Debra Jackson tried desperately to get the words out yesterday.

"My son was . . . my son was . . . murdered recently," the 49-year-old Harrisburg woman said, weeping and gasping for air. "I am still grieving."

Those who stood behind Jackson to take their turn at the microphone during the Breaking the Silence conference at the Convention Center quickly moved in to embrace her and help prop her up.

That willingness to show support was the theme throughout the two-day summit that addressed an often-hidden and still-taboo topic within the African American community: mental illness and the dangers of not treating it.

Jackson, a minister and mental-health advocate, said she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder - a mental illness characterized by severe mood swings - six years ago. She has attempted suicide three times, she said.

Jackson said that her son's homicide on Oct. 24 - just three hours before his 33d birthday - has put additional enormous stress on her, and that just getting out of bed in the morning was difficult.

"My psychologist is really concerned I will go into a very deep depression," Jackson said after a panel discussion. "I'm in a state of shock."

State Sen. Vincent Hughes said that for years he had an idea to convene a free conference like Breaking the Silence in Philadelphia to help people such as Jackson. Hughes solicited corporate sponsorships and grants to make it happen. The first Breaking the Silence conference was held here in 1997. The most recent one was in 2004.

"There is not a community not impacted by the stigma," Hughes, a Democrat, said, "but it's much more of an acute issue and problem within the African American community.

"Many in the community operate under the lack of insurance to get care, and for those who have insurance, there are barriers to getting care," he said, including lack of family support and a tradition of reluctance to seek help. "Those walls prevent a lot of people from getting help."

Hughes said the cost to society of not treating mental illness, which includes depression, schizophrenia and manic-depressive - or bipolar - disorder, was steep compared with that of early prevention and treatment.

"If you don't confront these issues at an early stage, then they can grow to become very significant down the line," he said. "The cost of not treating this lack of wellness is billions of dollars [more] in treatment and care than if it was treated in a much more open environment."

The two-day summit, which attracted more than 2,000 participants and concluded yesterday, featured several discussions dealing with behavioral health. Prominent African Americans in academe, the media and entertainment moderated the panels.

"We're here because we're battling with something," said Susan Taylor, author and editorial director of Essence magazine, who chronicled her bouts with self-doubt during yesterday's women's forum focusing on self-love and forgiveness. "We're so ashamed of our mental challenges, but we all share them."

In a separate meeting room, author, scholar and minister Michael Eric Dyson worked the men - asking how one could be supportive of his spouse, children and community despite all the challenges.

"We're dealing with the reality and the suffering we have endured and imposed," said Dyson, alluding to the violence afflicting the African American community. "We murder ambition. We murder pride. This should be how black men embrace one another."

Therman Evans, a family-practice physician and pastor at Morning Star Community Christian Center in Linden, N.J., who spoke at the summit on Friday, encouraged young people to enter the mental-health field. He said only 2 percent of the nation's psychologists were African American, 2 percent of psychiatrists, and 4 percent of social workers.

Evans ticked off other statistics. He said African Americans constitute 12 percent of the U.S. population, but were 40 percent of the nation's homeless population; 50 percent of its prison-inmate population; and 45 percent of the foster-care population.

"The high levels of homicide in our community have to do with a lack of mental balance," Evans said. "When a person sees a need to take someone's life, that has to do with a lack of balance and some of the conditions that lead to that."

Teenagers Damarko Scott and Michael Chism want to do whatever they can to avoid the wrong path.

"The peer pressure to do bad things, like drugs and alcohol, is really high," said Chism, 15, a freshman at Boys' Latin Academy Charter School in Southwest Philadelphia. His mother drove him and Scott to the conference. "We came to learn how to handle the pressure."

Yesterday the pair got some answers.

"Hang around good people," said Scott, 16, a sophomore at Overbrook High School in West Philadelphia, "and to keep doing the right thing and never do drugs."

For video on the first day of a summit on mental-health issues in the African American community,

Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.