Mental health disorders and illnesses are a serious issue that affects an estimated one in four individuals throughout their lives. The consequences of these conditions can be devastating, leading to extreme poverty, homelessness, and unemployment among those struggling with them. Early diagnosis and treatment are integral in addressing the issue. However, access to mental health services is limited in many rural and marginalized communities.

The May 2023 CEI Perspectives Panel shed light on raising awareness for mental health equity. The virtual panel was moderated by Frannie Horn and featured a lineup of experts, including Ada Katherine van Wyhe, Nadia Richardson, Griena Davis, Susan Sallin, Kady Abbott, and Zack McClain. During the event, panelists discussed barriers preventing mental health equity and solutions for overcoming them. Over 150 people connected to explore ways to increase mental health equity, including raising awareness of mental health issues, providing resources and support services, and working together to create effective remedies.

The speakers illuminated how inequality in access to proper healthcare can harm an individual's overall well-being and provided insights on what organizations and individuals can do to promote mental health awareness. Here are a few of the highlights from what each speaker shared:

Frannie Horn, JD, EdS, ALC, NCC, the Director of Research Development at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, began the conversation by introducing the concept of mental health equity in light of the definition provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. She defined mental health equity as providing "fair and just opportunities for everyone to be as healthy as possible and enhancing opportunities by removing obstacles." Horn highlighted the importance of recognizing how poverty or discrimination can create obstacles that hinder mental health equity. "These can have some very powerful consequences," she said, "including overall powerlessness and lack of access to a variety of things, such as good jobs with fair pay, quality education, good housing, safe environments or healthcare."

Griena Knight Davis, Ed.D, LPC, BC-TMH, BCC, Clinical Counselor at Catholic Family Services, added that one of the biggest obstacles to receiving mental health treatment is the stigma associated with mental health. Equity is more than equality because some people need more help than others, and community support is critical for awareness and support. "We have to have community buy-in," she stressed, "to be intentional about reducing those barriers and obstacles that prevent individuals from equity." 

Zack McClain, LMSW, Therapist, and Life Coach at Brother Let's TalkTM, emphasized the importance of providing community support to those in need. He believes individuals should be met where they are in their mental health journey. "Some people do not know whether they need a therapist, psychiatrist or even a life coach," he said, "there are many different avenues this conversation can go."

Ada Katherine van Wyhe brought attention to the lack of mental health resources seen in marginalized communities, especially communities of color. She pointed out that this crisis is even more pronounced in the workplace. "Blue Cross & Blue Shield estimates an annual economic loss of productivity of $16 trillion dollars," she said, "because of these unaddressed issues in the workplace."

The conversation shifted to solutions. How can we encourage access to available services and help individuals reach better mental health? 

Kady Abbott, Clinical Director at Fellowship House of Birmingham,  believes that fostering meaningful conversations and engaging in collaborative efforts with the community are key to developing successful treatments. "We have to be collaborative," she said, "to help spark these uncomfortable conversations."  She emphasizes the need for providers and people from the community to come together in order to discuss cultural perspectives and develop effective plans of action. It's important for these conversations to involve representatives from the marginalized communities in order to provide the best possible outcome.

Fellowship House also strives to provide affordable access to drug and alchohol treatment programs. Their fees are substantially lower than other facilities in the state, setting their intake fee at just $35, allowing individuals to access the help they need regardless of their financial circumstances.

Nadia Richardson, PhD, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at Black Women's Mental Health Institute, believes strongly in the power of allyship, a practice of providing support to someone by actively demonstrating compassion. She emphasizes that being an ally requires more than simply listening; it entails taking the time to understand the individual's experiences and social context. "You're centering the conversation around this person," she said. "You're doing the work to learn about someone's experience and the context of the social identity they're a part of, and then making sure that they feel safe, supported, seen, heard and valued." Only when someone feels they can communicate openly or trust an ally can meaningful conversations about mental health occur.

Van Wyhe provided insight into how the Alabama Department of Mental Health works to break down mental health resource access barriers in their state. Among these initiatives is 988, a suicide prevention lifeline that went live in July 2022 and has received over 34,000 calls. Additionally, they have implemented mobile crisis teams of mental health professionals that can be deployed to rural areas lacking adequate access to mental health care.

Our Mental Health Equity panel brought a diverse group of professionals together from both the academic and public sectors to examine the essential importance of mental health and to develop methods for enhancing mental health outcomes in the southeast region. We are grateful for everyone's participation in the event - be sure to watch the full discussion here.

Written by Robert Brown on June 9, 2023