Editor’s Note: The following is the second part of The Sacramento OBSERVER’s discussion with California Surgeon General Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris. In the first installment (visit SacObserver.com), Dr. Burke-Harris shared her role in the fight against the coronavirus, how COVID-19 can exacerbate chronic stress for African Americans and the impact the virus is having on African Americans overall. This week she speaks about the need for more mental health providers of color.
As a pediatrician, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris has spent years trying to get African American families in San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point area to see the long term benefits of addressing their mental health.
As California’s first Surgeon General, Dr. Burke-Harris is driving home the message on a larger scale. She’s done extensive research on adverse childhood experiences and toxic stress and getting to their root causes.
In speaking with The OBSERVER about her role during the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s response to it, Dr. Burke Harris also talked about mental wellbeing in the Black community, the need for culturally competent health providers and how providers must work to get past a mistrust many in the community have that acts as a barrier to seeking help.
It’s time, she says, to end the “Black people don’t do therapy” narrative.
“We shape our culture and we can change our culture,” Dr. Burke-Harris said. “When we hold onto those things, we run the risk of passing them onto the next generation.”
Experts say therapy and counseling can be key weapons in staving off some of the stress-related health outcomes that disproportionately befall African Americans.
“Our people can definitely be accepting of mental health, but they need to have that trusting connection to get there,” Dr. Burke Harris shared.
“The other piece is that there aren’t enough mental health providers of color. There aren’t enough health providers of color, period. And that’s something we have been working on in the state of California, but we’re not there yet.”
Around this time last week, she embarked on a statewide listening campaign. She says it was a “particular joy” to meet providers of color throughout California and hear about their work and learn more about their needs and concerns.
“I had a lot of very, very rich conversations,” she said.
Dr. Burke-Harris says she’d like to continue those talks, but hasn’t been able to due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been a little busy,” she said jokingly.
There is focus on the issue of Black mental wellness. Sacramento is home to a local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) which has outreached to the African American community, as has the California Black Health Network. A group of caregivers maintains a African-American Mental Health Providers Directory, to make the community aware that they exist. At an annual Black Women’s Health & Wellness Conference, mental health professionals are keynote speakers. “Vegan Lady Soul” author Nicole Williams had planned to address Black men’s mental health at an event at Jubilare Evangelistic Ministries in June. Mental health professional Dr. Kristee L. Haggins created a community healing circle, called Safe Black Space to combat a constant bombardment of traumatic situations African Americans face and to help bring about healing. Safe Black Space is conducting sessions virtually during the COVID-19 shutdowns.
“(It’s a safe space for Black folks to come together and experience a sense of safety, hope, support and love in the midst of this increasingly hostile world, where simply living while Black can be a challenge … especially amid COVID-19/coronavirus,” Dr. Haggins wrote online.
While Dr. Burke-Harris wants African Americans to seek the help they need, she doesn’t want people to suffer in silence because of skin color. A skilled practitioner, she says, is able to help regardless. It’s more, she says, than just having providers who “look like us.”
“It’s folks who get where we’re coming from. Folks who we can be vulnerable with. Folks we can talk about what’s really going on with us, someone who isn’t going to be quick on the trigger, if you say something that is a cultural expression or something like that, to call Child Protective Services,” she said.
Dr. Burke-Harris has a therapist, who is White. She isn’t shy about admitting that she needs one.
“Oh, absolutely. How am I going to tell Black folks they have to be open to mental health and I don’t talk about my own therapist?”
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer