D&C: Rochester Event Looks at Strategies to Address African American Mental Health Crisis

NYAPRS Note: Congratulations to the MHA of Rochester and Chacku Mathai for hosting an extremely important and timely event.

Initiative Looks to Draw on Existing Solutions to Address African American Mental Health Crisis

By Erica Bryant Rochester Democrat and Chronicle  November 20, 2018

Picture a mother who keeps ending up in the emergency room because her child's chronic asthma is triggered by mold in her apartment, caused by a leaky pipe that she can't get her landlord to fix.


She, and her child, are probably experiencing anxiety. 


Improving their mental health, and the child's educational outcomes will take more than counseling. 


So the Mental Health Association of Rochester's recent conference on African American health equity touched on poverty, racism, substandard education, unequal justice, food deserts and other material conditions that ravage the psyches of African Americans in Rochester, a city that recently made 24/7 Wall Street's list of the 15 worst places for black people to live. 


If it's tough on adults, imagine the impact on children. 


Common sense, and decades of research, tell us that toxic stress hurts a child's ability to concentrate on academics. Without education the stress is almost guaranteed to continue. As we continue the Time To Educate project, the Democrat and Chronicle is looking at how other communities are protecting their most vulnerable — mitigating some of their stress, and freeing their brains to learn.


Dr. Altha Stewart, the president of the American Psychiatric Association, provided several active solutions in her keynote speech at the "Healing For the Village: Achieving African American Health Equity" conference, sponsored last week by the Mental Health Association. 


She pointed to a medical-legal clinic that the LeBonheur Children's Hospital, The University of Memphis School of Law and Memphis Area Legal Services have created in the children's hospital to try to address legal issues that impact the health of low-income children. In the case of a child with chronic asthma, this could mean using legal tools to force a landlord to fix health hazards that trigger these attacks. 


Reducing the number of repeat visits to the emergency room will lower the family's stress, and also cut down on the child's absences from school. There is a limited window for children to get the education that most people need to build a productive life, Stewart said. "If that gets hijacked, you are looking at lifelong dependence on the system."  


Stewart encouraged the audience to look for models that are working in other places and adapt them to the specific needs of Rochester. She also encouraged co-location and coordination of services. "To not use a wraparound approach dooms you to fragmentation and frustration," she said. 

Stewart's speech was followed by panel discussions with local leaders from the mental health, business and political community, including Mayor Lovely Warren. They discussed ways to fix health disparities that are "unjust, avoidable, unnecessary and unfair."


They encouraged the spread of culturally competent care and said that mental health care shouldn't simply exist in clinical spaces. They talked about the importance of creating a system where educators must know, understand and demonstrate their ability to mitigate trauma, which is found everywhere in the Rochester City School District. They talked about the importance of rooting out systemic racism. 


"Health inequities are not inevitable. We didn't get to these inequities by happenstance," said Melanie Funchess, director of community engagement for the Mental Health Association and Rochester School Board commissioner. "There were things that were deliberately done that brought us here. They must be deliberately undone."


Funchess said that she intends this conference to be just the beginning of an coordinated effort to provide "healing for the village." 


"There is a role for each and every one of us," she said. "No matter where you sit."