Mental health experts stress importance of allies understanding the pain of minorities

Not only is a shortage of mental health professionals a barrier for treatment for communities of color, the lack of Black or Hispanic therapists has major implications for them to find a practitioner they feel comfortable enough to share race-related trauma.

Earlier this month the prison reform group, Table of the Saints hosted a “Mental Health in the Black Community” panel at Marquette University designed for counselors and health care professionals.

The goal of the event was to get Black counselors and mental health experts to share their experiences with other professionals so they can be better informed when working with people of color.

“You need to understand us, and we need to understand you,” said Dr. Lia Knox, a panelist at the March 3 event. Knox, a Black woman and founder and CEO of Knox Behavioral Health Solutions and Co-Founder of Black Space Inc., provides research-based education, training, and workshops.

As the event’s moderator I set the tone for open and honest conversation by sharing my own battle with depression and suicidal thoughts after I lost both of my parents six-months apart from cancer.

The dialogue was intense. As personal stories were shared, a few cried, and some even hugged one another. This was a great step for unity, but until the mental health field becomes more diversified, allies must be open to understanding the deep rooted pain people of color have experienced and continue to face though racism and discrimination.

Slave codes take on new terminology in age of mass incarceration

Clem Richardson, pastor of Kingdom Empowered Ministries, who works with youth with behavioral problems and substance abuse problems, shared traumatic moments from his life, which included drug dealing as a youth; finding his sister dead in a closet from suicide; going to the House of Corrections; and finally rebuilding himself through rehab after his release.

He gave a historical perspective of how trauma is passed down through generations, delving into the cycles of traumas that Black families have faced throughout history, such as miseducation, mass incarceration, gentrification, and police brutality.

“The Maafa, is our Black Holocaust. It’s the things that happened to us from 1619 all the way to 1968. We are not too far removed from that, and we see a lot of these things are still happening to us today,” Richardson said, referring to the trans-Atlantic slave trade that brought Africans to the Americas.

White settlers in the U.S. created the Black slave codes that still exist today in the form of incarceration and probation.

For example, our Black ancestors were forbidden from gathering in groups. Today, if you have a criminal record, you are restricted from hanging around certain people or they will take you back to jail.

During slavery, Blacks could not travel without a pass. Today, if you are on parole, you need permission from your probation officer. Failure to do so can result in being sent back to prison.

“We were used as free labor during slavery and if you have been in prison, guess what? You were used as free labor and someone is profiting off you,” he said.

Dr. Lia Knox speaks about the importance of words when dealing with those in a mental health crisis. She spoke at a symposium, “Mental Health in the Black Community,” held March 4 at Marquette University in Milwaukee..
Dr. Lia Knox speaks about the importance of words when dealing with those in a mental health crisis. She spoke at a symposium, “Mental Health in the Black Community,” held March 4 at Marquette University in Milwaukee..

Moving from mental health to wellness turns deficit into a positive

Knox pushed to use different language, moving from mental health to mental “wellness” to connect with people of color.

“When we talk about mental wellness it is not from a deficit it is from a positive,” she said.

When you say mental health, for many Blacks the stigma and judgment prevent them from seeking treatment.

As soon as you mention mental health or mental illness, most people black or white will say, ‘I’m not crazy,’ she said. “But as soon as you talk about mental wellness, you know you have a right to feel good. I have a right to feel well today.”

Knox cited the following statistics when it comes to mental wellness and African Americans:

  • There are 46 million African Americans in the U.S., 6.8 million reported a mental illness in 2021.

  • Only 1 in 3 who need mental health care received it.

  • 58% of adults do not receive treatment for their mental health diagnosis.

  • 90% of Blacks over the age of 12 who experience substance abuse disorder do not receive treatment

“We are taught in school that the gateway to drugs is marijuana. Absolutely not," Knox said. "The gateway to drugs is poverty. The gateway to drugs is not having enough to eat or drink or living in a household where you don’t have what you need."

Anxiety is viewed as misbehavior in children of color

Panelist Kalen Kennedy, who will be attending UCLA to pursue his doctorate, discussed how his parents tried their best to give him a great education while growing up in Detroit, by sending him to predominately white schools.

Raised in a Baptist church, Kennedy said he grew up in a tight knit family, and his parents’ viewed education as a way for him to break away from the violence and trauma they witnessed.

Education was important to his parents, but at the time Detroit had some of the worst underperforming elementary and high schools in the country. His parents wanted Kennedy to be challenged so in 2nd grade they placed Kennedy in a predominately white and wealthy Catholic school.

The experience was traumatic. The teacher would isolate him to practice his prayers and within that school he was faced with inconsistent expectations and punishments -- when all he knew is that he was supposed to work hard and care about people.

“This was the first time in my life that I was faced with the world does not work like that,” Kennedy said. “People won’t give you what you deserve because you tried hard.”

This caused him to dislike school and get headaches and stomach pains that would get so bad he was throwing up on the way from school.

It wasn’t until Kennedy’s parents reached out to other Black families at the school that they discovered that the school was causing their kid anxiety, which is often undiagnosed in African American children.

Teachers view anxiety as misbehavior in Black and brown children as a pattern, more likely than when a child is white, he said.

The pattern for Kennedy continued in high school. He went to a mostly white high school, and he said the expectations for Black kids were low while the punishments were more severe.

This isolation caused Kennedy to start cutting himself to deal with the emotional pain.

“My parents saw the cuts and eventually got me into therapy, and it helped,” Kennedy said.

Those painful memories propelled Kennedy to go to Howard University on a scholarship to major in psychology.

“When teens are miserable or loud or getting into trouble, those are the times teens need you the most,” Kennedy said.

Families can best work on their children’s needs by normalizing conversations around sadness, loss and stress, and fighting the stigma around mental health.

Dr. Stephany Pruitt talks about living with the trauma of knowing your last name was a product of rape and the pain African Americans and people of color deal with in America at a mental health conference March 4 at Marquette University.
Dr. Stephany Pruitt talks about living with the trauma of knowing your last name was a product of rape and the pain African Americans and people of color deal with in America at a mental health conference March 4 at Marquette University.

'My last name is the product of rape'

During the talkback session, Dr. Stephany Pruitt a licensed professional counselor, who works in individual therapy and counseling, talked about how generational trauma was passed down to her.

“It is hard to be descendants of Africans and to live in this country and to be mentally well. It has a tinge of narcissism in it,” Pruitt said. “When you understand what your ancestors went through you feel it in your soul and your spirit.”

Pruitt traced her family roots back to the Congo. Her family was brought to America on slave ships.

Her great, great-grandmother was a slave girl who was raped by the plantation master at the age of 15.

She gave birth to her great grandfather, Matthew, who married her great grandmother, Chaney, and they ended up sharecroppers after they were freed. Chaney died before Matthew. He died of a sunstroke working the fields at 63.

Her grandfather, James, and the rest of the family members lived in Tuscaloosa, Ala., when the Ku Klux Klan started making nightly visits to steal their land.

They were forced to flee to Chicago.

“My last name is because of the plantation master rape. He came from Europe and thus my last name Pruitt,” she said.

Pruitt asked a question.

“I want you to sit with this for a moment. I know that my last name is a product of rape. What does that do to your mental wellness? How do I deal with that? Where do I change it?”

The room went silent save for sniffles at the weight of her words.

“My ancestors’ blood is in the soil of this country, and they loved this country like I love this country, even though I know its history, but what does that do for my mental wellness?” she said.

To cope with this pain, Pruitt says many of us must wear masks in predominately white spaces forcing her to live in two worlds.

“You can’t take it off, but you tired of putting it on too,” she said. “We don’t get credit for many of the things we created in this country, but if we did it would probably help us with our mental heath and that’s what we want you to understand.”

James E. Causey started reporting on life in his city while still at Marshall High School through a Milwaukee Sentinel high school internship. He's been covering his hometown ever since, writing and editing news stories, projects and opinion pieces on urban youth, mental health, employment, housing and incarceration. Most recently, he wrote about a man who went to prison as a child for a horrific crime in Life Correction: The Marlin Dixon story. Released at age 32, Dixon’s intent on giving his life meaning. Other projects include "What happened to us?" which tracked the lives of his third-grade classmates, and "Cultivating a community," about the bonding that takes place around a neighborhood garden. Causey was a health fellow at the University of Southern California in 2018 and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2007. Email him at; follow him on Twitter @jecausey.

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Mental health experts say allies must understand minorities pain