By Nadine Matthews
“Honoring and Celebrating Our Legacy, Our Healing, Our Moment” was the theme of the third annual Dr. Maxie T. Collier VIP Reception And Awards Ceremony, presented on Oct. 28 by the Black Mental Health Alliance (BMHA). “What a great opportunity,” Andrea Brown, the organization’s executive director, told the AFRO in a recent interview, “to have this conversation in National Depression Month.”
The BMH was founded almost 38 years ago by Baltimore’s first Black Health Commissioner, Dr. Maxie T. Collier. Dr. Collier, Brown emphasized, discovered Black patients with mental health issues misdiagnosed as schizophrenic and wanted to do something about it.
Collier coordinated with former nurse turned state senator Shirley Mason Pulliam to create the Black Mental Health Alliance. “The drive behind it was so that Black people could see clinicians who looked like them, who treated them through a culturally grounded lens and who understood that what someone else diagnosed as one thing could be showing up differently [in Black people],” Brown said.
The BMHA acts as an intermediary, referring those living with mental health issues to clinicians able to help them. “We have a database of clinicians of color from across the country.”`
The social, political and economic tumult of the past few years has taken its toll, Brown acknowledged. “Our requests for referrals have tripled over the last sixteen months. There’s been a lot of extreme depression.” Brown also reported that the organization is addressing the rise in suicides among Black men and boys. Brown stresses that BMHA is devoted to meeting the needs of younger adults. “We are really developing a robust youth and young adult division.” This includes, among other things, a number of summer programs and working with the organization Heart Smiles.”
The recent increased outreach to the BMHA indicates that reported negative attitudes in the Black community toward therapy and mental health are shifting. She stated, “Folks are saying, ‘I don’t have to suffer in silence anymore and I need to talk to somebody.’” Shifting the narrative around mental health has also always been part of their mission. “For so long the Black community believed in not telling anybody anything. We believe in reducing the stigma, and sending the message that it’s okay not to be okay. What’s not okay is not to take help that’s available.”
Part of the work, which BMHA does through a number of community outreach formats, involves changing the flippant way people use mental health terms in everyday conversation as well. “We’ll say things like ‘Oh she’s bipolar’ or ‘Oh she’s crazy,’ and we think it’s okay to say things like that but it’s not, so we are working on getting people to change that sort of language.”
Brown stresses that the work is still vital because what Dr. Collier observed, continues to occur in the area of mental health. “While much has changed, much has not. It’s easier to just diagnose Black people as schizophrenic instead of acknowledging that there is a full system of systemic racism that Black people and other people of color have had to endure and all of these other things show up.”
The event, which is also a fundraiser, took place the same evening. Honorees included Dr. Alfiee Breeland-Noble- Psychologist, Scientist, Media Contributor, Dr. Na’im Akbar- Clinical Psychologist Distinguished, Scholar, Author, Roberta’s Annette March-Grier- Roberta’s House, President, RN, CNN Hero,and Co-Founders of the Youth Resiliency Institute, Fanon Hill & Natasha Daya.
The whole production was hosted by radio personality and author Farajii Muhammad. “These awards give us the opportunity to honor those who labor in this work and who exemplify the vision of the Black Mental Health Alliance, who are change agents toward helping the Black community heal,” Brown said.
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