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Yolanda Lewis-Harris

“I can’t tell my family because they’ll think I’m crazy.”

During 30 years in the mental health field, including 14 as a counselor, Yolanda Lewis-Harris has heard some version of this statement countless times. It’s the sound of someone who’s been struggling silently, whose loved ones can’t or won’t talk about mental illness.

As director of the Pikes Peak Community College Counseling Center and owner of the nonprofit Empowering Minds Nurturing Souls Inc., Lewis-Harris runs into this across various demographics. But often, and especially in private practice, she hears it within the African-American community. And it reminds her of words from her own childhood: “What goes on in the house, stays in the house.’”

There are lots of reasons why African-Americans hesitate in seeking treatment: provider bias, a lack of resources, persistent belief that mental illness is a spiritual issue, rather than a biological one. Together, a bevy of research shows, it all adds up to minority communities seeking less treatment and receiving less quality care than Caucasians.

But if research is one thing, response is another. And during 17 years in Colorado Springs, Lewis-Harris has seen only minimal efforts to reduce stigma within communities of color. So with Mental Health First Aid instructor Reggie Graham, Dr. Gloria Turnipseed, Dr. Nathaniel Granger and NAMI-Colorado Springs, in May 2017 Lewis-Harris launched a symposium designed to change that.

At No More Secrets: Confronting the Stigma and Educating the Whole Community on Mental Health, more than a dozen health care professionals provided free workshops at the Antlers Hotel on depression, substance abuse, PTSD and much more. Reggie Bicha, executive director of Colorado’s Department of Human Services, gave the keynote speech.

The event attracted about 100 local people, and half of the respondents to post-event surveys identified themselves as African-American. Surveys indicated that the symposium made people more confident about accessing mental health resources and less likely to judge others on the sole basis of a mental health issue, among other encouraging outcomes.

“It was very informative and helped me educate myself to look and see things from more than one perspective,” wrote one respondent. Wrote another: “I loved, loved, loved the focus on multiculturalism and people of color.”

Give! campaign donors helped make No More Secrets possible; NAMI drew upon its approximately $55,000 in 2016 Give! funds to cover some costs. The organizing team also secured support from a handful of community organizations, including El Paso County Public Health.

“People of all cultures and backgrounds need to know that their mental health and well-being matter, and do not need to be hidden,” says Public Health’s development and strategic initiatives officer, Kelley Vivian. “The symposium gave power to people to talk about their health and know that help is available from behavioral health professionals with shared experiences and culture.”

Again this year, Give! donors will support No More Secrets. Lewis-Harris, Granger, Turnipseed and NAMI will stage a second annual symposium in July, which is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month. Granger has already agreed to condense his highly rated workshop on racial microaggressions into a Saturday-afternoon keynote. Meanwhile, the group is currently vetting possibilities for a national-level Friday night speaker, and for a diverse lineup of Saturday workshop leaders.

One thing will stay exactly the same: the symposium name.

“That is the huge piece: Stop the secrecy,” Lewis-Harris says. “It can be very frustrating when you hear it, and even more frustrating when you’re living it.”

Cedar Springs Hospital
Colorado Springs Osteopathic Foundation
El Paso County Public Health
Penrose-St. Francis Health Services

About one quarter of African Americans in the U.S. seek mental health care, compared to 40 percent of whites.

To donate to NAMI, click here.

(December 2017)

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