Colorism: Let's Start Talking

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

This is the second article in our Colorism series as part of the #BlackMentalHealthConversations Project. The Introduction is here.

Colorism is hard to talk about. It’s shameful to admit that people who have been systematically, historically, systemically, strategically, and forcefully oppressed based on having black skin would discriminate and hold prejudice against their own with blacker skin. But colorism is alive and not treating us so well.


Research on colorism within the African-American community exists but is undervalued and seldom discussed. A 2015 study found health disparities between blacks of varying skin shades were in many cases equal to or greater than those between blacks and whites. This same study also reported that: 1) the participants with a medium-brown skin color perceived less discrimination and bias, and had better indicators of mental health than participants at either the light brown or dark brown end of the color spectrum; and 2) how the interviewer described a person’s skin tone had less of an impact on that person’s  level of perceived discrimination than did one’s self description of skin color. Research is important to acknowledge and include in discussions of colorism because it helps to legitimize and quantify feelings and experiences of black people of all skin shades. Moreover, some research results challenge common defenses offered as to why colorism is not terribly important within the hierarchy of problems faced by blacks.

For example, various studies done between 1987 and 2007 reported tangible consequences of messages attached to, and privilege associated with, lighter versus darker skin color. African Americans with lighter skin color were shown to earn more, be more educated, live in better neighborhoods, and for women, to have married spouses with a higher socioeconomic status than their darker skinned counterparts. It’s important to note that in some instances of course, education or employment for example, those results might most often reflect the mindsets of non-Blacks with decision-making authority. But in the social arena involving dating, marriage, and family life, Blacks are making those decisions themselves. So in the areas in which blacks are in control and are able to exercise a level of power and authority that impacts another black person’s life, it must be recognized that harm is being done to the psyches and emotions of other African Americans, and the commitment to eradicate and heal this harm must be as strong as the commitment to fight interracial racism. Indeed, is it possible that intracultural resistance against and healing of colorism could hold a key to strengthening our people to fight against the ravages of racism?

To that end, dialogue that aids understanding of others’ experiences with colorism is vital.

In conversations with young black women, black men, and reading social media posts and articles on this topic, there is no doubt that people have been and are continuing to be hurt.

S.C., a young, educated, and vibrant woman with deep brown skin described to me how colorism has effected relationships and her self-image:

 “A guy was really into me. We spent time together, everything was great but we never spent time with his friends. He would invite me to brunch with them and they would flake or only stay to say hello. His mother would text him mean things about being with a black woman. The pressure was too much for him. He had so much to lose on his end if we didn’t work out. He sent me a long text one morning stating I was too dark and if only I was lighter it may have worked. That changed the game for me. …I’m cool enough to chill just not cool enough for commitment and relationship.”

S.C. also stated that because of that experience, she now ‘accepts’ it more readily because it has become somewhat normalized behavior. I was curious whether she felt there is a safe space for blacks to discuss colorism and how we treat each other. “No. Because you’re going against the code. You can communicate to other dark women but it’s like preaching to the choir. You confront others and they can’t have you questioning their character and perspective. They become defensive.”

For many African Americans, being treated differently by fellow blacks because of their skin shade starts much earlier than a dating experience. Too often children are exposed to verbal taunts, physical assaults, and social exclusion from family and friends at very young ages. To begin to understand and then restore and heal, we need education and involvement from black psychologists, psychiatrists, child and family therapists, social workers, pastors, and other mental health specialists. We consulted an expert to weigh in. Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, psychologist and author of The Practical Guide to Raising Emotionally Healthy Children, and 2017 president of the Florida Psychological Association, offers this insight regarding actions parents and caregivers can take to address the negative effects of colorism on our younger generations:

"Parents and caregivers need to have conversations about race and colorism with their children from an early age and continue these conversations as their child grows. First, parents should explain the reality that colorism exists in our country and people are treated differently due to the color of their skin. However, the child should be empowered to know that they are beautiful inside and out. Secondly, parents need to remember that children and teens need positive support and role models. Thirdly, parents need to socialize their children to understand the world around them, not to fear it, but to embrace their world and recognize that their differences are not negative things. … Our family has taught  [my five-year old son] that his brown skin is beautiful and that he should love his friends and they should love him no matter what. … Although parents may not be able to “fix” society and get rid of colorism, what parents can do is instill positive self-esteem in their child, provide support, have many heart-to-heart conversations,  and be open…the most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open."

Let’s get to work.

For further reading, education, and reflection:

Twitter #colorism

What is Colorism-Skin Tone Discrimination in America


Culturally Competent Care: Is 'FUBU' the (only) Way to Go?

Adia Harris, Contributing Writer

 We know the drill.

When seeking health care—physical or mental—it’s all about finding providers within our budget or HMO, with an office close to home or work that can see us when our schedule allows. However, should this be our only criteria in our quest for care? What about finding providers based on their ability to understand who we are as people?

 This question actually might be more important than you think, and it’s at the crux of what is considered culturally competent care.

What is Culturally Competent Care?

The term culturally competent care (CCC) is defined as healthcare providers’ ability to effectively deliver health care services that can meet the social, cultural and linguistic needs of patients.


Cultural aspects that can be considered by health care professionals determining a patient’s care needs may include but are not limited to:

• race                                            • ethnicity

• language                                    • sexual orientation

• gender                                        • age

• disability                                    • class/socioeconomic status

• education                                  • religious/spiritual orientation

Why is CCC Important to Mental Health?

A patient’s willingness to seek and participate in treatment is vital to improving mental health outcomes. This is statistically significant, considering the mental health disparities that do exist for minority groups.

 For example, according to National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI), African Americans are 15 percent less likely seek help than white counterparts even though they are 20 percent more likely to suffer from serious psychological stress than the general population.

 At OIB we wanted to explore the reality of CCC even further. So, we asked around. Below are some cultural care related questions and answers posed and answered by individuals within the African American community:

Q: When seeking a mental health care provider are there aspects about you or your background you think are important for them to understand about you? If so, how do you believe a provider’s knowledge of these things would help them to care for you?

A: I think a mental health professional's understanding and respect toward cultural, racial, and religious beliefs of a patient cannot be understated. As a young African American woman, I’ve constantly heard negative terminology associated with seeking treatment for mental health. I was often afraid when seeking a provider that they wouldn’t understand or appreciate the impact racial and cultural beliefs played in my openness to seeking treatment and involving my family and friends in my recovery. Regardless of the race, ethnicity, sexuality and religious beliefs of the patient or provider, a common understanding of personal, family and friendship networks and overall community beliefs as the relate to the individual’s treatment is needed.

--Lauren Carson, mental health advocate and founder of Black Girls Smile

Q: Do you think having a therapist that has a similar background to a patient is important? Why or why not?

A: It depends.

It’s easy to assume working with a therapist from a similar background as your own may be more comfortable for you, perhaps because you assume they may have an easier time understanding your experience and the factors that come into play. You don’t have to explain so much to them, they get the big picture and the nuances, and they’re not so judgmental. Often, that is the case.

Sometimes however, a similar background does not necessarily lead to automatic understanding. Sometimes, working with someone different from you can be a good connection and an enlightening experience; the differences that exist can actually be helpful.

You certainly want a “good match” between therapist and client. So much of therapy rests on the effectiveness of the relationship. Trust and respect are built with mutual responsibility on both the part of the therapist and the client. If similar background is important to you, you have a voice, and a choice. You certainly don’t want someone who questions everything, doesn’t get you at all, is very judgmental or exhibits disdain for you or your group. Trust your gut. You can always find another therapist.

-- Rhea Gordon, PHD, Licensed Psychologist

Have you had any health-related experiences where you felt misunderstood by a healthcare provider? If so, what could have made it a better experience?

A: When I was a senior in college I had another bad depressive episode. I was prescribed an antidepressant that seemed to work very well until I started my [menstrual] cycle. I was super irritable and emotional. After suffering another month, I went back to my psychiatrist for an explanation and she told me to see my OBGYN. I went to see the OBGYN and was essentially told to talk to my psychiatrist. After a few times going back and forth, we realized that my hormones on birth control was the cause.

We doubled my antidepressant dosage during that week, and I finally felt balanced. I hate that I had to go back and forth so many times. As a female, there should be more thought and care about reactions between birth control and antidepressants.

--Camryn Triplett, Communications Officer for Silence the Shame; in treatment for major depression

Q: Would you have any reservations about seeing a therapist or a behavioral health specialist for mental, social and or physical issues you face in life? If so, what would they be?

A: I would be very open to speaking with a therapist of some kind. I believe many people my age have a tough time navigating many social issues. We live in an age of information and have access to a world of experiences at our fingertips. In my opinion, this could make it tough to find a sense of purpose or identity. If I am seeking mental health, I would really just want someone to be a clinical expert who practices based on research. Having someone who can relate outside of clinical therapy is just a bonus.

--Harry Karambizi, Web Developer; has never sought mental health care

Defining Your Mental Health Culture

Based on research and the responses we received, the reality may be that there is no such thing as the perfect provider or treatment for everyone. However, as the prevalence of mental illness continues to increase within our communities, it is imperative that we, especially as individuals of color, understand the value culturally competent care can bring to treatment.

Here are two great resources for seeking CCC mental health care:

How to Interview Your Therapist -- Psychology Today

Mental Health Care That Fits Your Background --NAMI



Black Mental Health Means Standing Up for Moms and Babies

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor

Sometimes affecting change in the black community feels like a real-life version of whack-a-mole in which it seems like one issue has been put to rest, only to have another, or the same issue, pop up again and again.

For several years the rate of black infant mortality declined. From 2005 to 2012 the black infant mortality rate decreased from 14.3 to 11.6 per 1,000 births. But two years later in 2014, the rate started to inch up, going from 11.4 to 11.7 per 1,000 births in 2015. Additionally, attention has refocused on black maternal health and mortality with the news that black women die almost four times more often from pregnancy and birth related complications than white women. Mental health realities are both a significantfactor in and result of these alarming statistics. Researchers, physicians, and advocates are wacking away at these problems, but what will finally deal a death blow, or at least severely limit the death toll among black women and their children? Issues of health equity, including better access to prenatal care, and better pediatric and obstetric care for babies, are most often named as the solutions to these crises. But there is another reason the media and even some sectors of the medical community are loathe to mention: racism. Black pregnancy and birth outcome activists and advocates are pushing back to keep racism and its effects at the forefront of the discussion.

Recently the Black Mamas Matter Alliance (BMMA), in partnership with the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, held a congressional briefing on black maternal health to raise awareness of the data on black mom and baby deaths and to seek funding for research and programming to address the race-related causes of both phenomena. Echoing themes associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, briefing moderator Dr. Joia Crear-Perry, founder of Louisiana-based National Birth Equity Collaborative summed up the group’s position, “Black women need government accountability. We need to know our lives are valued. Blackness isn’t the risk factor; racism is.”

One of the event’s panelists was Dr. Fleda Mask Jackson, a researcher and maternal health scholar who co-developed the Jackson Hogue Phillips Contextualized Stress Measure (JHP), an instrument designed to qualify feelings and reactions to race and gender based experiences in the lives of black women. The JHP was created after research by Dr. James Collins and Dr. Richard David refuted previous thinking and revealed that even black women with similar education and economic status as middle-class white women experienced the same level of maternal and birth risks as poorer black women. Dr. Jackson and colleagues conducted research to better understand the reasons for this and discovered that money and education were not strong enough protective factors to overcome the effects of constant stress black women experienced because of race and gender discrimination and expectations. This groundbreaking research gave voice to black women who thought “doing all the right things” would ensure healthier outcomes for them but who came to understand more clearly just how heavy a toll the stress of everyday living was taking on their lives and the lives of their unborn children. Connecting chronic, inescapable stress to maternal health and birth outcomes for black women deepened and strengthened policy work by giving greater context to fights already being fought by black women: closing the pay gap, stable and safe housing and communities, equitable education, and workplace equity. These things literally are a matter of life and death for black women and their children.

The women at the congressional briefing want to make the point that these frameworks are not just abstract theory; they have real-world applications. Take poverty. It is a widely reported measure used to explain disparities in education and health, reflects a synergistic relationship between socioeconomic indicators like employment, education, and housing, and therefore could be expected to be a strong source of life stress for black women. A look at the black child poverty and black infant mortality rates shows a shameful association:

State                          Poverty Rate/Blk Mult.       Infant Mortality Rate/Blk Mult.

Wisconsin                  44%/4.4x                             14.1/2.9x

Michigan                    47%/3.1x                              14.3/2.9x

Ohio                           47%/3.1x                               15.1/2.7x

Louisiana                    46%/3.0x                             12.0/2.0x

Indiana                        42%/2.8x                             13.3/2.2x

Missouri                       42%/2.8x                             11.7/2.1x

Mississippi                   47%/2.8x                             11.2/1.9x

Arkansas                       47%/2.5x                             9.9/1.4x

Alabama                       44%/2.75x                            13.0/1.9x

Kentucky                       46%/2.1x                              10.1/1.5x

Solutions that have been suggested to reduce the death rates for mothers and children are finally including attacking the structural and institutional racism that lead to components of poverty, while keeping a focus on helping women to cope with the stress-inducing situations. Mental and emotional health concerns should be intimately involved in these discussions, and advocacy work must push for community based support and treatment systems to teach mental health literacy so that women can understand their own reactions and symptoms, and when and how to seek professional help; understand the serious effects of chronic and prolonged stress over the course of their lives on a current pregnancy; and how to talk with partners and family to get the support they need for a healthy pregnancy and birth.


Black Mamas Matter Toolkit

Race, Stress, and Social Support: Addressing the Crisis in Black Infant Mortality, Dr. Fleda Mask Jackson

Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?



Our Conversation with Liza Jessie Peterson, Author of All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island

Chandra White-Cummings,  Managing Editor 




Author Liza Jessie Peterson (Internet Image)

Author Liza Jessie Peterson (Internet Image)

Ourselves Black recently spoke with Liza Jessie Peterson about her new book, All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island. Ms. Peterson is a poet, playwright, actress, and educator who loves our children and whose experiences have so much to teach all of us about what's broken in their lives, and how to bring healing and recovery to their lives, and to our community and institutions. 

This published interview is edited for clarity, length, and readability. 

CWC: There’s a part in your book where one of the students talks about in front of the class an experience he had when he was younger that has really affected him. He talks about how he and his brother were left in a bathtub and his mom went to answer the phone. We’ve all had some type of similar experience where you’re doing something, you get distracted and do something else, and the time just really gets away from you. This experience really affected him because needless to say he and his brother ended up being in a tub of hot water longer than they should have. His mom did not realize … Anyway, the way you describe the things he says [Hey I’m her son and I’m there with my brother. We’re her sons and she kept us there. She forgot about us?!] The way you describe him repeatedly saying that, you can feel him coming through the page: his disappointment, his shock, his disbelief, and his hurt. It’s a very powerful scene, and it really touched me. You say something as you’re wrapping up this description of what happened …

When hearing stories like Tyquan’s, and some that are worse, the challenge is to not get caught up and stuck in their woundology. I had to learn how to acknowledge the pain without coddling it. I had to learn to let the wound breathe by discussing it, but not giving it absolute power by lounging in the trauma. I won’t allow their wound to become their identity. I look for their strengths, I recognize their gifts, I remind them of their resilience, and I find their good and praise it. It’s a balance indeed. [from page 103 of All Day: A Year of Love and Survival Teaching Incarcerated Kids at Rikers Island] 

One of the reasons I want to highlight this is because [in my opinion] one of the reasons why many interventions that people attempt, although well-intentioned, fall flat is because they don’t understand this dynamic [of balance]. You say you had to learn this so talk to me about how you learned it, how you came to understand that this was the effective and proper approach.

LJP: My godmother is a clinical social worker at Rikers Island and, she has been working with incarcerated adolescent girls for over 10 or 12 years. But she’s been a social worker for 40 years, and she’s a self-identified social therapist. When I first started working at Rikers Island, working with the girls doing the poetry workshop, she took me under her wing, and that was something she told me. In working with the girls they have a lot they want to share and they’re more expressive in terms of talking about their traumas then the boys are. What I found myself doing initially was just listening to them sharing these horrific stories . I would leave our one-on-one counseling sessions so drained. It was my godmother who pulled my coat and taught me the balancing act: yes, we have to give them room but sometimes the young people have made the wound a part of their identity and so they keep reliving it by retelling it over and over again. While it’s healthy to let it breathe I had to learn through her guidance to also remind them of their resilience and to look forward, to look at their strengths, what they had the power to become [and that] they had the power to transform. So it really came out of me being one of those people who [at first] allowed them to languish in sharing their wounds. I felt helpless…what do I do? I was paralyzed in it. With her expertise and being very unorthodox , she gave me the woundology terminology. So it was really my godmother. By the time I got to the boys in 2008 I had a little bit of experience with the girls prior to that. It helped me navigate with the boys . With Tyquan I loved how supportive the other boys were of him.  

CWC: There’s a portion towards the middle of your book where you speak about how many of these young men lack a foundation upon which to build their lives. Do you feel that the fatherless narrative which we talk about—the statistics about our young men—is being made too much of, or are we on track, based on your experiences with this population?

LJP: It’s a mixed bag. The reason I say that is because there were young men who came from two parent families. There were young men who had the father in their life but the father wasn’t with the mother. Or they had a really strong supportive mother…there was one kid who was in high school, he had a two-parent family. He was applying to HBCU colleges and universities, and he got caught up in the street life. Of course having that adult male positive father figure in a young man’s life is definitely going to have a different impact in terms of the fertile soil the child will grow from. But I don’t think it’s absolute. History has shown us amazing people who were raised with single parent moms. Now does that mean there weren’t other men who stepped in to fill in the gap? Probably, but I don’t know. 

CWC: Let’s talk about Rikers. There’s so much mythology around Rikers. Is it really as bad as people think? 

LJP: The violence that occurs at Rikers Island does happen. There are a lot of people who are getting hurt. So yes, it is bad. However, during my time there I was fortunate enough to know correctional officers who work with the adolescents and who were almost like big brother figures. They were there to guide, also for disciplinary action; that goes without question. But in terms of what they brought to the uniform, their personality, they were black men who saw young black men in crisis. While they had them in their care, they tried to offer words of wisdom. They tried to talk to them man to man. I witnessed a balance. Yes, Rikers is bad. A whole lot of violence. But I also witnessed a lot of correctional officers who worked with adolescents who operated like caretakers. Have I witnessed young people being beaten up by correctional officers? No, I haven’t. Has it happened? Yes, it has. I can only speak to what I saw. It’s chaotic. It’s like any neighborhood that is riddled with crime. People still live there, still go to the bodega , sit on the front porch and have conversations. And then some violence happens and there’s an interruption in the normalcy. So Rikers is like that crime-ridden community where people still live and operate.

CWC: Were you able to see effects of the strain on the young guys from living in Rikers?

JLP: Yes it was the strain of being in a traumatic environment. Being in prison is traumatic. Being transferred to another prison is even more traumatic because now you’re going to a place where you don’t know anybody and you have to restart the process of who to trust. The young men deal with it differently. Some are very quiet, in a depressed state all the time. They wouldn’t talk and [were] very defensive. Using the defense mechanism of ‘I’m not going to engage anybody.’ Then you had those who put up a hyper-masculine bravado as part of their defense mechanism to ward off any predators: ‘I’m going to appear as the predator so I don’t attract any predators.’ Then you had the comedians: ‘If I can be your source of entertainment then I won’t be targeted. They all employed different coping mechanisms to deal with living in a very unsafe and traumatic environment. 

CWC: When it comes to trauma, what would be an effective way to bring trauma-informed care to young people in these kinds of situations? And assuming that it does close at some point, how do we transition people out of Rikers to someplace where this type of care would be possible?

JLP: There are a host of reentry programs, and a big component needs to be trauma-informed social workers who don’t languish in the woundology but understand that the behavior is a manifestation of something that happened. So not: ‘why are you like this?”, but: ‘What happened to you?” And to give people the space to be self-reflective so that they can themselves understand where it’s coming from and what triggered it and then what will heal it. And this needs to be at the community level because there are a lot of people dealing with trauma who are not incarcerated, so that it can have a ripple effect into the families. We need therapeutic modalities in our communities so people understand the traumas and not ignore it. Also some people are dealing with complex trauma. So instead of criminalizing people, [we need to] get at the traumas that are playing a part in some of these behaviors that we’re seeing. Much of the dysfunction and pathology we see running rampant in our community is the result of trauma. Poverty is traumatic. Let’s make no mistake about that. We navigate it, and we manage it, but it’s traumatic; it’s stressful. And if you’re dealing with abject poverty—what that does to the spirit and psyche; I don’t think that can be overlooked.

CWC: Let’s switch to music and media, which you also talk about in the book. Do you believe that some of the people who are producing music, especially in the hip hop space, are living out some of their own trauma?

JLP: Absolutely. Some of the videos that I was able to watch when I worked with the adolescents in the Rikers Island housing area, these videos were so packed with pathology. It was stunning. But I said, ‘Wow they’re talking about their experience,  they’re talking about their trauma.” It was very disturbing. What’s equally disturbing is that we’re only getting that narrative which is the only one that’s getting access to our children—the narrative of  trauma. Not the narratives of healing, not the narratives of resilience, not the narratives of empowerment. We’re only getting the narrative of death, of self-hatred, misogyny. There’s no balance. There’s not a complete conversation. 

CWC: Do you think someone like Chance (the Rapper), or Kendrick (Lamar), people like that, are trying to do some of this work of changing the narrative? 

JLP: Definitely. And I think there are others like them: Lupe Fiasco, J Cole who are telling a complete story and they’re coming with a more empowering narrative, more complex. It speaks to liberation, to self-reflection and self-analysis, even community analysis. So there’s analysis there which is so important. They’re helping to push the culture in a direction of healing and wellness, not just profiting from these corporate colonists who have colonized hip hop. Because hip hop has been colonized, make no mistake about it.

CWC: Please explain that. What do you mean?

JLP: There are corporate entities who have a vested interest in maintaining the narrative of our destruction. Promoting and green-lighting it. These are people who don’t have our best interest [at heart], and they have infiltrated our sacred art. They have gatekeepers who have shut the gate on a full conversation and on the complexity of our voices and have only allowed or given access to the voices of destruction and ignorance, voices of minstrel.

You can buy her book at,,  or the publisher's website.
So the music does play a critical role in our health and development and healing, [and also in] exacerbating our trauma.

Struggling with a Mental Health Diagnosis? Maybe it's Time to Devictimize Your Life

Jacquese Armstrong, Survivor Columnist 


Photo by Tongle Dakum. Used under Common Creative License 

Photo by Tongle Dakum. Used under Common Creative License 

Being a psychiatric survivor in a success-oriented world and personally having none of the trappings that go with it can cause one to think of themselves as a victim. You become a victim to the illness, because it may keep you from that type of success. You become a victim of society, because stigma may keep you from attaining monetary success and social standing. You become a victim, because maybe your life did not proceed in the way you thought it should.

I have fallen prey to all these negative traps. And they are traps that not only keep you from maintaining wellness, but keep you dissatisfied and unhappy with your life. I had to look for and find my true essence, my God-given right to dignity and the motivation to fight anyone and anything that would try to rob me of this.

Some of us lose so much along the way with psychiatric illnesses. In the 35 years I’ve lived with mine (I no longer say battled), I have started and lost 5 careers, never had children, never married and have lived in poverty most of my adult life. Unfortunately, this is not an exception in the mental health community; especially among those with what they call “severe and chronic” illnesses. For this group of people, it is not uncommon to have been homeless at least once in your lifetime. It is not uncommon to be destitute and at the mercy of social services. It is not uncommon to have government subsidized housing or food stamps. It is not unusual to live in the poverty demographic. It is not unusual to be unemployed.

This is far from what I had envisioned for myself and was working towards when I had my first psychotic episode at 20. I had come from a well-educated, high-achieving, financially successful family. I thought a beautiful future was my right, especially if I worked hard. I was wrong.

My response to this reality, I realize now, has exacerbated my problems because one thought looms before me: If it weren’t for my illness, I would have…It has taken me 35 years to really embrace the fact that life goes on.

The first step that started to turn me around was an obsession with gratitude. I have a gratitude journal, gratitude board and I think in terms of gratitude all day long. There are so many folks in more dire situations than I. I may not have what I wanted. I may live in relative poverty. But, I have what I need. I have enough. 

In embracing gratitude thinking, I find that every day I am blessed. I have much more than shelter, food, transportation and clothing; for which I am most grateful. When you start listing things to be grateful for, you learn a lot of positives about your life. I realized it was time to let go of preconceived notions that keep driving me toward a success my emotions evidently won’t let me handle.

After accommodating the need for gratitude in my life, I had to embrace peace; peace within myself. This meant trusting and surrendering to my Higher Power and leaning not to my own understanding. 

This was particularly hard for me because I think my theories and thoughts are sound. I came to realize though, that no one wins 100% of the time. If you have no higher purpose than your own gratification and a Higher Power to provide that, you will be set up for a fall sometime, if not continually.

The peace within me came about when I could finally accept the facts my grandparents told me 33 years ago. This is my Higher Power’s will for me; I need to accept it.

This is not something you can just say or decide; you have to feel it from within. And after a long hard journey, I thank my God that I am finally there.

At 55, I haven’t much working time left. Most of my friends are retiring. But, I’m still hopeful. I am restructuring my goals and adjusting my vision once again and I feel great about the prospects.

It’s funny that in the most tumultuous recent times in our nation, I am finding peace. I refuse to be a victim any longer for any reason.


Time to Get (Lit)erate When it Comes to Mental Health

Adia Harris, Contributing Writer 


Before the age of five most children know their ABC’s, how to count, how to tie their shoes and even to stay away from strangers. Kids this age usually know how to tell their parents when they don’t physically feel well and will even point out ‘boo-boos.’ But when should we be expected to understand mental health, and what should we be expected to know?

Mental health seems to be a recent buzzword of sorts; for better and worse it’s been commonly thrust into the media spotlight. However, mainstream media often seems to assume that there is widespread understanding of mental health among the general public. Yet, research indicates many members of the public actually cannot recognize specific disorders or even different types of psychological distress—a key component of mental health literacy.

 But what is mental health literacy, when should it be taught, and what should we know?

What is Mental Health Literacy?

 The term mental health literacy (MHL) was coined in a 1997 study by Australian health psychologist Anthony F. Jorm and his research team, and is defined as having “knowledge and beliefs about mental disorders that aids in their recognition, management or prevention.”  So with a strong working definition, it should be easy to become more mentally literate, right? Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it might seem.

Typing the phrase ‘teaching your child about…’ into Google yields diverse suggestions queued below it, ranging from God to money. But if you complete the phrase with the words ‘mental health’, very few website results come back with straightforward and comprehensive information on how to recognize, manage and prevent mental distress. This evident lack of readily available instructional information on MHL is shocking considering one in four individuals will suffer from a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime.

When Should We Become Literate?

Less than half of Americans can recognize anxiety according to a recent national web survey conducted by Michigan State University that quizzed nearly 4,600 participants on common mental health disorders in an effort to inform policymakers about mental health education needs. This kind of research underscores a more fundamental question: When should we learn about mental health anyway?

The fact of the matter is that it’s never too early or too late to learn about mental health. Experts suggest parents should definitely be talking to their kids about mental health and illness, and the earlier they start the conversation, the better.

To facilitate learning, we also should be advocating for an increase in mental health education in our schools. A decades-long study reported on by NPR found that by age 25, young adults who participated as children in programs that emphasize social and emotional learning, are more likely to succeed academically, are less likely to be incarcerated, and have fewer mental health and substance abuse issues. Considering the woefully disproportionate rates in which African Americans are negatively impacted by socioeconomic hardships like unemployment, incarceration and mental illness, there is no reason for MHL not to be a priority within black communities.

What Should We Know?

Despite the sparse literature available on MHL, one study identified four scientifically recognized areas of understanding and knowledge that provide a good roadmap for mental health literacy.

Knowing how to develop and maintain good mental health: Just like physical hygiene (i.e. using deodorant or brushing your teeth) it’s important to cultivate healthy mental hygiene. One way to greatly improve mental hygiene is by individuals learning to understand their own emotions and developing positive strategies to deal with them.

Recognizing and understanding mental disorders and treatments: A straightforward way for folks to improve mental health literacy is to research common mental health disorders to gain a basic understanding of both symptoms and treatments.

Dispelling feelings of stigma or misconceptions about mental illness: Self-educating about mental illnesses in order to know the facts from the myths is an extremely effective way to eliminate stigmatizing beliefs. Once you know the facts, don’t be afraid to speak up to inform others about misconceptions—knowledge is always power.

Improving help-seeking efficacy: First, know that seeking help for mental health is completely acceptable. Just like knowing when to see a doctor for a high fever, learn to identify mental health symptoms that require professional attention, and research mental health resources that are accessible to you.

 Finding MHL Resources

When we have a strong understanding of mental health, we improve our own mental health outcomes in our communities. Here are a few resources to help increase your mental health literacy and help educate friends and family.

Mental Health First Aid

Every Moment Counts










What Memorial Day can Teach Black America about Mental Health

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 



Image from 

Image from 

History, like suffering, can teach lessons that cannot be learned any other way. For Black America, history and suffering sometimes seem synonymous similar to how America sometimes seems synonymous with ‘white’. Memorial Day is customarily a time when observers remember both the history of Americans’ fighting in and dying during military service to this country. We are encouraged to honor the memory and lives of those who ‘made the ultimate sacrifice’ for the benefit and preservation of freedom and liberty. But do we remember sacrifices made by all Americans? Are African Americans part of the national narrative of bravery, heroism, and honor? Maybe, but much more credit and inclusion of blacks’ contributions to the victories won in the name of freedom is due. And there’s no better way to do that than by consulting history about the origins of Memorial Day and the legacy of the first black soldiers who served both in service to, and resistance against, this country.

Historians credit General John A. Logan, a commander during the Civil War and founder of the Grand Army of the Republic, with being the creator of Memorial Day. On May 5, 1868, he issued a document titled, General Orders No. 11, designating May 30, 1868 as a day “…for the purpose of…decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion.” The document goes on to herald the memory of civil war (particularly Union) soldiers: “Their soldier lives were the reveille of freedom to a race in chains, and their deaths the tattoo of rebellious tyranny in arms.” General Logan was a secessionist, not an abolitionist, whose interest was in preserving the union of the states, not the freedom of black Americans, and even this attempt to unify white soldiers as the war wound down was met with the characteristic recalcitrant contrariness of the Confederacy; they refused to join the commemoration until after World War I when the nation began a uniform observance. Eight states still maintain separate days to honor those who died fighting to preserve the confederacy: Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.

The reference to those soldiers whose actions benefitted the ‘race in chains’ makes the case that the black fighters who fought for their freedom and the freedom of their families and neighbors are not included in the poetic and touching call to remembrance and honor. Absent seems to be any acknowledgment of the first black Union soldiers organized to fight in March of 1862, formerly and very recently enslaved men recruited from tenement communes referred to as ‘refugee camps’ in South Carolina. These are the same soldiers who later became Company A, First South Carolina Volunteer Infantry, the longest-serving African-American military unit in the Civil War. 

Even during the harrowing times of that war, when they could have easily been shot down by their fellow white Union soldiers in not-so-friendly fire, these men fought with a courage and determination that inspired their commander Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson to write of their legacy in his memoir, Army Life in a Black Regiment, “Till the blacks were armed, there was no guarantee of their freedom. It was their demeanor under arms that shamed the nation into recognizing them as men.” Their persistence during an intense campaign in Jacksonville in which they held off Confederate troops for three weeks spurred Abraham Lincoln to lift his previous sanction against allowing black soldiers in combat and is described by historians and biographers as a tide -turning event of the entire Civil War.

What about that history lesson? Every good lesson begins with a provocative question, so we ask ourselves, What kind of people can join a war that is at best intended to benefit them only collaterally by those who wage it on both sides of the issues? What frees the minds of men and enables them to volunteer for a cause when just a few weeks before signing up for battle they were laboring under the tyranny of a society in scandalous rebellion against the God who created them all? How do oppressed people become champions and heroes of their own deliverance?
This type of legacy can only be forged by people who can strike the delicate mental balance of remembering and forgetting.

It is the most beautiful of minds that can remember the struggle but forget the pain and limitations of that struggle. People who have the mental and emotional skill and fortitude to distinguish between circumstances and themselves are the ones who will be prepared to fight for missing black children, win policy changes that put less of our people in prison, and plug up that school-to-prison pipeline. The collective mental health of black America depends in large part on developing a mindset that allows construction of a wall high and broad between the situations that challenge and the systems designed to subjugate, and the inner essence of who we are. Mass incarceration is happening to us and coming against us; but it is not who we are. The attack on voting rights and the people orchestrating those attacks, are situations but they do not define who black America is. 

Black America also does well to understand that resistance is sometimes its own victory. The men of those Jacksonville regiments did not prevail against Confederate troops by storming their camps and exerting superior force. They held their position and resisted the advance of the opposition. And they sustained that resistance for three weeks. Sustained resistance requires a mental commitment to persevere at all costs and accepting that injuries and casualties will happen during the course of that resistance. Resistance also requires mental and emotional regulation.

Considering the lives and deaths of soldiers like those of Company A challenges us to now be bold in our rejection of stigma and pursuit of mental health. Embracing the humility necessary to seek help from friends, family, and professionals takes on new meaning when viewed in the context of individual health for collective strength. Anyone who asks for help should receive it. Those who can help should provide it. Solutions-oriented conversations about challenges and illness should be encouraged and applauded. Resources should be identified and shared.

This Memorial Day remember men and women like those Civil War heroes and commit to protecting and strengthening mental health.

What Black Millenials Need to Know Now About Mental Health

Chandra White-Cummings, Managing Editor 


 Citing U.S. Census data, the 2016 Nielsen report, Young, Connected, and Black, says there are 11.6 million black Millenials—young people between the ages of 18 and 34. That’s a whole lot of turning up and many gallons of tea being sipped. By all appearances, they seem to have it going on. They are reported to be more optimistic than their non-Black counterparts and convinced of their ability to be change agents for a better society. The report also highlights their educational gains, with 70.9% of black high school graduates having enrolled in college in 2014 outpacing the white enrollment rate by five percent. Incidentally, black women led educational gains: in the 2012-2013 academic year, they earned 65% of bachelor’s, 70% of master’s, and 64% of doctorate degrees among black college graduates. And perhaps most notably, they ignited a movement of social justice and civil rights provoked by killings of unarmed young black men beginning with Trayvon Martin. But with so many positive realities shaping their existence, is everything truly well with black Millenials? Maybe not. 

As they set the world on fire, today’s largest generation needs to be sure to tend to the inner life as well as outward appearances. There are disappointments, fears, and troubling circumstances  with which to contend. The 2015 Black Youth Project (BYP) compilation of surveys and third party data highlights some of the challenges they face. BYP reports that over half of respondents said they or someone they know had been harassed by, or experienced violence at the hands of, police. A third of the black millennial woman told of discrimination at work, and 20% of men and women admitted to experiencing discrimination during their job search.

The BYP data also indicated that in 2013, the percentage of black 18-24 year olds living below the poverty line was almost double the percentage of white millennials in the same predicament. True to their optimistic outlook, many seem to recognize the need for building and maintaining strong inner reserves to confront obstacles and be the change catalysts they envision themselves to be. Black Millennial women are spearheading mental health outreaches like Healing Melanin, Melanin Mental Health, Redefine Enough, and others, demonstrating the kind of awareness required to hang tough for the long haul. Everyone, even this technologically savvy group, can learn more about mental health and wellness. Here are a few pieces of wisdom for their journey.

Mental and emotional wellness involves not only self-care and self-love but also care and treatment of others. An emphasis on loving oneself is perceived by many millennials to be the foundation of good mental health. Accepting one’s own flaws, vulnerabilities, and hangups is a necessary steps but it is not the only step. Extending the same tolerance and patience to others deepens wellness by redirecting thoughts about other people in a positive rather than negative direction. Science is revealing that chronic negative thoughts can produce toxic stress which ages and weakens the immune system, making the whole bodily system more susceptible to disease.

Remember that inner mental disturbance and imbalance will show itself in other areas of life, so learn to connect issues that might surface in relationships, at work, or in education settings to problems with mental or emotional health. Dr. Carleah East, LMHC, Psychotherapist, and owner of S.M.I.L.E. Counseling Services, explains:

Black Millennials need to recognize that mental health not only has internal impacts but also external effects. For instance, Blacks diagnosed with depression not only have an emotional struggle to face, but this struggle manifests itself in their work and home environment, resulting in absenteeism, poor concentration, and interrupted ability to formulate new ideas and share in open communication. …

The bumper crop of Millennials who identify as creatives should pay special attention in this regard because staying mentally healthy and emotionally sound is directly connected to keeping the creative juices flowing.

Educate yourself on your own experience and gain understanding of how it has affected your current situation. Many black Millennials had childhoods and adolescent periods characterized by intimate and community violence, food and housing insecurity, an incarcerated parent or significant other, and social isolation and loneliness. These are traumatic experiences. Don’t excuse or normalize them. Because something is common doesn’t make it acceptable or ‘normal’. Cousin Larry pressing a girl against a wall and groping her is not okay, even if all the girl cousins in the family received the same treatment. Study trauma and adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and their impact on developing brains and emotions. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for Youth Wellness, is a leading expert on childhood trauma and ACES, and has delivered a TEDMED talk discussing the effects of trauma over a person’s lifetime. Use the vast and viral reach of social media to pass on resources like these to contacts and networks. Educate and re-educate one another on stress, trauma, anxiety, and depression.

Fiercely, courageously, and aggressively guard your mental health and emotional stability. This includes shedding the stigma against professional help to get or stay mentally healthy. The Boomer and Generation Xers have perpetuated the cultural bias against medical and healthcare professionals too long. Original intentions were good. Atrocities did happen. But now, a new day is dawning, and there is much more awareness of the need for cultural competence and for black and other minority mental health professionals to provide treatment in ways that will speak to Millennials. Psychiatrists are on YouTube. Psychologists are highly visible on social media. Black social workers and advocates are leading peer support groups and healing circles.

Family members and even friends might still not understand going to therapy. That’s alright. Throw on your red-bottom shoes, fluff up your fro and go anyway. Take a friend with you if it will help ease your transition. Ourselves Black has resources on this site that give information from professionals on how to know if it’s time to seek a therapist’s help, and what kinds of treatment they provide. Use resources as preparation on responding to and interacting with different medical establishments and providers. Share on social media about your experiences according to your comfort level. And once some traction has been gained in your quest for mental wellness, reach out and help someone else fight for theirs.

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.