Love & Diane is a real survivor story about the struggles of an African American mother and her family to climb out of the depths of urban poverty while coping with the mental health consequences of being poor, Black and female. Issues of mental health provide a backdrop for many of the circumstances that this family encounters. Depression makes the stressful task of being a single parent even more difficult. Abandoned by her mother at an early age, Diane has spent much of her youth and early adulthood using drugs and alcohol to mask her pain and her sense of aloneness. Loss, poverty and substance abuse form a vicious cycle that is passed from one generation to the next. The same cycle is repeated when her daughter Love gives birth to Donyaeh, and finds herself struggling to deal with the responsibilities of motherhood. Love also has to contend with anger and depression resulting from a childhood characterized by the absence of her mother, Diane due to substance abuse.
The film highlights how little control people have after they are caught up in a welfare system that fails to address their needs. It also provides an example of what works and what doesn't work in the delivery of mental health services, particularly for the poor and for persons of color.
Unfortunately, the initial response to a mental health crisis in low income and African American neighborhoods, is often to call the police. When Love's anger turned violent, and Diane called social services, she was looking for help rather than law enforcement. This is just one example of the gap in understanding that separates those who suffer mental instability, and the system that deals with them.
Once tangled in the bureaucracy, Love, Diane and Donyaeh have very little say in the decisions that are made about them. The overall lack of individual agency provokes instability and anxiety that not only threatens mental health, but inspires a distrust in the system. This in turn makes those who are at risk reluctant to call for help.
Too often the case loads for social workers and therapists working in impoverished communities are overwhelming. This reduces the likelihood that they can take the time that is needed to assess an individual's circumstances effectively, and work out the best solutions for either the short or the long term. It appeared that the decisions that were made about Love's case by her therapist adhered to a rigid set of guidelines, rather than the specific needs of the situation.
Overall, Love & Diane is documentary that legislators, policy makers, social service workers and mental health professionals need to see. It would clearly help middle class professionals to better understand the struggles that the poor face in reclaiming their dignity and maintaining their mental health.
Diane R. Brown, PhD. is the Executive Director of the Institute for the Elimination of Health Disparities at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She is the co-editor of In and Out of Our Right Minds: The Mental Health of African American Women (Columbia University Press, 2003).