Alabama mental health conference focuses on challenges in the Black community

Black and brown urban communities are facing post-traumatic stress disorder at a higher rate than combat veterans.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Maysa Akbar cited these results from an 8,000-person study at Emory University during her presentation on “building equitable mental health services” at the annual Mental Health Equity and Liberation Summit. The Black Women’s Mental Health Institute held the summit Thursday at Samford University’s Brock School of Business.

This year’s theme was “The Invisibly Obvious: Politics and Mental Health Disparity.” The conference was in celebration of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Mental Health Awareness Month. Akbar said the study found about 32% of urban residents experienced PTSD, which is higher than the 7% on average of veterans who experience PTSD.

Founder and CEO Dr. Nadia Richardson said her organization has focused on increasing the number of Black and brown mental health clinicians and ensuring Alabamians get the care they need. She said they’re on track to provide 1,000 hours of free counseling to residents this year. However, Richardson said this felt like putting a “Band-Aid on a larger issue.”

“Systemic inequity is built into our health care field and even into our understanding of what mental health is,” Richardson said in an interview before the conference. Direct care is still a priority, but changing policy is their next goal.

Akbar’s presentation on racial trauma and how that can mask mental health diagnoses was well-received during the conference. Several audience members stood up during extended moments of applause after she spoke.

Licensed clinician Maria Lampley of Caring Solutions was a first-time conference attendee but had followed Richardson’s work for years. She was most intrigued by Akbar’s session because she said, “It’s essential for clinicians and clients to build a therapeutic alliance.”

The conference also included input from policymakers and government officials. Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin opened the meeting by noting fewer Black Americans seek mental health treatment than white people. He dismissed the idea of “mind over matter,” addressing the stigma within the Black community about seeking assistance for mental health.

“Your mind does matter,” Woodfin said. He mentioned the Birmingham budget earmarked $6 million for youth programs, including increasing mental health services.

“That’s not bragging because that’s not enough,” he said. Woodfin said there must be a continued push at every level of government to usher more resources into mental health.

The opening panel, “Political Determinants of Mental Health,” featured state Sen. Merika Coleman (D-District 19) and Rep. Neil Rafferty (D-District 54), along with David Hicks, deputy health officer of the Jefferson County Department of Health and Alabama Department of Mental Health Commissioner Kimberly Bosewell.

Coleman was particularly transparent about her mental health struggles after losing multiple family members to COVID not long after the death of her husband.

“Prior to 2020, I didn’t understand depression. I didn’t get it,” Coleman said. She added, “The reason that we have challenges is because of the lack of understanding in the state of Alabama and in this country.”

Cuts at the Department of Mental Health means having to make difficult choices on who gets treated, according to Bosewell.

Rafferty said it’s important to discuss voter access and to stay engaged in the legislative process. He added that expanding Medicaid is a priority and that piecemeal options can’t permanently solve the mental health crisis.

“I think mental health touches everybody regardless of whether we’re talking about it or not,” Rafferty said.

Hicks said that there needs to be a reimagining of the mental health system among government officials.

“Wouldn’t it be radical if we gave up our power to the people in the community with the lived experience?” Hicks asked. “We have to recognize the historical things that have happened (and) have the community involved to be a power broker. Let’s deconstruct some things. We have to have an honest conversation with ourselves.”

In a session on cultural competency in child psychiatry, Dr. Artie Nelson and Dr. Jesse Martinez shared stories and discussed the challenges of considering a patient’s culture when evaluating and diagnosing patients.

Nelson said the mental health system isn’t set up to help people in a way that providers think is beneficial. He added that storytelling and active listening are the keys to helping people on their mental health journey.

Martinez said when talking with his patients, he’s removed the phrase “I understand” from his vocabulary because, in reality, clinicians don’t know the full lived experiences of their clients.

Richardson announced her intention to assemble a statewide team to analyze mental health in the Black community. She plans on creating a system modeled after one done in California to affect lasting policy change.

“(We are working) with government agencies and elected officials to create and support policy that will foster mental health and combat the disparities that continue to wreak havoc on the mental wellbeing of everyone, but also specifically Black and historically disenfranchised and marginalized populations,” Richardson said before the conference.

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