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Fonda Bryant Takes Mental Health Out of the Darkness

Asking for help can be the most terrifying thing for a suicidal person to do; perhaps that’s why Fonda Bryant tends to suppress the memories of times when she allowed herself to be the most vulnerable, even if it saved her life.

Fonda Bryant (right) with her aunt Kelly. (All photos courtesy of Fonda Bryant)

Despite her own belief that her depression only began to show up in her late twenties, she recently heard from a friend she hadn’t seen in years. The friend had seen stories about Bryant’s work in suicide prevention, and she shared a story of Bryant reaching out for help while the two attended Western Carolina University together. The friend recalled that Bryant slept in her dorm room so she wouldn’t harm herself. Bryant has no memory of that incident.

Then there was the time on Feb. 14, 1995, when Bryant called her aunt Kelly to offer up her favorite shoes. Bryant had filled prescriptions of Flexeril and Anaprox, bought alcohol to wash it down, and planned to let her son Wesley find her lifeless body upon his return from school. When Bryant recently appeared with Kelly on a local television special, Kelly remembered that she called Bryant back and asked if she was planning to harm herself, to which Bryant answered yes, putting Kelly in action toward getting Bryant involuntarily committed to Cedar Springs psychiatric hospital in Pineville that very day.

Bryant has no memory of the second call. “I can’t believe that,” she says now.

After that day in 1995, Bryant, a Gastonia native, continued to struggle with depression and suicidal ideations. She became passionate about suicide prevention and mental health awareness over that time, and only more so after joining with the National Alliance on Mental Illness in 2014. Since then, she has been at the forefront of a movement to confront depression and suicide, alleviate the stigma with which those suffering through mental health issues are seen, and push for local businesses and organizations to do their part and join her.

Recently, Bryant has worked on preventative measures from multiple angles, spearheading efforts to put suicide prevention signs in Charlotte parking decks and becoming a state-certified peer support specialist. In the lead-up to the national Out of the Darkness Walk on Oct. 12 — the Charlotte walk will leave from Romare Bearden Park at 1 p.m. that day — we met with Bryant near her University City home to talk in-depth about suicide, stigma, solutions and the cause that she’s dedicated the rest of her life to confronting.

The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Queen City Nerve: How did depression manifest itself in your experience?
Fonda Bryant: Back around the early 1990s — and from my training with mental health first aid, they say that’s when a lot of depression really starts rearing its head, when you’re around 30-something — by then it was starting to get bad. Everything I thought about where sometimes I would let it roll off my back, it started affecting me. Like OK, how come nobody wants to date me? How come I don’t have a boyfriend? How come I’m struggling? How come I don’t have a better car? Depression and anxiety are mental health thinking disorders. Bipolar and schizophrenia are psychosis and can make you hear voices, depression and anxiety are thinking, beat-yourself-up disorders. They make you feel less than. They make you feel bad about yourself, and they distort your thinking in a negative light. They take something as simple as sitting here saying, “I need to do something with my hair,” and magnify it to, “You know something you look terrible.” It just makes everything worse.

It started getting bad, but I didn’t know what to do. I’m African-American; I had never been taught about if you’re going through something go get some help. I didn’t have any support at the time. I didn’t know who in my family would understand, and I sure wouldn’t talk to my mother. One time when I was in Savannah I did try to get some help and me and my mom argued all the way back to the car, because she was trying to say, “Well you’re not going to put this on me.”

At September’s R U OK, CLT? event, you told a story about a police officer arriving at your door that day in 1995 when you were committed to Cedar Springs and how it ended in a struggle. What went wrong?
When somebody’s in crisis, don’t put your hands on them, because it goes from 0 to 600. He put his hands on me, and it triggered. I’ve never been violent, but I scratched him. When I scratched him, he grabbed me by the back of my neck and shook me really hard and threw me in handcuffs, and the only thing that saved me from not being here or being hurt, my son was standing right there at 12 [years old] and he said, “Mom, you need to calm down, because you need to get help,” and he was crying, and I said, “OK.” I was scared. I know what an animal feels like when it gets cornered. You can feel your heart.

What was one of the most important lessons you learned in Cedar Springs?
When I finally started opening up to my therapist, the first thing she asked me was, “Fonda, who do you put first?” I said, “My son Wesley.” She said, “Wrong answer. When that [oxygen] bag falls down on you in a plane, what are you supposed to do? Put it on your face first so you can help others.” You gotta realize something. In our culture, we have been taught God, then family and we fall down that ladder. So even though that sounds simple, there are very hardened cultures. I had to learn how to redirect and put myself first so I could help other people and help myself.

Bryant with her Aunt Kelly (center) as a baby.

You mentioned earlier how your race and culture played into difficulty or reluctance in finding help. Now that you’ve been in this field for a while, how has race and culture played a role on the broader scale?
The reason it hits so strong in the black community is because for so many years we have refused to realize that we have mental health issues, too. I wrote a blog for NAMI called “You Can’t Pray Away a Mental Health Condition.” It’s one of their most-read blogs. I didn’t start from me, now, I went all the way back to our history, from the time that we were taken as slaves and put on ships.

[Bryant goes on to discuss at length certain traumas of African-American history, from Reconstruction to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan and use of lynching as an oppressive tactic, and how that violence sometimes translated into domestic violence in African-American homes.]

When you look at our culture, we’ve never been taught to embrace mental health, we’ve always thought: That’s rich white people, we’re strong, we came through slavery. But we have to learn how to embrace that. Then when you look at the fact that we’re very religious, we feel like, “OK, well if we just pray hard enough, if we just give it to God, if we just have more faith, if we just listen to our pastor harder on Sunday it will go away.” It will not. So that’s where we stand as African- Americans, and we’re bad about calling people crazy, nuts, violent. And that’s how we look at them.

It’s with all minority cultures. Asians have the highest rate of suicides. Hispanics look at mental health just like black people; it’s a sign of weakness … People of Indian descent, they’re worse than blacks and Hispanics put together. They don’t even really believe in it. So until our culture really starts embracing it — we’re coming around, but it’s still a very slow process.

You’ve recently become a certified peer support specialist. What does that work entail?
I wish I would have had it when I was going through it. It’s a peer-to-peer program; you’re going to help someone who is not as mentally strong as you are. You might help somebody with addiction, who’s homeless, who’s living on the streets, just getting out of jail. Our job is not to enable them, it’s to put them on a bicycle with the training wheels, get them acclimated to how they can take care of themselves — with their mental health, their financial health, their emotional health — and then eventually take those training wheels off. We’re not there to do everything for them. We might take them to an appointment about a job or their SS or DSS or go with them to court.

Therapists or psychiatrists can talk all day about, “You’re going to get better. I promise you by this time, you’re going to be better.” When you’re coming out of a hospital or you’re dealing with mental health issues, you don’t believe that. I didn’t believe that I was going to get better, especially when they told me, “Fonda, you’ve got a disease that’s going to be with you the rest of your life.” So peer support is for us to step in and let them see where they can be, where they could be, if they put in the work. Because for me, it’s an everyday thing that I have to put in the work every day. It’s really a great thing and I’m glad to see more things like this because who better to help someone than a person who’s been down that path?

You lead QPR classes, which is like CPR for mental health crises. Tell me about what you’re teaching in those classes.
QPR is Question, Persuade, Refer suicide prevention. It teaches you how to spot someone who might be suicidal and how to help them by listening to them and not being judgmental and how to be able to get them the help that they need to save a life. People feel empowered because they truly feel that they are “gatekeepers,” and that’s what they call people that help people with suicide, you’re a gatekeeper. You will be able to go out there, you will know not to put your hands on someone when they’re in crisis, you will know how to ask someone, “Are you suicidal? Do you have a plan?” Sometimes we just need to talk. If you’re close to that person, you can say, “I’m even willing to go with you to get help,” because that’s scary for people. Those are the kind of things that we’re teaching, and by the time we finish in an hour-and-a-half, the audience will know how to save a life, how to approach someone and how to talk to them and how to listen.

Bryant wears her “You’re Not Alone” wristband every day and hands them out to whomever she meets.

You also address graduating classes of soon-to-be CMPD officers. What do you talk to them about?
I talk to them about taking care of their mental health and I talk to them about suicide, because for police officers, one out of every four officers contemplates suicide. Police officers die more by suicide than homicides and car deaths put together. I talk to them about what it’s going to be like to go into the streets. I say, “Hey, y’all are in a little bubble right now where everything is nice, but when y’all get out there and put that uniform on, there’s people that hate you, who are going to try to hurt you, then you’ve got to deal with your own life, your own mental health.”

I just talk to them about not being ashamed, and not to assume that because you’re going into a rich area that they don’t have mental health issues; don’t just think people on the streets are the only people that have mental health issues. Then I give them suicide rates and talk to them about taking care of themselves. They say they have a great psychiatrist with CMPD, but from what they tell me they don’t utilize it enough. A lot of them think just like everybody else; they think it’s a sign of weakness to go get help.

Do you think the increased talk about mental health due to mass shootings is a good thing?
Every time there’s a mass shooting, mental health comes straight back up like a phoenix; here comes mental health! I would like people to know that people who have a mental health condition are more prone to be victims of violence than the other way around. We have more people attacking us. You think about the people that are homeless on the streets, and it’s not even physical attacks. What about people who have mental health issues and people take advantage of them — take their money and things like that? That’s still a crime against us.

Bryant teamed up with the Wake Forest football team to help raise awareness.

What would you like to see more of in your work?
I would like to see more empathy and compassion toward people who have mental health issues. I would like for us to be treated the same as people who have breast cancer, as people who have diabetes. We deserve the same empathy and compassion. If you ever notice with the breast cancer coverage, and WBTV is straight cancer, and one thing I’m always hearing from Molly Grantham and some of them is that these survivors are warriors, they’re strong, those same words describe us. Getting up out of bed in the morning, it takes strength. To get through a day, it takes strength. And we don’t have the same empathy and compassion. Patrick Kennedy said the two diseases that society does not have empathy and compassion for the people who have them are mental health and addiction, and he’s right, because people think we bring them on ourselves.

Another thing I’d like to see is to treat our children who are struggling with mental health issues, who are attempting suicide, treat them the same way as you do children who are in the Levine [Children’s Hospital]. I’d like to see the Panthers and the Hornets going to visit children in mental health facilities. They could go see some of them, but because of that stigma, they think, “Oh my God, we can’t go see those kids in the mental health facility, they’re crazy, they’re violent.”

When I worked at Strategic Behavioral Health, children said, “Fonda, why don’t people come and see us like they go see children with cancer?” I said, “Because they look at us like we’re less than and they think we’re crazy and they think we’re violent.”

I would like to challenge the Panthers and the Hornets, instead of always going to Levine — and I’m not knocking those children because they’re sick — why don’t you go see some of those children at Monarch or Atrium Health or Novant?

How did you get involved in placing suicide prevention signs around the city?
The suicide prevention sign movement came about when Courtney Francisco [formerly of WCCB] texted me one night and, “Fonda, did you know we’ve had a lot of suicides in a particular parking deck in Charlotte?” and I said, “No, which one?”

[The parking deck was Center City Green near the Spectrum Center, where eight people have died by suicide — six since 2015. Bryant has since gotten signs placed in six Charlotte parking decks and is working with Novant Health to potentially place them in their five Charlotte decks.]

I’ve seen signs up for suicide, but they’re not personal. It just says to call. I want them to know that whoever put this sign up knows how they feel and wants them to know that somebody cares. I said, “You’re not alone.” Those three words are powerful. Words can hurt, words can heal, words can help. They reached out and said the signs are going to go up.

When we got them up [in Center City Green], I said, “That’s still not enough.” I was looking at all the parking decks in Charlotte. I was able to go to Lincoln Harris. I was surprised at how proactive they were. They got on board. But then I went to LAZ Parking about 7th Street [Public Market]. They told me they have a lot of problems at that parking deck about people trying to hurt themselves, but yet, they don’t want to put any signs up. Four parking decks are managed by LAZ and I have been reaching out to them since March and they have refused. I talked to their attorney and the attorney confirmed that they’ve had a lot of attempts in the 7th Street parking deck and yet they won’t do anything. Their logic is: If we put signs up, that might make people do it. I said, “First off, if people are coming to the parking deck that means they already have it in their mind.” That is a myth that if we talk about suicide, people die. If we talk about suicide, we can stop it.

So, LAZ Parking has been a thorn in my side. I email them once a week and they just keep giving me the runaround, but I told myself I’m not going to give up.

What would you like folks to know before we wrap this up?
I ask everybody to put themselves in our shoes and to realize that this affects everybody. One out of five adults, one of out of five children, have a mental health condition, and 90% of people who die by suicide have a mental health condition that’s treatable. Stigma is the no. 1 reason we don’t get help.

I’m not my depression. I have depression, but it doesn’t have me. Some days it does, but for the most part it doesn’t. We’ve got to get rid of that stigma. Every 40 seconds, someone in the world dies by suicide, over a million people a year. More people die by suicide worldwide than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. Now, if that many people were dying from cancer, what do you think would happen? The money would be pouring in. Everybody would be like, “Oh my God! We’ve got to do more!” But for mental health and suicide? Crickets. Suicide is the most preventable death of all deaths if people would care and people would get educated. But people think it doesn’t affect them, so they don’t care. We’ve got to do better.

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