To heal and thrive in this generation and the next, champion your mental health


According to the CDC, mental illnesses are among the most common health conditions

in our country. While mental health conditions happen to Black Americans at about the same or less frequency as White Americans, being Black means greater trauma and violence, which takes its toll on adults and youth emotionally and mentally.

Systemic/structural and institutional racism also lead to inequities in getting mental health care. Mistrust in the medical system is a barrier, too. So is a shortage of trained mental health professionals (especially for children and youth), along with the stigma of mental illness. 

All these factors and others have led to a mental health crisis. But to Dr. Toya Jones, Black people have always been in the thick of it.

Dr. Jones is the University of Pittsburgh’s Bachelor of Arts in Social Work Program Director and Assistant Professor. For 20+ years, she’s been helping children and families impacted by violence and working with incarcerated and returning citizens who’ve been affected by crime.

“Black people in this country have been deserving of therapy for our entire existence in this country, due to post-traumatic slave disorder,” she says. “Traditionally, we attend counseling sessions with our aunties, mamas, and grandmamas. We talk to our pastors and rely on prayer and faith to get us through tough emotional times.”

Sometimes, however, these informal counseling sessions and inner strength are not enough — especially when someone’s life is affected by unresolved trauma that robs them of their joy. “It’s important to understand that seeking professional help is a sign of strength,” Dr. Jones says. “It’s how we heal our hurt and set an example for our youth.”

What is trauma?

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or murder. Right after the event, people may be in shock or denial. Later, they can experience flashbacks, unpredictable emotions, and difficult relationships, as well as headaches and stomach issues. Unresolved trauma can also play a part in high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

Trauma shapes mental and physical health

Trauma doesn’t go away and it won’t be silenced. If it’s not healed, it can cause deep physical and emotional suffering for the victim, their family, and friends — including their children. “By not healing your trauma, your kids see the world through events that have happened to you.”

Healing begins with knowledge

Trauma doesn’t have to be a life sentence. Dr. Jones’ research shows that simply knowing why your brain signaled your body to react to a terrible event the way you did can lower trauma symptoms and allow your brain to calm down and think more clearly. 

For example, the body responds to a traumatic event by fighting, flying or freezing. “Say there’s a shooting on the street,” Dr. Jones explains. “One person runs in the opposite direction of the shooter. That’s flight. Another person stops in the middle of the street and can’t move. That’s freezing. Another person charges the shooter. That’s the fight response.”

These responses happen automatically. Once you understand why you froze in the middle of the street, for example, you can begin to process how the resulting trauma is having a negative effect on your daily life and what you can do to heal it.

How to find the right therapist — with or without insurance

When seeking therapy, Dr. Jones reassures readers there are Black therapists who can help. She also notes the importance of finding a therapist who has experience in your type of trauma. “Interview potential therapists by asking a lot of questions,” she says.

For example, has the therapist worked with PTSD-related conditions? Do they have experience with domestic violence, rape, or homicide? Do they work with children, adults, older populations, or veterans? Is their focus on depression or anxiety or eating disorders? “You also want to know about the therapist’s education, training, and background,” Dr. Jones adds.

If you receive Medicaid or don’t have insurance, know that survivors of violent crime are entitled to free counseling through the PA Victims Compensation Assistance Program. Veterans, too, have free resources and support through the VA as do children and adolescents. Pennsylvania also offers mental health resources for people without insurance and for people whose insurance is lacking.

“Mental health is a human right and all people should have equal access to prevention, treatment, and support,” Dr. Jones reminds us.

Listen to Dr. Jones’ podcast “Healing Overflow.”

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