Q&A on Black Mental Health with Psychotherapist, Christian Howard

 Walk us through your career. How did you get interested in mental health awareness, especially for Black and brown people? 

I originally wanted to be a medical doctor growing up so I’ve probably be interested in medicine since I was 3 or 4. At 17, my fiancé at the time was murdered by his own homeboys and crew so that kind of switched my perspective on life and made me want to study psychology so I can understand why people do the things that they do. I also grew up in a domestic violent home. So, mine more so came from life and my environment and how it shaped me.  I wanted to learn more about people and different challenges so that’s how I fell into psychology and becoming a psychotherapist.  

How long have you been practicing psychotherapy?

I’ve been doing this work for 11 years. I work in residential settings and the community. I recently became D.C. licensed this year and nationally certified last year.

What exactly is a psychotherapist and how does that differ from a counselor, psychologist or psychiatrist?

So, a psychiatrist has to go to medical school, and I would say that individual is known for prescribing medications. Counselors and psychotherapists can be used interchangeably. You have to have your Masters. Counselors are more so interested in holistic and overall wellness. Where psychotherapists are more so concerned with mental health disorders and how to apply psychoanalysis to different types of dynamics. 

What do the majority of your clients come to you about? 

I actually work with the homeless populating in D.C. So I’m dealing with a lot of trauma, a lot of bipolar disorders, schizophrenia and post-partum. Most of the time its trauma so a lot of trauma-informed care. I have a counselor background and psychotherapist background, but I am more concerned with the holistic health of you. I want to make sure that mental health is not just seen as you just having a disorder but anything that affects your daily functioning. I think that will drop the stigmas and will let you know that you can get help with anything and you can go and see a therapist and get some assistance in navigating life.

How much would you say one’s environment is a factor in susceptibility to developing a mental illness?

Ok so it is a big factor and any psychologist should do a biopsychosocial, which is an assessment that we do on all clients during intake. A biopsychosocial takes into account your biological make-up, your psycho-social makeup and your environment, which all play a part in who you are. Like they say African-American people are more likely to have PTSD and depression because of our history with slavery. You have a lot of psychologists that believe in the Post Traumatic Slave Disorder. There are generational things that come into play. A lot of psychologists will tell you to do a genogram and you can see how mental health disorders are passed down through your family history. So yes, the environment is definitely something that can exacerbate any pre-existing illnesses.

What are your thoughts on receiving counseling or mental health services from people who are from a different race than you?

My politically correct answer is yes, every psychotherapist should be culturally competent in what they do. However, if someone comes to you and you don’t understand them and what they are going through you have an ethical obligation to refer them to someone else. We have to know our limits. I’ll be honest, I had a great professor that was big on giving corrective experiences. So when Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, she asked the class if we would work with George Zimmerman and at first I said no I would not because I couldn’t help him but she challenged us in saying well maybe you could because you can give him a corrective experience. Like I have a therapist who is completely different than me. I mean he is a Black man, but we don’t have the same thought process. But when I picked him, I wanted him to challenge me and challenge everything I thought about myself so I could grow and move forward. 

What are some of the biggest stigmas facing mental health in the Black community?

I think that we don’t talk about it. Mental health and going to your therapist are considered a white thing. In the church you are taught to pray it out. I know in the islands and parts of Africa if you have a mental health disorder, people think you are possessed, and you should be thrown away. If we as black people communicated in a healthier way and had more open communication, I think we as a people could heal. We could all have healthier relationships in our family structure. 

What do you think is the root of why we don’t do this?

I think a lot of it is learned behavior. Like living on the plantation and being slaves and you couldn’t tell anyone anything so now it’s the same thing of what goes on in this house, stays in this house and you don’t go tell anyone outside the family. It’s kind of like the blind leading the blind. So yeah it stems for that and like the church. There is a belief that religion is going to save you but, “faith without works is dead.” 

There's been a lot of debates online about Summer Walker and her stating that she has social anxiety disorder. A lot of people seem to not believe her. Why are people within our community so quick to brush off mental health issues?

Because they are not educated enough. They aren’t psycho-educated. We think of mental health illnesses as one extreme or the next…like you either have it or you don’t. In all actuality, mental health is on a spectrum. Summer has social anxiety but again it’s on a spectrum. Yeah, she can definitely write a song or perform in front of some people but when put in front of a large crowd, she has anxiety and she’s nervous and her level of functioning is impaired in certain ways. So, I think we need to be mindful of social anxiety. I don’t think we talk about it enough. We talk about narcissistic personality disorder like crazy, but we don’t talk about the 100 plus disorders in the DSM.

PTSD is often associated with men and women coming back from combat, but new studies are showing that people growing up in rough neighborhoods or witness violence on a regular basis growing up, can also have PTSD. What ways are you and other mental health advocates doing to "heal the hood?"

One thing we are trying to get over is that false narrative. For one, combat soldiers do not have the highest instances of PTSD. That is false. I think we are just trying to inform people and educate people about trauma. A lot of people don’t know that if you are hypervigilant, it might be stemming from something like going through a traumatic experience. Growing up in a neighborhood where you hear gunshots daily isn’t healthy and shouldn’t be glorified. I know rappers make it that way but that’s not safe for our children. It’s not safe for our people so I think that’s how we are trying our best to combat that is having our people become more aware of it. 

Do you think social media, especially Instagram, has a negative or positive impact on mental health? What are your thoughts on IG testing out removing likes?

I think it’s both – positive and negative. It depends on the person. Like we all have a smartphone, but the phone is only as smart as the person using it. So, if you are someone that has body dysmorphia, or you are constantly getting bullied than maybe Instagram isn’t a good outlet for you. But if you are aware of who you are and are following the right people to encourage you, then it can be beneficial for you. There is a wealth of knowledge on social media. Like teletherapy is real these days. I’m still trying to get used to it. Now you can actually do a Skype call and psycho-educate from your phone. Now regarding taking away likes, I think it can be good for people who do have these disorders especially those that suffer from self-esteem issues but for businesses it can be a bad thing since they get their sponsorships from Instagram engagement.

What are some accounts you follow for mental health?

Rwenshaun Miller better known as Therapist Bae. I have Living Proof 619 which is my own platform. Also, there is Ask Jess, she is a well-known doctor that worked with Beyoncé. 

With the weather change, a lot of people are experiencing SAD. Can you explain what that is and what signs or symptoms to look out for this winter?

Depression is real. Seasonal depression is real. It is more biological because of vitamin D and lack of sunlight so people with more melanin have to be aware of any symptoms. 

What are some of the symptoms to look out for in order to see if you or someone you know might have SAD?

Yes, first thing is your mood. When you are depressed. Your appetite might change. You might feel very tired or fatigued. You might isolate yourself a lot more. These are definitely things you should be aware of. If you are experiencing these symptoms, I would definitely say to first go to counseling and second, get into a routine. Some people like movies. Some people like art. Like do more of that. Tap into your creative side. Do more to help you feel fulfilled. 

What are the 4 best self-care tips you recommend to ensure optimal mental wellness?

Exercise. Eat healthy. Meditation and go to therapy. 

What are some good online resources for people to check out regarding mental health?

Therapy of Black Girls and Psychology Today. You can always try the National Alliance of Mental Illness if you want more psychoeducation. There’s The National Helpline and Uphold 31:8 is a good one as well. For the guys, there is this documentary my friend created called ‘Sound Off’ that is about black men and dealing with their emotions and mental health. 

Anything else you want to add? 

I think if we can look at mental health as normal. A part of your holistic makeup. You should do in and check in with a therapist once a quarter so 4 times a year so that’s a policy I would want to put into place. Go check on your mental health once a quarter. Its as important as anything else.

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