It all started for Nikki Webber Allen when her deeply beloved nephew Paul R. Webber V died by suicide after years of struggle with depression and anxiety. Paul was scholarship smart, charming to all, funny and good looking, with a supportive family who had the resources to help him. Yet, depression got the best of him. He tragically took his own life.
Nikki was in the middle of a blossoming and very successful career as an Emmy Award-winning TV producer and celebrity talent booker/manager. Yet she thought she had to do something so her nephew’s death would not be in vain.
She started the nonprofit I Live For Foundation (ILF) to end the mental health stigma in communities of color starting with millennials. She found that one in four people in the world and one in five Americans will develop a mental disorder in their lifetime. People from marginalized communities have a higher risk factor. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of black males ages 15-24. Latina teens have the highest rate of suicide attempts of all teenage girls. In 50% of mental health cases, the onset starts around age 14. Three-quarters of the cases are people who are 24 years old or younger.
She interviewed former US Surgeon General, Dr. David Sacher, who said the Los Angeles County Jail is the number one mental health facility in the country. Over 60% of inmates are mentally ill. They’ve got an illness, and this is what we do. We just throw them in jail. He also told her that over 60% of homeless are mentally ill.
One of the big obstacles to helping young people with depression and other mental health burdens was the public perception, especially in the black community, that depression was a sign of weakness or a character flaw. The tropes of the “strong black woman” and the “super masculine black man able to overcome even the most insurmountable obstacles” were causing enormous damage and hurt.
The work of the foundation focuses on persuading young people that only by acknowledging and processing one’s feelings, emotions and vulnerabilities can one hope to heal and get better. It focuses on people of color because the cultural stigma of mental illness is even greater in black and brown communities, creating a barrier for many people who otherwise might seek help. It also focuses on millennials who have been dubbed “the anxious generation” as numerous recent studies have shown that millennials suffer from anxiety at a much higher rate than previous generations.
Nikki herself also knows the struggle of depression and anxiety. Her personal battle went long undiagnosed.
"By all metrics, I was ‘successful,’ but I wasn't happy. I knew something was off, so I thought I would seek advice from a therapist. Because I was highly functional, I didn't think I was actually depressed, but I thought they could give me some quick motivational tips to get my mojo back. Turns out it wasn't my mojo. I WAS depressed. I was absolutely shocked. There's such a strong stigma, particularly among black people that depression is a weakness. But it's not a weakness at all. It’s not a character flaw. It's a treatable medical condition."
Today, Nikki is using her talents and her contacts to produce and direct a documentary film on young people of color who live with depression and anxiety. That film is still a work in progress as the process of fund raising continues to pay for the resources needed to complete the project. The documentary will feature diverse young people who reject the stigma of mental illness and speak openly and freely about their journeys. Nikki is grateful for their participation and heartened by their progress. "They’re thriving in spite of their illnesses. They are not being defined by them," she says.
"It doesn't take a psychologist to figure out I’m trying to talk to Paul; that’s what this is all about. I wasn’t able to save him, but if I can, I’m gonna save as many kids as I can."
ILF is committed to ending the cultural stigma of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders in teenagers and young adults of color. Using short films, live events and social media to inform, inspire and connect, ILF creates a safe space for honest, unapologetic conversations about mental health in our communities."
Watch Nikki’s TED Talk entitled Don't Suffer From Your Depression In Silence on TED's website.