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To Improve Mental Health, We Need To Take On Social and Racial Injustice
July 22, 2019
By Ruben Cantu and Dana Fields-Johnson, Prevention Institute
The International District of Albuquerque, New Mexico is a majority Latino neighborhood that vibrates with life. It’s a hub of family-owned bakeries, restaurants, and shops that showcase the distinct origin stories of its inhabitants. But the community also faces challenges that have created high levels of economic and other kinds of stress for residents, which have translated into growing concerns about high suicide rates for young Latino men as well as substance misuse and community trauma.
The challenges in Albuquerque’s International District are far too familiar to many communities of color with low household incomes in the United States: high rates of poverty, under-resourced schools, limited job opportunities, dilapidated infrastructure, unsafe streets, and high levels of violence.
What’s less familiar is the connection these community conditions have with mental health and wellbeing.
It’s time for us to start recognizing injustices like racism, anti-immigrant bias, heterosexism, and other forms of discrimination as social injustices and obstacles to mental health and wellbeing. We can’t ignore these injustices if we want all communities to thrive. That means starting to implement approaches to mental health that help remedy the community conditions that cause or exacerbate problems and support communities of color, immigrants and refugees, and the LGBTQ community.
“Stress is too deeply woven into our lives,” says Xavier Barraza of Together4Brothers, a lead organization of Making Connections: International District, which goes by MC: ID. And healthy outlets to cope with stress aren’t as readily available in the International District as are alcohol and cigarettes in neighborhood stores.
To counteract this on-the-ground reality, MC:ID creates opportunities that emphasize supportive relationships and shared leadership. These range from cooking classes to project meetings. Every MC:ID strategy, activity, and decision is led by young men of color, who participate in workshops to strengthen their understanding of community determinants of health, social-emotional health, and policy strategy, all while building healthy relationships with one another.
As peer educators, these young men support each other “to take action in their community and be the problem solvers,” said Raul C., one of the many young men who contribute to MC:ID’s shared vision. They are paid for their work, gain invaluable professional skills, advocate for their community, and cultivate leadership; these are all elements they have identified for improving their wellbeing.
Like MC: ID, there are other initiatives throughout the US that are taking on community conditions that are harmful to good mental health among people of color, the LGBTQ community, and other groups that have been marginalized by mainstream culture and policies. In Tacoma-Pierce County, near Seattle, Washington, the health department partners with grassroots organizations to strengthen social connections and community resilience among men and boys and LGBTQ people of color in communities where adverse childhood and community experiences are widespread. The initiative has served close to 500 individuals with culturally grounded activities such as the All My Relations program for indigenous youth, and Paddles Up, Families Strong, which ties urban natives to deep cultural practices such as the Tribal Canoe Journey.
The centerpiece of the Tacoma-Pierce County program, called 253 Making Connections, is a participatory budgeting process through which community members—who have a deep understanding of what types of support their community needs—have decided to fund people of color-led grassroots organizations to lead the activities described above. This model shifts power from organizations back to communities, distributing leadership and decision-making more equitably.
The programs in Albuquerque and Tacoma-Pierce County, both of which are part of the Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys initiative, funded by the Movember Foundation, have several common elements:
- They intentionally engage community members, particularly those who have been historically excluded, in determining solutions and strategies that promote healing, build trust, and foster resilience. This is because people with lived experience bring a deep understanding and awareness of their own needs, which helps them design effective solutions.
- They understand that trauma is a collective experience and therefore healing is strongest when it’s a community experience. Healing can take place during group conversations, recreational or vocational activities, civic engagement, and culturally grounded rituals. Artistic and cultural expression can be especially powerful conveyors for understanding a group’s trauma and pain and can also serve as doorways to healing and resilience.
- They often support peer networks and counselors to open a channel of communication with community members who may not feel comfortable with traditional mental health structures. Peer networks have the additional benefit of creating leadership opportunities for community members and fostering social connection for everyone involved in them.
We’ve had the privilege of working with a dozen communities who are bringing together partners in the housing, education, and social services worlds with grassroots organizations and, most importantly, community members to improve mental health at the community level. The power and creativity of these approaches is truly impressive, and they deserve more attention, not just during minority mental health month, but all year long.
Ruben Cantu and Dana Fields-Johnson work at the national nonprofit Prevention Institute. They both support the Making Connections for Mental Health and Wellbeing Among Men and Boys initiative.