The Southern Healing Fund Wants to Bring Innovative and Progressive Mental Health Care to African Americans Who Need It Most

(L to R) Shane'a Thomas, psychotherapist, Whitman-Walker; Cara Page, director of programs, Astrea; Yolo Akili Robinson, executive director, BEAM; Prentis Hemphill, former BLM Healing Justice director; Erica Woodland, founder, National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network

From police violence to crippling poverty to homophobia, it's well documented that African Americans deal with a massive amount of trauma on a daily basis. We also know that access to much-needed mental health care to combat this trauma isn't easy to come by for people of color, especially in the South.

But one initiative wants to help fill these public health gaps for those who cannot afford care: The Southern Healing Fund.

Created by Yolo Akili, executive director of BEAM, and Erica Woodland, director of The National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, what began as a pilot program in Houston to help fund six therapists has now flourished into a full-fledged regional program. Through a crowdsourcing campaign, they recently met their initial goal to raise $6,000 to help provide mental health care professionals living below the Mason-Dixon Line with financial support so they can provide free or discounted mental and emotional health care to black people in need.

They plan on having these funds matched by other philanthropic partners to provide even more support to address the dearth of mental and emotional health options for people in the region.

"This came from having numerous conversations about the stigma we saw in the community about mental health care and the lack of understanding from professionals on how to treat us as full human beings," Akili told TheBody.

To access these matching grants, mental health care professionals must have a robust history of "understanding how to reach our community and already [be] doing the work in our community," he stressed.

Most importantly, this work must be viewed through "a social justice lens, one that looks at the intersections of HIV/AIDS, transphobia, misogynoir, racism, and sexism."

"How can you treat a black trans woman or a black gay man living with HIV if you don't understand all the areas of trauma they are experiencing now and in the past?" Akili asked.

"Too often the focus is to just take your pill every day to achieve viral suppression, but if you're dealing with depression and anxiety, you can't really adhere if your mental health challenges aren't being adequately addressed," he added.

While the fund helps professionals that conduct traditional one-on-one talk therapy, it also aims to amplify more innovative and radical approaches to mental health efforts.

"Let's say you want to have a free day-long healing retreat at your church or you're a yoga instructor that wants to offer classes for black queer folks in the community, we want to help fund that too," Woodland explained.

He added: "We'll never prescribe one way for our people to heal, especially when too many times traditional methods have failed black people and done more harm than good. So, we deserve to have many possibilities in order to rebuild ourselves and grow as a community."

And as Woodland tells it, this radical work is neither new nor rare in the region, as shown by the grant applications they've received over the past few months.

"When we talk about this kind of work, we tend to focus on Los Angeles, New York, or the Bay Area as being at the forefront, but when I roll through the South, I always see radical organization and healing."

These different approaches also help address the stigma and misinformation around mental health, along with mistrust of medical professionals.

"For some black people, when they think of social workers, they think of people coming to take their kids away, not necessarily someone they can talk to about what they're struggling with. Having a range of options we can relate to and feel safe participating in is important in our healing," said Woodland.

While the fund addresses all Southern states, there is a special consideration of those, such as Texas, Mississippi, and Alabama, that have yet to expand Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act -- and with good reason.

According to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), African Americans are 10% more likely to report having serious psychological distress compared with their white counterparts. Moreover, Medicaid plays an incredibly important role in mental health access, given that the federal program is the largest provider of behavioral coverage in the U.S. Not to mention the South being the epicenter of new HIV infections in this country.

Woodland stressed that living in Trump's America means anticipating a slashing and shrinking of these "entitlement programs" that will disproportionately impact poor people of color.

"The little things we got under Obama are being taken away, and this administration's chaos plays out in a particular way where folks in the South will have less resources than [people in] other places in the country," Woodland said. "Think about how these same folks have to find ways to combat and cope [with] anti-blackness, transphobia, homophobia, or an HIV diagnosis without financial help."

The response to the fund has been met with excitement, including from Venita Ray, deputy director of the Southern AIDS Coalition, who believes it's right on time.

"As someone who has advocated for these types of programs and is living with HIV, it's truly excellent to see an initiative that is dedicated to funding culturally competent and unique mental health strategies for us. Because for far too long, I've seen programs that only retraumatize people because they don't have the same holistic approach," Ray said.

Akili hopes that the Southern Healing Fund will help communities of color reaimagine how they understand trauma, especially the role it has played and continues to play in the AIDS epidemic.

"We cannot afford to not talk about fear, trauma, and stigma when we talk about HIV/AIDS in black communities. We have to be incredibly intentional about that when addressing mental health and healing justice [when it comes to HIV]. Without [acknowledging that connection], we can't ever truly shift this pandemic."

Interested in donating to The Southern Healing Fund? Learn more here.