Counselors play an essential role in helping Black Americans heal from racial trauma and prioritize their overall mental health and well-being. However, creating pathways for that important work can be difficult when centuries of systemic racism has led to inequities in healthcare access and created a deep and justified mistrust of many health systems.
Due to ongoing marginalization and racism, Black Americans are considerably more likely to experience serious psychological distress than White Americans. Even so they are less likely to access mental health services with only one-in-three African Americans receiving the mental healthcare they need. Luckily, innovative programs that acknowledge the importance of mental health and help foster trust are building bridges to better mental health in Black communities.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood the importance of investing in and training community leaders who would be instrumental in the civil rights movement. Today, that same critical investment is happening for Black mental health advocates. The challenge of locating culturally responsive and affordable services and the issue of trust, along with the stigma associated with mental health experiences, has led to a reluctance on the part of many Black Americans to seek out the treatment they need and deserve. So, from barbershops to college campuses, Black community members are being empowered to create a culture in which mental health is openly discussed and addressed.
The barriers discussed above coupled with the low number of mental health professionals of color has led many people to seek help in more trusted, familiar community-based settings, including African American barbershops. Many African American barbers have close relationships with their clients, serving as confidants and informal counselors.
Research shows that within the African American community, mental health issues are rarely openly discussed. We do a great disservice to African American men, who are often socialized to handle problems by themselves and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. When they do seek support, it is often with close friends and family members rather than with the help of outsiders such as professional mental health service providers.
Fortunately, programs like the Confess Project understand the community’s influence in addressing issues related to mental health and overall well-being. Thus, the Confess Project has created a solution to bridge the gap concerning the provision of mental health services by training barbers to be mental health advocates who can further cultivate culturally-informed dialogue about emotional health with their clients, with whom they have already established a trusting relationship. Since its creation in 2016, the Confess Project has trained upwards of 1,000 barbers in more than 40 cities nationwide’.
Sisters Mentally Mobilized, an offshoot of the California Black Women’s Health Project, is working to accomplish similar goals for Black women. Focused on reducing mental health stigma, anxiety, and isolation among Black women, the program trains Black women across the state to serve as mental health community advocates and create mental health-focused “Sister Circles.”
For these projects and similar programs, creating a legacy of leadership and service focused on health and well-being is paramount. A legacy of local communal support and national change that we should be striving for and celebrating this Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
What other community-based programs that celebrate and support Black mental health and well-being have you learned about recently? Do you participate in any of them?