Exploring Mental Health Experiences of BIPOC and Disabled Persons
July is Disability Pride Month. This observance “celebrates disabled persons embracing their disabilities as integral parts of who they are, reclaiming visibility in public and interacting fully with their disabilities out in the open, and rejecting shame and internalized ableism.” It is also National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, also known as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Month. It is a time to raise awareness of the disparities in access to quality mental health and substance use treatment for different racial and ethnic groups.
In order to shed some light and hope on these topics, our own Malaika Boyer-Seme, MS, LPCA, a Licensed Professional Counselor here at Positive Directions shares some of her experiences as a minority mental health professional and disability advocate. Malaika is a black woman who immigrated from Haiti and she is a bilateral amputee. Malaika inspires others by her positive attitude, courage, and self-efficacy.
From Disability to Advocacy
There are two models to view disability: the medical model and the social model. Disability pride focuses on the social model, which makes a distinction between disabilities and impairments. An impairment is the physical way the body is different, like lacking a limb or the inability to see or hear. The disability comes from society not making accommodations for those with impairments, which excludes them from many aspects of life. Therefore the focus in the social model is on fixing the societal attitudes and structural barriers, not “fixing” the impaired person. The medical model views disability as a defect and as a medical problem that needs treatment.
Many people with impairments find the stigma, physical structures, societal norms and people’s general attitude to be the main disadvantages. Malaika, who lost both of her legs below the knee at the age of 16, knows these challenges well.
“People weren’t sure how to act around me when I lost my legs as a teenager. They weren’t sure what I could and couldn’t do, so sometimes I was excluded from things,” she said.
She also said that many people think disabilities are always visible, but that’s not true.
“I have prosthetic legs and walk very well, so people don’t see my disability when they look at me.”
As a result, she is sometimes given unfriendly looks when she parks in a handicap parking spot and at times when she requests accommodations, like avoiding waiting in lines because standing for too long causes a great deal of pain.
Some also think that having a physical impairment means a person isn’t smart, but of course it has nothing to do with intelligence. "I have a handicap, I am not my handicap."
Throughout the emotionally challenging periods of her life, Malaika leaned on her parents, family and her faith to get her through those times.“You need to surround yourself with people who focus on your abilities, not what you can’t do,” she said.
Malaika has taken her life experiences and dedicated much of her time to advocating for those with disabilities. She is currently a motivational speaker on disability rights and awareness in Haiti and the US and an amputee advocate for Haiti. She also founded the Malaika Boyer Foundation which was active until 2010. Through the foundation, she raised awareness and funds to provide prosthetic care for amputees. Additionally, she co-hosted a local cable community TV show “Your Family is My Family”, which tackled social issues relevant to Fairfield County and included many guest speakers. Malaika was also a Supported Employment Specialist for 11 years with various agencies through DMHAS & BRS (Department of Mental Health and Addictions Services; Bureau of Rehab Services).
She hopes her work locally and abroad will inspire and motivate others who may be feeling hopeless or lost. “You need to have hope no matter what. When you focus on hope and how you want to feel, even if you feel bad now, you can begin to work towards taking steps to feel better.”
For a variety of resources, visit the ADA Network website.
Minority Mental Health: Treatment Disparities
Research shows that BIPOC people are less likely to receive mental health care. A 2015 report found that of those with any mental illness, 48% of whites received mental health services, while only 31% of blacks and Hispanics, and 22% of Asians did. There are many factors that play a role in access to care for diverse ethnic/racial populations. The American Psychiatric Association has identified the following challenges:
Lack of insurance, underinsurance
Mental illness stigma, often greater among minority populations
Lack of diversity among mental health care providers
Lack of culturally competent providers
Distrust in the health care system
Inadequate support for mental health service in safety net settings (uninsured, Medicaid,
Health Insurance Coverage other vulnerable patients)
Racism and bias can impact the treatment that people receive. For example, BIPOC youth with behavioral health issues are more likely to be referred to the juvenile justice system than to another doctor, compared with white youth. There is also overdiagnosis and underdiagnosis of conditions within certain populations. Black and African-American men with severe depression are four times more likely to be diagnosed with schizophrenia but are underdiagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and mood disorders, like depression.
BIPOC individuals who identify as LGBTQ face a great deal of challenges when finding culturally sensitive treatment. LGBTQ people, regardless of race, are more than twice as likely as heterosexual men and women to have a mental health disorder in their lifetime. When it comes to suicide, nearly 31% of all transgender people considered suicide compared to 2.3% of heterosexual people and 4.4% of those who are gay or lesbian. BIPOC people who are transgender are at an even higher risk for suicide.
In Malaika’s experience, she has seen black individuals treated differently. She has seen relatives rushed through appointments and have their problems minimized. She said that there is often a belief that black people are stronger and can handle things better due to what they have historically endured. Of course this is not true; anyone can be impacted by mental health struggles and the color of a person’s skin has nothing to do with how much emotional stress they can handle. Malaika highlights the importance of increasing the number and accessibility of minority treatment providers. As a part of the Positive Directions team, she is proud to be a part of this change and continues to advocate for the mental health of BIPOC people and disabled persons.
Becoming a Mental Health Professional
When Malaika was a kid, she wanted to be a doctor because she wanted to help people, but when she got older and found out about psychology, she realized that was the path for her. “I wanted to understand humans.”
She graduated with honors with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and a Minor in Sociology from the University of Connecticut and went on to get her master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Bridgeport.
As a counselor at Positive Directions, her focus is to provide a safe and solution-focused environment for each client learning how to accept and cope with identified challenges including: Grief, PTSD & Limb loss, Depression, Anxiety, Vocational Stress, Spirituality, and Substance Use. Many French and Creole-speaking clients seek Malaika out because she is fluent in both languages.
She believes that every human being no matter their skin color, age, disability, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs deserve love, a strong support system, a positive environment and full grace in order to overcome their physical or/and mental challenges and that is what she brings to the lives she touches.
Positive Directions is Here for You
We encourage BIPOC and disabled persons to reach out for help when they are struggling. Positive Directions is proud to hold a diverse team of mental health professionals who believe that all individuals deserve the support and resources that they need to live a healthy life.
Currently, Malaika is co-facilitating a 10-week group for Norwalk teen girls, a partnership between Positive Directions and the Youth Business Initiative. The group focuses on issues such as depression, self-esteem, grief, and interpersonal conflicts. A similar 10-week group for boys will be offered next. Each of these groups will run four times throughout the year. Thank you to the City of Norwalk for making these groups possible through their Relief and Recovery Fund.
For more information on these groups and other services offered at Positive Directions, call us at 203-227-7644 or visit our website at www.positivedirections.org.