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'Our presence breaks the stereotype': Groups work to create safe spaces for Black wellness and mental healthcare

The American Psychiatric Association's data showed only one in every three Black Americans who need mental health services receive that care

ST. LOUIS — Dr. Kezia Jackson's mission is clear.

In fact, the name of her business says it all. 

While her office in Clayton has been closed for months because of COVID-19, she's been operating Healing Spaces Psychological Services through video calls from her home.

"I think everyone can benefit from talking to someone about everything we’ve seen these last few months and just adjusting to this new way of living," Jackson said. "So, making that more of a normal typical thing is one of my goals.”

For anyone, asking for help can be difficult. 

For Black people, according to the American Psychiatric Association, seeking help and receiving services for mental health disorders is an even tougher process. 

While the association's research found that rates of mental illness in the Black community are similar the rates for the general population, there are multiple factors that create a gap when it comes to getting help for those issues. 

The association's data showed only one in every three Black Americans who need mental health services receive that care. 

Why? Culture, stigma, access and representation. 

"That's rooted in years of oppression," Jackson said. "Having to have survived so much up until this point. Showing signs of weakness is not survival. You have to be strong. You have to push through. You have to endure."

It's a mindset Jackson said has been passed down through generations as various movements were necessary to push toward equality and social change. However, she said that mindset has created a cultural barrier to wanting to seek help and allow for vulnerability.:

"I think almost everyone can benefit from therapy, but there is a stigma," Jackson said. "In the Black community, mental illness is craziness. People don't want to air dirty laundry. What happens in the house stays in the house."

APA's research showed that while Black people in America are less likely to receive medication for mental health conditions or guideline-consistent care and outpatient services when compared to white people, they are more likely to utilize emergency rooms or primary care as opposed to mental health services. 

The study also showed Black people are more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia than mood disorders and that Black people who are suffering from mental health disorders are more likely to face prison time than people of other races with those disorders. 

Jackson said the Black community has, historically, lacked trust in the healthcare system.

"You also have that paired with a history of systematic oppression and bias and discrimination in healthcare, period," Jackson said. 

In May, experts with Mental Health America of Eastern Missouri described the pandemic as a "perfect storm" for mental health issues. 

RELATED: 'It's like the perfect storm for mental illness to kick in': Local experts provide free resources to combat anxiety, depression during COVID-19

With the added layer of recent protests against racial injustice following multiple fatal shootings of Black Americans at the hands of police, Jackson said that storm has only picked up momentum, especially for Black people.

"There's so much uncertainty with COVID-19, and now there's the added layer of uncertainty of safety in the Black community," Jackson said. 

She said she's seen increases in depression, anxiety and fear. She's also seen a greater demand for representation in the mental health space. 

"Black individuals wanting to seek services from a Black clinician and wanting talk about what’s going on," Jackson said. "And wanting to talk about another hashtag and how to cope with that on top of coping with working from home or parenting children without them going to school."

Jackson isn't the only one working to break barriers in the wellness community. 

On Saturday morning, dozens of yoga mats were spread across a sunny patch of grass in Downtown St. Louis, feet away from The Collective STL's studio. In an effort to adhere to social distancing guidelines, the group of self-proclaimed Black yogis led participants through a sequence of meditation, yoga postures and exercise. 

"Because there is so much going on, we need space," Alonzo Nelson Jr. said. "We, as a people, need space to just breathe."

Nelson and Andrea Cox were two of the licensed yoga instructors who lead the group.

"We're all about bringing space, community and yoga to those who need it the most," Cox said. 

The group eliminates the cost barrier of traditional yoga classes by operating on a donation-based model. From the music, to the activity and fellowship, the goal is to offer up a safe space for wellness, relaxation and health."

"In the Black community, yoga's a luxury, right," Nelson said. "But, honestly, it's a necessity. It's something we all need and something we can all do."

Everyone is welcome.

On Saturday, there were participants of different ages and races. 

And that's kind of the point. 

Welcoming folks for something everyone needs and creating room where many haven't always felt comfortable. In turn, they illuminate a softness and vulnerability the world hasn't always allowed them have or, at least, show.

"Our presence breaks the stereotype," Nelson said. "We are certified yoga instructors. We have a yoga studio. Our presence, alone, gives people that identify with us or look like us the permission to do the same thing."

That thing being a deep breath, a moment of peace or even a nugget of joy. Things everyone needs and deserves, and things many people and groups in the area are working to make more accessible. 

"You gave to take care of yourself," Jackson said. "Especially during these difficult times, you have to prioritize your mental health. You have to have hope."



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