By Shirley Hawkins
CRENSHAW — Mental health and self-care in the African-American community were two of the topics discussed during a Sisters at Eight Black Women for Wellness event Nov. 9 at the Department of Water and Power.
Titled “Mental Health Awareness – Healing the Mind, Curing the Stigma,” speakers at the event were clinical psychologist Betty J. Ford, Ph.D, and empowerment coach Tomiko Fraser Hines.
Both professionals agreed that seeking out therapy for mental health continues to carry a stigma in the black community.
Many black people believe seeking out therapy is a sign of weakness or something that is shameful or embarrassing. Another reason blacks shun therapy is that there are few psychiatrists and psychologists of color in the profession. There is a mistrust of the medical profession that is overwhelmingly white.
Societal factors such as subtle and overt racism, income inequality, poverty, poor housing and education and the threat of violence can lead to African Americans experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety and trauma.
“There’s a shame in seeking out mental health services in our community,” Frazier said. “We don’t want to air our dirty laundry in public. I myself struggled with infertility, which was very stressful for me, so I sought out a mental health professional. I don’t have any guilt or shame when I need to seek support.”
“Historically, we have been medically abused,” Ford added. “Our community is disassociated from mental health work coupled with the fact that there is a lack of mental health services in our community.”
Ford and Frazier agreed that black women in particular are often left to shoulder daily stressors that can lead to mental disorders. For generations, black women have assumed the role of “superwoman” where they attempt to juggle numerous responsibilities, which can often leave them feeling overburdened.
“So many black women are busy balancing kids, life and work,” said moderator Nourvese Flint, policy director for Black Women for Wellness, who added that suicide rates for black women are higher than the national average.
“Black women need to take off the superwoman cape,” Ford said. “Black women are strong, but we are also human. If you are trying to live up to someone else’s concept of who you are, you’re going to be real tired. Believe in yourself and don’t internalize what you think society wants you to be.”
Ford said that getting treatment for mental health is also hampered by the fact that “Our community is being misdiagnosed. We don’t have our people providing services to our people. It’s hard to help a group of people if you don’t see them as your own.
“I am not opposed to diagnosis,” she added, “but I am opposed to diagnosis being given abruptly. I advise African Americans to seek help from someone who looks like them.”
Pausing, Ford said, “I had a client who was depressed and said, ‘I need medication.’ But I told her that I thought we could work through her problem. ‘Let’s look deeper into the trauma,’ I told her.
“After attending several therapy sessions with me, she’s doing much better and she was able to avoid getting on medication.”
“If your mental health is not the way it should be, don’t heed what others might say,” Frazier said. “Go and get some healing. There are resources available to help you.”
Ford said that when a black person is mentally troubled, they often turn to religion to “pray it away.”
“When someone is grappling with a mental problem, folks will say, ‘Oh, just send them to church,’” Foster said. She acknowledged that the power of prayer is great, but that church-goers experiencing mental problems should also seek out a mental health professional.
“You can pray on it, but God helps those who help themselves,” she added.
The rash of mass shootings that have shaken the country and taken the lives of dozens of innocent victims like the recent shooter who gunned down 11 people in Thousand Oaks ignited discussion.
Attendee Thelma McClinton said she was greatly affected by the recent shootings.
“I know that mass shootings are not happening in our community, but I am concerned that there could be some copycats out there,” she admitted. “I ask folks, ‘Aren’t you afraid that mass shootings could occur in one of our schools?’ They said ‘No.’”
“Of the 311 mass shootings this year, the majority were perpetrated by white men,” Flint said, adding that mass shootings have directly led to an increase in anxiety and apprehension among the public. “My cousin saw a white man come into the grocery store the other day dressed in army fatigues and she immediately left. She was afraid he might start shooting.”
Ford said one group facing increasing mental health disorders are soldiers coming back from war who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There is a chemical imbalance in the brain which could lead them to committing mass shootings,” she said.
“When they return stateside, many are not the same as when they were deployed. These soldiers are coming back from the war unsupported [by our military] and their families know something is wrong with their mental health.”
Frazier said that black men also suffer stress.
“Being a black man in this country is challenging, to say the least,” she said. “When my husband comes home, he is able to articulate his anger and fear. We talk about it and come up with a solution and a plan of action. Having an outlet at home lessens the anger he faces in the world every day. We talk about whatever is bothering him, share the fear and come up with a plan.”
Ford, who once offered therapy to gang members, said that another unrepresented group are young black males.
“We don’t attach appropriately to our young black males in our community, and many who are into fighting and name calling,” she said. “Some are out of control and need therapy. There has to be outreach from the older black males who are the primary group that can reach them.”
“We need to hold our public officials accountable. We need to vote them out of office if they are not responsive to our mental health issues,” Flint said.
“I did not apply for the role of superwoman,” said Ford, who urged black women to “take off the cape.”
“I want to enjoy my day, bask in the sunlight and laugh with my daughter,” she added. “ You don’t have to do it all. Delegate tasks to others to make your daily routine easier.”
“This is a very complex conversation and we must strive for change and better health,” Frazier said. “It starts with you and your mental health. Build a community around you that can help you both mentally and physically. Take care of yourself. Love yourself and bring that wholeness into the community.”