Veronica Hendrix

*When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall and down will come baby cradle and all.

The satire in this Mother Goose lullaby is disquieting. Though the melody is soothing and melodic, the outcome is catastrophic. What a grim lullaby when you think about it.

What were the signs that the bough was about break? Could it have been the blustery winds that waft through the leaves? Could it have been the precarious position of the cradle resting between branches? Was there anything that could have been done to prevent such as tragic end? Did anyone see it coming and turned away?

When it comes to mental illness, these same questions are often asked.

In the case of actress Catherine Zeta-Jones, she was preemptive. She recognized that something was about to give. And before the bough broke she sought help. When reports leaked that she had checked into a facility for a few days to treat her bipolar disorder, the news whipped through the media like a cyclone. It was a very private struggle for a very public figure – a struggle that doesn’t discriminate and is much more pervasive than we think.

On Tuesday, April 12, 2011 the bough did break for 25-year old LaShanda Armstrong. Taking preemptive measures to prevent a catastrophic end probably wasn’t on her radar or within her realm of resources for that matter or anyone else’s who may have been close to her.

Overwhelmed and out of hope the young mother succumbed to the winds of life that jostled and tossed her to and fro.  Decidedly she packed her four children in her minivan and drove it into the Hudson River. Three of the children died with her, their ages were 5, 2 and 11-months old. However her 10-year-old son managed to escape the vehicle before it sank. He later said as he wriggled out of the window, his mother snatched his pants leg and said. “I made a mistake.” But it was too late.

LaShanda exhibited signs, left a breadcrumb trail and sent up smoke signals along the way that are now evident with the view of hindsight.  Many reports said she was a good mother who worked and was a student at the local community college. But it was also said that she had been having a number of problems dealing with an embattled relationship with one of the children’s father and grappling with the stresses of being a single parent.

LaShanda did what many of her ancestors and predecessors have done under insurmountable stress and pressure: she endured. Hell, if they could survive the middle passage, those of us that succeeded them could survive living in this post passage age as well. All you have to do is be strong.  Anything less than a show of strength is considered weakness.

But true strength is not just realizing that you or someone you know is overwhelmed with the rigors and harshness of life; it’s having the courage, will and resources to intervene before the bough breaks.

I don’t know if LaShanda was clinically depressed, bipolar or manic. But what I do know is that an estimated 19 million Americans suffer from depression and the majority of them are women. Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds do not get the help they need. Untreated, depression causes feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, distorts thinking and can lead to suicidal thoughts. Could she have broken under the weight of depression? We can only surmise.

We live on an unparallel plane when it comes to dealing with mental illness. First we live in denial about mental illness and often diminish about how bad a situation really is. Next the disparity in health care among the have’s and have not’s play a hue role. And lastly,  ignorance about the symptoms and treatment of mental illness is the biggest barrier because you don’t know what you don’t know.

Last year I wrote a piece called “Looking Beyond the Tragedy at Gramercy Place. “ It’s a story about a distraught 26-year-old Los Angeles woman who killed her two young children, called the police and taunted them to kill her. In the piece I say, “Who knows what demons she wrestled with that led to that fateful day.”  I wonder now what demons LaShanda wrestled with that moment before she drove her minivan into the river.

That article sparked Mothers in Action, a Los Angeles based non-profit organization, to hold the first town hall meeting on mental health affecting women in the African American Community. Perhaps this story will get people talking about mental health in other cities across the country before another bough breaks.

(Veronica Hendrix is a syndicated columnist and feature writer whose work has covered the span of the human continuum – from clinical trials of male contraceptives, to the gang violence. For comments, interviews, speaking engagements or moderator requests please send an email to vsview@yahoo.com.)