Mental Health

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the eighth in a series of stories about this week's Richland County Community Equity Challenge. Today's topic deals with mental health.)

MANSFIELD -- A video with the final day  8 of the Richland County Community Equity Challenge caught the eyes and ears of Joe Trolian.

"The video talked about the effect of trauma on physical, mental and spiritual health," said Trolian, executive director of the local Mental Health & Recovery Services board. "I think (she) outlined it very well ... constantly living under a heightened state of alert and the impact of that."

The video, titled "How Racism Gets Under Your Skin," was a Tedx talk by Brianna Brownlow, a graduate student at The Ohio State University in Columbus. In the video, she explains the impact on health -- mental and physical -- for people of color who experience it on a regular basis.

She illustrated her remarks by describing a late night in Columbus when she was stopped by police while driving, knowing she had done nothing wrong, but worried what may happen to her as a Black female.

Thankfully, the stop ended with no issues. But as Brownlow drove away, she felt her heart pounding in her chest. Her mind was also racing. She had experienced "flight or fight" adrenaline rush.

Briana Brownlow is a PhD candidate who studies how race-based stress and the unique ways it requires people to cope impacts the mental and physical health of Black Americans. Through her research and personal experiences, Briana will illuminate the ways racism can get under the skin. Briana Brownlow is a fifth year PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at The Ohio State University. Her research focuses on how experiences with discrimination and other forms of chronic racial stress “gets under the skin” and impacts Black Americans’ physical and mental health. Briana completed her undergraduate degrees in Psychology & Philosophy at Spelman College in 2016 and received her master’s in Psychology from OSU in 2018. Briana currently does clinical work at the Early Psychosis Intervention Center and Women’s Behavioral Health. Briana has also taught various undergraduate psychology courses at OSU. In 2019, she was selected for the Graduate Associate Teaching Award, OSU’s highest recognition of exceptional teaching. She also received the College of Arts and Sciences’ Graduate Student Award for Distinguished Service for her work in creating a mentoring program during her two years as President of OSU’s Black Graduate and Professional Student Caucus. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

She said people of color are constantly having to "push things down" and not react. Brownlow said, especially in the case of successful Black women, they must constantly "be on top, to excel, knowing if you make a mistake, the consequences will be more dire."

She said this constant use of an elevated coping mechanism leads to higher blood pressure as the mind and body copes with stresses associated with systemic racism. Brownlow suggested this is one of the likely factors causing Black residents to die younger than Whites "for all causes."

"It's not that the color of our skin makes us more susceptible to die early. It's that structural racism and the way we have to cope with it is literally physically exhausting and and taxing and it gets under our skin and negatively impacts our health," Brownlow said.

Issues with the impact of systemic racism on mental health is why the Richland County Task Force on Racism chose housing as one of its key areas of focus during the eight-day challenge, which concludes today.

The effort was aimed at creating dedicated time and space to build more effective social justice habits, particularly those dealing with issues of race, power, privilege and leadership.

Trolian suggested the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has given White residents a feel for what Black residents face on a regular basis.

"The idea of living constantly on heightened  alert," he said. "Most of us have been getting a taste of that from COVID for the last two years.

"People constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop ... It  takes a physical and mental toll not knowing what's happening tomorrow. Are the kids going to school? Are you going to work? Do you have to wear a mask?

"Multiply that by 10, or 20, or 30, and maybe you get some idea of what it's like to live a lifetime being under that constant state of arousal and how impact that is on your physical and mental health," Trolian said.

Statistics bear out the concerns about mental health issues for people of color.

According to the Mental Health America website, "Overall, mental health conditions occur in Black and African American people in America at about the same or less frequency than in White Americans.

"However, the historical Black and African American experience in America has and continues to be characterized by trauma and violence more often than for their White counterparts and impacts emotional and mental health of both youth and adults."

The rise in the suicide rate for black children ages 5 to 12 is an overlooked national emergency, according to a panel convened by the Congressional Black Caucus in 2019.

“We can no longer stand aside and watch as the youth in our community continue to struggle with depression, traumatic stress, or anxiety. Far too often the pain that African Americans experience is either overlooked or dismissed,” Rep. Karen Bass, CBC Chair, said. “That has to end today.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than White adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, such as sadness, hopelessness and feeling like everything is an effort.

Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those with more financial security, according to NAMI.

The three sites, located at Catalyst Life Services and Family Life and Counseling offices serve those seeking guidance right away, without an appointment and outside of the regular counseling services' business hours.   

Trolian said the clinics have seen almost 300 people in the first three months of operation.

"It's been going very well," he said. "The best part is these clinics are just the starting point. People in need of services need to get that diagnostic assessment before anything else. That's why we wanted to make it easier for people to get that assessment done (at the clinics).

"That diagnostic opens up the whole mental health services world," he said.

The long-time mental health director said they track the patients being seen and that 19 percent helped locally are people of color, which is in line with the percentage of the Richland County population.

"What we need know is feedback," Trolian said. "We need to know if what we are doing is making a difference and not just people walking in the front door and then concluding it's not for them.

"It's not enough to know we are seeing a representative number in the community. We want to make sure we are meeting the needs."

He said the equity challenge is a good next step, but more is needed.

"Increased knowledge and awareness is important," Trolian said. "I now want to see action steps. For example, we know we need more people of color in the behavioral health services field. That doesn't happen overnight.

"It means we need more people of color going to college. So we must address the educational issues and make sure more are ready for college. There are short- and long-term approaches. That's what I am interested in at this point."

Improved access and marketing of services is crucial, national experts said.

Despite the needs, only one in three Black adults who need mental health care receive it. According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Mental Health Facts for African Americans guide, they are also:

-- Less likely to receive guideline-consistent care.

-- Less frequently included in research.

-- More likely to use emergency rooms or primary care (rather than mental health specialists).

According to challenge organizers, "People of color and all those whose lives have been marginalized by those in power and with privilege, experience life differently from those whose lives have not been devalued. They experience overt and covert racism and bigotry far too often, which leads to a mental health burden that is deeper than what others may face or imagine.

"Racism is a mental health issue because racism causes trauma, and trauma paints a direct line to mental illnesses. It needs to be taken seriously. Being treated or perceived as 'less than' because of the color of your skin can be stressful and even traumatizing. Additionally, members of the Black community face structural challenges accessing the care and treatment they need," they said.

Past trauma is prominently mentioned as the reason that people experience serious mental health conditions today, but obvious forms of racism and bigotry are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to racial trauma, organizers said.

Every day, people of color experience far more subtle traumas:

-- People who avoid them and their neighborhoods out of ignorance and fear;

-- Banks and credit companies who won’t lend them money or do so only at higher interest rates;

-- Mass incarceration of their peers;

-- School curricula that ignore or minimize their contributions to our shared history;

-- racial profiling. 

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than White adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, such as sadness, hopelessness and feeling like everything is an effort.

Black adults living below the poverty line are more than twice as likely to report serious psychological distress than those with more financial security.

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City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"