‘The dream that sustained me:’ ‘Black-ish’ star Jenifer Lewis on living with mental illness

Jenifer Lewis arrives at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

Jenifer Lewis arrives at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles. (Photo by Danny Moloshok/Invision for the Television Academy/AP Images)

She’s best known for her starring role on the TV comedy “Black-ish,” but these days Jenifer Lewis, is increasingly making a name for herself as a mental health advocate.

With frank conversation about her lifelong experience with bipolar disorder, Lewis, 60, hopes to encourage more people of color experiencing mental illness to seek treatment. Last week, she took to the stage at the African-American History Museum of Philadelphia to promote her new memoir, “The Mother of Black Hollywood.”

Diagnosed in 1990, Lewis told fans she knew the symptoms of her illness from an early age.

“I used to cry myself into my pillow when I was a little girl,” she said in her conversation with WDAS host Patty Jackson. “I didn’t know that I had a chemical imbalance in my brain. And I was always manic or depressed. And when you live like that that’s just how you live — you don’t think anything is really wrong.”

Growing up the youngest of seven children, Lewis remembers a movie theater in nearby Ferguson, Missouri as what inspired her to achieve stardom. While earning a bachelor’s degree in performance, she learned to harness her mental illness into a powerful stage presence.

“I went straight to New York got my first Broadway show within 11 days,” she recalled. “So I was on Broadway, and you know, I was bipolar, didn’t know I was bipolar. I didn’t act out with hard drugs. My drug was sex.”

Soon Lewis’ career leapt from Broadway to Hollywood. But it was only after she got out of an abusive relationship that she sought medical help.

“I said, ‘Ok, I want on my face what I put on everybody else’s face. I want to laugh, I want to be happy. I don’t want to go home and cry,’ ” she said.

In addition to therapy, Lewis has been on medication for more than a decade. As for those years without treatment, “it was the dream that sustained me,” she said.

Studies suggest about 6 million African-Americans living with a mental illness in the U.S. do not seek treatment, even though they are more likely than other groups to experience symptoms of major depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Access to services is a common barrier. Cultural distrust in the mental health care system is also reflected in the small share of providers who identify as African-American, which remains under 5 percent.

Lewis is one of a few black celebrities to advocate for mental health care, and she has said she hopes her advocacy will encourage others to share their struggles. Her new book, “The Mother of Black Hollywood,” also details abusive relationships and grief, alongside her decades-long career in entertainment.

“This was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, to go back and relive all those deaths. All my friends died from AIDS,” said Lewis. “But you know what? I kept going for them because me honoring them was more important than the tears I knew would dry.

“There was a time in my life where they didn’t dry, but I went and took care of myself and I want you to do that.”

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