VUU forum seeks to erase stigma of mental health in diverse communities

VUU forum seeks to erase stigma of mental health in diverse communities
Austin Higgs speaks about mental illness in the African-American and transgender communities.

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Local experts are hoping to begin the dialogue among diverse communities who feel there is a stigma against mental health. They say one problem getting in the way is the mindset that it’s not OK to seek help, especially in communities where the concept wasn’t embraced historically, making it difficult for many today.

"At the end of the day, it is a struggle just to survive from day-to-day,” transgender activist Austin Higgs said.

She is on a mission to walk in her truth.

“Racism is devastating on its own. So many of us are not just Black. Like myself, I am black. I am transgender. I am queer,” Higgs said. "When you start layering racism with homophobia with transphobia, you end up compounding the discriminations.”

When real-life circumstances become too much, experts say many diverse communities avoid mental health treatment.

Austin Higgs speaks about mental illness in the African-American and transgender communities.
Austin Higgs speaks about mental illness in the African-American and transgender communities. ((Source: NBC12))

"The stigma gets in the way,” said Dr. S. Hughes Melton, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.

In part, because of days of old, like when slave owners sought to justify the system.

“There was a really commonly held belief that black people did not feel pain as acutely as white people,” Dr. Karen Sherry of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture said. “Doctors claiming that enslaved people were free from mental illness.”

People attending a mental health forum at Virginia Union University on Thursday say those parallels have carried over centuries later. The forum was sponsored by the Virginia Department of Health.

“From the Black perspective sometime, ‘well we’ve survived slavery, so you’re not supposed to be that weak. You’re not supposed to go through anything because of all that our ancestors have survived,’” one woman said.

"Humanity has been denied to us where they say that we have this superhuman strength, so it still plays into how we think of ourselves today where we don’t think that we have depression,” Daryl Fraser, of the Association of Black Social Workers, said.

The message from the forum was anyone can suffer from mental health and everyone deserves equal access to treatment.

"What's important is to recognize that there are real challenges in our communities that we need to come together and address, real challenges around racism and allocation of resources,” Dr. Melton added.

Experts say anxiety, depression and addiction all fall under mental health.

Here’s the number to call if you need to talk about your mental health: (804) 819-4100.

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