As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Child & Adolescent, Adult and Forensic Psychiatrist and Ourselves Black Magazine Executive Editor, Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson.
Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson, an Atlanta-based psychiatrist, is the founder and Executive Editor of Ourselves Black, the website and magazine. Ourselves Black was created as a platform for discussion about black mental health, broadly defined, for members of our community. It provides thought provoking and beautiful content.
Positive self-image, family bonds, strong communities, and a sense of security are fundamental to mental health. For black people, each has been not merely undermined but at times outright attacked by the predominant narratives in place since this country’s inception. The fight for mental health is real. And necessary. A powerful counter-narrative is essential. And is ours to tell. Ourselves Black is about pushing and expanding conversation and understanding about a broad array of topics on the continuum of mental health and illness
Dr. Vinson graduated Summa Cum Laude from Florida A & M University. After graduating from medical school at the University of Florida she completed her general psychiatry training at Cambridge Health Alliance/Harvard Medical School, followed by training in child and forensic psychiatry at Emory School of Medicine.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
If you had asked me as an 11th grade high school student what I wanted to be when I grew up, the reply would have been civil rights attorney, pediatrician or sports journalist. While I did not end up going any of those routes, my current career path involves advocacy for marginalized groups, providing healthcare for children as a physician, and bringing stories to an online and print magazine. When I started medical school, I had no intention of pursuing psychiatry — even went so far to tell one of my classmates that I didn’t understand why anyone would use their medical degree to be a psychiatrist. As I experienced the various lectures and clinical experiences, however, I learned how central mental health is to health and individual well-being, family function and even the broader society. By the end, I couldn’t think of a better way to use my medical degree. Stigma and mental health care access issues are tremendous barriers. There are many people who could never walk through my clinic door. Ourselves Black is about expanding the conversation, amplifying the message and taking it further than I could as an individual practitioner.
According to Mental Health America’s report,over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
In medicine, mental illness is unique in how it can threaten one’s very own sense of self, the essence of who they are. In many communities it is still viewed through a moral lens. As a psychiatrist, I think this is in part because of people’s desire to believe they have control. If it’s a matter of praying enough or being a good or strong person, then people who see themselves as moral or strong can think they are immune. A natural outcome of looking at it this way is that the people who do have mental illness must lack that strength or morality. The reality is this. Mental illness respects no boundaries or categorizations, and that scares the hell out of people.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
Ourselves Black is an online, and now print magazine, with the goal of expanding and spurring conversation about the mental illness mental health continuum in a culturally tailored way.
Our manifesto is below:
Narratives matter. Positive self-image, family bonds, strong communities, and a sense of security are fundamental to mental health. For black people, each has been not merely undermined but at times outright attacked by the predominant narratives in place since this country’s inception.
The fight for mental health is real. And necessary.
All of us, whether we are in the suburbs or a jail cell, in therapy or taking our sorrows to Jesus, medicated with Prozac or smoking a blunt, are on a continuum from mental health to mental illness. The daily stressors unique to black people impact our place on this mental health — mental illness continuum and amplify the consequences of unaddressed psychological issues.
We are tasked with navigating a society with a school to prison pipeline flowing with black children, with workplaces where we are the last hired and first fired, and where routine police encounters summon a legitimate fear of death.
Mental health issues can not be a source of shame. They must be understood and ultimately addressed. Mental well being can not be taken for granted. It must be appreciated, protected, and nurtured.
A powerful counter-narrative is essential. And is ours to tell.
It is self-defeating to conform to the predominant narrative, and confining our dialogue about mental health to hushed stigma-laden discussions of mental illness hinders us in shaping our own. Birthed from my perspective as an HBCU educated and Ivy League trained psychiatrist, Ourselves Black is a place where we own the narrative and are unapologetic about our goal: to share imagery and tell stories infused with knowledge that promotes Black mental health.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
I have seen first-hand, both personally as a member of the black community and professionally as a psychiatrist, how limited understanding, poor messaging and stigma hinder the recognition and treatment of mental illness. We must move away from the false dichotomy of mentally ill or mentally well, understand that we are all on a continuum, and actively and intentionally treat illness and preserve wellness.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals –People can not give what they do not have. My observation is that most people know what helps them mentally, but at times convince themselves that other things are more important. Each of us should be curious about and protective of our own mental health.
Society — Stigma kills. Every time we hear someone talking about mental illness in a way that is “other-ing”, it’s up to us to challenge it. Also, just checking on each other, genuinely, and listening in an open non-judgmental manner for the answer, can mean a great deal to people. Mental illness has a way of making people feel alone or ashamed. Even though people may actually be willing to be there for them, it can be hard for them to make the first step.
Government — While access to mental health care is important, it is hardly the main issue. Stressors such as unsafe neighborhoods, discrimination, housing and food insecurity, and poor educational and job prospects are major drivers of mental illness. Programs that support safe communities and families and the provision of basic necessities, especially during early formative years, would do far more to address mental illness on a population level than universal health care or more psychiatric hospitals.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Vacation quarterly — Last one was to Jamaica where I read James Baldwin for 4 days.
- Talk to close friends or family daily — I’m very close to my family of origin and have a great group of friends.
- Prioritize sleep — Given all the hats I wear, people often ask if I do. I prioritize it, as I know I need to tackle my very full days from a rested/recharged place.
- Only agree to projects that have meaning for me. — In the words of one of my favorite NYTimes lifestyle articles “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.”
- Exercise — Beach Body on Demand lets me do it from wherever in the world I happen to be. At home, I also throw in cycling. Exercise has great benefits for mood, stress, concentration and energy.
- Putting things in buckets of not important, important and really important. In reality, very few things actually fit into the third category, and when I center myself on that, it helps to decrease stress by keeping things in perspective.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I recently re-read Notes of a Native Son and the Fire Next Time. Probably not an expected answer, but often literature has profound explorations of mental wellness, and when it comes to the psyche of being black in America, Baldwin was relevant then and now.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!