Photo credit: Jessica Felicio, Unsplash
During Black History Month, IYF is highlighting issues and elevating voices around Black mental health and wellbeing. In Baltimore, a project called the Healing Youth Alliance equips young people in the city with the training, knowledge, and support they need to be champions for mental health and healing in their own communities, families, and peer groups.
Recently, I chatted with Nia Jones—a licensed social worker, Director of the Youth and College Division at the Black Mental Health Alliance, and educator with the Healing Youth Alliance. Having resided in both East and West Baltimore, graduated from Baltimore City College high school, and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Morgan State University, Jones says, “I think I’m about as Baltimore as you can get. I love my city through and through.” Below, she talks about the work she does, the people she serves, and how young Black people can be a powerful first line of defense for mental wellness in their communities.
What is the Black Mental Health Alliance for Education and Consultation?
The Black Mental Health Alliance’s mission is about helping children and adults realize optimal mental health. We were founded in the 1980’s when Dr. Maxie T. Collier—the head of the Baltimore City Health Department at the time—saw that there was a gap in training and education for Black social workers, therapists, psychiatrists, and counselors. He met with an MSW student and Senator Shirley Nathan-Pullman and said, we need to do something about this. And the Black Mental Health Alliance was born. Since that time, the organization has brought in some of the leading minds around mental health and Black culture to present in Baltimore. We serve as bridge builders between community-level workers and psychiatrists, social workers, and counselors. We make sure that there is a sharing of knowledge so that if there are community-level organizations working with our young people or providing resources to older adults, they have the mental health knowledge they need even when there isn’t a mental health professional around.
What is your role at the Black Mental Health Alliance?
I’m the Director of the Youth and College Division. But, three years ago, I was a volunteer. At the time, the organization had a Call to Healing conference series after the death of Freddie Gray. Well, there were lots of adults in the room, but very few young people. Our board of directors said, there needs to be a youth voice at the table. They thought, maybe if we have an event, we can get youth talking about mental health. So, I was brought on board to do one thing—plan a Youth Summit. That first year, we had 30 attendees—which was big because we had never interacted with young people in that way before. The next year, we doubled those numbers. Then, we started doing other things—we started a youth Instagram, a podcast, and created an entire Youth and College Division. This year, we have a Youth Summit planned for August and we’re hoping to have upwards of 120 attendees. Any grants we write that service young people between the ages of 5 and 25, and their parents, I’m responsible for oversight of that work. It started with one youth summit, and the rest is history.
You mentioned the importance of youth voice—does that have a connection to mental wellbeing?
In Baltimore, and elsewhere, there are a lot of programs that claim that youth choice and youth voice is the order of the day. But then young people show up and want to lift their voices, but it’s not quite like that. There can be a silencing of certain young people, and this can lead to mental health concerns. I would also add that the concept of—this may sound horrible—“trauma porn” can negatively affect mental health for young people in general, but especially Black youth. This is where an organization wants to tell the stories about molestation, or how our lights got turned off, or how my mom is sick, or look at all they went through and still they rise. But it’s done in a way that cheapens and monetizes the pain so others will feel good about themselves for donating to the organization. When I work with young people, I tell them they can talk about their trauma as much as they please, but do the work first, take care of yourself first and deal with your trauma. Use your voice—but I don’t want you to be crumbling up on a stage.
What do the young people you work with say about mental health—are there common challenges or obstacles they face? What about during Covid-19?
It runs the gamut. There are lots of conversations around trauma—specifically about how trauma has been normalized and can seem like something that is just supposed to happen. So, a young person might think, my dad or my mom’s boyfriend beats her, and I’ve seen this happen for years, so maybe that’s just how love is shown? Also, substance use disorder is a big one. In Baltimore, you see drug deals all the time, you see people on the corner leaning so far down but never falling over—it can become almost normal, too. There’s also lots of conversations around suicidal ideation, and thoughts of suicide. This isn’t surprising to me as a clinician because the state of being Black in America is to be constantly depressed and anxious, so suicidal thoughts are bound to be there. There are also lots of conversations around self-worth, self-esteem, and depression. And stigma. Young people are very clear that mental health is stigmatized. They say, “I told somebody how I felt, and they didn’t validate it, so maybe it’s me.” Maybe a parent says, “you don’t have anything to feel sad about,” or “that’s not real, maybe you should go back to your room and think a little bit harder.” That can be a terrible burden. We talk about how this kind of stigmatizing behavior, even if it’s from your mom, is disrespectful and unhealthy. During Covid-19, a lot of our young people are trying to go to school on Zoom while working to take care of their family. What used to be an afterschool job might have turned into a way to help support the family, or to take care of themselves because their parent or guardian has to take care of everyone else. That’s a lot for our young people to carry.
How are you and your fellow educators with the Healing Youth Alliance equipping young Black people to be champions of mental health in their communities and peer groups?
They go through 10 weeks of curriculum training, and an additional 6-10 weeks of polish. We unpack some of the high-flying mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, ADHD, substance use disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia. I provide them a beginner’s knowledge—they learn the definition and the signs and symptoms. Then, on top of that I lay the Black experience. For example, we know what these disorders look like in the DSM—the standard manual clinicians use for diagnosis—but here’s what they look like in Black communities. We see where in some places it’s the same, and other places it’s different. I explain some of the racial history behind some of it. My colleague, Mr. Richard Rowe, adds something called healing centered engagement that focuses on healing for individuals who have experienced trauma. We give young people a way to say, okay I’ve learned about these diagnoses, I’ve learned how it looks in mainstream America, I’ve learned how it looks in Black America, and now I’m learning about how the healing process can begin. They take all of that, and each week they’re responsible for creating their own mini presentations. They take turns presenting and providing each other feedback, support, edits. Once they do that, they go into preparation for their conference to show what they’ve learned, how they’ve internalized it, and how they plan to use it in the community.
You mentioned that some disorders look different in Black communities—what’s an example of that?
Usually eating disorders are seen as a white woman’s problem—they’re the face of it. But let’s dig a little deeper. Black women typically don’t show up with the traits of anorexia or bulimia, but there is disordered eating in Black communities. So, when I talk to young people I’ll pull out things like, you know when you get stressed and you just want some greasy food, and you grab that and you haven’t eaten anything else all day? And the young people are like, oh my god, my mother does that! I try to help them look at things differently. Also, Black people have historically been disproportionately diagnosed as schizophrenic, based upon the description that’s in the DSM. But it’s really much more nuanced and requires a certain level of cultural awareness. If I didn’t do this kind of work in my community, I would diagnose just like my white counterparts because that’s how we're all taught. In fact, about three weeks ago, the American Psychiatric Association issued an apology for this.
What is the benefit to having young people as allies and partners in community mental health awareness and outreach?
It’s rare that young people will reach out to their parents or another adult first when they’re feeling the feels—they’ll usually reach out to a friend in their support system. So, if I’ve trained twenty young people who each have a network of thousands on social media—that’s powerful. Young people are more likely to accept feedback from a peer than from an adult. Now, they are very clear about the fact that they are not clinicians, nor do they pretend to be, but they are the first line of defense for their friends. These young people—these Healing Youth Alliance Ambassadors—can help their friends find a therapist, or talk them down if they’ve had a bad day, or take them to the hospital if they want to hurt themselves. They’re in a place where they can speak from an understanding of the mind and the heart. That’s powerful. Personally, I want to get more Black social workers, counselors, and psychiatrists out of this deal. A lot of the young people I work with say they never even thought about pursuing a career in behavioral health because they had no idea it existed. They’re very interested.
Are there any stories from the recent cohort of Youth Healing Ambassadors that you’d like to share?
In addition to becoming Ambassadors in their communities, some of the young people have gone a step further and started their own nonprofits. One young woman named Ania started a nonprofit called Not for Sale that looks at human trafficking. Another young woman, Jemira, has been able to quit her in-person job—which she’d been juggling during Covid-19—to start presenting what she’s learned across the country, over Zoom, to organizations and institutions including Johns Hopkins University and the University of Southern California. So, she’s now able to do this work for the Healing Youth Alliance from the comfort and safety of her own home.
Are there any resources you want to highlight related to Black mental health—especially for young people in Baltimore and beyond?
First, if people go to the Black Mental Health Alliance website they can use Connect With a Therapist to search by zip code to find a Black psychiatrist or therapist in the area. For finding a therapist, we take a concierge approach—my colleague Cheryl Maxwell will call or email you to give you a list, and then she checks up to make sure you got connected. And if you didn’t, she can hold your hand—because looking for a therapist can be overwhelming and exhausting.
Therapy for Black Girls is great. This website not only has a therapist database, but they also have an amazing set of blog articles about issues related to black women and girls. Therapy for Black Men is also a good resource, and there’s a new one called Therapy for Black Children that helps parents get the support they need for their children.
Some great books that I personally recommend are Black Pain by Terrie Williams and The Unapologetic Guide to Black Mental Health by Dr. Rheeda Walker. Both of these are written in a way that anyone can understand—almost like the authors are sitting at the dinner table with you explaining mental health. On the Black Mental Health Alliance website, there’s also a list of 12 Books on Behavioral Health Written by Black People.
I also recommend journaling—creativity is important for mental health, and I recommend journaling as a great way to center yourself. In Baltimore, Dew More BMore has a Poetry as Mental Health Club. I’m the resident therapist. We meet one Sunday every month. I provide a small training on whatever mental health topic the young people pick. I give a mini presentation, then work with the youth poets and their mentors to make prompts that help unpack what we talked about. They can free write, and then we share—so, it’s like a workshop and an open mic.
Thank you so much for this conversation! Is there a final thought you’d like to share during Black History Month?
The thing that is really important to me this month, and every month, is that Black pride is mental health. Having pride goes back to self-worth, self-esteem, and confidence. Be confident in who you are—the way your hair grows out of your head, your skin color. However you need to present yourself in this world, being comfortable with that and having pride in that is optimal mental health. Because once you have that, you’re able to better cope with the stresses of life. You’re able to give back to your community. You’re able to go to work and make a life for yourself. That’s the definition of mental health. I tell everyone who will listen: Black pride is mental health.