According to recent reports, Whitney Houston may have died from overdosing on Xanax, drinking too much alcohol, and/or drowning in her hotel room bathtub. While many people may have heard of Xanax, very few actually understand how it works and how it could be fatal if used under the wrong circumstances. As numerous Black Americans experience mental health disorders and choose to self-medicate, Whitney Houston’s death asks a larger question. Do we have a growing problem with combining prescription and recreational drugs? Or is Whitney’s death a rarity for our community?

So what is Xanax? It’s a drug that works to slow down chemicals in the brain in order to reduce nervous tension. It’s primarily used to reduce anxiety disorders, panic disorders, and anxiety caused by depression. But its creators also ask for people to take precaution in choosing to take it under certain circumstances. If you’re pregnant, you shouldn’t take Xanax, as it could harm the unborn baby. You shouldn’t take Xanax if drinking, as it could increase the effects of alcohol consumption. And if you have a history of depression, suicidal thoughts, and addiction to drugs or alcohol, Xanax could be detrimental, as it has become an addictive drug for many.

Under these circumstances, it’s questionable why Whitney’s doctor would’ve prescribed this drug knowing her long battle with recreational drug addiction. Xanax’s creators have reported side effects such as depressed moods, suicidal thoughts, unusual sleep patterns, drowsiness, appetite or weight changes, amongst numerous other potential circumstances that would’ve caused Whitney’s ongoing recovery to take a step back.

Reflecting upon Michael Jackson’s death, it draws the question on whether medical professionals are capable of saying “no” to wealthy clients when certain medical decisions are not in their best interest. As many celebrities experience a range of emotions that come with the pressure to perform, sell, and live a fast-paced, paparazzi-stalked lifestyle, alcohol and other recreational drugs have become a norm for self-medicating in the industry, and very few have been able to draw the line between taking prescription medications and their recreational drug activities.

But celebrities are human, and thus, ordinary people also struggle to make this differentiation too. Over 2.3 billion prescription drugs were ordered in the United States in 2008, and the CDC ranked antidepressants as one of the top 3 prescriptions. Approximately 20% of Americans have abused prescription drugs for non-medical purposes, of which Black Americans are likely a minority considering our lack of access to affordable healthcare. While Black Americans are reportedly overrepresented in populations at risk for mental health disorders, including depression, it is unlikely for us to seek professional medical treatment. Instead, many of us choose to self-medicate with alcohol and other recreational drugs, which have become substitute vices for prescription drug abuse. But fame often brings fortune and greater access to medical treatment. And as Black Americans advance economically, even outside the entertainment industry, perhaps there is something to fear, as we have yet to properly deal with mental health in our communities.

Do you think the deaths of Whitney Houston or even Michael Jackson are tragic representations of Black America’s struggle with mental health and drug abuse as a whole? Weigh in.

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  1. Your point is well taken.

    One of the main contributions to homelessness is untreated mental illness. When I was young the streets of Los Angeles had proportionately only a few people with homelessness. The mainly concentrated downtown on 5th and Main, popularly known as “Skid Row”. Now homeless people are ubiquitous, as there is no more room for them in Skid Row. True the economy produced a large number of homeless, but ever since Gov. Reagan closed the States community based mental hospitals, the numbers of homeless mushroomed.

    Yes, there is a lot of untreated, and self treated, or poorly treated mental illness in our community. Affluence does add to this problem by providing a place to hide the illnesses and substance abuse, until it becomes public. By then the problem is very hard to nearly impossible to deal with, as in Michael’s and Whitney’s cases.

  2. I believe that many African Americans ignore the many issues in our community that are caused by someone having mental health issues and are incorrectly informed. Practically every family has had someone in their family who was known has the “crazy” relative but ignored the need for them to help them find good mental health until they hurt themselves or others.

    Many Black folks in America always say that “You don’t need that stuff..God will heal you” and unfortunately have a negative attitude about mental health prescription medications from the past experiments with diseases like syphilis that put many Blacks in danger without them knowing.

    In addition, the psychiatric community is composed of primarily White doctors that Blacks give to much power to.

    As an advocate for mental health victims in my community, I believe that it is a travesty that Black Americans often cannot advocate for themselves, seek out information on the web about the prescribed meds, and tell their doctors what they will and won’t take. Unfortunately, doctors (Of all races) will take advantage of those who do not have knowledge about their medications and effects. We all know that “Knowledge is Power.”

    Thanks for reading my thoughts on the topic.

  3. Great article to get the word out there, I don’t have much to add because I agree with this post and the two commenters above. I just hope that more people read it & with an open mind. We need to get a handle on this issue now.

  4. Great article. I was prescribed Xanax in 2004 after my father died to calm me from crying so much. It made me feel like I was having a out of body experience. I never took anymore and dealt with the next death in my llife by talking with family and friends about my sorrow. Also, I cried as often as I felt like it! Whitney and Michael had folks around them that were dependent on them and their celebrity lifestyles! So very sad to keep losing Black folks to these types of addictions.

  5. Unfortunately, there has been an acute lack of awareness in the African-American community, as well as society in general, about mental illness. So many believe that mental illness is laziness, self-pity, (“you need to snap out of it”, “stop feeling sorry for yourself”, “life ain’t no crystal stair”, “black people have had to deal with slavery, segregation, etc., we don’t have time to be depressed”, “that’s white people’s [expletive]”, and on and on it goes. Mental illness has been heavily stigmatized in this society and many people fear being labeled as being “crazy” if they acknowledge that they are mentally ill. It is WAY past time, however to get educate ourselves about mental health and stem the pain, suffering, and death that far too often occurs as a result of the self-destructive behaviors fueled by mental illness (drug addiction, alcoholism, overeating, risky sexual behavior, etc.). We need to WAKE UP!

    Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans by Alvin Poussaint, M.D. and Amy Alexander

    Black Pain: It Just Looks Like We’re Not Hurting by Terrie M. Williams

  6. I feel like their deaths are representative of America as a whole — they are literally two out of millions of people being treated for psychological problems. The fact that there’s so many people out there struggling is bad news — and something MUST be done about it.

    And, of course, I also feel like their deaths just further illustrate the dark side of fame. It really must be hell to have so many strangers feel like your personal business is their business. And, on top of that, have to please people and walk around with this persona … it must be exhausting. “Celebrities” are people too…and it’s mind boggling to me that so many people fail to realize that.

    I feel like the mental health situation in Black America is getting better–we’ve come a long way. As unfortunate as it is, most of my friends have been to counseling at our colleges. More and more black people are speaking out about their mental health struggles, and that’s a beautiful thing. What’s not so beautiful is…how did such problems get there? Is it just a part of life? What are the societal elements playing into the development of these mental problems? Can these problems be avoided? These are the things that perplex me…and I really wanna figure the puzzle out.

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