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The Voice of the Black Community


‘There’s no shame in needing help’
Mental health advocates work to destigmatize mental illness
Published Friday, July 26, 2019
by Freda Freeman, Correspondent

DURHAM – It’s OK to not be OK. And, it’s OK to need help. This is the message mental health advocates want African Americans to know.

Those who provide mental health services are observing July as Minority Mental Health Awareness Month to address the need and to let people know about available services. Whether it’s one-on-one therapy sessions, group counseling or educational workshops for families, help is available.

The suicide of several celebrities, like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, has drawn attention to the fact that many people are suffering in silence. And, celebrities like Taraji P. Henson and Michelle Williams are acknowledging they suffer with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses in hopes of encouraging others to seek treatment.

Michelle Laws, director of advocacy and policy with the National Alliance on Mental Illness North Carolina, can’t say there is an increase in the actual number of African Americans who need mental health services, but she is seeing an increase in the number seeking help.

The NAMI is a grassroots advocacy organization for persons with mental illness and their families. North Carolina is unique in that it is one of a few states with an actual state office. Headquartered in Raleigh, the NAMI NC works with 27 county affiliates. Durham, Wake, and Orange counties have their own offices, while some counties are combined.

The NAMI NC doesn’t provide practitioners or direct counseling services but operates a mental health helpline to refer and connect people with the appropriate services, including therapists and mental health providers around the state. The organization also offers programs and training. Its signature program, Family to Family, trains family members to support and advocate for a loved one with a mental illness. Its Peer Support Program, which grew out of the substance abuse community in which people had sponsors, teaches a person with a mental illness to provide peer support to another person with mental illness.

Although there is heightened awareness about mental illnesses, overall, black people are still reluctant to seek help. Laws said cultural reasons often hold blacks back from seeing a counselor or therapist.

“We’ve been taught what happens in the house, stays in the house, so people tend to compartmentalize mental illness in the same way they keep family secrets. And the way we’ve talked about it: that boy’s just crazy or that girl’s got a problem, she’s coo-coo. We joked about it and people have lived in shame,” Laws continued. “We haven’t created in the black community a safe place where people can say all jokes aside, I have a mental illness; don’t call me coo-coo because my mind is sick or I have a brain disease. Also, because we are a faith-based people, we see it as a spiritual warfare and think we should be able to pray it away.”

Laws said many African Americans, especially young black kids, are suffering from vicarious trauma. It doesn’t matter whether they live in a half-million dollar home or public housing, the daily trauma being played out in black communities impacts all, causing ongoing traumatic stress disorders.

Laws said, across the board, people are not accessing services because of the deficit of mental health services available at the community level. She said one of the worst things the state did was to dismantle the Area Mental Health Authority Program, in which people knew where to go to get help at any time. Also changes in health care insurance coverage and how services are administered make it more difficult for people to get help.

Laws said the state received an “F” for mental health “parity” or equal coverage laws when it comes to treating people with chronic illnesses or mental health needs. Because of a lack of accessible behavioral health providers, people must go out of their insurance coverage network plan, which costs more. Also, a large percentage of black people are not accessing substance addiction services, which are funded by federal money.

Seeing an increased need for counseling among young adults led Frank and Joy Hartfield to form the “You Good?” movement. The Hartfields work at North Carolina Central University, where they often meet students who need counseling but are reluctant to get it. They wanted to help so they formed a nonprofit organization.

Joy Hartfield said their main priority is to remove the stigma surrounding mental health in the black community and refute the belief that something is wrong with a person because he or she has mental health needs. Her organization works to do this through resource sharing, informational and educational workshops, and referring people to black counselors and therapists so they can get the help they need. They work primarily with college-age young adults but can tailor their workshops for middle-schoolers and even older adults.

“The more we normalize it, the better,” Hartfield said. “We have so many young brilliant minds, with so much potential, and if we do our part, we can help them get to where they’re supposed to be and reach their full potential. And part of that is addressing generational trauma, learning how to build your emotional intelligence, managing rage, managing anger, just working through general stuff, just like any other adult will have to do, getting them to the point where they can function at their best is the focus.”

Hartfield agreed increased awareness helps people recognize the need, if not for themselves, then others. Thus, the question, “You good?”

“Even if it’s not for you, recognize it in your own friends, recognize when someone needs to be checked in with; you see a shift in your friends, their behavior, their eating patterns, not going to class, the way they’re communicating, not communicating. Check on your people, check on your friends,” she said.

The NAMI NC helpline number is 800-451-9682 or text (919) 999-6527. To learn more about the services and resources provided by You Good? visit yougoodmovement.org.



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