Recently I read a story entitled, “Mental Health Care Is Key to Ending AIDS”. The Gay Men’s Health Crisis in New York is, and has been for years, working towards addressing the challenges and issues connected to mental health and HIV care. For years, I’ve felt strongly that the conversation of mental health should be connected around the issues of HIV as well as other health inequities, to see if there is some linkage. I would be remiss if I didn’t add to that, that it is my belief, that as a person of color, living in American society, mental health is key to our overall health and wholeness.
It’s no secret that during the pinnacle of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, those infected with the disease were confronted with stigma, discrimination, hatred, rejection, and overall ignorance. Which, by the way was even worse for African Americans and other people of color because the media only focused on the dominate society. There’s an old saying, “When Americans gets a cold, Black Americans get pneumonia”, nowimagine what Black and Brown people were going through during the height (hell, and even now) of the HIV/AIDS pandemic; but that side of the story was never shown in the media. HIV/AIDS infected persons of color, they faced the same stigma, discrimination, hatred, rejection, and ignorance as did others; they were just invisible in their suffering much like today, but that’s for another article.
It would be disingenuous of me not to thank God and celebrate for some of the progress we’ve made since those days, but the Black community still have major work to do. Because of the creation of HIV informational websites, support groups for people with HIV/AIDS and their families and loved ones, as well as new therapies like, PEP and PrEP and several of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) HIV/AIDS campaigns like African American Act Against AIDS Leadership Initiative (AAALI); my first project with the CDC and the PACT project, which we are currently working on, has helped tremendously in addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Black America. Partnering and Communicating Together to Act Against AIDS (PACT), has several partners, which we are very proud to be one of the partners, working to extend the reach of AAA campaign materials, resources, and engagement efforts into the community.
One of the things we strive to address under this project, is to publicize the underpublicized impact on one’s mental health and associated stress among at-risk and high-risk populations for HIV/AIDS before, and sad to say–after an HIV/AIDS diagnosis. I think it’s fantastic that we have trained, mental health professionals, facilitating different types of support groups that help people with AIDS and their loved ones that’s struggling with the psychological stress of their diagnosis. Thanks to the CDC, and the support under the PACT project, we’ve been able to create several culturally competent approaches to addressing mental health in the African American community; there by building culturally competent approaches to the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Black America. Do we have all the answers–of course not, but we have made tremendous movement towards ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Black America.
One of the things that we do; is that we draw from our rich history as an African people, to better understand how to address HIV/AIDS in the African American community. Malcom X said it best, “Of all of our studies, history is best prepared to reward all research”. In a brilliant article written by Dr. Maulana Karenga, entitled, “The Liberation Psychology of Frantz Fanon: “Struggle as Normative and Necessary”, Dr. Karenga skillfully addressed the fundamental position of liberation psychology that psychopathology, the sickness of the psyche, is essentially “a pathology of freedom,” i.e., a socially generated problem, as well as a behavioral and organic one, rooted in oppression and unfreedom. Imagine what it must be like to be unfree to live and love and celebrate who and how God made you; now add to that, living outside of the sexual norm of society. I can hear some of you now, “Living outside of the sexual norm isn’t how God made anyone.” Really? Well, I happen to believe that everything in nature is natural, even if it doesn’t seem to be normal, because nature, like God, doesn’t make mistakes only humans do. Allow me to take you to church just for a minute. In the book ofJohn 9:1-5 (NIV), this story tells of a man born blind. The story goes, “As He (Jesus) went along, he saw a man, blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him”. I take this to mean, everything we don’t understand or that see as wrong, isn’t God’s punishment or because of sin. AMEN–but I digress.
Dr. Karenga’s article goes on to say, that a pathology of freedom speaks to the denial and the deforming and destructive limitation on human freedom and therefore, human agency is central to self-understanding and self-assertion in the world. Dr. Karenga continues to say, that as a psychiatrist and revolutionary, Fanon challenges, as we should and discredits the notion that a person can be isolated and understood apart from his/her social context. And he argues that the conditions of oppression effects both a person’s and a people’s conscious and unconscious thought and practice. And I would add to that, cultural xenophobia combined with the dominate society’s love of its own rectitude, makes it difficult at best to have a healthy mental outlook on oneself.
He goes on to say that a second fundamental position that oppression, in this case, I would say, anti-Black, anti-gay and other people of color, has had a “totalitarian character”, and involves, a sustained work of depersonalization, deculturalization and dehumanization of the dominated people. I’m still talking HIV and mental health ya’ll. Fanon argues that the colonized or oppressed person who is victimized and without the cultural resources or personal will to resist, goes through several states of psychic debilitation and disintegration; including self-doubt, self-denial, self-condemnation, and self-mutilation–I told you he was brilliant!
Therefore, we need a Black HIV/AIDS Strategy! There is no substitute for a culturally specific HIV/AIDS Strategy for the Black Community. Cultural specificity speaks to relevance, competence, representation and context. Relevance requires appropriateness of the approach; competence requires grounding in the views, values, language, and practices of the culture; representation requires community members’ central role in the design, implementation, direction, and assessment in the projects concerning the community; and location refers to placing projects and engaging persons in a cultural context comfort zone, i.e. the community itself. This is necessary in the same way it is advocated and approached for other cultural communities. The community is more receptive and responsive to its own members. Culturally specific practices, understandings, and languages useful and effective in community engagement. Culturally specific strategy and the accompanying culturally specific structures, practices, and personnel, require specific designated resources; both immediate and long-term, and adequate and equitable, given the increasing severity of the problem. Culturally needed projects like PACT, has allowed us to be culturally specific and culturally competent and allows us to draw from persons of that culture who knows the views, values, language, practices of that culture, which helps to create a level of comfort and cooperation. So, this National HIV Testing Day, let’s test for HIV and test our mental outlook on those infected and affected. The beginning of dealing with our own mental health is just being who we are. There’s a song that says, “This is who I am inside, I’m not going to hide. Cause the greatest risk we’ll ever take, is by far, to stand in the light and be seen as we are.” I’m Doing it, how about you?
Doing It is a new national HIV testing and prevention campaign designed to motivate all adults to get tested for HIV and know their status. As part of the Act Against AIDS initiative, Doing It delivers the message that HIV testing should be a part of everyone’s regular health routine to keep ourselves and our community healthy. He’s doing it. She’s doing it. We’re doing it. YOU should be doing it, too.