Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective: Breathe Easy

Feb 2, 2022 | Grantee Partner Stories

Healing Black Communities by Reimagining Mental Health Care

BEAM wants Black people and communities to heal.  

That’s why, among its many programs that support Black people’s emotional and mental health, the organization gives people cash.  

You heard that right. BEAM gives grants of $200 to $500 to Black parents living with or caring for children with mental health conditions. In 2021 they gave out over $30,000 (along with support in tailored group and individualized workshops). It’s called the Black Parent Support Fund.  

“Some funders don’t quite grasp it immediately,” says Executive Director Yolo Akili Robinson. “How is giving people cash a wellness intervention?” But at BEAM, “we recognize that there’s struggling with depression, and then there’s struggling with depression in the dark because your power was turned off—it’s a whole different demon to navigate.” 

Chances are, you’ve already heard the statistics about how African Americans are less likely to access mental health care than the rest of the population. This situation stems from a variety of reasons beyond mere socioeconomics, such as mistrust of the medical system, higher rates of misdiagnosis and unequal treatment by health care practitioners, and a dearth of African American mental health professionals.  

No Justice, No Healing 

BEAM’s programs are tackling these systemic challenges through the lens of “Healing Justice,” defined by therapist/writer/organizer Prentis Hemphill as “active intervention in which we transform the lived experience of Blackness in our world.” That means that BEAM is focused not just on mental health care as it is practiced upon patients, but about how wellness and healing must be embedded within relationships, communities, and institutions. 

“Diagnosis and treatment are important and useful,” says Yolo, “but without a fundamental transformation of our world and our culture, it’s just a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. BEAM’s work is about transforming the root of our society to being healing-centered, to move away from sexism and racism and transphobia, away from dominator culture. We can have all the tools and skills in the world, but if we don’t have living wages, or good health care, or boundaries at work that honor our wellness, we can’t heal, we can’t care for ourselves or each other.”  

BEAM’s core service is peer-based training, designed by and for the Black community. Their Black Mental Health & Healing Justice training “equips participants with an introductory knowledge of mental health issues, myths, and challenges in Black communities” and teaches participants how to support people in mental health crises. BEAM also conducts leadership trainings to help executives make their organizations healthier and more equitable places to work, as well as peer support trainings that assist men in challenging toxic masculinity in Black culture and reimagining what healthy Black masculinity could look like.  

A Community Model of Care 

What is needed, specifically? “A peer support model” answers Yolo, “where everyone in the community is built up with skills to respond to mental health crises in ways that are ethical, loving, and healing.” 

Yolo points to BEAM’s Black Masculinity Reimagined training as an example. When designing the program, they asked themselves, “How can we create a peer support space that speaks to older Black men who may be completely averse to [therapy]? They will sit in a circle of other elder Black men and talk about what they’ve been through because that connects to them, that feels more genuine than this hierarchical model of someone talking down to me.”   

And it seems to be working. “We have been gathering qualitative data on how they experience the training, how they use the tools, how people are self-reporting around behavior change and their own capacity to self-regulate, and following up with [participants] a year later. We wanted to know if they are even using these tools anymore. And many of them really are [using the tools], and even sharing them across generations.” 

Change at the Root 

Yolo adds that this community-based approach must also address the harm that institutions inflict upon marginalized people. “That means uprooting white supremacy, sexism, misogyny, and transphobia from schools, from work environments, from institutions. The Healing Justice model puts the power in the hands of the community and not solely in the hands of a couple of people. It says that all of us are responsible for our healing and our wellness. It’s rooted in indigenous healing practices, and in a collectivist approach to wellness. Whether it’s music, art, dance, or family reunions and gatherings, we have to build upon those healing practices. That’s what makes our work critical.”  

He is careful to point out that this collective approach is not meant to replace therapy, or to have non-medical practitioners therapizing and diagnosing each other. “We have boundaries and limitations. What we’re trying to do is increase people’s understanding of [mental health] diagnoses so they can better support themselves and their loved ones. There are a variety of different skills that help cultivate wellness that you don’t need a clinical license to do right. I’m not a nutritionist, but if a person’s eating once a day, or eating a lot of heavy starches, that’s probably interfering with their capacity to self-regulate in some way.” 

Racism is a Mental Health Issue 

Yolo also describes BEAM’s Black Mental Health and Healing Justice training, which helps participants understand what mental health is and also gives them concrete skills on how to respond to someone in crisis. The fact that it is Black-centered, Yolo says, is terribly important to the program’s efficacy. “We are very explicit about naming the nuances of what it means to support a Black person in distress because of the history of racism. Many of the other interventions that are nationally recognized don’t even discuss race (or gender, or sexuality). They don’t talk about the context of why the subject of mental health is so hard for our communities. Like when you say, ‘social worker,’ some people associate that with the person who took away their parents or their children.” 

Mental Health is Not a Trend 

Yolo is glad that mental health, especially Black mental health, has risen to the forefront as celebrities like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have spoken out about their personal struggles. But he stresses that awareness is just a first step. “That’s great, but how do I show up in practice?” he asks. “How do I build a community that helps me practice? How do we make wellness part of our everyday livelihood and work? I want to make sure our conversation does not miss that we still need actual skills. How do I respond when someone’s having a panic attack? How do I be mindful that panic attacks can look like heart attacks? How do I support someone who struggles with depression in my community who is not going to go to a therapist?”   

Trust is Healthy   

BEAM is a Grantee Partner through the Satterberg Foundation’s Reparative Action Fund (RAF), a national grantmaking program that resources Black and Indigenous-led movement building, organizing, and healing justice. The Foundation launched RAF in 2020 as part of our commitment to Trust-Based Philanthropy, which we have found to be more flexible, adaptive, and responsive to community needs than the traditional approach to funding. 

Yolo agrees. “What our organization needs the most right now is more funders like Satterberg,” says Yolo, “who recognize that we are a small, mighty team doing really difficult and heavy work. I appreciate Satterberg’s approach so much because it wasn’t, ‘Prove it to me.’ It wasn’t ‘Jump through these hoops, here are some rings of fire.’ It was ‘Have a conversation with me, connect with me, and let me build a relationship with you.’ Many foundations come in with this almost elitist attitude that we should be privileged to have them support us, as opposed to ‘we should be privileged to be in partnership with each other.’”  

Yolo says that Satterberg’s support “makes it possible for us to be able to breathe easy and focus more on critical needs of the community. We don’t have to build a whole new project based off the vision of a funder who isn’t on the ground. It gives us the kind of flexibility to be able to make sure that our staff is cared for. That’s critical. I’ve worked in non-profit organizations for 15, 16 years, and so many of them had a whole new staff every six months, because of burnout and the addiction to a false sense of urgency, all these things that are creating so much chaos. Having that that general operating, ongoing support gives us the space to breathe.”  

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