Wisner Desmaret’s trial sparks mental health conversation

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The trial of Wisner Desmaret for the murder of Fort Myers police officer Adam Jobbers-Miller sparked a deeper conversation about mental health in the Black community and the barriers that prevent this community from reaching out for help.

Desmaret was sentenced to life in prison for shooting and killing Jobbers-Miller. In the trial, Desmaret was deemed competent to represent himself despite claims from himself and his family that he has a history of mental health issues.

“Just the history of his mental illness charts… like, it’s thousands of pages,” said Shellie Desmaret, Wisner’s sister. “This didn’t just start now; it’s been going on since he was younger. From the juvenile cases… this is not a yesterday thing.”

Cape Coral therapist Dr. April Brown says that when someone is dealing with mental illness in a Black household, the family typically handles it one of two ways.

First, you might work through it.

“I think it started way back, of course, in how we came in… how some of our ancestors came into this country through slavery, and just that aspect of, ‘We keep working no matter what, work, work, work, work, work, work, work,’ and not to address our needs,” Brown said.

Or, you might try to pray through it.

“It’s also the aspect of us in our deep faith, spiritually, that, of course, we can just pray through things… you know, ‘If you have faith, then you don’t need anything else,'” Brown said.

Brown says many Black families feel the stigma of admitting someone has a mental health problem and needs help. But there are also barriers to getting that help. In 2020, the American Psychological Association revealed the demographics of this nation’s psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors: 80.85% white, 5.08% African American.

“I’ve been in the field since 1998, and in the beginning, maybe 2% of my clientele was African American, and I was probably one of the few counselors in the area,” Brown said. “Now, I would say probably about 15% of my base are people of color, people that look like me.”

Sherline Herard, a therapist and Lee County high school counselor, says even if Black patients find a Black professional to help them, that doesn’t eliminate the other huge barrier.

“I know cost is a big thing,” Herard said.

And Black kids and adults who run into these barriers and cannot get help can suffer in other ways. In 2020, the National Center for Learning Disabilities found Black students are three times more likely to be labeled as having a learning disability than white students.

“When people did not have adequate funds and adequate services, you have these little kids that come in, they start the school system, and maybe they haven’t seen a book before,” Brown said. “So, they’re like playing around, using it as a skateboard or whatever. And then teachers would see that as ‘maybe they’ve got ADHD, maybe they’re slow,’ and they start treating them that way, which then causes them to be labeled as a ‘problem child.'”

Herard says more Black people in need of mental health counseling are seeking treatment nowadays, but it’s slow going.

“I still feel like we still have a long way to go because I still see a lot of judgment and stigma of people saying they don’t need a therapist or are just looking for attention,” Herard said.

“It’s OK to get help, and it’s not a sign of weakness,” Brown said.

If you see a warning sign in someone you love or someone you know, say something. You could change someone’s life.

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