Not all mental health care is created equal.
For Myra Anderson of Brave Souls on Fire, nothing underlines that statement more than the ways Black people have experienced marginalization and violence at the hands of the mental health establishment. The need for more mental health resources, and the use of mental health intervention as an alternative to police as crisis responders, has been front and center in conversations about policing in America in recent years. But simply replacing police with mental health workers will change nothing if the system does not address its underlying racism. Brave Souls on Fire seeks to change that.
Anderson points to the distrust many Black people have of mental health providers. It is a distrust rooted in history and personal experience.
“African Americans are at the highest risk of experiencing depression and other forms of mental health conditions, yet are least likely to see traditional mental health services for a number of reasons. These include interlinked levels of inequality, implicit bias, discrimination, lack of culturally competent providers, misdiagnosis, lack of access, and mistrust of providers due to historical harm.
Brave Souls on Fire, which has a joint plan of work with Virginia Organizing, is a peer-run organization dedicated to emotional wellness, culturally-affirming peer support, advocacy, and healing justice for African Americans. They are piloting unique programs to meet the needs of the Black community in the places people feel safest and most at home. That includes peer facilitated support groups that focus on mental health from a Black perspective and which center the ways racism affects mental health. They also provide one-to-one peer support for those who don’t want a group setting.
“Peer Support is not therapy. It is a supportive relationship built common experience, mutuality, and trust,” Anderson says.
Their most recent pilot program is called Beyond the Shop, which provides access to culturally affirming mental health support by establishing peer support groups in barbershops and beauty salons. They also reach beyond their own programs to connect people to healing resources throughout the community.
“There’s more to mental health care than (just) a therapist and a psychiatrist. There’s also acupuncture, meditation, yoga, aromatherapy etc.,” she says. “Mental health is a jigsaw puzzle so people need help navigating it.”
Brave Souls on Fire has taken on the role of advocacy, working with lawmakers and people creating programs in the community. They work for cultural competency training for mental health providers, and push for the adoption of the Marcus Alert, which seeks to minimize the role of law enforcement in mental health crisis response. A big goal is to end the stigma attached to mental health by raising awareness and educating the community through public events.
For Anderson, the work is rooted in her own life story.
“This is who I am. I’ve struggled with my mental health for most of my life. Sometimes when you overcome something, your purpose becomes to support and encourage others in overcoming the same adversities,” she says. “I know what it is like to experience more harm than good in mental health systems. Having experienced all these things is what fuels my work.”