Center approaches Black mental health through racial, cultural lens

Atum Azzahir Charles Hallman/MSR New

Blacks are 20 percent more likely to have serious mental illness problems than the general population, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reports. Major depression, ADHD, suicide and PTSD – due to homelessness and exposure to violence – are among the common mental health disorders that Blacks deal with.

NAMI also notes that about one-quarter of Blacks seek mental health help compared to 40 percent of Whites. Many Blacks rely entirely on their faith and family for emotional support when dealing with mental health concerns.

Minneapolis-based Cultural Wellness Center Executive Director Atum Azzahir said earlier this year on a mental health panel at a Minnesota Public Radio-sponsored event at the Science Museum that systemic racism “and the pain and suffering that cause trauma” among Blacks and other people of color should be taken into account by healthcare professionals when dealing with mental health concerns.

She added that not taking your problems to bed with you, which can adversely affect your sleeping, also could help in dealing with mental health concerns.

Azzahir and her Cultural Wellness Center staff use a cultural approach with their clients. “Cultural wellness is both an approach and field of study,” she explained. “The thing that is not talked [about] is this unbelievable rich storehouse of wisdom” among ethnic groups “based on the fact that people have been left out and forced out of mainstream society,” she said.

“At one point in time, the community was the measure of health” for Blacks and other people of color, Azzahir pointed out. This included seeking support from family members, friends and neighbors. “We did, in the old days, establish a fabric that held us together on all levels of living. We didn’t separate your mind from your body and spirit if there were things going on in your life that affected everyone else around [you].”

Even as more people rely on modern technology and science, the importance of culture and how it relates to the individual must be taken into account, Azzahir suggested. “The theory that you can endure and make it alone, is just a theory. We definitely struggle and we do have things we have to work on. [But], we are connected…not just to each other, but connected to nature.

All of those things have to be considered in how we are thinking about our mind, to help with our thinking and our body. Mind, body, spirit and soul are all connected.”

“The Cultural Wellness Center is for White people, too. Everybody has culture,” added Azzahir. “Each of our cultural communities will have to think through this time we are in right now. You can’t deal with mental health until you deal with history and historical things that have happened. Then we can [get] beyond the guilt and shame, get beyond what has held us hostage and kept us from thinking through a higher consciousness where we can imagine we can live together.”

Recognizing that a person needs mental help as soon as possible is important. “You don’t have to wait until everything is going wrong with you,” she stated. “We have many family members who have committed suicide.”

Dealing with mental health must involve “a more holistic approach,” explained Azzahir. “We have to be connected to a higher power. We have to be considered to have a past and a future. This new way of thinking about mental health or mental illness is not necessarily new, but it is an approach that we have to [use].”

“We are connecting race to mental illness, and that is a big, big issue within the cultural community,” Azzahir surmised. “It’s not just people of African heritage, but [other people of color as well].”

She added that the power of spirituality shouldn’t be ignored in this regard. “Spirit means we are connected to all of creation. That connectedness gives us a sense of wholeness and a mindset, a state of consciousness [that] what I do to myself affects others. I don’t get to stand over here by myself.”

Health professionals must recognize that Blacks and other people of color do deal with problems differently than the general population, Azzahir said. “Society makes us feel odd.” Recognizing that stress can be a contributing factor to mental illness, it “needs to be a focus of our attention” in effectively treating it.