Caroline Johnson / News Editor

SCC's Black Town Hall explored mental health on Wednesday.

October 23, 2020

Southside Community Center’s Black Town Hall Explores Mental Health and Self-Care

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The Southside Community Center held its monthly Black Town Hall on mental health Wednesday, in which a seven-person panel of students and educators discussed personal experiences, mental health resources and the importance of community for a public, online audience.

As an Ithaca-based event series that works to empower Black residents through community activities, education and interfacing, the Black Town Halls connect the Southside Community Center with various educators and local politicians virtually.

Dr. Nia Nunn, the Southside Community Center’s board of directors chair and education professor at Ithaca College, facilitated the event. The other panelists included Kayla Matos, the Southside Community Center deputy director, and Resana Malone, a Downtown Ithaca Children’s Center teacher.

In addition, the town hall featured Ithaca College students Kalena Yearwood, Nicole Onwuka, Caleigh Clarke and Makiyah Adams as well as Cornell students Areion Allmond ’21 and Bianca Beckwith ’22.

Then, Nunn played a clip of “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, one of the Black leaders that the Southside Community Center featured in a 20-day education program leading up to Juneteenth. Black Hands Universal will work with the center to share the program through Zoom tutoring initiatives.

To kick off the discussion on mental health, Nunn opened the floor to the topic of mental health management. The panelists discussed the importance of non-medicinal coping mechanisms; Nunn, while acknowledging that medication can help, said “Pills don’t teach skills.” She emphasized the importance of creating a stronger language for mental health in order to prevent misdiagnosis.

Allmond mentioned historically anti-Black practices in the field of psychology. She expanded on the 1960s reclassification of mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, which defined the illnesses by various anti-Black stereotypes. Other panelists discussed psychiatrists over-prescribing or misprescribing medicinal treatments for Black patients over the decades.

The discussion then transitioned to spaces, institutions and what they should provide.

Onwuka called for organizations to recognize intersectional identities and address the specific needs of Black women as an especially marginalized group. Adams expressed that institutional work should start from this point.

“When we start from what’s considered ‘the bottom,’ when we start from the bottom up, we reach everyone,” she said.

Beckwith advocated for academic institutions to understand the people they help on a deeper level and better support Black women interested in pursuing mental health advocacy as a profession.

Clarke underscored the importance of an in-person connection to mental health, describing her negative experiences with social isolation in quarantine.

“I miss that flavor, that rhythmic call and response when we come together,” Nunn said.

At the mid-meeting break, Nunn presented various mental health organizations. Resources specific to Black women included Black Girls Smile, Therapy for Black Girls and Melanin & Mental Health. Tompkins County resources included the Advocacy Center, the Health Clinic and the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Finger Lakes Chapter.

For the town hall’s second half, the panelists reflected more on personal experiences with mental health. Nunn asked: “What’s on your heart right now?” In a process that she described as “radical vulnerability,” the women addressed various struggles and personal coping mechanisms.

“I just did little things to liberate myself, to bring myself joy,” Malone said.

Onwuka and Yearwood shared their introspective relationships with God. Malone and Matos enthusiastically discussed the transformative power of release through crying.

Nunn extolled the rise of self-love and self-care movements, which she said were driven by Black women.

“We have centuries and centuries of models,” she said. “Black women have been mapping out the blueprint for a long, long time.”

Nunn closed the town hall with a mindfulness exercise, encouraging participants to ground themselves in space and breathe. Many of the panelists expressed gratitude for the event, especially in the midst of an isolating pandemic.

“It has really opened my eyes and showed me I am not alone,” Matos said.