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Mental health issues have been part of Toy Burton’s life for almost as long as she can remember. In 1986, Burton’s sister, Denita (DeeDee) Shayne Morris, died of suicide at the age of 23. Burton also dealt with alcohol and drug abuse and had attempted suicide. Over the years, she has seen many friends and family members in her community of Roxbury struggle with depression and other mental health challenges.
In 2017, while trying to locate help for a friend whose brother had died by suicide, Burton came across a suicide support organization. “But when I looked at the website, I thought, ‘nobody here looks like me,’” Burton says. “The people in the pictures didn’t look like my neighbors in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan.”
So Burton decided to start DeeDee’s Cry, an organization devoted to raising mental health awareness for communities of color. Named in honor of Burton’s sister, DeeDee’s Cry provides resources and education designed to help fill some of the gaps in mental health care for Black people in Boston.
The organization collaborates with businesses and individuals in Boston to coordinate events, programs, and activities for people and families.
One of Burton’s signature projects was a Mental Health While Black event at Nubian Square in Roxbury. “I wanted people to have a chance to share their stories so they would know they’re not alone,” she says. “People really need to know they’re not the only ones who are in pain.”
Burton spread the word about the event on Facebook, hoping to have at least 20 people attend. She knew she had hit a nerve when more than 150 people registered. Burton plans to hold her fourth Mental Health While Black event this summer.
Since then, other in-person events have drawn crowds; online programs have attracted viewers and watch parties.
“What DeeDee’s Cry is about is building a community and safe spaces to have conversations about mental health”
— Toy Burton, founder, DeeDee’s Cry
For 24/7 emergency support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 800-273-TALK (8255).
Where the need is dire, many lack access to care
DeeDee’s Cry and similar groups are tackling a problem here in Boston and across the United States: a lack of access to mental health care for people of color.
Only one in three Black Americans who need mental health care in the U.S. receive it, according to the American Psychiatric Association (APA). And Asian Americans are less likely than any other racial or ethnic group to seek mental health services, the APA reports.
“Getting good mental health care is a pretty overwhelming challenge for people of color in Boston,” says Dr. Dennis Tyrell, a psychologist with Ashmont Counseling in Dorchester.
About 90% of Ashmont Counseling’s clients are people of color. But Tyrell can’t take on all the patients who would like to see him. “If you’re looking for a clinician of color or a Black male clinician, we’re rare,” he says. “Those of us who practice in the Dorchester area are pretty overwhelmed. The need is becoming more and more acute.”
Tyrell hopes that there will be more mental health professionals of color as training programs focus on increasing diversity. But the field has a long way to go. Currently, the majority of psychologists in the U.S. are white; only four percent are Black, four percent are Asian, and six percent are Hispanic, according to the APA.
Breaking down barriers to reach at-risk communitiesA lack of clinicians of color is just one barrier to care. Others include a lack of access to money and free time, a significant amount of which may be needed for long-term care.
In some communities of color, there is also a stigma against getting or admitting you need help. “Too many of us are taught that what happens in the house stays in the house,” Burton says. “We’re told not to talk about these things.”
Language and cultural differences present additional barriers. But North Suffolk Mental Health Association, which has offices in Chelsea, Revere, and East Boston, has created a Southeast Asian Service in an attempt to reach underserved people in Boston’s Asian community.
“This is a population that doesn’t speak English, that comes in not knowing what we are going to do for them,” says Kim-Ha Chau, a clinical social worker at North Suffolk who provides counseling in Vietnamese. “They don’t think therapy is going to help them.”
Chau’s first job as a therapist is to earn her patients’ trust. Some have severe post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, anxiety, or other mental health conditions related to experiencing war or political imprisonment.
Chau connects with her patients first by helping them negotiate issues of everyday life, such as getting a CharlieCard so they can travel to their appointments, understanding their health insurance coverage, dealing with housing problems, and applying for Massachusetts Department of Mental Health or Community Support Program services. “We do pretty much whatever the individual needs so they can feel safe, and to reduce their anxiety,” Chau says.
Once Chau’s patients trust her, they start to feel comfortable enough to open up about their symptoms, she says. At first, patients often won’t even admit that they are feeling distressed.
“In Asian culture, the belief is that silence is golden. But in therapy, it’s important to talk. And the more they talk, the more they’re able to put their nightmares away.”
— Kim-Ha Chau, clinical social worker, North Suffolk
Redefining what well-being looks like
Outside of therapy and support groups, there are ways to cultivate mental health and well-being through movement and mindfulness. For instance, Jaylee Momplaisir and Rach Junard believe in yoga’s power to support mental as well as physical wellness. But taking classes where they were the only non-white women felt isolating.
That’s why after completing their yoga instructor training, Momplaisir and Junard launched You Good Sis?, a collective for black and brown women, femmes, and non-binary folks looking for a mental, physical, and spiritual check-in with a community of like-minded people.
“We want to change the view that yoga is for white women with $100 yoga mats and Lululemon yoga pants,” Junard says. “We’ve created a place where women of color can take off their masks and be themselves.” Junard and Momplaisir think of You Good Sis? as a wellness community that is unapologetically for and by people of color.
You Good Sis?, which formed in 2017, now counts more than 8,000 people in its community. It offers yoga classes at locations across Boston and virtually, self-care workshops, and events with guest speakers addressing various topics, including mental health. They also support and mentor Black yoga instructors to help develop a cohort of diverse yoga teachers.
Junard and Momplaisir’s goal is not just to lead people through yoga poses, but to build a new wellness model. By creating a safe space for women of color to check in with each other, they hope to support mental, spiritual, and physical health in Boston and beyond.
Being mindful of inclusivity
Point32Health company Harvard Pilgrim Health Care established its Mind the Moment program in 2005 to help people understand and practice mindfulness, though it’s also been making an effort to improve inclusivity in emotional self-care.
While mindfulness has experienced a widespread adoption since the program began, images often associated with the practice — women sitting cross-legged on the beach looking blissful, monks in flowing robes — still belie the practice’s accessibility to all races, genders, and socioeconomic groups.
Program manager Tara Healey encourages anyone intrigued by mindfulness to not take preconceived notions at face value. They “may make one think, ‘these images don’t really speak to me, this practice must not be for me,’” she says. “But we believe anyone can use these practices to promote better concentration, increased mental alertness, and balance in their life.”
To make sure the program is welcoming to all communities, the Mind the Moment team has committed to amplifying the presence of BIPOC mindfulness teachers in the corporate well-being space, where they have too often been underrepresented. It has also started offering sessions like “Building Anti-Racist Skills Through Mindful Listening” to harness the power of the practice for a greater good.
“Mindfulness is simply one of the best ways we know of to help shore up the well-being of every individual.”
— Tara Healey, program manager, Mind the Moment, Point32Health
Needs may vary when it comes to mental health, but everyone deserves access to a range of resources — from support groups to therapy to wellness practices. There’s a long way to go to improve mental health and wellness accessibility and inclusivity in Boston, but these advocates and programs are making a difference for countless individuals and moving the needle toward better care for all.
The Mind the Moment program and options to join ongoing no-cost sessions can be found at harvardpilgrim.org/livingwellathome and harvardpilgrim.org/mindfulness.
Updated November 2022:
Point32Health health plans Harvard Pilgrim Health Care and Tufts Health Plan are the first in New England and among the first nationally to achieve full NCQA Health Equity Accreditation. Learn more about our commitment to reducing disparities and improving care so all we serve can reach their full health potential: read the press release.