Music on the Mind: Can Music Improve Mental Health?

Adia Harris, Contributing Writer 

The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.
— Prince
Free source Internet Image 

Free source Internet Image 


Music Universal Effects
Despite our human differences, music is a uniquely unifying phenomenon to which we all respond. Since the evolution of man, we have created and listened to music to enrich our lives through rhythm and melody. 

Both science and the media actively examine the functional and cognitive roles of music. But, at least from a cultural standpoint, music has always been a therapeutic and expressive medium. Consider African American experience. From the Negro spirituals steeped with the harsh realities of slave life, to the billowy tunes of jazz and blues lamenting social injustice, to even the complex, yet immensely popular multi-billion dollar industry that is hip-hop—music continues to change and develop as we do. 

Music on the Brain
It has been scientifically proven that listening to music elicits a strong reaction in our brains. According to Ellen Mannes, author of The Power of Music, scientists have learned music stimulates the brain more than any other human function. 

In fact, psychiatric studies have found music is even processed in different ways by our nervous system. Some examples include: 
•    Perceptually: how we physically feel and hear music
•    Emotionally: how different aspects of music (intensity, harmony, loudness) affect our neural           responses
•    Autonomically: how our autonomic bodily functions (i.e. blood pressure, heart rate, and                   respiratory rates) are affected.

Utilizing technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans researchers continue to investigate the interaction between music and the mind. One study, conducted by neuroradiologist Dr. Jonathan Burdette at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, researched levels of brain connectivity based on self-identified music preferences in 21 subjects. The results of the study showed listeners’ preferences, and not the genre of music they listen to, has the greatest impact on brain activity.

"These findings may explain why comparable emotional and mental states can be experienced by people listening to music that differs as widely as Beethoven and Eminem." Burdette stated about the study.

This arguably suggests music plays an impactful role in how we develop our sense of self and the world around us.

Positive effects of music on mental health
Research on the connection between music and health outcomes, including treatment of mental health disorders is still in a relatively infant stage. Yet scientists are convinced, there is just ‘something’ about music.

A meta-analysis study conducted by David Levitin, psychologist and author of This is Your Brain on Music, found one study providing solid evidence that music can lower anxiety and cortisol levels in patients pre-surgery at a more effective rate than medication.

Although more research is still needed, Levitin finds the medical certainty of music as a form of therapy to be more than promising. “We've found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health-care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics.” 

Music therapy as a clinical course of study has been around since the 1940s, predominantly borne from the need to rehabilitate war-beleaguered veterans of WWII with physical and psychological issues. Today, music therapy is used in clinical settings to address a diversity of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social problems.

Some types of music therapy include:
The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) -- a common music-assisted therapy, GIM facilitates mental exploration of significant life issues, memories, traumas, and health conditions

Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) -- often used in the treatment of neurologically debilitating disorders such as Parkinson’s, NMT facilitates the rehabilitation of biological movement. 

Drum Therapy -- a holistic therapy, mindful drumming has been found in some instances to increase production of cancer fighting cells and even change the genomic marker for stress.

Utilize music for your Well-being 

We can’t know for sure what our primal utility for music is. But, we’ve all used music to elevate our moods, for social interaction, and even to remember times past.

Sometimes, music can be the best medicine.

Here are a couple of easy ways to use music to improve well-being right now:

Create a playlist: Creating collections of music that generate positive feelings is a good way to regulate emotions.

Share music: Music is a great way to bolster social interactions and feel more deeply connected to individuals in your life.

Make it: No matter how you feel, music is a great way to vent and express your emotions without words.

Lesser Known Self-Stigma Just as Dangerous to Black Mental Health

Adia Harris, Contributing Writer 


You’re walking down the street and a man on the corner you are approaching is acting strangely. Maybe he’s oddly dressed, appears disheveled or perhaps homeless. He is muttering to himself, looking up at the sky as if waiting for answers. 

What do you do?

Possibly, you avert your gaze to avoid eye contact and mistakenly engage this individual. You might instinctively surmise this person is mentally ill, and could potentially be problematic when engaged.

And perhaps, on a surface level, this is true. NAMI statistics show over a quarter of both the prison and homeless populations in the U.S. are comprised of individuals with a recent history of mental illness.  However, any apparent connection between me,ntal dysfunction and socioeconomic hardship should be investigated further. Research contrastingly shows that many common misconceptions borne of negative stereotypes about mental illness, including lack of cognitive capacity and assumptions about people with mental illness being violent, are not as true to reality as the public often thinks. 

So how do our socially accepted views affect individuals suffering from mental health conditions, and why does it matter?


Pinterest Image

Pinterest Image

Most of us are familiar with the term stigma, or as defined by a quick Google search, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.”  Significant amounts of mental health research are dedicated to how public stigma operates, however most of us are not familiar with its potential effects on individuals who are actually struggling with mental illness, particularly as a main contributing factor to a symptom known as self- stigma.

Self-stigma is a form of stigma that occurs when an individual with a certain trait/behavior (i.e. bipolar disorder or schizophrenia) believes and internalizes negative public attitudes (i.e. individuals with depression are emotionally weak, therefore I must be emotionally weak.) This internalization is often detrimental to an individual’s self-efficacy and can impede recovery during episodes of illness.

Erica James, an Atlanta-based marriage and family therapist, who also works with children and adolescents in foster care, has found internalized stigma can surface as significantly low self-esteem. 

“A lot of work I have to do in addition to helping work through issues is empowering my clients to learn and uncover traits about themselves they already possess that are positive, so if they are suffering from disorders like depression or anxiety, it’s not the only trait that they have and it is something they can work through.”

Unlike with physical conditions such as diabetes or cancer, individuals with mental illness may view their disorders as a character flaw rather than a common treatable condition. Instead of compartmentalizing their illness as one aspect of themselves, they may believe it to be their complete identity. This can lead to what is academically considered the why try effect, when individuals behave in ways that devalue their sense of worth and abilities, disrupting recovery, and even hindering the long-term pursuit of personal goals.

From a racial standpoint, research indicates African Americans are more prone to experience higher levels of both public and internal stigma than their white counterparts, and can even face what is known as double stigma. Double stigma occurs when someone feels doubly discriminated against because of their membership in two separately stigmatized groups, possibly leading to treatment-resisting behavior for fear of negative identification in more than one social circle.

“I think [prevalent mental health misconceptions in the black community] are shifting a little bit, but it really comes from us depending on our communities and families for help of any kind, [but] sometimes they are just not equipped or knowledgeable enough to help us though certain challenges,” James stated.

It may not be possible to completely eradicate symptoms of internalized stigma, however there are positive resources available to individuals, including peer support groups with others dealing with similar mental health concerns. 

There is a clear need for increased public awareness about mental health on a societal level.  Because public stigma can be a powerful inciting cause behind the internalizing of negative attitudes, we must collectively aim to delegitimize misconceptions through education to improve mental health outcomes.

As a therapist, James agrees that education is key. “A lot of people kind of fear the phrase mental health…they have an idea of what it is and may think of it in just one way. But mental health is an umbrella term and a lot of things go underneath it.”

Combating Stigma Resources & Initiatives: 
NAMI - Stigma Free
Mental Health America - African American Mental Health
Project 375

Ourselves Black Professional Spotlight and Dialogue: Dr. Kimya Dennis

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 


Dr. Kimya Dennis 

Dr. Kimya Dennis 

Periodically Ourselves Black will converse with and highlight the work of African American professionals working in diverse areas of mental health. One way to lessen stigma around mental health is to build and enhance the exposure to black psychologists, therapists, counselors, psychiatrists, sociologists and others who have education, experience, and training to be reliable sources of information, support, and treatment for the Black community. 

Our first dialogue is with Dr. Kimya Dennis. She has a PhD in sociology from North Carolina State University and combined with a masters degree in criminal justice, she is well prepared and qualified for her interdisciplinary work in suicide, self harm and mental health. We recently had an enlightening conversation with Dr. Dennis about suicide, mental health stigma and cultural dynamics in the black community. The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

OB: Would you say that [the mindset of ignoring and dismissing mental health issues] becomes counterproductive in the area of suicide? Often these [issues are complex; and there are underlying reasons why people are making the decisions they make]. If you are in a community in which people are suppressing things, you may have people who are struggling and who need to interact about [their issues]. [Talking] could be a turning point for someone. How do we get people to understand that?

DD: That can be extremely difficult because one thing we know is that people know how to act. They know how to save face. But what they do when they get back in their own space is different from what they say [in public]. One thing I tell people is ‘I know I can’t change your mind, and you’re welcome to think whatever you want to think but now let's challenge what you’re doing’. Let’s say a family member seems to be having mental or emotional struggles, might have some suicidal ideation…let’s just say the person is acting different [sic] than they tend to act. Instead of people feeling the need to dissect everything, and agree with everything, I say please take that person to the doctor. That’s a first step. Call a suicide hotline. Usually when I say that people will grunt and say “Girl I don’t have time for that” or “Pray about it.” That’s when I say ‘Well I’m not going to try to change your mind about prayer but I know people who are praying for health insurance. And if they’re praying for health insurance, they’re praying for medical help. Just look out for the other person and try to help them because it doesn’t have to make sense to you in order for it to be a reality for someone else. We can apply that to mental health , suicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, over eating, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, fibroid tumors. We have so many things that people consider culturally normal. There are so many families where everybody has type 2 diabetes or all the women have fibroids, and if they find out you’re going to a gynecologist, they’ll say, “Girl don’t forget where you come from.”

Dr. Dennis’ comment about circumstances that people consider culturally normal led to a provocative segment discussing the normalization of pathology and illness in the black community. She feels strongly that African Americans and those of African diaspora must begin to redefine ‘normal’ as it relates to health and wellness. During  past presentations she has challenged her audiences to describe black culture without mentioning Dr. King, Rosa Parks or slavery, and she invariably gets a response of silence. Her point is that if blacks can only identify culture with anger, sadness, unhappiness and other vestiges of oppression, and consider that normal, how can illness ever be recognized and effectively addressed?

OB: Are there cultural adaptations that should be made to the suicide prevention model that’s being used right now? Particularly the warning signs, risks, and suggested actions? Two aspects of the model stand out specifically: 1) the instruction to go to a doctor or mental health professional, and 2)the suggestion to call a suicide hotline. Most would say those are things black folks are not going to do. We hear the narrative around distrust of the medical establishment, around how you don’t go sit and talk to other people about your stuff but at what point do we culturally adapt this to say if people insist on holding on to these attitudes, what else can be done to bring treatment and mental wellness to culture?

DD: That’s a question that so many of us have been asking for years. We have people who are working on that. Like the pastor in Baltimore who is doing work on trauma and violence in the black community. We have people who are trying to redesign these trainings to make them more culturally conscious. The difficulty in adjusting trainings to account for cultural variants is that most of the people who created these trainings tend to think that mental health and suicide are neutral and objective topics that do not vary. This is similar to how it took doctors so long to recognize the social components of health. In some of my community work with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention , we’re all very eager to do community programs and to address how to reach different populations and how the training should be adjusted. An example is how the Mental health Association  [in my area] has the equivalent of church fans with mental health information on them. Churches, mosques, and synagogues are trying to get more mental health services. So there are people who have tried to reshape the training.

OB: I wonder if it wouldn’t be equally as effective to try to start at social ground zero, which is families. I think about my own family and it seems to me when you set a certain culture in your own family…for example with my sons I’ve worked hard to say [our place] is a safe zone so please talk, express yourself. I want there to be openness, communication, and non-judgmental understanding. So maybe families could designate Aunt so-and-so as the safe place and person so that if someone’s struggling they can call, text, or visit with her. This way it’s built in [to the fabric of a family] that you do not have to sit in a crisis with nothing and no one to help you. Sometimes we expect a bigger leap than people are ready for. We’re trying to get people to go see a therapist but they haven’t even been to a regular doctor in 20 years. Rather than trying to push people across that chasm initially, maybe we should teach ourselves to seek help within our own circles first. Learn how to do that and go from there. 

DD: There are trainings that are for people that are family, friends, or colleagues of people that might have health conditions. For example, people can get mental health certification. We know that one of the central issues is that people don’t want to tell other people their thoughts, feelings, actions or business because usually if you express suicidal ideation or other mental health issues, you can never really live that down. People will not leave you alone about that. If you go to someone and say “I’ve been thinking about killing myself”, the other person might refer you to a mental health professional but [there’s a good chance that] at the next cookout they’re going to look at you and wonder [what’s going on]. So a lot of people don’t want to be put in that category because they figure life is hard enough for them internally; they don’t want it to be hard for them externally, too. This especially happens in families where unfortunately many people are taught to keep their business to themselves because if you tell your business to someone else, you’re going to hear a long sermon. Your mama, grandmother, everybody will start preaching to you. They consider it a form of deterrent, kind of like “we're going to scare you out of it.” When you shame people like that, it’s not really going to make them stop doing anything. A lot of people will just get more crafty. They will learn how to hide it better. That’s where self-harm behavior comes in. [Many] people who use substances are self-healing; they’re hiding from feelings by getting high or drunk.

OB: You’re right, there are many intracultural issues we need to overcome.

To learn more about Dr. Dennis and her work on suicide, stigma, and other mental health topics, visit her website.

Yes, Black Teens and Young Adults Die by Suicide, Too

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 



On March 31, Netflix released its series adaptation of Jay Asher’s young adult novel, 13 Reasons Why. Like it or not, the topic of suicide is moving into the mainstream. And it’s about time.
The much-talked about show tells the story of high school student Hannah who dies by suicide and answers the question that haunts almost every family member, friend or coworker in the aftermath of real-life suicides: why? Viewers learn as the narrative unfolds that there are 13 people whom Hannah considers in some way responsible or contributing to her decision. One reason relates to rumors started about her—bolstered by misleading photos—by a classmate with whom Hannah has a brief physical encounter. She is humiliated by the damage to her reputation and the guy’s abandonment of her. That explanation seems straightforward but as research demonstrates, very little is that simple when it comes to suicide. It is precipitated by complex and interrelated circumstances in a person’s life. For Black youth and young adults that complexity is shaped by powerful societal realities that traumatize still-developing psyches and bring hopelessness and despair. Hannah is white, and her circle only included two African American teens, but the reality is that black adolescents and young adults die by suicide also, more than is commonly believed.

In the audio segment below, listen to a brief discussion of recent data on suicide among black youth 10-24 years old, as well as thoughts to put the data into perspective.

Clearly, suicide is a problem among black youth, too. Individuals, families, communities, and organizations need accessible, culturally competent and often confidential resources to help people at risk for suicide, and those recovering from an attempt. Often family and friends feel powerless because they don’t know what signs to look for or how to assess what they do observe. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention identifies these warning signs that someone you know might be at risk for suicide:

What They Might Talk About                            How They Might Feel
Having no reason to live                                         Depressed
Being a burden to those around them                     Anxious
Feeling trapped                                                       Humiliated/Shamed
Ending their life                                                      Irritable/Enraged

What They Might Do

Excessive drinking/drugs                        Contacting people to say goodbye
Reckless conduct                                     Behaving aggressively
Isolate themselves/withdraw

Another way in which people feel at a loss when it comes to suicide is not knowing who in their life and social circles might be at risk. No one wants to constantly scrutinize their friends and family members, and teenagers and young adults can be especially challenging to read sometimes. Knowing proven risk factors combined with understanding your sons and daughters baseline personalities can save lives. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other organizations say to be on the lookout for these evidence-based risk factors:

Risk Factors Related to Health

Having a mental health condition like depression, anxiety disorders, borderline personality disorder
Alcohol or drug addiction
Having a chronic health condition like HIV, cancer, diabetes, sickle cell anemia

Risk Factors Related to External Circumstances in Life

Death of a close friend or family
Prolonged stress from things like harassment, bullying, relationship problems, unemployment
Exposure to another person’s suicide

There are many organizational and educational resources for support. 

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

Comprehensive resources for those who have lost someone to suicide, suicide attempt survivors, these who are concerned for someone they know, and advocates. AFSP brings awareness training to communities through programs like Talk Saves Lives ™ and suicide bereavement support group facilitator training. The site also has general statistics about suicide rates.

Suicide Prevention Resource Center

Provides training and materials support for professionals and practitioners who serve populations at-risk for suicide. 

Suicide Prevention Lifeline—1-800-273-TALK (8255)

A national network of local crisis centers and a 24/7 phone and online chat service to assist people trying to help a friend through a crisis or is facing a crisis themselves. 

ReachOut USA

The USA-based counterpart to Inspire Foundation/ReachOut Australia. Operates an online prevention and intervention resource for teens and young adults. Includes support forums and a crisis text line and loads of information, including a section on racism and mental health.

The Trevor Project

A crisis intervention and suicide Prevention Resource for LGBTQ youth and young adults, including The Trevor Lifeline 1-866-488-7386. 

If you or someone you know needs information or someone to talk to, please go to these websites, call the crisis help lines, or chat online with someone trained to help. Live life. Save life.

Tech Offers Promising Way to Narrow Black Mental Health Treatment Gap

Adia Harris, Contributing Writer

With nearly 90 percent of Americans owning mobile phones the ‘tech age’ is not just upon us, it's all around us. We use our mobile devices to solve problems, broker social interactions and even as pillow companions before falling asleep.

And that’s powerful stuff. Somewhere in the ‘app for that’ magic, mental health care is finding a new home in tech. The question is: Can it provide effective solutions?

The answer is not crystal clear. What is clear is that adequate help for mental health conditions is lacking. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 50 percent of U.S. counties have no mental health providers, and research reveals disparities in treatment access are severely impacting minorities, leading to higher rates of misdiagnosis and more costly treatment.

Increasing access to timely and cost-effective treatment is vital to narrowing the mental health treatment gap. Here are some tech resources currently available:

Online support groups: The need for support is universal, and online forums created a new cyberspace for connections. Today, people continue to connect via support websites from everywhere imaginable.

The Pros: 
•    Transcend geographic barriers: Connecting online can break isolation barriers felt by sufferers of mental illness by providing a space to share stories, express intense emotions, and garner support when direct interactions are difficult.

•    Accessibility: Online support groups are usually free to join and are accessible at any time, day or night.

•    Community environment: Virtual communities help lessen negative feelings brought on by stigma, and are a great forum to share information about health resources.

The Cons:
•    No physical interaction: Anonymity helps facilitate open interactions, but be mindful of information you share online. Individuals you interact with can provide support only, not a plan of treatment. 

•    Not clinical therapy: Support groups are not legally liable to provide accurate medical advice. Seek professional help during periods of severe crisis.

Notable websites: Project Hope & Beyond   The Mighty   Psych Central (group listings)

Remote and Online Counseling: Talk therapy is a clinically proven method of treatment for mental disorders and Computers and mobile phones continue to expand access to this of treatment.

The Pros:
•    Transcends geographic barriers: Like online forums, patients and therapists can connect regardless of their physical locations.

•    Effective instructional therapy: Therapist Gillian Isaacs Russell states, “Therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and positive psychology can be very appropriate for online use because they are didactic and not relationship based.”

The Cons:
•    Limits nonverbal communication: Research indicates at least 60 percent of communication is nonverbal. Consider the nature of your mental health concerns to determine whether in person therapy would be more effective.

•    Ineffective for crisis situations: Time and distance constraints can make remote therapists unreachable during emergencies. Always have contacts readily available when in immediate crisis. 
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 800 273 TALK (8255) 
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

Notable services: Better Help   Talkspace   Breakthrough

Mental Health Applications: Mobile apps are making impactful waves in healthcare. We use these devices for a number of daily activities to make our lives easier and more productive, why not use them for mental wellness?

The Pros:
•    Affordability: You can search for free mental health apps in your smartphone’s app store; apps that do cost are usually between $1-$6.

•    Brain Training: Many mental health apps are geared toward skill assessment and development, regularly exposing users to a broader range of thinking and coping methods.

The Cons:
•    No evaluation standards: There is no clinical criterion for rating mental health websites or apps. You may want to consult with a healthcare provider for suggestions, and or develop your own rating criteria.

•    Choosing Wisely: Be careful not to inundate yourself with too many applications. Start with one or two apps to find what works best with your treatment plan.

Notable apps: Headspace   Lantern   Pacifica

Wearable Tech: Wearable tech is the most passive form of mental health tech. It can help with early diagnosis and in determining effective treatment methods.

The Pros:
•    Allows for self-management: Wearable tech can facilitate a personal understanding of mental health conditions and patterns of behavior.

•    Data Collection: Wearable tech gathers data without user assistance. Clinicians and therapists can use this data to track potential relapses and determine long-term treatments.

The Cons:
•    Privacy: When dealing with personal health data, vigilance is key. Mental health tech is relatively new and systems of governance are still developing.

•     Medical vs. consumer devices: Not all wearable tech is created equal. Clinically tested tech is likely to provide the best results, but consumer devices can be just as costly. Do your research.

Notable tech: Fitbits   Spire   

Although mental health technology is relatively new territory, with legitimate concerns to be addressed, it undoubtedly empowers both patients and mental health providers. Digital mediations cannot replace the necessity of physical interaction, but they are promising resources for bridging the treatment gap.

Black and Missing: Resources, Support, and Finally Girls

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 


If you’re Black and on social media, you have no doubt seen the tweets sounding the alarm about a recent cluster of black girls who have been reported missing from the D.C. area. Except for one of the missing girls—who we now know was located at an unnamed adults’ residence—not much background has been disclosed about the girls’ disappearances: possible reasons why, locations last seen. When we hear of black women missing, the instinctive thought is that trafficking, kidnapping, and/or gang activity is involved, and maybe that’s true. But is it possible that some of these girls really have left voluntarily, without forcible taking being involved? Is it possible that they left because of the lure of a potential romantic relationship which very likely could ultimately result in trafficking? Or could any of them have needed to escape the traumatic stress and pressure of their environments, even if just for a little while? If either of these reasons is true, does it make their disappearance any less urgent and their recovery any less vital? No, just the opposite.

D.C. mayor Muriel Bowser has announced the creation of a task force to address missing children. Her approach thus far seems to emphasize children who would be classified as runaways. Named initiatives include: identifying advocacy and community-based organizations that work with runaways and provide them with greater support; creating and promoting the 800-RUNAWAY hotline  and website for youth and their parents/guardians; and increasing the number of police officers assigned to the children and family services division. Her approach reflects recognition of a complex set of factors that are very likely involved when young black girls disappear. 

D.C. can be a tough place for anyone not connected to the bright lights and privileged existence of its elites, especially African American girls trying to navigate school where they might be invisible when it comes to support and guidance but overly scrutinized when it comes to discipline and punishment. Disappearances often occur when or close in time after school is in session. What kind of education environment are they facing? The D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Equity Report for the 2015-2016 school year reports that black students had the second lowest in-seat attendance rate of all demographic groups (89.3%), but the second highest rate of suspension, at 11%. Females represented 6.5% of total suspensions. The report doesn’t measure sub-sub groups like black females but national reports like African American Policy Forum’s Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected have highlighted the plight of black girls in the educational and juvenile justice systems. And there is an effort underway to change how data is reported so that needed attention can be focused on the educational needs of black girls.

In December 2015 the White House Initiative on Education Excellence for African Americans held the African American Women Civic Leaders Educational Policy Briefing. The agenda was the creation, collaboration, and coordination of a national blueprint to focus on black girls in education. Monique Morris states in her article covering the briefing:

From interrupting school to confinement pathways…to preventing campus-based sexual assault, African American female students are in need of a remedy to the negative effects of society’s mischaracterizations of Black femininity, particularly in schools.

Mirroring the focus on black men and boys of former President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program, DCPS in 2015 launched its Empowering Males of Color Initiative with a commitment of $20 million over three years to improve educational outcomes for its black male students. To date, no such program has been created for black female students.

Another key to the wellbeing of D.C.’s black women and girls is housing security and availability. Relisha Rudd, who disappeared at eight tender years of age, was living with her mother at a homeless shelter at the time she was reported missing. The 2016 Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments annual survey found that homelessness increased 20% that year and that 68% of the metropolitan areas homeless population is in D.C. A 2016 Washington Post story reported that for the first time ever, the number of homeless kids and parents outnumbered the number of homeless single adults. Housing support is as complex as maintaining housing, but any efforts aimed at addressing missing girls must also address their vulnerable families.

Now that the light has been shined more brightly on the issue of missing black women and children, it’s time for measured decisive, and thoughtful action. In the meantime, for those families caught in the nightmare experience of a loved one disappearing, there are effective resources available to work through the search and recovery process. Two national organizations, recognizing the media coverage and law enforcement investigation disparities for missing persons cases involving people of color, offer guidance and information. Black and Missing But Not Forgotten (BMBNF) offers a tips heat, What to Do if Someone Goes Missing, which includes advice on where to look for the person, what description of the person you should be prepared to give the police, and who besides police can be asked to help find the loved one. Similarly, the Black and Missing Foundation, Inc. provides a Missing Persons Checklist and a link to the Department of Justice publication, A Family Survival Guide.

Absent from these resources, though, and absent too from initiatives to address the problem of missing people of color, is identification and inclusion of mental health supports and resources. 
Every child who disappears should automatically receive the benefit of a mental/emotional heath screening with interpretation of results by a licensed mental health practitioner. Family therapy and counseling should also be offered to the family. An aftercare program similar to what’s provided to sexual trafficking victims is needed, with a care-centered, not perpetrator- minded focus. 

Ourselves Black will follow this story and provide updates on issues involved.

Black Stress Needs Black Action

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

Every year the American Psychological Association (APA) releases its Stress in America™ report with results from an annual survey on how Americans experience and react to stress, including what participants identify as their most significant sources of stress. The results of the August 2016 survey showed the lowest levels of overall stress in the 10 years the APA has conducted the survey. Questions dealing with the upcoming election were added, and results showed that 52% of participants were experiencing very or somewhat significant levels of stress related to the outcome of the election. In January 2017, it followed up with what it calls a snapshot, a much shorter, highly-focused set of questions designed to measure Americans’ stress levels regarding the political climate, the nation’s future, and the election. Not surprisingly, African Americans reported the highest levels of stress among all demographic groups surveyed.

Specifically, 69% of Blacks are stressed out about Trump being the leader of the free world; 71% are worried about police violence targeted toward minorities; and 70% are concerned about their finances. Fully a third of all Americans surveyed are experiencing symptoms commonly associated with mental health issues: feeling overwhelmed, feeling nervous or anxious, or feeling depressed or sad. (It’s interesting to note that even with the information now known about the differences in how minorities, particularly African Americans, manifest stress and onset of mental and emotional disturbance, the descriptions of emotional states still doesn’t include markers like anger, frustration, or irritation.)

Faced with stress levels like those reported in the survey and stressors more likely to get worse before they get better, strategic, intentional action is the cure for lessening the well-documented negative health effects of chronic, toxic stress. Exercise, meditation, reading, and the like can alleviate the damage done by cortisol build-up and its cell-aging action. But working to reduce and eliminate the sources of the stress gives more bang for the buck every time. 

The problems ‘out there’ must have solutions identified and developed ‘in here’. The average African American did not personally know Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, Oscar Grant, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland, Jordan Davis, Oscar Ramirez, Tamir Rice, or any of the other men, women, or children gunned down by cops. But police and community relations might still be a concern in your city or neighborhood. Maybe you did not lose your home in the big foreclosure blowout in 2008 or you are not unemployed. But perhaps money is still tight, and every month finds you struggling to put food on the table. Whatever your sources of stress are, consider doing the following to impact the roots of these problems and finally make some headway in relieving your stress.

Do the work to understand the issue(s).

With the vast amount of information on the Internet, via libraries, bookstores, and other information sources, it’s easier than ever to get at least a basic understanding of the pivotal issues affecting your community. If your child’s education keeps you up at night, go to the central administration office of your school district and grab copies of the quarterly newsletters. These publications are chock full of information on the strategic priorities of the district, data on teacher qualifications and performance, and student performance by school within the district. They also usually provide website addresses for the state Department of Education, and contact information for executive leadership and policy makers. Refuse to be deterred by barriers like not being able to attend PTO/PTA meetings during the day. Connect with other parents and caregivers with similar schedules, arrange your own meetings, and select a representative to collect the group’s concerns and availability to help with the problems, and email them to school and/or district leadership. 

Learn how to be an effective advocate.

The Texas Rangers organization has a saying: One Riot, One Ranger, meant to convey that any Ranger is sufficiently trained, experienced, and knowledgeable to handle situations so that each problem can be solved by just one of them. Aim to be the kind of person who is a skilled problem solver. The key to effective advocacy is to understand that every issue is at its core a person or group of people who need help. It’s also important to understand the effective use of emotions, influence, and negotiation. A protest, march, or rally—even good ones—won’t solve issues at the grassroots level. A skilled advocate knows the proper role of various change tactics and when to use each one. Find a workshop or class, or if money is tight, borrow a book from the library; invest in training to become a good champion for your children, neighborhood, and community.

Shift from a passive consumer mindset to an engaged actor.

As you consider ways you can work to eliminate the sources of stress, ask and honestly answer these questions:

How long has it been/Have I ever done a concrete action that addresses an issue that causes me chronic stress?

Do I know the leaders and policy makers who govern in my city/community/state? Have I ever contacted any of these people to express my views and/or offer my time to work on an issue?

Do I contribute money to any groups or organizations with practical expertise in my stressor issued? Can I name at least three such groups or organizations?

Have I taken any positive, concrete action based on something I’ve read, seen, or participated in the last six months?


New Media to Help You Stay Woke to Black Mental Health

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 

Media focused on black mental health is exploding. Whether it’s social media, visual media, or the written word, discussions about and portrayals of  what it looks like to be black and experience anxiety, depressed mood or depression, fear, or Bipolar disorder have been on the rise since late 2016. People are rejecting the shame and stigma typically attached to mental disorders and illness and are openly admitting to struggles. And it’s about time and right on time. 

It’s no secret that media of all types is a powerful vehicle for exposing issues, provoking dialogue, and even suggesting solutions and productive strategies. In 1977 Roots, The Miniseries hit the airwaves and became a media and social juggernaut, with estimates that it racked up an audience of 80-100 million viewers for its last episode, and plenty of anecdotal evidence that it sparked much-needed and overdue dialogue. “Roots provided one of those rare sit-up-and-wake-up moments in American culture. After the show, hundreds of schools used the series as a history lesson. Whites…used it as an eye-opening exercise”, reported Teresa Willtz in a 2012 article on the show's 35th anniversary.

The weekly television dramedy, A Different World, which aired from 1987 to 1993, had a distinct and measurable impact on enrollment in historically black colleges and universities  (HBCUs). Dr. Walter Kimbrough, a former president of Philander-Smith College, describes this impact in a 2010 Q & A session on the New York Times blog, The Choice:

From the debut of “The Cosby Show” in 1984 until the end of “A Different World” in 1993, American higher education grew by 16.8 percent. During the same time period, historically black colleges and universities grew by 24.3 percent—44 percent better than higher education. But in the 11 years after “ A Different World” ended, while all of higher education grew at a robust 20.7 percent, historically black colleges and universities reward only 9.2 percent.

Racism and black higher education are two seminal issues of our time. The results of the 2016 presidential election, escalating and more visible episodes of police brutality against black citizens, threatened rollbacks of hard-won civil rights gains in voting and health care create a perfect storm to precipitate chronic challenges against the mental and emotional wellbeing of African-American and other-origin black people. Increasing numbers in the black community view protection of minds and hearts as the vital acts of resistance required now. Open discussion of pressures being faced is arguably the most important first step in making this a reality. Young filmmakers, writers, bloggers and artists are leading the way in producing media that has the potential to affect change similar to what happened with shows like Roots and A Different World. These are just a few.

SHRINK Web Series, Created and Written by Katrina Smith Jackson (British) 

The social media profile describes SHRINK as a “new digital drama series created by Katrina_SJ about a troubled therapist battling with her own mental ill-health and the intertwining lives of her clients.” The first season’s six episodes tackled a what’s-what of top issues blacks have faced for decades. Episode five, ‘Pretty for a Dark Skin Girl’ deals with colorism and its often devastating effects. Natasha, the lead character therapist has a client whose face gets disfigured from skin bleaching chemicals and has trouble coping with the embarrassment of the injury.

Episode two, ‘Some Sort of Arrangement’ shows a real-life application of the problems with deep-rooted stigma and shame among blacks about having mental health challenges. Natasha’s client is visibly disturbed by being at the therapy appointment, barely looking up at all during the explanation of the mood self-assessment she is given to complete. Complicating matters, Natasha’s coworker blackmails her bY forcing a sexual relationship to keep her own secret of mental illness hidden. The show has both anthological and episodic elements, drama and humor.

Each episode on average runs between 15 and 20 minutes but is packed with relevant issues and suggestions that can be used both for introspection and for public discussions.

Giants Web Series, Created and Written by James Bland
(Episodes release on Wednesdays)

Giants is a weekly web show that follows a group of black millenials as they navigate young adulthood facing very adult issues like hiding from who they think is the landlord because they are late paying rent, encountering the truth about themselves in ways and from sources they’d rather not deal with, trying to find the right path to the dreams they have for their lives, and yes, doing life with a diagnosed mental illness.

The most appealing aspect to this show is its unapologetic authenticity. There’s lots of profanity (which is how millennials talk), the situations are sometimes bracing but still not unrealistic (Malachi, one of the main characters, feels compelled to take a job as a sexual surrogate for a middle-aged white couple), and they don’t hide the physical and emotional manifestations of mental illness (Journey, the female lead, can’t get out of bed and cries and throws up when she’s having a particularly rough depressive bout).

Mental health and illness is definitely front and center in this series and that fact is bound to get people talking and hopefully acting on behalf of themselves and others who face these challenges every day.

AFFIRM Podcast, Created and Hosted by licensed therapist Davia Roberts
Biweekly episodes on SoundClou

This is a brand new media offering—2 episodes in—that was developed to provide safe-space conversations on topics for women of color who value and pursue wholistic wellness, and who want resources and content to support them. Ms. Roberts recognizes the need to have information and resources available especially to women who might be unable to pay for mental health services. 

Her last episode covered self-care, and there is also a self-care webinar scheduled for Thursday, March 2: “Self Care for Surviving 45-A 60 minute we binary for the woke, broke, and folks just trying to stay afloat.”

Check out and refer others to these media. Participate in your own mental health and help others participate in theirs.

Black Access to Mental Health Care Not as Simple as It Seems

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 


Kennesaw State University online image

Kennesaw State University online image

 During the years that Barack Obama was President, the statistics regarding numbers of African Americans experiencing mental/emotional and/or psychological distress did not change much. Blacks still report being in serious psychological distress at a rate about 10% greater than non-Hispanic whites. Serious psychological distress is a measurement of likelihood of having a “diagnosable mental illness  and associated functional limitations”. The assessment most widely used for this measurement is the Kessler “nonspecific distress scale” and uses six (K6) to ten (K10) questions, each with five possible responses. The K6 has become the preferred version because although it has fewer questions it has proven to be just as reliable as the 10-question version. A score greater than 12 on the K6 scale indicates emotional or mental disturbance that probably warrants attention and treatment. Now that Donald Trump has become President, indications are that those numbers might only increase. 

Odds are good that the average African American has never been evaluated with the K6 or K10, or any other official mental health assessment for that matter. But self-disclosures on social media, conversations where black folk have always had them—churches, salons and barbershops, informal get-togethers—and now even books like Benilde Little’s memoir Welcome to my Breakdown reveal that anxiety, depression, Bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses are things that yes, even Blacks are dealing with. It’s therefore a welcome sign that self-care has exploded as a meaningful and viable form of help for those experiencing challenges to their mental and emotional health. Some types of self-care are mostly feel-good remedies, things like window-shopping, binge-watching a favorite show, or redecorating a room that could use a seasonal refresh. Other types of self-care offer a little more substance and are evidence-based behaviors proven to have longer, more sustained demonstrable effect on brain function and mood. Sleep, exercise, meditation, prayer, and even reading fit this category. Besides being a solid cultural expression of Kujicichagulia, the self-determination principle of Kwanzaa, intentionally practicing self-care is also a self-preserving response to a mental health care system too slow to change, too expensive for many, and too inhospitable to black and brown faces.

 The popular narrative has been that African Americans don’t see psychiatrists or other therapists and counselors mainly because they don’t trust the medical profession, stigma shames people into isolation, and treatment is financially out of reach often even for the insured. Not to say that any of those statements is untrue; they just don’t tell the whole story. The distrust of medical practitioners is due in part to a dangerous and deadly history of experimentation and hyper-scrutiny on one hand and outright neglect on the other. Blacks definitely are reticent to admit or discuss mental and emotional problems and still have an irrational fear of being labeled ‘crazy’. And  insurance coverage can still leave an insurmountable payment gap for people to close. But a more fundamental problem underlying these issues is access—there aren’t nearly enough black mental healthcare providers to meet the need. 

The Bureau of Labor via its Occupational Information Network (O*NET ONLine) service reports the following 2014 employment data for mental health related professions:

Therapists – Marriage & Family   34,000
Counselors – Mental Health (excluding social workers, psychologists, and psychiatrists) 128,200-135,000
Psychiatrists- 28,000
Psychologists – Clinical, Counseling, and School  155,000
Mental Health & Substance Abuse Social Workers (Clinical)  118,000

These numbers are not race or gender-specific so then the question becomes how many black mental health practitioners are potentially available to treat African Americans with mental health illness. Not as easy to determine as you might think.

State licensing boards are not permitted and do not collect race information on mental health professionals. Membership in professional groups and associations is better than nothing but even many of the websites for black professionals don’t provide information about how much of the profession is represented by their members, and often not even how many members they have. The National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI) in a fact sheet created as part of its partnership with Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, indicates that 3.7% of American Psychiatric Association members and 1.5% of American Psychological Association members are African American. Nonetheless, membership in a professional group is a subset of a subset because not all licensed professionals are also members in associations.

There are alternative ways to receive treatment for mental disorders including peer support and other types of support groups, but for those persons who truly require the knowledge and training that is only provided by a licensed mental health professional, where do Blacks go and what is the answer for them? Governmental agencies and policy groups push cultural competence as a solution to close the access gap for blacks seeking treatment. The idea is that while a psychologist may not be black, she can be taught cultural understanding and empathy through specialized education. The Office of Minority Health defines cultural competence as being able to function effectively in a cross-cultural setting taking into account a patient’s language, customs, beliefs, values, and institutions. Part of the established standards of culturally-competent care is that the care be “respectful of and responsive to” those beliefs, practices, and needs. Cultural competence has gained traction in important policy and public health discussions, but enforcement of national standards is challenging. Moreover, the addition of linguistic considerations to the cultural competence model has diverted some of the earlier focus from blacks to language-diverse communities like Hispanics, Filipinos, and other ethnic groups.  

The provider shortage and increasing demand might cause more people to reconsider their insistence on ‘buying black’ when it comes to mental health treatment, but it can still be a hard sell to convince African Americans to put their mental health in the hands of someone who doesn’t look like them. Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, principal of Hammond Psychology & Associates, 2017 President of the Florida Psychological Association, and author of The Practical Guide to Raising Emotionally Healthy Children says that cultural competence and same-ethnicity providers are important but “it is not recommended that someone not receive the care they need because there are not enough African-American mental health professionals in your area."

Perhaps arguments similar to those made to Blacks who are hesitant to date or marry non-Blacks; there is something to be said for simply connecting with someone despite differing race or gender. In that regard Dr. Hammond believes, “The reality is that one of the most important factors in a therapist-client relationship is a positive connection”, and she suggests people “look for a therapist who is culturally competent, but also place emphasis on someone you can trust and [with whom you can] feel comfortable discussing your concerns.”

Before access becomes the issue, it’s necessary to understand if professional care is warranted, what type of mental health professional will best meet the individual need and how to find one.

Part two of this series will discuss those issues.


Trafficking is a Problem for Black Girls, Too

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 

A teenage girl bounds down the steps to her kitchen, assures her mom that she has no time for breakfast but will grab something at school, says she is walking to school with her best friend, heads out the door happy, and vanishes. The police and even school personnel try to characterize her as just a rebellious or flighty runaway. She was actually snatched a block from her home by a sexual trafficker.

This particular scenario is the beginning of a novel by Pamela Samuels Young, Anybody’s Daughter, but similar situations happen daily in real life. Data on child sexual trafficking is complex, not integrated across related issues, and underreported but the following statistics shed light on the problem:

The 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes’ Global Report on Trafficking in Persons reported that 6 in 10 survivors had been victims of sexual trafficking.

Girls Educational & Mentoring Services (GEMS), a nonprofit that provides services to teen survivors of  commercial sexual exploitation and domestic trafficking, reports that 85% of victims are female, 75% were involved with child welfare services and/or foster care, 70%-90% have a history of sexual abuse, and that in 2015 94% of its clients were girls of color.

Data from the 2015 annual report of The National Human Trafficking Resource Center show that 85% of its calls/contacts related to trafficking of minors involved in sexual exploitation.

As is the case with other issues like missing persons, juvenile justice and reform, and education, sexual exploitation and trafficking of black women and girls is overshadowed by media attention on whites because of racial and gender bias and stereotypes. And as it is with those issues, the black community can’t be content to sit in the shadows while more lives are impacted.

Atlanta attorney Sherri Jefferson is committed to educating the public and raising awareness of the phenomenon she has labeled “urban sex trafficking”, which she defines as “a concept of approaching the experiences of victims of sex trafficking within urban, suburban and rural corridors whose pimps, purchasers and profiteers rely upon and take advantage of metropolitan areas (epicenters or urban centers) to traffic women and children.” Highlighting the plight of African-American and other minority girls and women allows the inclusion of cultural and environmental factors that help people recognize trafficking in inner cities and differentiate it from racially-motivated characterizations that portray sexual exploitation as lifestyle choices and moral deviancy. Gang-affiliated home-based sex parties, exotic dancing and stripping, and music video production are all contexts Jefferson identifies as situations that hide sexual trafficking and exploitation of black females in urban areas. Another entrée into child trafficking is featured in Young’s novel: contact with young girls through ‘relationships’ with fictional people on social media. Vulnerable girls are targeted and approached by men posing as a guy in the target’s age group, sometimes older. The female is groomed by creating emotional attachment and then persuaded to meet the new ‘boyfriend’ away from family and friends. Black and brown girls are especially vulnerable because traffickers pick targets who don’t have a male presence in the home, have been abused/neglected, or are poor and potentially responsive to economic incentives and gifts. 

Girls and women subjected to trafficking and exploitation suffer unimaginable physical, mental, and emotional trauma. Being emotionally manipulated then trapped in degradation and made to believe there’s no escape and no one who cares about what’s happening to them, trafficked and exploited women and children who survive and do get out describe the serial rape they endured in shocking yet plain terms. Some describe having to service up to 50 men a day with little rest or food, others report being savagely beaten by especially depraved and violent perpetrators or by pimps and ‘managers’. And for a majority of these girls, their trafficking experiences are simply the latest phase in an ongoing cycle of abuse. Survivors need specialized mental health and social services to heal deep wounds and prepare them for successful living in their communities. There is tremendous need for support, and more organizations are providing resources. 

To get involved, get educated. These books and organizations can help.

Girls Like Us: Fighting for a World Where Girls are not for Sale, Rachel Lloyd (Nonfiction)
Anybody’s Daughter, Pamela Samuels Young (Fiction)

GEMS, Girls Educational and Mentoring Services
Sherri Jefferson/ African American Juvenile Justice Project
Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center
FAIR Girls


More Talk with Dr. Monica Coleman about her 'Bipolar Faith'

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 

Ourselves|Black continues the dialogue with Dr. Monica Coleman about her important new book, Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith as part of our discussion on faith and mental health. Part 1 is here.

A reliable truism of mental health wisdom is that every issue started somewhere. Often a specific problem is a culmination of traumas, emotional shocks, and profound hurts and losses. Someone close is seriously hurt or dies, a child is molested or attacked, a lover brutally betrays. What happens next reveals the paradox of mental health in the black community: critical and deep-rooted issues, even though they are so familiar, don’t get talked about very much at all. Yes, the events are relived sometimes almost ad nauseum, but the scars and wounds are simply left in plain sight without comment. Over time it becomes clear that just as important as a thing itself is how that thing is handled. 

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In Bipolar Faith, Dr. Coleman, by sharing both events and how she handled them, provides an honest, daring, and bracing witness for a people who’ve seen plenty of tragedy but need more examples of how to work through the mental and emotional aftermath of what the things leave behind.
Consider what she had to say when I asked her about grief.
OB: I want to talk for a moment about grief. Are we giving grief and the working through of grief enough space in our culture? And if not, do you think that’s contributing to and putting pressure on some of our mental health situations?

Dr. MC: Yes! I think that across the board we try to move on too fast. There is this sense that after deep pain there should be unity, there should be reconciliation , you should get up and go to work. Take one of the most common forms of grief where you lose a loved one. Your elderly parent dies and you take a week off to get business together and funeralize, and then you go back to work. Nobody’s ok! You’re just supposed to go back to life as usual and do whatever it is you were doing before. Even as clergy we do funerals and forget to check in one month, two months, three months later after that period. That’s why I so love the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva. Everything stops for seven days and [they] don’t do anything except sit and be upset. It’s an acknowledgment that that’s all you can do when there’s grief. Sit still and be upset and let people do things for you because that’s what you need . And not that the grief goes away in seven days but acknowledging there’s a season in which you’re immobile is important and makes such a difference emotionally and spiritually and psychologically.  We don’t do that as a society and so I think grief just settles in and it becomes painful and difficult for people. And grief can become depression. It can become depression when you’ve been living with the kind of challenging, I-can’t-do-what-I-need-to-do grief. 

OB: In talking about grief and how we short-circuit the grieving process, one of the things I’m interested in culturally is the StrongBlackWoman thing, that truncated identity . I can’t tell from the descriptions you give of other women in your life but do you think [seeing that identity lived out] had anything to do with [how you reacted to and processed situations]?

Dr. MC: I think it did in the sense that there’s this [idea] that one has to be strong, the trope that I have to be a strong black woman but also literally you had to be strong because there was no safety net. If you didn’t work, nobody ate, nobody had anywhere to live. My grandmother was a sharecropper, and her husband died when she was very young and she had these two little kids and her. So what’s the option? Some of [the StrongBlackWoman identity] was created by the intersection of poverty and war and slavery so that you don’t feel like you have any options. It’s not like there is this trust fund that I can rely on so that I can just take a six month sabbatical and work things out. You have to work it out while you’re doing other things. … But there’s also this sense that was pervasive for me…that growing up African American, you don’t let them see you sweat. You have to do twice as much to receive half as much. But you don’t want a majority culture to know there’s anything wrong with you. People of color and  women feel particularly vulnerable and so you definitely always want to present this image that you’ve got this, that you’re capable. That you are more than capable and confident because you feel like, ‘I’m already operating from a disadvantaged position. For me, that part was a very big factor.

OB: So when you were finally able to get a comprehensible diagnosis (Bipolar II Disorder) that made sense to you, it involved this aspect that you were still able to be very highly productive and functioning. Did that in any way make you feel better? 

Dr. MC: No! Because I am highly functioning to other people but not to myself so within my own mind I know all the things I’m not doing and all the things I want to do but can’t do. It has taken years of people telling me this before I believed it because I don’t feel like that. … So to me, I didn’t frame it as strong black woman but I went back and forth between a sense that, I don’t have to be strong—and people close to me could  see that—and resisting the image that says I can ask for help when I need it. I oscillated between that for a very long time, for decades. 

OB: When we talk about asking for help as a person of faith, part of that is going to be reaching out and reaching up to God for help. So I was drawn by your discussion in the book when you talk about what happened to your relationship with God when things began to happen and as things unraveled a little bit more. What made you not just completely walk away from the faith?

Dr. MC: I often tell people if I wasn’t a minister, if I wasn’t in divinity school, I might have walked away from it. There was something about black church faith that was a part of who I am. It was like brushing my teeth. When I get scared I sing spirituals to myself.  I think that was a big part of it, and the asking for help, we’re all kind of conditioned to ask God for help. I tried to ask churches for help and I give examples [in the book]of people who were so unhelpful . But there were also people who were incredibly helpful, who embodied the presence, the grace, the love, and the acceptance of God. Because of those people, it was okay if God and I were falling out because they were there.  That’s why it makes such a big difference what we do for people.

OB: What do you think we could do to take better care of each other? 

Dr. MC:  Women especially are very good at taking care of other people . We’re socialized to take care of other people before we take care of ourselves. Whether you’re a parent or not, this is how women are socialized. Men are okay with operating in the world much more selfishly… If we don’t take good care of ourselves we often do take good care of other people. Perhaps one thing we can do is do that for each other, but as peers. I was often at these smaller churches and even some larger churches that had small groups. ... Sometimes it’s making your larger community into smaller sub-communities. The hard thing is you can’t really force this. You can orchestrate and facilitate but…it happens organically. Sometimes it’s just slowing down and having genuine relationships with people where you want to hear how they’re doing,  and you’re willing to be honest with someone else about how you’re really doing. Clearly this won’t be the whole world but most of us only need five or six people like that.

A Conversation with Dr. Monica Coleman about Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman's Journey with Depression and Faith

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

Black folks are making progress with mental health. Yes, there is still stigma but it is slowly being chipped away by cultural and media forces that are gaining momentum and strength with each new moment of public transparency (Kid Cudi, Ricky Williams), each honest and humane depiction of mental illness (The Secret She Kept, Lila & Eve), every Twitter or Facebook chat. Along the winding road of progress though is the intersection of faith and mental health/illness. And even for those individuals who might not practice any faith tradition at all, they still must deal within a culture that is steeped in the Judeo-Christian beliefs of generations. A new book by theologian and ordained minister Dr. Monica Coleman is an invaluable resource for confronting and navigating that inevitable intersection.

The book’s title is itself something of a tour-de-force. 

Bipolar Faith: A Black Woman’s Journey with Depression and Faith.

In 10 words, she slings a stone at two Goliaths that have taunted and intimidated the Black community for decades: the thought that faith and any kind of mental disturbance are inherently antithetical, that the presence of one automatically and decisively negates the presence of the other; and the stereotype that Black women—especially Black women—don’t experience depression. This is the kind of book she’s written. It has the potential to break down walls and open up minds, if we let it.

It might be hard for some to truly appreciate the significance of a book like this, but most black women will get it. It’s difficult for a lot of us to admit to having a headache, let alone a serious and periodically  debilitating illness like bipolar depression. But Dr. Coleman doesn’t just announce the outcome of her many years of struggle and suffering; she opens the door and invites us in to hear about it firsthand. Reading about how much she loved her grandmother and the imprint this matriarch’s death left on her life is immediately familiar. Unfortunately, equally familiar is sitting with her through the deep pain and disorientation of a shocking sexual assault. Both events were catalysts of her progression into sadness, depression, and ultimately bipolar depression.

The tension many African Americans face when dealing with matters of the mind and expectations tied to how one expresses faith, particularly Christianity, in the world at large, is a significant issue and one that is worth hammering out for oneself in the most authentic way possible. Faith is not something that should just be abandoned but too many take this route when biblical text cannot seemingly be reconciled with life experience. People need to be able to hash out their questions, doubts, and fears within congregational life without judgment, and there has to be an acknowledgment that much of the problem stems from cultural overlays of meaning onto the words of scripture. Dr. Coleman deals with this tension head-on. She talks about some people who were ‘unhelpful’ when she attempted to discuss her situation and find resources and help, including the woman who told her she needed Jesus.

Dr. Coleman and I waded into these deep waters during our recent conversation about her book and the themes it implicates. We started by discussing her thoughts on what churches can and should do to be a resource in the areas of mental health and illness, and faith.
OB: What do you think the church is afraid of when it comes to mental health? Why do you think there’s so much reticence and hesitation to really deal with this issue?

Dr. MC: I think the church’s hesitation reflects the stigma in wider society. The stigma is decreasing but there’s still this stigma about what it means to be crazy; and we still think of mental health and mental illness as people being crazy, and that this is some really bad thing. Something uncontrollable, something unmanageable, and something you should be able to prevent. So some of it is we need more education about mental health. No one thinks [in this way] about diabetes or heart disease but because we can’t see it in the same way…I think that’s where the resistance is. And then I think we have some theology to go along with that; we have some beliefs that further stigmatize mental health. But I don’t think it’s because the church is afraid of it as much as people are very unreflective about what they say. I think a lot of people—even ministers—just say what we’ve heard [rather than] thinking, do I really believe this? So there’s not that there’s a major resistance to mental health more than other issues but perpetuating ideas that we’ve heard that are incredibly painful and unhelpful for people living with mental health issues. 

OB: What do you think needs to happen and how do we bridge these divides? People are hurting, and people are walling themselves in and walling themselves off on this issue. Do you think education is the key? Where do we start?

Dr. MC: There are two things I would say. In terms of individuals, most people have figured out that if their church isn’t helpful, they don’t go to that church. They literally either stop attending or whether they’re conscious of it or not they find extra-ecclesiastic resources for [consolation] and healing, be it therapy or music or good friends. They find other ways and other places outside of the church even if their church is important to them and their faith life is important to them , they say, ‘If you’re not going to be helpful to me, then I’ll get my help somewhere else.’ … [H]opefully this book is one place where people can find some help. But in terms of what churches can do, a big part of making a difference in churches is that clergy don’t say certain things that are unhelpful, that clergy talk about mental health like they talk about other health challenges: not as things of sin, things that you can cast out, things that you should be too blessed to have. But talk about mental health in the same way [they talk about other conditions]. I think even very educated, seminary-trained clergy still walk away with the idea that [people need to come to them] as compared to, I could be talking about this as a public health issue, as a societal issue that effects people in my congregation. These are things we should be talking about communally in order to make churches welcoming and safe places. 

OB: There was a part in your book where you talked about struggling to find the language for yourself to really understand what you were experiencing and how to talk to other people about it. Why is this important, and what can we tell people about how to do that for themselves? 

Dr. MC: [I]n the face of things that are traumatic and painful people lose words, you lose language. You think, that’s that bad thing that happened to somebody else, not me. So you can’t piece together your own experience. That’s where it matters when other folks have a language. So [if] this is one of the things that churches talk about then they have a language that you might see yourself in. [Someone might] read a scripture and you say, ‘Wow that’s how I’m feeling.’ …[P]eople begin to find the language that works for them. It’s also important that we realize there are ways of experiencing God and ways of experiencing the world that are non-linguistic. I talk in the book about how important dance was. Or for some people laying on of hands. We don’t always have to be linguistic. There are other ways we can communicate. 
See Part 2 for the continuation and conclusion of my conversation with Dr. Coleman on mental health. We get into grief, the StrongBlackWoman identity, and her thoughts on how taking care of each other can be a saving grace for us all.


You Can Keep Your 'Unholy' Diagnosis

Jacquese Armstrong, Survivor Columnist

I recently had a discussion with a college buddy of some 38 years and discovered her newly developed conception of mental illness. She said that the symptoms and nightmarish journey I’ve been through for some 35 years was caused by the devil in my life implying that my walk with God was either non-existent or unknowing, i.e. “unholy.” I was shocked, hurt and angry.

Shocked, because not only is this lady well-educated, but very savvy and well-informed. Hurt, because she was like a sister to me. Angry, because I’ve heard this before and it couldn’t be further from the truth. I told her she had a very simplistic view and that we should agree to disagree.

My diagnosis is schizophrenia bi-polar type and I went through a period of two and a half decades not responding to medication. In this time, voices plagued my mind 24/7 trying to entice me to suicide. I couldn’t distinguish which voice in my head was actually mine until after that period. Paranoia increased to the point that I thought people could read my mind. My moods yo-yo’ed like a busy elevator. Alienated from myself, I prayed to get through every five minute block in terror and tears. Sporadically, I still experience these symptoms.

 However, this is not the first time I have received the “unholy” diagnosis. The first time, I received it was from a minister at a prayer meeting at a church my family then attended. I had recently been prescribed lithium for my mood swings. This was at about six years into the illness and it took a portion of the great burden off of my back. The difference was night changing into day. So, I knew I needed the medication that he told me to abandon in exchange for only prayer, insinuating that I didn’t pray hard enough.

This was not only detrimental to my self-image, it sent me on a short span of questioning God’s existence. I mean, surely what a minister said had to have some validity. Yet, I knew without the newly found help, my burden would be greatly increased again. I chose medication.

Then, after much introspection and the passage of time, I found a myriad of reasons why God did exist and that the minister was uninformed and misguided. Unfortunately, some do not reason this way, or question a minister’s pastoral validity. Some are not the rebel I have always thankfully been.

My question is this: Would these people abandon their primary care physicians or refuse treatment for other types of illnesses? Would they not go to a dentist? An optometrist? If the answers were yes, I could see their point as valid and agree to disagree. My walk with God and understanding of Him are different. I can get with that.

But, when the answer is no, I have to put on my teacher’s hat. But, sometimes I wonder if education works.

The brain is connected to the body. As a matter of fact, it regulates bodily functions. A mental illness is just as medical as high blood pressure, cancer, diabetes or any other “medical” illness you can name. My understanding of my illness (and there are others) is that it is a chemical imbalance in the brain that causes the synapses to misfire. They do not receive impulses the way they should. The Mayo Clinic website explains schizophrenia as a combination of genetics, brain chemistry and environment. They say researchers don’t know the significance of these changes, but indicate that schizophrenia is a brain disease.  

National Institute of Mental Health’s (NIMH) website identifies that neurotransmitters, dopamine and glutamate, play a role. Neurotransmitters (housed in the synapses of the brain) are substances brain cells use to communicate with each other. They admit that scientists are learning more about schizophrenia and how brain chemistry is related. But, much more research is needed.

However, these assertions still validate my belief, that schizophrenia is indeed an illness, a brain disease.

At 55, with an onset at 20, I have just had a “tune-up” in an acute partial hospital to adjust my medication because my symptoms seemed to be returning. Now once again, I have freedom and my mind is at peace. I thank God for this. I trust Him completely.

In my understanding, God gives us the gift of medically enlightened humans to assist us with our illnesses. Why would he waste a miracle on something that can be handled on earth? As for the “unholy” diagnoses, I just smile and keep walking with my head held high. You can’t change some minds, but you don’t have to let them interfere with your self-esteem. God is good and I feel that I am blessed.

I am not the only one to have a hard journey—illness or no illness. The trick for me is to learn, teach and inspire. Mahalia Jackson used to sing, “If I can help somebody as I pass along… Then my living will not be in vain.” I hope that I qualify for the list of those who have accomplished this feat.



Can I Grieve? Letting Grief Have its Place in Our Healing

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor


Venida Browder died on Friday, October 14, 2016 at a Bronx hispital. The reported cause of death is complications from a heart attack. Maybe the reality is that she died from complications. Sixteen months earlier her son Kalief  Browder died by suicide from hanging. Three years earlier, he had been released from Rikers Island prison where he spent 400 of 1,000 days incarcerated  in solitary confinement. Three years before that, he was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack. Venida Browder’s 63 years of life were undoubtedly about more than her son’s sickening ordeal, but her death was almost certainly about the heart-stopping grief she endured because of Kalief’s time in prison and his death.
Grief as a painful historical trajectory is one thing; to grieve intensely in the misery of the present moment is another. Joy James, professor at Williams College, interviewed by George Yancey for the New York Times Opinionator blog, December 23, 2014

Grief has been a steady companion in the black American community since the first slaves landed in Jamestown. Even the national song of the culture is a mix of determined hope and acknowledged grief:

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.  Lift Every Voice and Sing

But how are both collective and individual grief being dealt with? Does the journey follow the traditional stages outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross in her seminal work, On Death and Dying, or has a different model emerged that reflects the advent of social media and  virtual communication?  And how does grief differ from and relate to traumatic stress and other forms of mental and emotional pressure faced by African Americans? Urban poverty, mass incarceration beginning with school-to-prison pipelines, community and domestic violence, chronic illness, and racism exert an internal force on the minds and bodies of black Americans that cannot be ignored and absolutely should be intentionally addressed. We need productive, healing ways to process the grief borne by countless women,  men, and children who are struggling every day to function.

Perhaps a meaningful step is to simply allow people to grieve. That suggestion sounds obvious, but the truth is that there is still too much cultural baggage around letting people express their profound sadness and sense of loss when traumatic things happen. Black women, living through the StrongBlackWoman stereotyped identity, have become especially expert at masking, suppressing, and neglecting the grieving process, and teaching our families to do the same. Black movies have provided some interesting portrayals of women who have short-circuited their emotional development by not giving themselves permission to appropriately grieve loss. A pivotal scene in the 2009 Bill Duke film, Not Easily Broken, shows a confrontation between Clarice (Taraji Henson) and her mother (Jennifer Lewis) in which Clarice challenges how her mother handled the end of her marriage to Clarice’s father. It is revealed that there were things occurring in the marriage that the daughter wasn’t aware of, but Clarice points out that holding on to her hurt and anger has made her mother bitter and hard. She realizes that she has unintentionally adopted some of her mother’s emotional strategies, and she sees the negative effect it’s had on her own marriage. 

It’s quite possible that the mother never felt free to express how she really felt about her situation. Crying, yelling, breaking things, and even silence should be accepted as valid ways of dealing with intense grief. Outward expression is a critical release valve that clears the mind and heart to make room for healing thoughts and words.
Many of the experiences of Black people, whether they be personal or community based, cause us actual grief. We are constantly grieving the lives of people we do or do not know and the possibility of it being us. We have to provide space for ourselves and other Black folks to express that grief, no matter how it takes form. We have to remind ourselves that folks can be angry, afraid, and/or sad. These feelings and others are not mutually exclusive. We have every right to be angry and we shouldn’t police others who are angry. Black rage is real and should be validated in the ways that emotions that mirror sadness and/or fear would be.  Quita Tinsley, Healing in the Midst of Tragedy: How Can Black Folks Keep Surviving in the Face of Constant Trauma? October 13, 2015
Having ways to process grief—besides eating or not eating—is important also. Knowing how to form a workable and healing perspective around one’s emotions and how to make good decisions are key emotional skills that help people move in a healthy way through grief. For the black community, for whom grief is not typically episodic but chronic, these types of skills are especially critical. The persistent and ongoing recurrence of racially-motivated killings and escalating rates of debilitating illness are occurrences that leave many struggling to mentally keep pace with the succession of events in their lives and the lives of others in the black culture. Mental health professionals and others trained in counseling,  emotional intelligence, application of spiritual faith principles, and other “soft sciences” and healing arts are needed to develop models and approaches that can be peer taught, person to person, family to family. This is the only way forward, for us and our children.