Future Works In The News

Let’s Change Black Mental Health by Sharon Clinton

One year ago, George Floyd was murdered in broad daylight because of a $20 dispute. A Minneapolis policeman issued death in a manner far less compassionate than how the state administers the death penalty. His murder was documented on video and triggered a historic racial reckoning in America. 

In 2015, Janelle Monet wrote Hell You Talmbout? Artists performed the powerful song with thick red paint across their eyes to symbolize how they see the bloodshed. The #SayTheirNames list of victims of police brutality just grows along with the number of social platforms that publicize the impacts. 

Since Floyd’s murder in May 2020, leaders of governments, companies, institutions, and more rushed to decry his death. People hit the streets with collective grief and anger. A year later, where are we? How will work and life be shaped in a post-Floyd future for America and Black America? 

The events themselves and repeated videos of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s death still sit at the back of my throat, creases the black circles under my eyes, and continues to cause a loss of sleep. Every day, from my TV or my phone, more sources of Black trauma. There is no real escape and no real coherent response. 

Worse, no one knows what to say to Black individuals suffering. There is an occasional and inadequate, “Are you okay?” 

The answer is a resounding “No!” This triggers stressors almost daily, but when is the last time your boss said, “Take a mental health day”?

The City of Philadelphia, my employer, has declared Juneteenth a holiday for City workers and provided mental health resources. These are good steps forward. Yet, like so many others, I still must show up and engage at school or work, even when the commentary about race continues there, like it or not. There is nowhere for Black communities to rest or escape racism. How do I serve when I myself and those I serve are still grappling with trauma and triggers? What is the path forward? 

Many leaders and employers lack the infrastructure and even the awareness about Black America’s mental health challenges with racialized trauma, which refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias, ethnic discrimination, and hate crimes. 

Systemic and institutionalized racism has plagued our city and nation and while there remain no easy answers, no quick solutions, steps like the Reconciliation Steering Committee, the citywide Racial Equity Strategy, the promotion of engaged safe spaces for employees and communities  led in partnership with the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and Department of Behavioral Health are other great beginnings, also acknowledging there is certainly more work to do. But what about the organizations that haven’t started or don’t know where to begin? 

There is a saying in the Black community, that “it takes a village to raise a child”. It implies that all are responsible for the health, safety, and productive outcome of one of the community’s citizens and so maybe that is where the silver lining lives—in ALL of us! We are the answer! Together, is the only reasonable path.  

One potential silver lining of Floyd’s murder during this pandemic could be a broader and deeper awareness about Black trauma and toxic stress in America. Conversations about mental health and trauma in Black communities are at an all-time high, but all conversations are not the same. Tuesday at 9 pm, Oprah Winfrey will host a Black Women Own the Conversation special event focused entirely on toxic stress and Black mental health. 

While socialized and televised hate crimes are at an all-time high, only one in three Black adults who need mental health care get it. Often Black people are treated as “less than” when they interact with healthcare providers, many of whom do not look like us. These conditions widen gaps at every step of the healing process. 

Most experienced therapists lack the cultural understanding necessary to treat Black people who exhibit symptoms of race-based trauma. Racialized trauma impacts people mentally and physically. Yet, often, the medical and mental health community lacks even informed and accurate language for Black people’s grief.

Winfrey will lead an informed conversation with Black women leaders like Jotaka Eaddy, Adrienne Bankert, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, Dr. Dena Simmons, and Kim Whitley and a live audience of more Black women. Together, they will deliver overdue and necessary affirmation about pain, trauma, and toxic stress. 

Jotaka Eaddy, is the founder and Convenor of #winwithblackwomen—an intersectional and international network of Black women leaders of which I am a part.  But more importantly, she has been a leader and advocate in the “future of work” space for many years. She spent six years as a Senior advisor to the President and CEO of the NAACP before becoming the founder & CEO of Full Circle Strategies, a social impact and political consulting firm. She has been described as the “Olivia Pope of Silicon Valley ” and is taking charge in many conversation circles around the trauma impacting black communities as she works with organizations focused on the future of work in our nation. 

Post-pandemic and post-Floyd, the panel together will raise greater awareness of the deep needs for more culturally competent mental health professionals and policy guidelines. They will start to move the needle for racial equity in the mental health community. These experts know dehumanized people are more vulnerable to chronic health issues because of the endured toxic stress and trauma

Resilience is always a required skill set for Black America. However, the pandemic may have been just the start of a very volatile decade. Our warming climate and technological changes ahead are both projected to hit Black America and people of color harder. This nation and region must be intentional in building more resilient systems and supporting mental health, especially for Black and brown adults and children. 

Tune in to Black Women Own the Conversation: Mental Health and Trauma, on OWN Network, Tuesday May 25, 9 pm.

Sharon Clinton is the Deputy Executive Director for the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity in Philadelphia, where she leads organizational development and performance efforts that seek to execute an expansive strategic framework reorienting CEO’s focus to that of advancing economic justice using the lens of racial equality.