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Expert Voices

Mental Health Accessibility By Leaning into Culture: How CVT and BEAM Center Lived Experience of Black Communities Through a Healing Lens

Published February 19, 2024
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Over time it’s become clear that mental wellness is heavily connected to overall wellness, especially when we look at the constant high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidality. That said, why do we still have so much trouble tending to our mental health? Why do the rates of affected individuals not match those who sought out support? 

These questions are often emphasized when you look at historically marginalized populations, such as Black communities within the US. While barriers to addressing mental health within these communities are heavy and interwoven into our social systems and institutions, there are organizations and practitioners –  CVT included –  that aim to address them directly:

BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Wellness Collective) is a nonprofit whose mental health and advocacy work is done through a healing justice lens. This means, by design, the organization acknowledges the systemic harm done to Black communities and the impact it’s had on our mental health, both in and out of the health system. 

BEAM cultivates safe spaces for trainings and workshops, as well as providing grant opportunities for activists, healers and organizers to expand the services they provide to their communities. For example, they’re hoping to make one of their peer support offerings –Heartspace Program– nationally available and letting it act as guidance for others offering healing circles.

“Essentially, [we are] trying to create a healing circle curriculum that can be replicated. We can train facilitators and communities everywhere to be able to implement those healing circles, and it can be very strongly guided and with a very firm healing justice foundation,” said Yolo Akili Robinson, executive director of BEAM.

The Role of Ongoing Stigma & Societal Expectation

Both Robinson and Adaobi Iheduru Psy. D., clinical psychologist and program manager of CVT Georgia, stated that ongoing stigma informs the way Black communities approach the topic of mental health. Often, the need for support can feel like an individual flaw. 

It’s the real inaccessibility that trauma creates, that anxiety creates. The fear of imperfection, and this cultural moment we’re in right now where there’s a desire to appear a certain way to the public that isn’t really rooted in humanity.”

Yolo Akili Robinson

Iheduru also nodded to the social constructs and stigma surrounding mental health, emphasizing the importance of having open conversations about mental health within the Black community. “I believe it’s really important to center the mental health of Black communities, but I think it’s also important to just have open conversations about mental health within the community,” she said.

“In my work both inside and outside of CVT, there’s a lot of shame that I’ve heard related to mental health issues – people not wanting to discuss it or being reluctant to share their challenges with family members. It’s still stigmatized within the Black community, so it’s important that we as people and organizations continue to just uplift the importance of mental well-being.”

Iheduru said that part of the work is changing that conversation from being about “illness” to being about your overall health and wellness. According to Iheduru, changing that narrative would challenge the idea that asking for help makes you weak, leading to an improvement in not only perspective but use of the resources available. 

Finances as a Major Barrier to Services

There are also ample logistical barriers that are exacerbated by systematic ones, such as financial or insurance costs and complications, lack of transportation, unreliable internet in rural areas or general distrust in the medical and psychiatric field. When discussing barriers to Black communities and mental health resources, Robinson said, “As we both know, it’s money… it’s access – most of these mental health institutions and spaces are not in our communities,” he said. 

BEAM addresses this directly through providing mental health resources, supporting practitioners who serve Black communities through training and grants, creating more financial accessibility to obtain services and addressing how living with mental health conditions can be an economic strain on marginalized families. 

For example, the organization is currently reviewing their Parents Support Fund, a program that directly supports Black families who are navigating mental health conditions through quarterly stipends of $250.

“People are saying that it made a difference between eating and not eating, or being able to buy medications or getting their cars fixed,” Robinson said.

“So it illuminates just how deeply in economic despair our folks are – when you know that amount of money makes that range of impact it’s because sometimes people are literally living down to the wire.”

Cultural Inclusion’s Connection to Wellness

CVT addresses some of the barriers to mental health accessibility for refugee communities by not only offering mental health services and support free of charge, but intentionally centering the cultural background of clients. For CVT Georgia, this also includes naming the need to actively include refugee populations within the Black community.

“When we discuss mental health in the U.S. for the Black community, the Black immigrant communities are not included in that conversation a lot of times. Resources that are needed for that group are not very much discussed,” said Iheduru.

BEAM addresses the variances in background and experiences directly, folding this into their training framework as a way to care for the participants who come largely from Black and Brown backgrounds. 

Robinson spoke to how often, Black cultural practices surrounding mental health are undervalued, ignored or viewed as illegitimate. Conversely, BEAM aims to validate Black healing practices while also uplifting other tools. 

“Yes, prayer is a great tool–we are not going to dismiss that. But we can’t just talk about the protections of prayer, right? Every tool has a limitation. We can talk about apple cider vinegar and honor that as a really great thing to have on our shelf, but also say that sometimes we need something with a little more kick,” Robinson said.

When discussing creating spaces and offering those resources, the executive director discussed his workshop and training framework, uplifting the necessity to create safety within them. 

Robinson said he believes that the way that the organization cultivates spaces is an important aspect of what sets them apart from other mental health-focused organizations, and spoke to his and others’ experiences of being in training spaces and facilitators diving into triggering and heavy topics without any warning or acknowledgement of what the participants may be carrying.

I would go to mental health trainings and was always in shock about how they were built in a way that was completely disconnected from the fact that there are embodied people who are living with these conditions in the room,” Robinson said. 

“So we’re grounding, but we’re also creating trust.” 

Yolo Akili Robinson

According to Robinson, part of that grounding and trust-building includes a values framework. “‘This is how we will operate in the space: We will affirm all Black lives, we will interrupt and disrupt misogyny and transphobia, et cetera,” he explained. 

“Because we’re a healing justice institution, we’re thinking about everything – we’re creating from a somatic, a psychological, spiritual and also an oppression based lens. So we’re thinking about what needs to be created here to make it safe.” 

Iheduru, too, leans into honoring the cultural experiences and differences of the program’s clients, citing cultural competence and humility as vital ways to both truly see and empower clients and said,

I feel like it is the work and we cannot do our work without practicing some level of cultural competence or cultural awareness. It’s absolutely relevant because that’s what’s most important to our clients. This is the way to connect and gain trust.”

Dr. Adaobi Iheduru

Iheduru spoke to the common misunderstanding about the idea of cultural competence being an end goal. “Cultural competency is not something you arrive at. You don’t get trained and then suddenly you’re culturally competent. It’s a lifelong, ongoing learning process,” she said.

She emphasized how this understanding and ongoing effort is integral to her and her staff’s work within CVT’s clinical program. “If [cultural competence] doesn’t exist, clients are not going to feel comfortable to open up to us or to share with us. There are clients that are constantly experiencing marginalization in all of those areas and it is our duty as providers to speak truth to their experience by creating a space that honors their stories. We have to call it out in order to show our clients that we value them and that we respect them and we’re here to serve,” Iheduru said.

While CVT and BEAM serve different demographics within the Black community, both Iheduru and Robinson are intentional about the spaces they create, doing their best to ensure their participants and clients feel seen. This not only builds comfort and trust for those involved, but chips away at the ways systems have historically and consistently ignored Black communities’ mental health. 

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