Mental Health Awarness Month: An Interview with Sh’Niqua Alford, LCSW

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This year’s theme is Fitness #4Mind4Body. Taking care of your mental health is just as important as taking care of your physical well being. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough dialogue in the Black community about mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, bipolar or other life stressors that would warrant the need to speak with a therapist. I spoke with licensed clinical counselor Sh’Niqua Alford to discuss why being in tune with your mental health is important and how we can help dispel some negative stereotypes about mental health in the Black community.  

What is mental health and why is it important to raise awareness about it?

In broad terms, mental health refers to our cognitive and emotional wellbeing, often controlled by how we think, behave, and feel when faced with stressors. When our mental health is compromised, it can affect our mood and psychological well-being, how we interact in relationships, and determines how we handle stress. It is important to raise awareness because mental health is often overlooked, however, it is as important as our physical health.

There are several stigmas in the black community, that black people do not believe in therapy as a tool in coping with mental health or that it makes you appear weak or it’s something you can pray away. Can you speak to the detriment of this way of thinking has done in our community and ways we can change the narrative?

I am very passionate about this topic and strive to raise awareness about the benefits of therapy in the black community. Through my own research, I’ve found a few key factors that contribute to detrimental thinking as it pertains to mental health treatment.

Lack of information or understanding of mental health disorders contributes to the stigma that therapy is not acceptable in the black community. Many people do not understand the signs or symptoms of mental health disorders and some people believe mental health issues are not “real.” The exact cause of mental illness is unknown; however, depression, anxiety, and many other mental health conditions derive from a combination of factors such as chemical imbalance in the brain, genetic predisposition, and environmental influence. To imply that a person with a mental health diagnosis needs to just “snap out of it” is insulting; treatment is often necessary to overcome mental illness.

I also believe that as women we have been conditioned to portray the “strong black woman” thus we refuse to seek help during difficult times. Black women are often the backbone of our family, we wear multiples hats at once, and as a result, we tend to neglect our own needs. As a result, black people tend to suffer in silence. We worry about what people will think or say if they knew we were seeing a therapist and we wallow in shame when in reality seeing a therapist can be the most empowering and soul cleansing experience of your life.

I want to change the script and allow people, especially black men and women, to understand that it is okay to not be okay.

Faith and spirituality are sources of strength and support in the black community, however the belief that prayer is the only answer to our problems is a misconception. Personally, I believe strongly in the power of prayer, however prayer and seeking therapy does not have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, most of my clients identify as religious or spiritual people and choose to incorporate prayer and discussions about their faith in our sessions.

You spoke about you wanting to flip the script on the idea that it’s ok not to be ok. How are you doing that specifically and what can we do as individuals in the community to help reframe the narrative?

We need to get rid of the impression that we have to be perfect, or that we are “weak or crazy” if we see a therapist. For the community to reframe the narrative, I think it’s important that we normalize the need to address mental health. Just like we go to the doctor for migraines, high blood pressure, or cancer, it’s imperative that we seek treatment for mental health needs when it becomes difficult to cope on your own.

That is a focus of mine with clients; helping them to understand that they are not alone in their struggles and that difficulty in various situations is a normal part of functioning in life. The more we openly discuss the benefits of therapy, I am hopeful that more people will feel comfortable sharing their stories and not feel ostracized about seeking help.

How can one tell if they are in need of a therapist?

Some of the most prominent symptoms that warrant an immediate call to a therapist include changes such as sleeping too much or too little, increased or decreased appetite or sudden weight gain/loss, headaches, pains, or digestive problems that persist, sad mood, unexplained crying, feeling irritable or angry, lack of motivation, thoughts of death or suicide, or engaging in risky behavior like substance use, overuse of prescription drugs, gambling or sex.

Also, keep in mind that most people do not see a therapist for a major mental health disorder. Quite commonly, people see a therapist for work dissatisfaction, marital or relationship difficulties, parenting concerns, and life stressors that contribute to bouts of depression and anxiety.

Are there any free services, programs or resources that help reduce the cost of therapy? Is therapy covered by insurance?

In many locations, there are community mental health agencies that provide free or reduced cost options for mental health therapy. Often times, private practice therapists may offer reduced rate/sliding scale options for mental health therapy based on income or other financial factors.

Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is a nationwide network of mental health professionals that agree to provide low-cost therapy services ranging from $30-$50 per session. Individuals are able to create an account through Open Path, browse through their database of therapists in their area, and select someone that meets their needs.

Many employers provide a free and confidential counseling benefit through the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) to address personal or work-related problems that may be affecting job performance, health, or emotional well-being. Simply contact your employer or human resources department to determine if this benefit is available and if so, you will be provided with telephone or in-person counseling sessions, typically ranging from 3 -8 sessions at no cost to you.

Lastly, mental health benefits are generally covered under insurance plans, usually under the same plan that you have for medical benefits. Often times, mental health therapy is covered with the same or similar copay as a medical visit, however sometimes a deductible must be met before your insurance covers therapy sessions. Definitely reach out to your insurance company to inquire about outpatient mental health visits and they can explain exactly what coverage you have available.

This year’s Mental Health Awareness month theme is #Fitness4Mind4Body. Can you give the readers some tips on how to manage their mental health daily?

Practicing self-care is vital to managing your own mental health. Because I have an extremely busy lifestyle as a mom and entrepreneur, I created “Self-Care Sundays” where I focus on my own mental health needs. Every Sunday evening I commit to a relaxing bath with aromatherapy oils (my favorite are lavender or eucalyptus), use a body scrub to exfoliate my skin, give myself a mini facial or face mask, and spend at least 30 minutes reading a book, devotional, or coloring in an adult coloring book. This routine is relaxing and allows me to recharge and get ready for the upcoming week. Have fun creating your own personal weekly routine that promotes self-care.

Establish a greater sense of self-compassion. The compassion that you give to your spouse/partner, children, family, and friends, require that you give yourself that same compassion. We tend to be our own toughest critic and sometimes the messages that we inflict on ourselves we would never do or say to others. Appreciate yourself, express gratitude for your experiences, celebrate life’s victories but also recognize that life’s challenges are temporary and you have the ability to overcome them.
To learn more about Sh’Niqua Alford’s practice in the Dallas Fort Worth Metroplex, please check out her website at www.restoringserenitycounseling.com. If you have any questions or concerns about your mental health or the health of a loved one, you can contact her at salford@restoringserenitycounseling.com

For additional information on mental health awareness and resources go to http://www.mentalhealthamerica.net/may

 

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