When I was growing up, nobody discussed mental health conditions and how they might show up in my life.

Sure, my family talked about issues such as stress, like when an uncle couldn’t make it to Thanksgiving dinner because he had to work overtime to keep up with never-ending bills.

And yeah, we talked about praying for strength to get through difficult times. We even occasionally whispered about navigating care for somebody who “wasn’t right in the head.” 

When I became a young adult and began wrestling with what I would later learn were symptoms of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), I realized that I didn’t know the first thing about finding the professional support I needed when my own mind didn’t feel quite right.

Among Black families like mine, this story isn’t unusual. 

Yolo Akili Robinson, Healing Justice Worker and the founder of Black Emotional and Mental Health (BEAM), has witnessed many mental health journeys like mine. It can be challenging to find what we need from the support options available.

When I take inventory of what has and hasn’t helped people in my community living with mental health issues, one thing is clear: The traditional Western model of mental healthcare isn’t enough.

What’s missing from traditional mental healthcare?

I’m a big advocate of giving therapy a try, so you won’t catch me saying that therapy can’t be helpful.

What I am saying, though, is that traditional American treatment for mental health — which can include seeing psychologists, psychiatrists, or therapists — is missing some crucial elements, and that means that it can’t possibly work for everyone.

Here are a few problems with our mental healthcare system.

It’s inaccessible

Clearly, a system can’t work for everyone if not everyone can access it. And that’s very much the case for mental healthcare here in the United States.

At BEAM, Robinson sees many people who aren’t insured or who don’t have health insurance that covers mental healthcare. And even those who do have it covered may still need to find a way to afford expensive copays.

“Do I have $100 to pay every 2 weeks or every week for therapy?” Robinson asks. “A lot of our folks do not.”

Other difficulties include securing reliable transportation to appointments — which is even more difficult in rural areas where the nearest locations are still far away — and navigating needs like childcare in the process.

It’s homogenous

Even if you can access professional care, it can be difficult to find the type of care that fits your needs — especially if you’re not a straight, cisgender, middle-class, white person.

In that case, in many parts of the country, the chances are that you’ll end up working with a therapist who doesn’t have firsthand life experience that matches your background.

According to the American Psychological Association, in 2015, only 4% of American psychologists were Black. This means that Black people seeking counseling can feel like outsiders from the start. 

When it comes to opening up and being vulnerable about your issues, feeling like an outsider isn’t exactly an encouraging start.

It’s only one part of a much bigger picture

Traditional Western mental healthcare often focuses on what’s “wrong.” We figure out which diagnosis fits our symptoms, which medications can treat those symptoms, and how talk therapy can help us manage it all.

This approach has helped me at times, but even at its most helpful, it’s not the whole picture of what I need.

I am more than my diagnoses. In fact, overemphasizing the need to “fix” what’s “wrong” with me can lead to treating mental ill-health in a way that Robinson says can limit our understanding of how wellness really works.

“The conditions that we call mental illness have existed in the world from the beginning of humanity, as far as we know,” says Robinson. “That means that they are a part of the human experience.”

As opposed to talking about what’s “normal” or “abnormal” for our brains, Robinson says that we can talk about our mental health issues as one of the many varied aspects of being human. 

“What needs to be done to cultivate a world and society that hold dignity for folks across the spectrum of mental condition?”

Images by Alexis Lira

What does a more holistic approach to mental health look like?

The work of BEAM is a powerful example of what we can do differently. 

BEAM is a national organization that focuses on training, movement-building, and grant-making dedicated to healing, wellness, and liberation for Black and marginalized communities.

When it comes to supporting mental health, here are a few ways BEAM does it differently.

Bolstering the support systems that already exist by strengthening everyday people’s emotional support skills

“We are built on the premise that in order for our communities to heal, we can’t just rely solely on social workers and therapists,” Robinson explains. “We have to build up the mental health literacy, education, and tools for every member of our community.”

This includes holding peer support trainings in places where Black people get real about what’s going on in their lives: places like barbershops, hair salons, churches, and activist circles.

By educating teachers, coaches, parents, and other community members in how to show up for one another’s mental health needs, BEAM helps people get the support they need where they need it — not just at the therapist’s office, but also at home and in the community.

Rather than facing silence and stigma, people in trained communities can trust that they’re surrounded by people who can listen without judgment and understand what they’re going through.

Respecting and affirming the tools and language that make sense to the community

“Black people would not be here if we didn’t have healing strategies of our own,” says Robinson. “I hear people often say that Black people or People of Color don’t talk about mental health, and I tell people that’s just the furthest thing from the truth.”

For example, a hairstylist may not have the expertise to tell a client, “It sounds like you’re having symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder. Here’s how that’s treated.” 

But that doesn’t mean they’ve never talked to someone about how to navigate anxiety. They may have simply used different words.

Robinson says that we can tap into language like, “I have bad nerves,” and ask, “What do you mean by that?”

Rather than criticizing the ways we deal with mental health by saying, “Black people don’t talk about that,” we can affirm the ways we do talk about it and work to grow in areas where we could do better.

Working alongside other issues of injustice

BEAM’s work follows the principles of Healing Justice, a theoretical framework created by Cara Page and the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective.

“Healing Justice says that in order for us to heal, we also have to dismantle systems of oppression,” Robinson explains. “We have to also acknowledge intergenerational trauma. We have to really challenge these broader systems that foster un-wellness to really learn how to center healing in our everyday lives and communities.”

In other words, from a Healing Justice perspective, fighting for mental wellness includes addressing police violence, because the threat of violence harms the mental wellness of Black people. It also includes dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, because children who are criminalized grow up traumatized. 

Additionally, it includes addressing systemic and social issues of racism, homophobia, transphobia, intimate partner violence, and other ways that people in marginalized communities face everyday challenges to mental wellness.

“Mental health is all of these things, not just this one small bucket of psychiatry and therapy,” Robinson explains.

Rather than isolating the issue of mental health and addressing it in a silo on its own, addressing related issues with advocacy and movement-building can help meet people’s needs on multiple levels.

Providing financial aid to those who support healing in their communities

Having financial struggles can make it difficult to not only pay for mental health services, but also to keep up with day-to-day needs such as housing, transportation, and food.

Providing funds to assist with these needs can help lift financial barriers to mental wellness.

That’s why BEAM’s work includes grant-making to support healers, community organizers, and other everyday people who support those around them.

For example, BEAM’s Black Parent Support Fund — which gives resources to Black parents living with mental health conditions or supporting children living with mental health conditions — gave about $28,000 this year to Black parents across the country.

Likewise, the Southern Healing Support Fund gives awards to Black healing practitioners such as clinicians, yoga teachers, and community workers to provide free support to the nearly 90% of people without health coverage who live in Southern states.

5 practical steps for providing mental health support, even if you’re not an expert

One thing that BEAM’s work demonstrates is that we can all boost mental wellness in our communities just by learning to be there for each other.

If you don’t know what to do if someone you know is in crisis or needs support with their mental health, BEAM has several tools to help, including the LAPIS model for peer support.

Here’s what LAPIS stands for.

L: Listen and assess for harm

You know what it’s like to just need somebody to listen. Listen to what your friend is going through, without judging them and without trying to “fix” the problem.

Robinson says, “When people are in distress, sometimes our first compulsion is to start preaching at them — telling them what they can do, giving them toxic positivity, as opposed to listening to what someone is saying.”

So, if you’re trying to fly in like a superhero to solve the problem, it’s time to set your cape aside. Instead, listen actively to understand how your friend is feeling and assess whether or not they’re a danger to themselves or anyone else.

A: Affirm their experience

If your friend says, “I feel worthless,” it’s understandable to have a compassionate instinct to reassure them with, “No, you’re not worthless!”

But even though you know that your friend is far from worthless, you don’t have to agree with their sentiment in order to validate how they’re feeling.

Instead, you could say something like: “I hear you saying you feel worthless; I hear you and that’s real. Do you want to share more?”

Don’t minimize or dismiss their feelings. Affirm that their feelings are valid, even if the narrative from those feelings isn’t the whole truth.

P: Partner with them to navigate care

Although they may not feel capable at the moment, your friend is an expert in their own life and the best person to identify what they need right now.

So, let them take the lead in figuring out next steps. You can help by asking what they need or what would be most useful for them.

Perhaps they could use some resources or mental health services that you can help them find, or maybe you can drop off a meal for them or pick up their medication.

Or, maybe you’ll learn that all they really needed was for you to be there to listen.

I: Initiate care plans

“It’s about village care,” Robinson says.

Can you coordinate with someone else to get your friend a ride to their appointments or take volunteers to help make sure they’re eating?

Robinson suggests mapping out a network of individuals who can help meet your friend’s needs. 

Note that this can also include a care plan for you. Your friend’s crisis might affect you too, and you deserve to care for yourself in the process of being there for them.

S: Seek out help as needed

Consider reaching out to a hotline or warmline, a local crisis unit, or a mental health professional for additional support.

You can remind your friend that they’re not alone by being there for them, but remember that you’re not alone in this either.

If necessary, tapping into resources designed for these situations can lead your friend to the next steps they need.

Everyday healing for our everyday lives

If you’ve ever felt neglected by or excluded from traditional approaches to mental healthcare, you’re not the only one.

I’m trying to imagine how my younger self might have navigated mental health differently had my family had access to BEAM’s tools when I was growing up.

I might have realized that I had more resources in my community than I thought — like how my auntie’s cooking could keep us fed while we focused on figuring out how to access local mental health services, or like how my brother knew exactly how to let me vent without making me feel silly for how I was feeling. 

Or, like how I had the power within myself to tell people what I needed, rather than wondering what I was “supposed to” do when I felt panicky.

It can be empowering to simply affirm that these community-based resources are valuable. We don’t have to wait for outsider experts to come save us in order to take steps to get mental health support.

The ways that we show up for each other — and always have — are valid mental health practices too.

“It’s so important to uplift that we have had our kitchen table healing conversations and our barbershop line discussions that have validated and affirmed us,” Robinsons says of these practices. “Those are important parts of our mental health universe.”

You can visit BEAM to learn more about their work.