BEAM shares the healing impact of the Black Mental Health & Healing Justice (BMHHJ) Peer Support Training.

How can people of color navigate healthcare systems, where they have continually experienced harm both as practitioners and patients, while honoring their individual needs?

The Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM) is a national organization set on answering questions like these and eliminating barriers to healthcare through innovative advocacy and training,

One avenue created to do so was the Black Mental Health & Healing Justice (BMHHJ) Peer Support Training, first initiated and facilitated in 2018 by BEAM founder and Executive Director Yolo Akili Robinson and Erica Woodland, founder of the National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network (NQTTCN).

Equipped with a holistic care framework, BEAM collaborated with Black healing practitioners throughout the country, and recently published a report sharing the outcomes of their three-year long experience.

This training was created for wellness workers, everyday community members and individuals working, living in, and supporting Black and marginalized communities.

This tailored focus to build capacity with community members began in 2018 and flourishing through 2021.

The training’s curriculum focused on applying and providing emotional support through a healing justice framework.

Other goals for participants included:

  • To challenge and provide accurate information on common myths on medication, psychology, and mental health in Black communities.
  • To name and identify common mental health diagnoses, challenges, and mental health treatments in Black communities.
  • To identify and map out strategies and resources in their own communities.

One important way these goals were accomplished was through ongoing conversations surrounding race, gender, class, and sexuality, allowing for skill-building practice in tangible and concrete ways.

Standout: “I lead a pro-Black consulting firm. I did the training because I wanted us to figure out a foundational framework around mental health and it was exactly what we needed. BEAM gave us tools that really shape how we deliver our services.

“After the training, we deepened our existing brave space framework. [The training] was foundational for so many of the things that we do now.”

— Natasha A. Harrison, President & CEO with CommunityBuild Ventures

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Rates of depression for people within helping professions — occupations that provide supportive health and education services to others — are staggering.

As much as 90 percent of healthcare professionals reported active depressive symptoms, and over half of mental health professionals report experiencing caregiver burnout.

According to data from the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), medical mistrust and systemic racism play a heavy role in healthcare treatment.

For example, a recent study showed that in addition socioeconomic factors such as income and city location, people from Black and Latin communities reported having less trust in the medical system than their white counterparts.

Despite the ongoing effects of compassion fatigue and cultural competency being a major factor when it comes to engaging the Black community in our emotional well-being, Robinson and the training participants shared how most mental health focused trainings fail to address identity within their curriculum.

Understanding the gravity of identity’s connection to the mind and body when it comes to healing, Robinson ensured a holistic viewpoint was taken in the development of the BMHHJ curriculum by using a healing justice framework.

Created by Cara Page and the work of the Kindred Southern Healing Justice Collective, this framework is built on a holistic response to generational trauma and violence that alters the impact of oppression.

“Healing justice is unique in that it holds that we have to discuss the history of eugenics and racism in psychology,” Robinson says in the report.

“We can’t pretend these systems were always, or are currently, safe for our folks. We have to give folks tools to navigate with caution and advocate vigilantly so that we can not only survive, but thrive.”

People of color have continually experienced harm within the medical and mental health systems throughout history.

We still have to navigate these systems, both as practitioners and patients, and this program is unique in addressing the reality of those experiences while providing practical tips and strategies to do so.

“It validates the legacy of the abuse within the system and the feelings of distrust as legitimate, all while understanding that ongoing skepticism is not only warranted, but needed as Black people who are navigating the system,” Robinson said.

Participants have shared how it was incredibly affirming to have the harm they’ve experienced within the medical and mental health systems to be not only acknowledged, but validated.

Seeing People as Whole Beings

“The material was complex and heavy. However, Yolo and Erica navigated these spaces with confidence and skill.”

— Program Participant

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The facilitators of the training used an embodied approach to teaching. The program aims to honor people’s various needs, and for BMHHJ, this looked like the intentional acknowledgement of a connection between the mind and body.

“We get people into role plays, we create opportunities for dance breaks, and [other] activities to help them really acknowledge the ways in which distress can sit in their body,” Robinson shared.

Participants had access to coloring sheets and crayons for doodling, which can be helpful for processing according to studies like this one from 2009. An aromatherapy table, altars, and healing crystals were all available for use during the sessions.

In addition to these tools and practices throughout the sessions, facilitators also held guided meditations and engaged in a closing circle at the end of the sessions.

Honoring participants’ needs also included space for breathwork and acknowledging the heaviness of the training content instead of diving into heavy topics without pauses.

“We’re not going to show you six slides of deeply distressing information and then act as if this is divorced from everything else happening,” Robinson told us.

Healing for Healers

“As I continue to develop a diversity, equity, and inclusion platform at my organization, this training taught me how to show up for and understand the various emotions, traumas, and community issues that my Black colleagues may hold when coming into a space and how I can support their individual needs.”

— Program Participant

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“People have come to this program and come away with not only feeling like they’ve learned a lot, but feeling like they’ve gotten healing as well,” Yolo said.

“Our approach to this curriculum was for everybody in this ‘village’ to see themselves as a creator of wellness,” Robinson said.

He spoke of pushing against the idea of only certain people with particular affiliations or professional standing as having an ability to create wellness and healing.

Instead, Robinson encourages everyone to see that they can have a role and agency within healing and wellness, regardless of what the role may look like.

There are tangible results from this report that should be seen as a viable and worthwhile mental health intervention. This is true not only for folks that the participants will work with, but for the healing practitioners themselves.

Standout: “The training gave me that extra oomph I needed. Back then I was stuck on the idea that, for me to be a healer, I have to be healed myself. Now, I know no one’s completely healed. It’s all a journey and there’s different ways to approach your healing.”

— Sunni Meador, Behavioral Health Manager, TruEvolution

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Initially, the training was held in Los Angeles and led by Robinson and Woodland.

After initial success, it then expanded to other parts of the country and enlisted the help of mental health professionals Dionne Bates, PhD, LPC, CPCS, Micheal Chan-Frazier, PhD, LPC, and L’Oréal McCollum, LMSW, M.Ed.

These folks offered their curriculum development and facilitation expertise, and with the help of partnering organizations like The Kresge Foundation, BEAM was later able to create tailored versions of the curriculum, further expanding the reach of the training.

Impact of COVID-19

The training team navigated through the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic by shifting their two day in-person training to a virtual program held via Zoom.

“Engagement on Zoom is no easy feat. The group discussions were valuable and hearing from folks was important. I really liked the time spent making those connections. I felt like I wasn’t alone.”

— Program Participant

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While this change took increased time and effort, the report showed a positive outcome.

In addition to participants continuing to engage in the intimate curriculum, shifting to a virtual setting allowed participants from varied places in the US to join in.

For BIPOC folks navigating Western-centric systems of health and wellness, the fullness of who we are isn’t always acknowledged, let alone welcomed. This newly-released report shows that tending to the connection between mind and body is imperative.

The curriculum and facilitator focus on addressing the role and history of race, gender, sexuality, and class within health systems has proven to be essential with lasting and widespread effects.

The role of someone working in peer support or a helping profession isn’t a light one; the combination of daily systemic biases and the added layer of expected resilience can have damaging effects on both the wellness practitioner and their clients.

For the past three years, the BMHHJ training has tackled these topics, not only uplifting and modeling the ways that practitioners can support their communities in the aftermath of oppressive systems, but how they can recognize their own power and better support themselves.

“People have left this training empowered knowing that mental wellness is not synonymous with mental illness,” said Bates.

“[They left] empowered knowing that they and their communities have a right to healing; empowered with skills that they can take back to their communities to cultivate a legacy of healing and equity.”