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Death of Lincoln University admin sheds light on mental health struggles Black women face in work place

dr candia bailey photo.jpg
Posted at 6:36 PM, May 30, 2024

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It’s the end of Mental Health Awareness Month in 2024, and KSHB 41 wanted to highlight a story out of Jefferson City, Missouri, that’s made national headlines.

In January, Dr. Antoinette 'Bonnie' Candia-Bailey, the vice president of student affairs at Lincoln University, died by suicide after saying she experienced workplace bullying.

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Candia-Bailey’s death sparked a larger discussion nationwide about Black women’s mental health in the workplace, as well as a call to action to remove the Lincoln's President John Moseley from the university.

He has since been reinstated, but the conversation surrounding this incident persists.

KSHB 41’s Rachel Henderson spent the past few months exploring the local impact of this tragic event, starting with a close friend and fellow Lincoln alumna of Candia-Bailey’s, Omega Tillman.

"She was real selfless," Tillman said. "It sounds real cliche, but she literally would give you the shirt off her back. She always put herself last in any and every situation."

Dr. Bailey and sorority sisters
Dr. Candia-Bailey (second from left) with her sorority sisters, including Tillman (far right).

Tillman graduated from Lincoln in the Spring of 1997. She and Candia-Bailey met on campus through their sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated.

"Our relationship started with sorority business, but expanded far beyond that," Tillman said.

Tillman now works as an educator in Kansas City. The last email she got from Candia-Bailey was at 6:15 a.m. before she went into work on Jan. 8.

“I’m reading the whole email, and the whole feel of the email is just eerie," Tillman said.

In the 12-page email, which was sent to close friends and Lincoln faculty, Candia-Bailey accused her school’s president of workplace bullying.

In the last few lines, the bolded words stood out: “My soul can now rest. I've filled my earthly dash, March 1974 - January 2024. A seat has been prepared for me.”

“We’re kind of the ‘tough girl mode’ all the time, so I figured, you know, ‘She’s having a tough time, she’ll get through it,’ kind of thing ‘cause that’s what she always would do,” Tillman said.

Not this time. Candia-Bailey died by suicide the same day.

“This experience of workplace bullying and harassment is actually pretty widespread,” said Lynette Sparkman-Barnes, a psychologist and multicultural specialist for the University of Kansas Medical Center and University of Kansas Health System.

Sparkman-Barnes says it’s her story as well.

“You're told, 'That can't be happening,'” Sparkman-Barnes said. “Or you're told, ‘Oh I know that person, and they wouldn't do that.' And you're told that so often, you start to second guess, 'Did this even happen to me?'”

This issue is a reality at all ages.

As a student leader for UMKC Society of Women Engineers and National Association of Black Engineers, Kayla McKnight says it’s time to start taking Black women’s fatigue seriously.

“When we say we’re tired, we’re tired,” McKnight said. “If I were to come to someone and be like, 'Aye bro, I'm tired, I can't do it, I'm exhausted,' and for them to say, 'I got you,’ and actually execute it, that relieves pressure.”

Tillman says she’s still learning the power of "no" and the danger of pride.

“You have to learn that you’re not the ‘end all be all’ for everything,” Tillman said. “When we always have that exterior of, ‘I got it, I don’t need help,’ and we finally reach out to ask for help, nobody wants to take us serious ‘cause they’re like, ‘Well no, you got it, I’ve seen you handle worse.’”

But Sparkman-Barnes says that demeanor doesn’t come out of nowhere.

“We’re used to making things happen with limited resources,” she said. “Black women are used to being the caretakers of partners, children, parents, neighborhoods, communities, we’re used to taking care of everyone else but when you look at that list, we’re not even on it of taking care of ourselves.”

That's why, she says, she works to validate her clients and clear up misconceptions about what a Black woman has to endure.

"That’s one of the things I challenge people on all the time," Sparkman-Barnes said. "What is strong? Because I think opening your mouth to say, ‘I need help,’ is strong. But, in this society, you’re often taught that if you actually admit that you need something, then you’re not strong."

In reality, she says, no one deserves to handle things on their own.

“I want everyone to know that they have a sense of agency in their own lives,” Sparkman-Barnes said. “You’ll report it to one person and it seems like it’s not getting anywhere, keep knocking on those doors, keep opening your mouth, keep saying something.”

As far as the pressure McKnight mentioned, it’s now on the rest of us to act.

“[We need] to honor her, we just need to do that and just find some kind of way to make sure that a work space is a safe space,” Tillman said. “Primarily for Black women ‘cause that’s what we’re talking about, but just for anybody.”