche focus, DBGM’s importance and relevance is rooted in the psychosocial and sociocultural underpinnings as contributing factors to depression affecting Black gay men: what are these factors and how do they lead to a descent into depression? More importantly, how the six factors realized from the interviews in the documentary, and others, contribute to depression? Additionally, drawing on available research, it is clear that Black gay men, as with other LGBT peoples of color, two significant differences set them apart from their White counterparts – the pernicious effects of racism and homophobia; that Black gay men who experience the combination of racism and homophobia – both aspects that devalue a person, making him feel less than, and encourages non-acceptance of self, often lead to many self-destructive behaviors. Additionally, recognizing the emphasis on HIV, where research demonstrated that gay men who are dealing with depression are often unconcerned about themselves and do not practice safe sex, with the likelihood that they would contract HIV. Given that the rate of HIV affecting Black and Latino men who have sex with men between 13 and 29 has plateaued nationwide at 50,000 new infections a year, and that in February this year, the CDC declared at a conference in Boston that half of all Black and Latino gay men are likely to contract HIV at some point in their lifetime, that the mental health remains an unexamined contributing factor to HIV infections.
DBGM embarked on the arduous task of doing the impossible, going against the prevailing trend of political correctness and the tendency to gloss over and pretend that issues don’t exist, and speaking out about an issue that many, especially in the Black and Black gay community would prefer not to talk about. As the old saying in the Black community goes, “you don’t talk your business with strangers”, which is itself rooted – as Carl Jung calls, the collective unconscious, and as Dr. Joy DeGruy discusses is “post traumatic slave syndrome” – in the terrors and trauma of slavery, and the mistrust of medical professionals, including mental health professionals – maintaining confidentiality. It was an act of self and familial preservation and security to keep one’s business to oneself – never mentioning or discussing how one felt.
What has DBGM done?
Since the beginning, in 2010, DBGM has been beating the drum and calling attention to the mental health issues and needs of Black gay men. Going against the accusation of only seeing the Black gay community as pathological, DBGM has continued to work, using the documentary as a discussion tool, and developed a program, “I Am Working On Healing” with support groups, such as “Sons” – a group for Black gay men who have not been accepted by their mothers – to learn, with the help of qualified and experienced mental health professionals as facilitators, in a group setting with others like themselves, to begin to relearn self-acceptance.
But the organization also realized that to continue to effect change, that there is need for greater awareness, acknowledgement and acceptance of self by many in LGBT peoples of color communities. The organization recognized that there is little or no attention being paid to the many different mental health issues affecting LGBT peoples of color. In October 2014, together with the LGBT Diversity Office of Rutgers University, DBGM hosted the first-ever LGBT People of Color Mental Health Summit at Rutgers University, Newark Campus. A year later, in partnership with the Diversity office of Mt. Sinai Beth Israel and with several different organizations, we hosted an unprecedented conference “In My Mind: A LGBT Peoples of Color Mental Health Conference” at Mt. Sinai Beth Israel at their NYC Union Square location. This year, continuing along that path, that the second conference is being planned for Oct 5 and 6 and will be held at the Alexander Hamilton US Customs House Building, which is in part of the Museum of the Native American Indian. In fact, as occurred last year, the conference will begin with a Native American invocation honoring the ancestors and a welcome.
What effect does DBGM have on the Black gay community?
To be clear, this question is not about self-promotion. Looking back over the years of the work of raising awareness of depression in Black gay men, and with the production and screening of the documentary across the country, that word is trickling back: more and more LGBT peoples of color communities, nationwide, have begun to engage in discussions and fora on mental health. There are reports of discussion fora on depression and suicide, on drug use and abuse and mental health, on the juxtaposition of HIV and mental health – which comes first, which causes the other. Additionally, while it is entirely unavoidable that a LGBT person of color commits suicide, it is possible that more LGBT peoples of color nationwide are hearing about our work, and realizing that they are not alone, and are choosing to live. As an example, a Jamaican-born surgical oncologist reached out to say that after seeing the documentary, he, who often thought that he didn’t want to be in this world any more, wanting and planning how to take himself out; decided not to kill himself, he expressed that he is better for choosing to live. Another, a female psychotherapist recently sent a message saying that three of her clients who attended last year’s conference expressed how life changing the experience was for them.
Perhaps, DBGM has not achieved the fame and notoriety as some big named organizations, including those who claim to be working in Black or people of color communities. Nonetheless, DBGM is proud of the mark it has made, to raise the issue and advance the discussion, taking it out of the shadows of shame, stigma, humiliation, embarrassment, and fear to the light of, at the very least, beginning to work on achieving healing.
Where do you see yourself in the future, and where and what do you see DBGM in the future?
These two questions are combined into one. On my part, I see that I’ll continue to work toward raising awareness of depression affecting Black gay men. For the organization, it is likely to grow beyond the confines of New York City. Already, we have interest from different states to establish a chapter of the organization, which the board would have to consider. We are inviting anyone from the LGBT people of color community who feels he or she wants to make a contribution, to effect change, to join DBGM. We are also working on continuing the screenings and discussion fora on depression and Black gay men, and particularly, examining the interrelation between depression and HIV.
Recently, there was a screening on PBS of the documentary “Wilhelmina’s War”, which looked at the effects of HIV in the rural South. We have begun to collaborate with a representative of an organization in the South, to go into rural communities to show our documentary, “You Are Not Alone” (www.yana-thefilm.com) and have discussion fora on depression and HIV. Additionally, we intend to expand our “I Am Working on Healing” program, achieve our own space to host support groups and to increase our mental health referral service – focusing on LGBT people of color mental health professionals; and to advocate for policy changes, especially in paper work reduction and reimbursement amounts from Medicaid/Medicare for mental health professionals. We also plan to target the higher educational system, especially those training mental health professionals, to encourage more cultural competency training.
As a journalist, Antoine wrote for Out In Jersey magazine, The Bilerico Project, FORTUNE Small Business magazine, The Bronx Times Reporter, The New York Amsterdam News, was the assistant editor with The Network Journal, and a contributor to mainstreet.com. He graduated from Bernard Baruch College of the City University of New York, and in 2008 he earned awards from the New York Association of Black Journalists for a public policy series about NYC’s Riker’s Island, and on healthcare in NYC. He produced the documentary “You Are Not Alone” (www.yana-thefilm.com), in which Black gay men speak about their struggles with depression and facilitates discussion forums on depression and HIV in Black gay men. The documentary has been screened across the country and internationally, including Kenya, Guyana, Suriname and Canada. In July 2012, he presented a poster exhibition “Examining Depression and HIV in Black gay men” at the 2012 International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC. Antoine founded and is president and CEO of DBGM, Inc. a non-profit organization committed to raising awareness of the underlying factors contributing to depression in Black gay men, to prevent their suicides. The organization has hosted several community discussion forums on depression affecting Black gay men nationwide, and has led a mental health summit and a conference: “In My Mind: A LGBT Peoples of Color Mental Health Conference”. The organization is in the process of planning for the 2016 “In My Mind…” conference. Antoine has appeared on several radio and television shows talking about the organization and the documentary, including 105.7FM WBLS, OutFM, and BloomingOut Radio, Arise TV and BRIC TV, and featured in magazines, such as A&U and HIV-Plus.
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