Black mental-health crisis in America is focus of Rowan town hall

Healing Our Communities program suggests better support during COVID

Panelists Chanel McCord, Wendy Moluf and Karriem Salaam talk mental health in the Black community on Feb. 24 (Special to The Sun).

“Twenty-twenty was absolutely a tipping point for a lot of people, because it was just a pressure cooker.”

Those were the words of Chanel McCord, a Cherry Hill therapist, during a Feb. 24 town hall on mental health at Rowan College at Burlington County (RCBC). During the third Healing Our Communities session, McCord; psychiatrist and author Karriem Salaam; and RCBC’s Student Support Counselor, Wendy Moluf, talked about mental health in 2020 and its impact on the Black community.

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All three panelists and moderator Dorion Morgan, a pastor, noted that while everyone has been affected by COVID, Black people in America faced the brunt of it in dealing with past trauma exacerbated by COVID and a nationwide reckoning over racial injustice.

Black people were nearly two times as likely as whites to die from COVID, and nearly three times as likely to be hospitalized for it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Protection. Salaam said that produced situations where people were unable to say goodbye to their loved ones because of COVID guidelines in hospitals.

“Folks are coming to (mental health) care as a last resort,” he explained. “There’s a pretty sad and checkered history of African Americans in this country in their engagement with institutional bureaucracies. There is so much distrust between the community and these institutions and folks stay away until they really have no choice.”

McCord said her clients this year have been predominantly Black, a change from the past.

“Within the Black communities, there was more of an outcry to go ahead and to start to seek help,” she explained. “We’re talking about the Black community in the midst of fear of what this pandemic meant, and then we’re also dealing with the social injustices that just kept happening. It wasn’t like there was a reprieve. Every time you turned around, it was just another issue in another situation.”

Moluf explained that students of color at RCBC more often requested mental health services this year. Since the start of the semester in January, Moluf’s office had received 150 requests for emergency services, more than in any other year.

The panelists spoke about what needs to change in order for more Black people to seek mental health services. Ultimately, they agreed, it comes down to accessibility and trust building.

“There’s a lot of jargon,” McCord noted. “There’s so much healing in just understanding depression. Don’t just tell me I have it, but explain it to me. I feel that clients have gotten empowered by that.”

Salaam presented a study that showed patients were more likely to take the advice of their doctors when they could connect with them racially. 

“Without the rapport, your recommended actions are pretty worthless,” he pointed out. “It’s critically important to address these workforce issues and they should reflect the demographics of the nation writ large.”

Just 5 percent of physicians in America are Black, according to a report by the Association of American Medical Colleges. Salaam said growing up, his only role models were Ben Carson, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development,  and Cliff Huxtable, the fictional doctor played by Bill Cosby.

“I had to resort to fiction to find the models that I wanted to become,” he acknowledged.

Morgan said the first step toward improving the collective mental health of Black Americans is encouraging young Blacks to become medical professionals and providing resources for them to do so.

“We need to bolster our pipeline programs from a village standpoint,” Morgan added. “We need to start encouraging, not only people to go and receive mental health therapy, but we need to start encouraging our young people to start becoming mental-health workers, physicians and counselors, therapists.”

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