Activists Keep Mental Wellness Front and Center
By Dianne Anderson
Back when few people were thinking about getting mental health services into the Black community, health advocate Linda Hart pitched her winning idea in a contest, which set in motion a legislative resolution by former Assemblymember Wilmer Amina Carter.
In 2008, the proposal caught Ms. Carter’s attention in her “It Ought to Be a Law” contest. Mental health services were badly needed in the community, but were either unavailable or services were being wrongly applied.
They set out to push a resolution to keep health awareness front and center for the Black community every year during the second week of February.
Ms. Carter recalled that she presented the resolution before lawmakers, stressing how both Mexican Americans and African Americans have unique societal issues to contend with, but many problems facing the Black community and students hadn’t been properly explored.
For one, unfair punishment within the school system. She said the issue needed to be brought to the forefront.
“They think we’re just acting out, we don’t always get the right medical professionals who understand not only our culture, but whatever is wrong with us,” said Ms. Carter.
Even if students didn’t have mental health needs, being wrongly labeled could follow them through their school years, and beyond. Or, she said their counselors and teachers didn’t understand their issues.
“Our children didn’t have anyone to account for who could sit down and talk to them who understood the culture or how they were raised. All they saw was a Black kid acting out,” she said.
Until relatively recently, very little has been done to distinguish between mental health issues and a misunderstood child. She thinks back to her late daughter who was always assertive and outspoken, which often landed her in detention.
“Ratibu and I were always at the school trying to defend her right to speak up,” Ms. Carter said. “They weren’t used to Black kids speaking up.”
These days, she feels that awareness may be getting better with more teacher training and pressure to adjust to the needs of the Black community.
“They now have to address some things and look at African American children and the culture before they start labeling them,” she said.
On Monday, February 28, the community is invited to participate in “Bridging the Gap: San Bernardino County African American Behavioral Health Perspectives Over the Last 50 Years!” The event runs 2:00-4:00 p.m. will cover current behavioral health issues for Blacks in San Bernardino County. A panel discussion will address generational differences within the community, along with conversations on timely topics including substance abuse, family structure, social movements.
Hosted by the county’s Department of Behavioral Health, the virtual event will look at the resolution proposed by the African American Mental Health Coalition, which passed in 2009 with Assemblymember Carter recognizing the 2nd week of February as African American Mental Health Awareness Week.
Linda Hart said the vision for her proposal came late one night in 2008. She had witnessed the community-wide mental health impact first hand from a fatal drive-by shooting in her then Westside neighborhood, and felt a pressing need to get services to the people.
On a more personal level, she was also devastated when a close relative committed suicide.
Her first goal was preventing more loss of life because the community was up against constant obstacles and a lack of access to culturally competent mental health professionals. Changing local mindsets was another challenge, that seeking help is not a sign of weakness.
“I didn’t want us to go unnoticed when it came to mental health because for so long it’s been a stigma in the community, and ignored by the health system,” said Hart, founder and CEO of the African American Mental Health Coalition.
She said getting medical institutions and providers to recognize that the Black community needed culturally competent and appropriate mental health services was the priority.
Since then, she has regularly partnered on outreach and events, her latest being the Beautiful Black Man webinar series featuring Black mental health professionals, workshops and educational resources.
She said her push for services came out of watching the medical system brush aside the community for so long that they were practically invisible. The resolution provided the platform that became harder to ignore.
“I wanted it so that if you don’t think about us all year, you’re going to think about us the second week of February,” she said. “That propelled it because if we had the resources, the time and assistance and suicide prevention, we could have possibly been able to save the life of a loved one.”
To participate in the event, contact Cultural_Competency@dbh.sbcounty.gov
To learn more about the African American Mental Health Coalition, see