Born and raised in Albion, Valarie Cunningham holds monthly mental talks on breaking the stigma on African American mental health.
Cunningham currently resides in Kalamazoo, where she works as the CEO of GFM The Synergy Center, which offers services for mental health and substance abuse issues to people of color. Junior Morgan Armstrong and senior Gabrielle Henriksen are working as interns at GFM the Synergy Center.
Aside from the business, however, Cunningham co-pastors with her husband, Daniel Cunningham, at The Empowerment Center in Kalamazoo.
On Thursday Oct. 17, Cunningham offered an open lecture on breaking the stigma on African American mental health, during which she noted the double standards of being an African American and seeking mental health services.
According to the United States Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African American adults are 20% more likely to report serious psychological distress than adult whites, and that percentage increases with African Americans living in poverty.
Cunningham emphasized the importance of understanding the impact history has on African-American health, explaining that slavery, the Reconstruction Year, Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and segregation created post-trauma in African Americans.
Cunnnigham then explained the misconception stereotypes as a result of the history. The stereotypes, she said, include, ”mental illness doesn’t affect Black folks,” “Black people, especially men, must be strong,” “seeking professional help shows a lack of faith in God” and “Black women are angry.”
Cunningham describes that the stigma around African Americans prevents them from seeking mental health services because it is perceived as inappropriate conversation among their friends and family, and it would make them seem “crazy.”
“What I got from the talk is that depression is a real thing that can affect anyone of any race. I was allowed to on a deeper level about how African Americans handle depression signs. We are seen to be strong and try to hold up that image,” said Camari Jones, a first year from Chicago, Ill.
She then explained that African Americans seek mental health services with counselors who look like them. Cunningham, however, challenges African Americans to seek help regardless of whether or not a counselor looks like them, because, she said, “cultural competency is not based on race.”
“Overall, I think she made some very valid points. I do believe the stereotypes are what stops people of color from going to therapy because we think they won’t understand our situation and where we come from,” said J’nai Honor, a sophomore from Detroit, Mich. “But at the same time, we need to stop holding in all of our emotions and thoughts. Just like anyone, we want someone who won’t listen but understand and comprehend.”
Cunningham explained that people of color don’t like to educate their professionals, those who don’t look like them, of their culture when it would be easier to speak with people of color professionals who can understand them.
“Seeking out professions help is not popular but just what we need. However, it is perfectly fine to speak with a professional when depression seems to be affecting you. Sometimes the help need help,” said Jones. “It taught me to be open-minded and lean on all my resources, not just religion. We have to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and take the help, and that is given to us to rebuild ourselves.”
However, Cunnigham explained that it is difficult to find counselors who are people of color, so she suggests being culturally sensitive, understanding that not everyone will understand a culture outside of theirs, but people within that culture can help them to understand it.
According to Cunnigham, African Americans dismiss their feelings because they perceive their feelings as “small” compared to the problems slaves experienced. Also, African Americans are hesitant to seek mental health services because of high incarceration rates underlied with their race.
Cunningham challenged students anyone to not dismiss their feelings, but to find a safe place to express themselves because it can be easy to be blind to the symptoms of mental disorders.
“What made this talk different, though, would be how she went through the history of our past, as well as what currently occurs. A lot of people stereotype us off past events, but when it comes to being depressed or having anxiety, they focus on what we currently go through. I also liked the open dialogue [throughout the] presentation because holding your thoughts and questions until the end will make you forget [them],” said Honor.