LITTLE ROCK — By Angel Burt & Wesley Brown – April 24, 2022 – Although the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths have had an outsized effect on Black and minority communities in Arkansas, the pandemic’s quiet impact on mental health in communities of color could be even more long-lasting.
That was the central message at the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) Minority Health Commission’s 7th Biennial Summit at the Four Points Sheraton in downtown Little Rock on Friday, April 22.
The near five-hour event at the midtown Four Points Sheraton in Little Rock, called “Putting the ‘Me’ in Mental Health – Today, Tomorrow, and Always,” was also live-streamed to dozens of viewers who attended the powerhouse health conference virtually.
Arkansas Minority Health Commission (AMHC) Director Kenya Eddings kicked off the health summit by sharing that the Commission was committed to providing mental health support, address health disparities, and educating minorities on the importance of healthier lifestyles.
“Our mission is to assure that all minority Arkansans have equitable access to preventive healthcare and to seek ways to promote health and prevent diseases and conditions that are prevalent among minority populations,” said Eddings.
Before starting off the all-morning program, Eddings also thanked the host of legislators, local community leaders, and sponsors attending the event, such as the Arkansas Medical, Dental & Pharmaceutical Association (AMDPA), Arkansas Children’s Hospital, UAMS Head Start Program and others.
Defining public health issue of the day
But the tone for the conference was set by a virtual appearance from Sima Ladjevardian, a former U.S. congressional candidate and regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Region 6 in Dallas (HHS). Among many things, HHS houses eleven federal agencies and divisions, including the CDC, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the federal Office of Minority Health.
In her brief welcome, Ladjevardian said under HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, the Biden administration is focusing two critical public health issues — mental health and health equity. She noted that the lack of minority access to mental health services is rooted in the lack of health equity among Black and Latino populations and other communities of color.
“We can’t really discuss one without addressing the other,” she said. “President Biden shared with the nation in his State-of-the-Union address that addressing the behavior health crisis is really a matter of national importance. It is a matter we can all unite behind, irrespective of our political or philosophical beliefs,” said Ladjevardian, who ran and lost her race for the 2nd congressional seat in Texas in 2020.
“The truth of the matter is that our country faces an unprecedented mental health crisis among people of all ages, but especially among our youth. And the opioid epidemic and overdoses in generally have worsened over the last few years because of the pandemic,” proclaimed Ladjevardian. “Two out of five adults report symptoms of anxieties and depression, and Black and Brown communities are disproportionately untreated.”
Ladjevardian said with communities of color having to endure much of the grief, trauma and isolation caused by the COVID-19, along with the impact of hospitalizations, deaths and economic fallout.
“It is really no wonder that the last two years push many Americans to the breaking point. The mental health crisis (from COVID-19) is one of the defining public health issues of our day,” declared Ladjevardian.
After the HHS regional director’s strong assertion, keynote speaker Gina Neely delighted the masked AMHC crowd with vignettes of her career as a television personality and celebrity cook on Down Home with the Neelys, which became the “highest-rated show” on the Food Network. The New York Times best-selling author also offered humorous details of past presentations across the country she has given that highlighted her celebrity status while sharing her perspectives on life and issues facing women.
Celebrity mental health crisis
Neely talked about how she went through a mental health crisis at the height of her celebrity status but was unable to recognize the signs. As her personal balm, Neely offered the acronym for her recognizing her own “mental health SNAP,” which stands for slowdown, notify, align with your feelings, and prepare for your heeling.
“We should always stay in a perpetual state of growing. And the only way to grow is to heal, (they) are synonymous with each other,” said Neely. “Our connection to other people can only be as solid and whole as our connection to ourselves.”
Neely went on to describe how ever life became overwhelming with responsibilities of her popular Food Network show, her family obligations marriage to Down Home with The Neelys co-star and husband, Pat Neely, her relationship with her two daughters, and her social and community commitments.
“Ya’ll didn’t even know that I snapped. Because I am wonderful at wearing my mask,” recalled Neely. “First of all, I lived in a state of overwhelmingness. Everything was like a big blur to me. It was happening so fast – I had daughters, I used to be a cheer mom, and I’m trying to think how I’m going to make cheer practice and my show.”
Neely also noted that her obligations to the Food Network normally included shooting two shows at a time, often on the road in different and unknown cities and locations. After a while, the Memphis native said she had a mental collapse on the set of the show that caused her to re-prioritize her life through her prayer, ongoing mental health therapy, and forgiveness.
“I just had to get off the train. This train as much as it is a blessing and loving experience for me, it was too much. I said, “I’ve got to stop the train because we can only control what we can control. That made me stop and make a conscious decision to end that chapter of my life,” said Neely.
Now over 50 years old, divorced and an empty nester with her two daughters in college, Neely said she is ready for the next chapter of her life, joking that she’s a single woman “now our hear in these streets.” She said she is glad she was able to able to make the decision to be free and choose her own life’s direction, instead of always putting others first before her needs.
In looking back over the past few years, Neely said the pandemic amplified the problems in her career, life and marriage. She told the audience that it is important for each person to embrace who they are today and move forward in healing.
“I can’t think of anything that is more important than in life itself than the changing of our minds,” Neely said to robust applause.
After the keynote address, the AMHC annual summit continued with a presentation by local poet Chris James, nationally known spoken word bard, speaker, teaching artist and author. James was followed by two expert panel discussions moderated by Rev. Billy Burris, a local social worker, licensed psychologist and pastor of St. Peter Missionary Baptist Church.
The first panel on children and mental health included Janine Cotton, retired CEO of Professional Counseling Associates in North Little Rock; Lorenzo Lewis, founder of The Confess Project, an initiative that centers on mental health and wellness for young men of color; and Jonelle Von Storch, a licensed professional mental health counselor in private for more than 20 years in Central Arkansas.
That latter panel discussion that focused on adults and mental health included Mr. Lewis, Nakia Gonder-Williams, a longtime employee of the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System and CEO of Williams Consulting, and Ivy Le, a license professional counselor and doctoral candidate for a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision at Walden University.
During the lunch break, AMHC Program Manager Beatriz Mondragón provided on overview of the Commission’s popular Southern Ain’t Fried Sunday initiative, a 21-day program to Arkansas minorities about healthy ways to cook Southern-style soul and other traditional foods.
Reflection and honoring greatness
The last hour of the program concluded with a special announcement by the Tina Ward of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement encouraging Arkansas nonprofits and healthcare organizations to pause for a “day of reflection” to think about the impact of COVID-19 on their communities.
“I urge leaders across the state to heed our board’s call. A pandemic is different from most disasters in that it does not have a clearly defined point where the tragedy ends and the healing begins,” said Ward. “For the sake of our mental health, we need to take time to pause and reflect on what we’ve been through and the people we have lost.”
Eddings then oversaw AMHC’s special awards presentation with the first honor going to Dr. Austin Porter III as the 2022 recipient of the Commission’s Governor’s Health Policy Award. Porter is ADH’s deputy Chief Science Officer and a member of the Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s COVID-19 Technical Advisory Board that evaluated modern technologies for testing and contact tracing the fast-spreading coronavirus during the pandemic.
The Vanessa E. Davis Change Agent Award was given to the Arkansas Association of Black Psychology (AABPP) Professionals, which develops partnership with other local groups and individuals to bring attention to mental health-related issues in the Black community.
That award was established in honor of the life, work, and legacy of late AMHC Commissioner Vanessa Davis, which recognizes individuals or groups for their impactful work in supporting minority health initiatives within their communities. Dr. Patricia Griffen, a local practicing clinical psychologist, accepted the award on behalf of AABPP.
The final Jocelyn Elders Minority Health Pioneer Award was given to Dr. Michelle Smith for her work in ensuring state policies, practices and resources were equitable across the board regarding health care and access during the pandemic. The award is named after Dr. Jocelyn Elders, the former AHD Director and 15th U.S. Surgeon General under former Arkansas Governor and President Bill Clinton who strode to the stage to present the award to Smith.
As Elders proudly handed the award herself to Smith, who leads ADH Office of Minority Health and Health Disparities, she commended her mentee as a strong leader and encouraged her to continue her path to success through the five Cs of leadership – clarity of vision, consistent, competent, committed, and in control.
“When we think of the five Cs of leadership, I think she has exhibited all five of them. I am very proud of you and keep working — you will get control down too,” retorted Elders as the crowd applauded or roared in laughter.
Arkansas Health Department Secretary Dr. Jose Romero ended the AMHC conference with final remarks, thanking Eddings, Ladjevardian, Neely and all the other guests for participating in the annual Health Department-sponsored event and bringing light to the issue of mental health during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, this is not over yet and we will call on you again and again in the future,” said Romero who is leaving his role as ADH Chief on May 6 to take a new position with the CDC.
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