San Francisco Chronicle - (Sunday)
‘I’m good’ is no answer for racebased trauma
The Black men I most often speak to about mental health are my older brothers, Kyle and Blair. And there’s a phrase we use whenever one of us isn’t opening up about what’s troubling us: “Don’t ‘I’m good’ yourself into depression.”
It’s our way of acknowledging a reality for Black and brown folks in America, especially men, of not having the tools to properly process racebased trauma. Sometimes an emotional checkin — “You good?” — can get an equally clipped answer — “I’m good.” Truth is, most of us aren’t.
We’re constantly seeing our reflections in the victims of police violence. On March 11, a Danville police
officer who is now charged in a 2018 killing shot Tyrell Wilson pointblank in the face. Daunte Wright was fatally shot during an April 11 traffic stop in Minneapolis. Eight days later, Mario Gonzalez of Oakland died after Alameda police pinned him to the ground for five minutes.
We can’t finish grieving one trauma before the next occurs.
In March, racism was declared a public health crisis by California organizations representing county behavioral health, human services, public health and public hospital systems. In a joint statement, the stakeholders pledged to prioritize “investment in promoting racial and economic equity to address social determinants of health.”
It sounds good. But racism has been a public health crisis for generations. In the 17th century, Black slaves saw each other beaten and whipped on Southern plantations. During Jim Crow, there were public lynchings. Black suffering continues to be on public display in the digital age thanks to social media videos of police killings.
Yet we historically haven’t sought professional help to deal with what we continue to witness and experience because of the stigma surrounding it.
George Galvis, the cofounder and executive director of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice in Oakland, said the stigma aspect is more complicated than most people realize.
“I feel like (the stigma) has been misconstrued by dominant culture that we’re too ignorant, we’re too prideful (to seek help). That’s not the case,” he said. “It’s actually a result of the fact that us seeking mental health has been used to weaponize stealing our children and destabilizing our families historically through social services, and through child welfare departments and so on.”
According to the San Francisco nonprofit Kaiser Family Foundation, which analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, communities of color could use the care. The report showed that 48% of Black adults and 46% of Latino adults in the U.S. were “more likely to report symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorder” through the pandemic than white people, at 41%.
These numbers may seem bleak. But I’ve found that many Black therapists in the Bay Area are hopeful. The reason: Over the last year, they’ve been working with more BIPOC patients. And most of these new patients are younger people.
“I’m working with more Black people who are learning to be themselves, unapologetically Black, and they’re understanding that their existence is their resistance,” said Stephanie McWoods, a Black therapist in Oakland. “It’s a transition in thinking that has led to a lot of healing.” McWoods told me she’s one of many local therapists who dropped their rates or offered free sessions over the last few months to meet a growing demand.
Amber Nutter, a Black therapist who also does clinical social work in Oakland, described the rise in young Black and brown patients as a “renaissance.”
“We’re seeing people shedding that stigma around therapy. With so many young people seeking it out, I think the outcrop of that will be they will not pass that stigma on to their kids,” Nutter said. “I can see the scales falling off.”
There are organizations in the Bay Area that help people from maginalized communities afford mental health care, including Oaklandbased National Queer and Trans Therapists of America.
Young people are also using public spaces to heal. Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice regularly holds vigils in honor of Black and brown people who have been killed by police, most recently for Gonzalez outside of the Alameda Police Department. Many of these events are attended by young people, Galvis said. “Compared to Jim Crow, we can speak up and most of us are not going to worry about a burning cross in our front lawn, something definitely my dad in Arkansas would have experienced,” said Mary Sanders, a Black therapist based in Oakland who has been working with more Black and brown patients. “As we cultivate more safety in our communities and we’re more empowered to speak out, we’re more able to put our voices and bodies out there. We’re establishing a new baseline of vulnerability.”
The idea of a mental health renaissance is a beautiful one. But it’ll require progressive support to become a reality.
Cat Brooks, the cofounder of the Anti PoliceTerror Project and its new initiative called Mental Health First, which facilitates a nonpolice response to mental health crises in Oakland, had an intriguing idea. She said for every cop sent to the scene of a homicide in the Bay Area, a mental health or trauma worker should also be dispatched. The Bay Area should take this a step further: Local city governments should pay for the mental health care of family members of people killed by police until they decide they no longer want or need it. The choice should be theirs.
And I know where a policy like this can start — in Alameda for the family of Mario Gonzalez.