By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Patroski Lawson. Special to the OBSERVER.

With the number of tragic and traumatic incidents on the rise, how do African Americans deal? May is Mental Health Awareness Month and The Sacramento OBSERVER recently sat down with D.C.-based lobbyist Patroski Lawson to discuss mental health awareness and its many aspects and impacts.

Lawson is the CEO of KPM Group, a public affairs firm focused on individuals fighting brain disorders. It’s not just business for him, it’s a personal battle. His mother, who lives in Thomasville, Georgia has been in and out of short-term mental health facilities for the last two months and both he and his wife see therapists regularly.

Q: How did you get into this mental health awareness space?

A: I was completely new to the whole area of mental health and I worked for a company around 2010 or 2011. They were an international company and it had a couple of therapies on the market for depression. One was an antidepressant for major depressive disorder and they had a couple of products in their pipeline that were an indicator for schizophrenia and treatment resistant schizophrenia and were working on some molecules that could really help people with mental illness and mental health disorders. I got into it from that point and started to learn about the issues, just sort of as a novice.

Q: Did you see any other African Americans at the level of science?

A: Not many. One of the individuals who I really respected was a gentleman by the name of Dr. Eric Floyd, who was a researcher and also a regulatory affairs expert. He worked on several of the therapies that Lundbeck brought to the market. 

Q: There’s been a lot of discussion around equity and inclusion. Does it matter in the sciences?

A: You bet it does matter. It’s nature versus nurture, in my opinion. If you’re in an environment where there are very few people who understand what it’s like to live in the South, what it’s like to live in Back and Brown communities, then how in the world are you going to design clinical trials that are going to be representative of that demographic?  It’s not just ignorance, it’s not just indifference. I don’t mean ignorance in a bad way. You just don’t know. 

Q: Speaking of clinical trials, there was a lot of focus on the need for more African American participants, especially as scientists worked to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.

A: It hasn’t gotten any better. The pharma industry has been talking about diversity and equity and all of these issues for a long, long time, and Black Lives Matter, you name it, but in terms of what’s been the net effect, when the rubber meets the road are more Brown and Black people in these clinical trials? Are they at the table when a company is thinking about developing a new therapy? How are you listening? Are you talking to patients in the Black and Brown community? My answer is no, not to my satisfaction and I’ve been in the pharma business for 20 years. I think that is part and parcel one of the reasons, or it could be one of the reasons, why the overall mental health status, brain health status of people of color, is not well understood or was not well discussed, because they’re not participating in those venues where real change can potentially happen.

Q: When the COVID-vaccine became widely available, many didn’t go rushing to it and community advocates started talking about the importance of “reaching people where they are.” Does pharma reach out to the African American community? Have they even tried?

A: I think pharma’s doing a better job. It’s not as good as it should be. My report card would be, (it’s) a lot of window dressing, and a lot of transactional interfacing with Black and brown communities, but no real serious effort. It’s spotty. You do have individual companies, smaller biotech companies, that are run by African American CEOs that are very interested and dialed in to issues like sickle cell. I don’t want to give this impression that pharma is not doing anything to be in brown communities, but it’s still transactional, in my opinion. It’s not  transformational.

Q: What in your opinion needs to happen in order for real change to occur?

A: I think for real change, we need more people that look like you and me in boardrooms, in the C suite (executive-level) In the CEO’s chair. We need to build a stronger bench and that bench can only be built by African Americans. You can’t wait for some latte liberal or limousine liberal as Al Sharpton calls them. They’re wellmeaning, they’ve got the Black Lives Matter decal in the window, and they’ve got transgender this and that, they’ve got all the logos and everything is perfect. But when it comes down to hiring, and empowering and putting people in positions where they can actually affect change, that’s not going to happen. That’s gonna happen from the inside out, from African Americans and people of color. I have my own firm that I run. If I’m going to diversify, if it’s going to be because I want to make it diverse, I want to make it equitable. I have to lead from in front. I can’t wait for my number two or other people in the organization to say, ‘Oh, you know, diversity is important.’ No, that’s not how it works. Change is going to happen when we start building a deeper bench and we bring people along. It’s slow, it’s a slog, but it’s very, very important. 

Q: We go through a lot as Black people in the world and oftentimes being stressed and depressed are seen as normal, as things that simply come with the skin we’re in. How do we normalize asking for help?

A: I’m dealing with this right now with my mother. First of all, she’s mistrustful of the system. She was born in 1946, so living through the whole Tuskegee issues, and then seeing what’s happened just generationally. You’ve got 800 years of trauma of a people that really haven’t adequately addressed how to come out of what really happened there. And so the trauma you know, we prayed our way through it, you know, faith is important. We prayed our way through, you know, a lot of bad, you know, juju, but it’s not just prayer alone. that the pain, it doesn’t heal the trauma. And, and therefore, I think that is key and center to the issues that I think African Americans are facing, they think that their faith is everything, or the only thing and it’s not the only thing. It requires many, many other interventions.

Q: You’ve talked about your own dealing with your own mental wellness. 

A: I’ve seen a therapist weekly for the last three years. There’s nothing wrong with seeing a therapist. It should be seen as a sign of strength, not a sign of weakness. My wife was diagnosed with a mental health condition and she sees a therapist.  It’s normalized in our household, we understand whole body health and we talk about our health, our mental health and brain health the same way as ‘Wow, my leg is hurting’ or ‘my arm is sore.’  We need to start having those conversations at church, or at the cocktail party, or at the fish fry. We as African Americans, we have to start having those conversations and normalizing it and taking it out of the shadows.

A:I love that idea. I think it’s great, because the last thing you need is a bull in the china shop, (someone) who comes in half-cocked, with a hand on their weapons. They don’t know the difference between de-escalation and escalation. It is a recipe for disaster. I absolutely think that the right people should be people who have experience in de-escalation, who have experience in talking and connecting. That’s not a police officer. I don’t mean to make a blanket statement, but In certain communities, that’s just not a recipe for success by having police officers show up looking for trouble, or assuming that there’s trouble. It’s a problematic situation. They’re going to go to their playbook, which is gun drawn and alleviate the threat.

Q: In the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2021, many like Rev. Al Sharpton and Ben Crump called for police reform through legislation. Could legislative focus bring change to the mental health crisis?  

A: Mental health parity has been out there. The mental health parity bill of 2008, I think it’s due for an upgrade or reboot. I do think that that’s one issue. More importantly, there’s this issue around substance use disorder, the whole fentanyl epidemic. It’s another issue that disproportionately impacts people of color. 

What I’m hearing is that in the next Congress in 2023, there’s bipartisan support for really addressing some of the underlying mental health sort of concerns that have come out of COVID.  (Also) addressing youth mental health and when I say youth, it’s not just teens, we’re talking kids as young as 10 and 11; they’ve really been stressed by this whole situation in the last couple of years. Those are certainly some things to look out for, but do I think transformational change is coming from legislation? No. transformational change is going to come from people like you and me and people in communities who band together and say, ‘ We really need to get our act together.’

Q: Is there a correlation between mental health and addiction?

A:  I’m not a doctor. I don’t play one on TV. One of my clients, Dr. Roger Crystal, invented a Narcan nasal spray, which is an overdose reversal agent. He lives in Santa Monica. He keeps it in his backpack. He’s a medical doctor, so you can do this. He has administered it on the street and saved someone’s life. Emergency responders have it as well. The underlying issue, whether it’s fentanyl, or opioid addiction, whether it’s alcohol, or any kind of drugs, it’s usually a bandaid. There’s something underneath that’s causing the issue. What I’m hearing from the people that I work with is that it’s mental. There’s depression, there’s anxiety, there’s bipolar, there’s something going on that hasn’t been teased out yet and it’s being masked by getting addicted to this illegal substance.

You know, people are addicted to all sorts of things, alcohol being one of them, and I’m a wine person. And so I understand that wine is alcohol. And if you drink six bottles a day then you’re addicted. But what else is going on there to call you that? So you’re right there is a tie between addiction and mental health. So that’s what I will say, because I’m not a doctor, I want to be careful. But there is a correlation between the two.

Q: Are you seeing anything that makes you optimistic that the needle is being moved in the right direction in terms of mental health awareness, care and treatment?

A: I am starting to feel more comfortable or feel better about where this sort of groundswell or this movement is going. At my firm, we’re getting ready to do a three-day, for the lack of a better term, Mental Health Awareness Week here in D.C.  The conversation is going to be about how these issues and how mental health is impacting Black and brown communities. I am optimistic because  there’s a lot more people talking about mental health than there used to be.  

Where I’m less optimistic is, I do want to hear more African American leaders talking about it. I’ve been a pied piper for this for a while. Going through this journey with my mom and then going through this journey with my wife and myself with our mental health, I learned we’ve got to take the time to talk, we have to normalize it.  I actually think it’s one of the reasons why we’re not just surviving or enduring COVID; during this, we’re actually thriving. Why are we thriving? Because we have made a commitment that brain health, full body wellness, health well being is important, and I think that is a healthy way to look at it, and we need more people talking about it.