Black activists who changed the mental health industry

Mental health plays a big part in our overall well-being, but when left untreated, it can lead to life-threatening consequences — especially in the Black community. 

A 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that 21% of Black and African Americans reported having a mental illness compared to 23.9% of non-Hispanic Whites. However, treatment proved to be a huge barrier for Black respondents. Around 39% of Black and African Americans received mental health services compared to 52% of non-Hispanic Whites.

Suicide rates in the Black community soared during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Suicide was the leading third cause of death for Black youth and adults between the ages of 10 and 24, and African American men between 25-34, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

It’s no secret that the Black community has a history marked by systemic oppression, racism, and discrimination. These historical traumas have had a lasting impact on mental health. 

Stigma often hinders people in the Black community from seeking help. By honoring mental health and fostering open, judgment-free conversations, we can break down these barriers and encourage people to seek the support they need.

Healthcare disparities have been widely documented, and the mental health sector is no exception. In the Black community, these disparities often lead to inadequate access to mental health care, misdiagnoses and poor treatment. Honoring mental health involves actively working to address these systemic inequities to ensure that everyone, regardless of their background, receives the care they deserve.

There are a few change makers and advocates, both past and present, who have worked tirelessly to break barriers within the industry. These pioneers have catalyzed change, shattering the invisible glass of silence and misunderstanding, and have sought to foster an environment where mental health is understood, accessible and inclusive to Black folks. Their work inspires us to continue striving for a world where mental health is a fundamental aspect of human well-being, celebrated, supported and accessible to all.

In honor of Mental Health Day, let’s pay homage to all of the leaders and activists who have not only transformed the mental health landscape but have also made it more inclusive, diverse, and sensitive to the unique challenges faced by people of color, particularly in the Black community. 

1. Gayle Porter

With a focus on emotional risks, community and healthy decision-making, Gayle Porter helped to co-develop the award-winning Prime-Time Sisters Circle intervention model.

The theory is a mode of intervention used to help treat middle-aged African-American women with mental and health disparities.

“It’s a program that is focused on helping women to become whole in terms of their minds, bodies and their spirits,” Porter said during an interview with the AstraZeneca Foundation in 2022. 

“We focus on African American women because we have some of the worst health outcomes of any group of women in this country from diabetes, from heart disease, from stroke…”

Over the 13-week free program, participants receive stress prevention treatment, nutrition education and other resources that can be used to help treat issues with their health and mental wellness. 

2. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris

A pediatrician and advocate, Dr. Nadine Burke Harris has been instrumental in understanding the impact of adverse childhood experiences on mental health.

She founded the Center for Youth Wellness, emphasizing early intervention for children’s mental health. The center also aims to treat early signs of toxic stress present in children.

According to Burke, childhood trauma can increase the risk of “seven out of ten of the leading causes of death in the United States.”

If left untreated, it can have a negative impact on brain development, the immune system, and DNA functions.

“Folks who are exposed in very high doses have triple the lifetime risk of heart disease and lung cancer and a 20-year difference in life expectancy,” she added. 

3. Bebe Moore Campbell

A prolific author and advocate, the late Bebe Moore Campbell was known for her work on mental health awareness, particularly in the African-American community.

Her book, “72 Hour Hold,” explored the challenges of living with bipolar disorder and the difficulty Black families often face when seeking mental health treatment for their loved ones. 

The legendary change maker founded NAMI-Inglewood, which later became NAMI Urban LA, to create a safe place for Black people to talk about mental health issues.

4. Dr. Carl Bell

Bell was a National Institute of Mental Health researcher who wrote more than 400 books exploring the impact of childhood violence and the side effects of misdiagnosing manic-depressive illness.

His work was dedicated to understanding the cause of poor outcomes in mental health related to the Black community. He worked tirelessly to make an effective mark on the public health system to combat those longstanding issues.

Before his death in 2019, he became the medical director of the Community Mental Health Council in Chicago, “one of the largest not-for-profit community mental health centers in the US,” according to The History Makers.

5. Dr. Michael A Lindsey

Dr. Michael A. Lindsey is a noted scholar in the field of childhood and adolescent mental health. 

He was one of the leading activists behind The Crisis of Black Youth Suicide in America, a report spearheaded by the Congressional Black Caucus Emergency Taskforce, that focused on the growing crisis of suicide among Black youth. 

Lindsey is the Dean and Paulette Goddard Professor of Social Work at NYU Silver School of Social Work, and an Aspen Health Innovators Fellow. 

6. Dr. Thema Bryant

Dr. Thema Bryant, a leading psychologist and activist, is the 2023 president of the American Psychological Association. Under her coordinator role at Princeton University, she created the historic SHARE program, an initiative that brought awareness to sexual assault and harassment through intervention and prevention resources. 

Dr. Thema was honored with a media award in 2016 for her work on the film Psychology of Human Trafficking. The emotional project dove deep into the psychology and understanding of human trafficking and modern-day slavery. 

She was also a recipient of the 2018 Donald Fridley Memorial Award for her excellence in trauma mentoring.

7. Dr. Altha J. Stewart

Dr. Altha J. Stewart is a nationally recognized psychiatrist and advocate for increasing cultural competence in mental health care. She served as the first African-American president of the American Psychiatric Association (APA), advocating for mental health equity.

Before her historic role with the APA, she served as Executive Director of the Memphis/Shelby County System of Care program.  

8. Megan Thee Stallion

In 2022, the Houston native launched a website called “Bad Bitches Have Bad Days Too” that offered mental health resources to fans in need.

The comprehensive site featured a list of free therapy organizations as well as links to the national crisis hotline and the suicide and crisis lifeline.  

In September the Grammy Award-winning femcee joined forces with Seize The Awkward, a national campaign encouraging American youth to talk openly about their mental health struggles with friends and loved ones.

The campaign also provides self-care tips on how to decrease stress levels and combat anxiety and depression. 

9. Dr. Joy Harden Bradford

Dr. Joy Harden Bradford is the host of Therapy for Black Girls, a podcast debunking the stigma of mental health in the Black community, particularly among Black women and girls.

Bradford’s debut book, Sisterhood Healsexplores the transformative power of healing that can occur when Black women forge meaningful relationships and friendships. It also gives tips on how to sustain and nurture loving connections. 

10. Dr. Howard Stevenson

Dr. Howard Stevenson is the lead developer and trainer behind Preventing Long-term Anger and Aggression in Youth intervention model, or PLAAY.

The intervention plan helps families and individuals address the negative side effects of trauma and chronic stress on young African-American boys, according to SAMHSA.

“Offered at NNEDLearn, successful implementation of PLAAY has resulted in improved school attendance, reduced suspension rates, and improved relationships among African American youth, their peers, and teachers,” the website notes.

Dr. Stevenson has been a clinical psychologist over the last 32 years working in under-resourced rural and urban neighborhoods across the country. 

From 2015 to 2021, he was the co-director of Forward Promise, a philanthropy office that funds community-based organizations dedicated to helping families of color heal and grow from trauma and life stressors.

This article originally appeared on NewsOne.

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