In 2004, having seen depression affect their lives and communities, Tracey Robinson says she and her friend Stephanie Green wanted “people who look like us to have a place to come in and talk about it.” So they started Another Life Foundation, a 501c3 devoted to helping people of color battle mental illness and suicidal behaviors.
Sixteen years later, they’re still at it: Stephanie continues to serve as executive director, and Tracey as board president. Through the years, Another Life Foundation has provided various services to people of color living with mental illness, from mentoring relationships to culturally competent counseling referrals to help accessing Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare benefits.
During COVID-19, the foundation has created a Virtual Counseling Support Program and gone online with its Black Men’s Project. With support from NAMI Colorado Springs and other community entities, the Project brings conversations about mental health and wellness into barbershops and salons frequented by men and boys of color. Juaquin Mobley’s Community Barbershop hosted the Project’s first Wellness Summit back in January.
The upcoming virtual summit, featuring five local speakers, will take place on Saturday, July 18, between 1 and 3 p.m. Registration is free, and attendees will have the chance to win prizes.
As part of our ongoing blog series about the intersection of race and mental illness, we talked earlier this week with Tracey, a longtime health care professional, about what the foundation is working for — and against.
NAMI: You were exposed to depression as a child, with two parents living with depression. How did that impact you personally, and specifically as a child of color?
Tracey: Both of my parents were educated, and I came up as a middle-class child. So what do you do if you have parents who have good jobs and you look the part? No one's supposed to know [about mental illness in the family].
Because through history, there were the Jim Crow laws and segregation, and parents having to deal with the trauma of not being able to be Black. You wouldn't be hired if you had an Afro or things of that nature. So you don't add [other potential issues]. You have depression? What's that? What's that look like? It doesn't. It doesn't look like anything within the Black community, because you're taught to suck it up. You're not taught how to have coping skills.
So that's the reason why we have Another Life Foundation: to let people know that it's OK to have a degree, to be educated, to be Black, and to have mental health [issues]. But you need to have coping skills, which are not given to you in the Black home.
In Black homes, maybe you're not as fortunate to have parents who have good jobs. Maybe your parents are on welfare or you have a single parent, or they struggle. Then that looks different — maybe it's kind of the hip-hop culture. You deal with [illness] by “manning up,” you go get a tattoo, you pour out, you turn up, you drink liquor, you know what I'm saying? Then your coping mechanism is more destructive than productive.
NAMI: You've mentioned a couple of the barriers you see standing between Black communities and mental health care. Are there others that you want to make sure people understand exist, that maybe they don't think of right away?
Tracey: I think people at large do not think that trauma is a barrier between the Black community and mental health awareness and mental health access. Because when we process the trauma in our lives — seeing it in our homes — when we don't have the coping skills, we learn behavior. You saw Mom or you saw Grandma, but you don't know if they have schizophrenia or bipolar or whatnot.
The resilience of the community of Black people on the whole is, "We march on." We've got to just keep standing, and keep marching. It's not OK to cry. And even if one does cry, that might be their only healthy way of dealing with what's going on.
NAMI: Can you name some of the systemic problems that contribute to this dynamic?
Tracey: If I'm performing at a level that's acceptable to my counterparts in white society, you don't see that I'm suffering from anxiety and depression, because of the resilience that I put up — the front. That's a problem.
Feeding that back into the Black Men's Project, this is big in the Black men's community, because their anger and aggression from depression — that's the way it's manifested, by popping off. So then they have a higher risk of having police encounters. And in those encounters, it’s not, "Hey, are you OK?" You know, police aren't asking Black men if they have mental health issues, or if maybe they're having a bad day.
It's just the buildup of the trauma over the years, of not knowing how to deal with it. Not having a mentor, not having someone you can go to talk to, not having the proper coping skills — and not seeing that there's anything wrong. Not having the avenues to say, "I need help," escalates you to other problems in your life.
'It's just the buildup of the trauma over the years,
of not knowing how to deal with it.'
NAMI: What you're describing goes beyond stigma. It's not just that people don't want to talk about their mental health issues, or that they’re feeling bad, it's that maybe they don't even recognize that the way they're feeling or reacting isn't healthy.
Tracey: Exactly. Because your mom or your dad — again, most of every behavior is a learned behavior, and from birth until the age of 7, all you're doing is downloading and processing how to respond. That’s how you’re trained to respond. No one said, "Hey, it's OK for you to cry." You didn't see your dad cry; you saw him go and hit your mom. So now you think that's the appropriate response. Or you didn't see your mom go and ask for help; she went and turned to a pipe.
So, again, it begins to systematically become a cycle of abuse in the community.
I did grow up with good things. Both my parents have degrees; my mother has a master's, my father had a bachelor's. My father also ran his own business. But he suffered. He had a sickness, and he didn't know how to deal with it. Therefore, he died at an early age, because he had cirrhosis of the liver, because he just drank.
There's a better way. We don't want our young men to grow up thinking that the only alternative is to join the gangs, or the only alternative is to go and steal, or the only alternative is to go to jail.
NAMI: What you're talking about is a whole lot of education and opening up conversation. Is there anything else that you feel is just essential to making positive change, making some headway toward getting mental health help to the Black community?
Tracey: Let's just say that once we start opening the doors and it becomes OK to have a conversation, be patient. Because I've noticed that even within the community of mental health, it takes about 10 years, maybe longer in the Black community, to even come to grips that there is mental illness and to do the work and get the counseling. So patience and awareness is key.
For more information on Another Life Foundation, visit anotherlifefoundation.com. For links to and information about additional resources dedicated to communities of color, see this page of our website.