Another piece of mental health puzzle, by Olivia Fenty and Paul M. Piwko

5/13/2021, 6 p.m.
Racism and discrimination pervade the lived experience of Black people in this country.

Racism and discrimination pervade the lived experience of Black people in this country.

In turn, these experiences impact emotional and mental well-being and add another layer of complexity for Black people who already experience mental health challenges. Mental health stigma adds still another.

Just as education and storytelling can create cultural literacy and help untangle the lived experience of racism, an opportunity exists in Richmond for education and storytelling to develop mental health literacy and untangle the lived experience of stigma.

“Mental Health: Mind Matters,” which is on display at the Science Museum of Virginia through Aug. 29, is the largest investment into an exhibition about mental health in the United States.Visitors to the exhibit are greeted by a wall of digital photographs of real people who have mental illness.

Consistent with the demographic reality of mental illness, this wall looks like America. Photos alight into short videos of individuals introducing themselves and declaring that they have mental illness or love someone who does, that mental health concerns are real and treatable, and that hope and help exists.

The creation of Mind Matters is also an exciting moment within Richmond, as it is the first majority-Black city where the exhibit has been displayed. This is important given Richmond’s legacy as the original home of the first mental hospital in the United States dedicated to serving Black people and the seminal work of former Virginia Commonwealth University professor Dr. King Davis exploring historical themes in Black mental health.

(Howard’s Grove Hospital, a former Confederate facility located in Richmond, was designated in 1869 as a mental health hospital for African-Americans.

Its name was changed to Central Lunatic Asylum in June 1870 as a state institution, and later was moved to a farm in Dinwiddie County that became Central State Hospital.)

Mind Matters can contribute to existing conversations about the Black experience and mental health by providing a space to discuss and examine the implications of mental health stigma and to consider ways to address it as a community and individually.

Although racism and mental health intersect in many ways, there is still insufficient information or resources to tackle either together or individually. More often than not, Black people face mental health concerns and discriminatory experiences without quality care. Research suggests that racism is often self-reported as a significant source of stress and anxiety for many.

However, Black people still face disparities and a lack of quality mental health resources resulting from various social inequalities. According to the American Psychological Association, as of 2019, only 3 percent of licensed psychologists are Black. So Black clients often are unable to receive culturally competent care that can effectively address the impact of racism on their mental health.

With this in mind, Mind Matters creates a non-judgmental and welcoming space to discuss the experiences Black people encounter with mental health.

The interplay between structural racism and mental health is undeniable in 2021, given the disproportionate negative impacts of COVID-19 upon communities of color, instances of police brutality and the frequency of bigotry disguised as political rhetoric in today’s media.

The exhibit demonstrates that sharing lived experiences creates understanding, which generates honest conversations. This is a vital part of the discussion this country needs to have one person, one family and one community at a time.

Structural solutions for racism and systematic reforms of mental health care are slow but in the works by community leaders every day. It is a fight that we can all play a role in even within our own homes.

So, while we work toward a better future, how will you prioritize your peace of mind and that of those you love?

Olivia Fenty is founder of The Chocolate Project, an organization that highlights the experiences of young Black women and raises self-esteem. Paul M. Piwko teaches at Assumption University and is co-developer of the National Museum of Mental Health Project where Ms. Fenty is an intern.