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Panelists: Black Women Not Getting
Enough Mental Health Support

Pandemic stress has made bad situation worse, experts say at Penn State event

By Siana Emery
The Tube City Almanac
March 25, 2021
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Johnathan White, assistant teaching professor at Greater Allegheny, moderated a panel discussion that also featured Kathi R. Elliot, chief executive officer at Gwen’s Girls; Dashawna J. Fussell-Ware, doctoral fellow, Steel Smiling; Raven Davis, supervisor, Allegheny County Office of Children, Youth & Families; and Dr. Stella Onuoha-Obilor, vice president for clinical quality, Highmark Health. (Photo courtesy Penn State)

At both the community and the national level, developing a deeper understanding of social, economic and political factors that create gaps in mental health care is imperative in caring for patients.

This was the overarching message of March 18’s Crossing Bridges Summit panel, which discussed the psychological perspectives on Black women’s health.

The panel, hosted by Penn State Greater Allegheny, featured a conversation between five Black female leaders in mental health and social work.

“People walk around saying ‘I’m fine’,” said Dashawna Fussell-Ware, a doctoral student and employee of Steel Smiling. “The reality is, if you are Black or of African descent, unfortunately that’s just not true. There’s so much going on in the world in terms of racism that you can’t help but feel that loss.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, existing issues for Black women have only been exacerbated, and the pandemic has brought new attention to injustices that have existed for a long time. These disparities include professionals who approach healthcare from a Eurocentric perspective and people of color not having access to proper services.

“COVID has only come to amplify and compound the existing racial, systemic disparities and injustices that exist within the healthcare system, which Black communities and especially Black women are susceptible to,” said Dr. Stella Onuoha-Obilor, vice president of clinical quality at Highmark Health.

Much of the discussion focused on the ways in which external and ongoing stressors can negatively affect mental health, especially for Black women and children.

Fussell-Ware noted that even if everything else in their life is perfect, the impact of seeing “people who look like you murdered, beat down by police officers, beat down by vigilantes” is mentally exhausting. This persistent negative mental state can lead to physiological effects and long-term mental illness.

“To be Black means that you also have to deal with the trauma and the pain that comes with the lack of care shown for Black men and Black boys,” said Fussell-Ware. “There’s a lot going on right now, and Black women, we’re carrying a lot.”

Social worker Raven Davis elaborated on this sentiment, touching on how this sort of trauma can become generational. Because the number of Black children in the foster care system is disproportionate to their makeup in the general population, this begins to create long-term effects.

“The parents we’re working with are the same children we were working with years before,” said Davis. “It makes us look at, well, how are we serving these families, if this is continuing on through generations?”

Kathi Elliot, CEO of Gwen’s Girls, echoed Davis, adding that intergenerational trauma is a result of systems that are not built to serve people of color. If nothing changes, the same issues will exist 100 years from now.

“A lot of this is embedded in our policies, our practices and our culture,” Elliot said. “Until we recognize that and address that, the remnants that follow within our healthcare system, our education system, every area in our country, are going to continue to be impacted.”

Treatment and access to it was another point of discussion.

Onuoha-Obilor remarked on the need to develop more patient-centric care, especially for patients of disadvantaged backgrounds. She explained that to effectively provide comprehensive care and sustainable improvement, people need to be provided with a link to ongoing resources that will facilitate the care of external stressors.

“You cannot care for people just by medication. You cannot care for people just with therapy. It doesn’t work all the time,” said Onuoha-Obilor, emphasizing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” in healthcare. “You have to think about giving them supportive education. You have to think about giving them supportive employment. You have to think about providing them those resources that they need that will help them.”

Fussell-Ware pointed out four main barriers to entry for people of color seeking mental health treatment: a lack of diversity and representation among healthcare workers, a lack of multilingual clinicians, clinics that are inaccessible by public transport or by foot, and not having flexible hours of operation. She also noted that some people may not be able to afford care.

“We need to start thinking outside the box and really finding ways to meet the needs of our Black women and children holistically,” added Elliot. “It's not just mental health, it's not physical health. It's everything. All those social determinants of health. It’s time for us to look at how to address those barriers to make sure that our children and our families are getting the support they need.”

The panel was moderated by Johnathan White, assistant professor of history at PSGA. The seminar also featured a poem by Penn State Greater Allegheny student Kierra Williams, that reflected on the experience of operating in the world as a Black woman.

This forum was the third in a series of four in the Crossing Bridges Summit. The 2020-21 Summit has a broad theme of “Examining Black Women’s Health.”

The next event will be on April 15. For more information on the upcoming seminar and to view the previous forums, visit https://greaterallegheny.psu.edu/penn-state-greater-allegheny/signature/crossing-bridges-summit.

Siana Emery is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh’s South Hilltop. She has also written for The Mennonite World Review, Goshen College Communications and Marketing and The Goshen College Record. She can be reached at sianaemery@gmail.com.

Originally published March 25, 2021.

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