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Promoting the Right to Mental Health During National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month

Posted on
February 15, 2023

These are trying times. If you’re like me, the last couple of years have felt dizzying, swinging between two extremes: fiery calls to action to build a better world, and jaded laments for the many disquieting setbacks. The last couple of weeks only reinforced that persistent swing between optimism and discouragement with the overturn of Roe v. Wade.

That’s why, in my efforts to speak a bold word this month in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness month, I find myself reaching inward to those spaces that Eleanor Roosevelt referred to as the birthplace of human rights. To those small places, close to home, where the truth of my lived experience reads clearer.

I’m reminded of some words I shared in an open letter to my children last year: “Remember, change starts in the mind. Heal the mind, and we can heal the relationship between human beings.”

My letter implored them to guard their minds. I reminded my kids to never let anyone tell them that they have to be twice as good because they are Black. That they should never look down on anyone but look everyone in the eye as an equal.

These words still hold weight. But we must go deeper now. We need to deepen our understanding of what it takes to guard and heal our minds, as Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC). Communities of color face added barriers to mental healthcare, such as cultural stigma, lack of available mental health professionals, and inadequate community-based treatment options. This must change.

"We cannot ignore the intersection of race, identity and mental health," Daniel H. Gillison Jr., CEO of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) said in a recent statement. "Racism is a public health crisis and has a lasting psychological impact on communities of color across the country. We need systemic change and inclusive solutions to dismantle barriers to quality mental healthcare and to increase access to culturally competent providers and resources for every community."

We must look at mental healthcare through the lens of human rights principles–– dignity, autonomy, and equitable access. Mental healthcare is healthcare, and access to it is a human right.

For BIPOC, the survival of the ideals that enable us to live freely has always required a fight. No matter the sincerity of my and my children’s efforts to heal our minds, until mental health is upheld as an inalienable right, it will, like all human rights – the right to equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination – require concerted citizen action to uphold it close to home.

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home.”

––Eleanor Roosevelt

Former First Lady

Chair of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Drafting Committee

For BIPOC, the survival of the ideals that enable us to live freely has always required a fight.

- Kevin Dedner, MPH

Honoring the Past to Envision a Better Future

I often study the past when attempting to articulate a vision for culturally responsive mental healthcare. A couple of years ago, my studies led me to the name of Bebe Moore Campbell and her work to establish July as National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. I was shocked. I’d devoted the last several years of my professional life to destigmatizing mental health and building Hurdle, a teletherapy platform that offers culturally responsive therapy to underserved communities. I had not done my homework to see whose shoulders I was standing on.

Campbell was a Los Angeles-based author and mental health advocate who passed away in 2006. She was vocal about her personal challenges in caretaking for a loved one who struggled with mental illness. In her journey to find relevant care for her loved one, Campbell visited a NAMI center in Beverly Hills, an affluent white community.

“She could not relate to what she was hearing and the options being made available,” says Linda Wharton-Boyd, a longtime friend and a director at the DC Health Benefit Exchange Authority. “She knew she needed to establish a way to present the information and resources in a way that was relevant and felt safe to the Black community.”

Campbell used her experience as an example of the inordinate courage and boldness required to navigate the mental healthcare system as a Black person. She co-founded NAMI Urban Los Angeles in Inglewood and became a national spokesperson for mental health in the Black community.

In May of 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives announced July as Bebe Moore Campbell National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Campbell’s work has emboldened people like me — those in the mental health community fighting to make the system more relevant and safer for traditionally underserved patient populations.

Creating a better society is difficult, uncomfortable work. We are at an inflection point where people have a greater tolerance for the difficulty that comes with getting into “good trouble.” In the persistent wake of a pandemic that intensified our collective experiences with depression and anxietyespecially for BIPOC – we are gradually loosening the stigmas and long-held misconceptions of mental health and mental healthcare.

Campbell’s legacy encourages me to never stop fighting for culturally responsive mental healthcare, even in the face of mounting resistance.

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