Advocates Tackling Disparities in Mental Health Through Healing Dialogues

What would make African Americans feel more comfortable accessing mental health care services? How could people living in small, rural communities access these services without feeling like they're jeopardizing their confidentiality?

These are some of the tough questions that advocates for mental health care are tackling as they gather people this winter in Healing Illinois dialogues. Healing Illinois, an initiative of the Illinois Department of Human Services and The Chicago Community Trust, has provided organizations grants to conduct racial healing activities in Illinois.

Some of the mental health care dialogues will convene as an On the Table, an annual forum of The Chicago Community Trust that invites residents from diverse backgrounds to have mealtime conversations while exploring how they can make the Chicago region stronger.

"I think that On the Table helps us advance our core mission, which is to eliminate the stigmas of mental health," said James Burns, Illinois program director of The Kennedy Forum. "Research shows the most effective way to eliminate stigma is by having that face-to-face conversation."

Racial injustice is a major focus of this year's On the Table.

The Kennedy Forum Illinois received a $12,000 Healing Illinois grant to organize discussion groups and forums through March of 2021 on destigmatizing mental health for people of color. Discussions will focus on trauma and healing for Black people through a racial equity lens that challenges the traditional approaches of mental health, Burns said. One of those virtual discussions, "Shocking Injustices: Mental Healthcare and Black Americans," will convene on Monday Jan. 18. With the help of partner organizations of The Kennedy Forum Illinois, Burns is coordinating 25 virtual On the Table conversations on mental health this season across the state.

Encouraging conversations on mental health is not only part of Burns' job, but also part of his personal mission. He's been in recovery from alcoholism for nearly 12 years, and he's had members of his family die by suicide. Since 2015, he's organized more than 800 On the Table conversations on mental health for The Kennedy Forum Illinois, a nonprofit that works to achieve health equity by advancing practices, policies and programming for the treatment of mental health and addiction.

"James is one of the best partners of On the Table," said Daniel Ash, Assistant Vice President of community impact at The Chicago Community Trust. "Not only has he been a consistent host of conversations, but he has also harnessed the power of The Kennedy Forum Illinois' membership to get many individuals to host as well."

To help others host conversations about mental health, The Kennedy Forum Illinois offers online toolkits. Upcoming On the Table conversations hosted by The Kennedy Forum Illinois and its partners include these two events:

Mary Garrison, discussing African Americans' barriers to mental health services:

Mary E. Garrison, a professor of social work at Millikin University in Decatur, Ill., and a board member of The Kennedy Forum Illinois, will host two virtual On the Table discussions on Feb. 18.

Garrison, who's been a licensed clinical social worker and mental health provider for 30 years, and an On the Table host for four years, will focus one discussion on the mental health needs of college students. Her other discussion will tackle the barriers African Americans and those living in rural communities face while attempting to access mental health care.

Garrison's motivation for hosting the discussions is her own research showing a tendency among African Americans to rely on their internal communities for support instead of accessing professional mental health care services. She attributes this to not only the stigma associated with mental illness but also to the lack of African-American mental health professionals and inadequate cultural competency among current providers.

"Rightfully so, African Americans are hesitant about seeking professional help. They're not seeing providers who look like them or share their life experiences. And I think we, as a system, need to change that and to make sure that we're providing culturally-competent treatment," Garrison said.

Dr. Orson Morrison, discussing mental health disparities among minority children and adolescents

Dr. Orson Morrison, clinical psychologist and director of DePaul Family and Community Services, a pediatric community mental health center at the university, will tackle similar racial barriers in his On the Table discussion, slated for March 17. His discussion will center on mental health care for minority children and adolescents.

Morrison, who also has his own private practice in Oak Park, said that even though children of color have a high need for mental health services, they are not always accessing and utilizing mental health services.

"People don't really talk about this, but there's a much higher suicide rate among African-American male and female youth, compared to other races. And that number is growing," said Morrison. "So we want to raise the alarm around statistics like that and also call for change in our mental health system and our policies around accessing and funding mental health."

Morrison said that some of the barriers to mental health care for minority youth are stigma, health insurance limitations, an inadequate supply of clinicians in under-resourced communities and little understanding among providers about the impact of systemic racism and oppression on mental health. He's inviting mental health providers, families, teachers and other child-serving providers to be a part of his conversation and the solution.


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