African Mental Health Summit to emphasize the importance of cultural understanding

We may be living in a time of mandated physical distancing, but organizers of Minnesota’s

We may be living in a time of mandated physical distancing, but organizers of Minnesota’s semiannual African Mental Health Summit say they are committed to bringing event participants closer together by building strong connections between individuals — and by emphasizing the innate strengths of African and African American culture.

The conference, titled “Building Mindful Connections: The Invincibility of Mindful Self-Care for Helping Professionals,” will be held virtually on Oct. 31 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. CDT.

Richard Oni

Richard Oni

Conference co-organizer Richard Oni, executive director of Progressive Individual Resources, a St. Paul-based social and behavioral health social-service agency, said that he and other conference presenters will focus their messages on the “building connections” theme.

“Because of the fact that now everything is done online and people are practicing social distancing,” he said, “we want to talk about how we can still stay emotionally connected, how can we keep emotional connections with one another — even when we are physically distancing.”

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Elder Atum Azzahir, founder and executive director of Cultural Wellness Center, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that offers classes, coaching and consulting around developing culturally based solutions to real-world problems, will be delivering the summit’s keynote presentation.

In these uncertain, trying times, she said, taking a deeper look at one’s own culture and learning about its innate strengths can build a sense of inner knowing and a confidence that can help forge connections to people from a variety of backgrounds.

Elder Atum Azzahir

Elder Atum Azzahir

While she said she understands that having a deeper knowledge of historical trauma is key to understanding the past and its impact on the present, Azzahir said she also is a proponent of looking beyond trauma to discover the strength of heart that has helped individuals construct happy lives in the face of limitations.

“You’ve probably heard a lot about trauma-informed ways of communication,” she said. “You’ve heard about historical trauma. You’ve heard about the way people carry forward the memories of their ancestors.” Azzahir encourages people to embark on a “cultural self-study,” where they take a deeper look at their own family histories.

“Cultural self-study and cultural wellness go hand in hand,” she said. “Cultural self-study gives you a sense of what is good about your nature and helps you to know how to carry those good elements forward.”

Conference presenters will emphasize this approach to understanding history, added  Tolulope Ola, summit co-organizer  and executive director of Restoration for All, a St. Paul-based organization that partners with communities to restore cultural connections. Culture is at the heart of all we do, she believes, and encouraging people of all backgrounds, but especially those of African descent, to build a deeper understanding and appreciation of their cultural ways of knowing can help to improve and support mental health.

“Knowing our culture is a necessary factor in our self-care,” Ola said. “If we are going to question the system and be able to act courageously to make change in it, we need to appreciate our own culture and the culture of others.” We live in uncertain times, she said: “If we keep talking about the necessity of resilience, why don’t we teach people to be resilient?”

Building cultural competency is a key part of developing resilience in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, Ola added: “This is the essence of this conference.”

Focus on ‘African ways of knowing’

Growing up in in the 1940s and ’50s in segregated Mississippi, Azzahir, 76, said that she inherited a sense of hope and optimism from her parents and grandparents, who, she explained, “endured some of the most horrific things and still walked around with a sense of joy and gratitude.”

Tolulope Ola

Tolulope Ola

She used to believe that her relatives’ approach to life was connected to their strong religious convictions: “At one point, I thought their joy was related to their deep involvement in the Christian church, then I began to realize that their deep joy was actually from their very nature. As I started to study that nature what I learned was that it is part of our culture, part of the African ways of knowing.”

As she moved into adulthood, Azzahir began a lifelong quest to better understand the origins of her African culture.

“As I grew up and I lived my life I knew those terrible things had happened to my family members, but I didn’t spend time focusing on them,” she said. “Instead, I spent time in community organizing, community building and talking to and watching Black people recover and hold on to themselves. I learned from my mother and father and those around me who hung on to a level of honor and beauty and grace and the capacity to be loving and forgiving.”

Her curiosity and wonder piqued, Azzahir eventually traveled through Africa, “reading every book I could get my hands on, talking to every Black person I could talk to.” What she learned on her journeys, she said, was “that there is a cultural value system, distinct customs, cultural ceremonies, yes, but there is also a way of knowing that is distinctly African.”

In her keynote address, Azzahir said she will discuss how a general lack of cultural understanding has played a role in the larger reaction to current social events. This unrealized awareness of their deep, inherited cultural strengths has put many Africans and African Americans at a distinct disadvantage during this difficult time in world history.

“The coronavirus and other things have now brought to surface in a very profound way some of the preexisting conditions that relate to people of African heritage in the United States,” Azzahir said. “We have experienced such profound uprootedness and the disconnecting from culture and the stripping of language. This has to be addressed.”

But the present — and the future — doesn’t have to be dark, she insisted. Building a deeper understanding of cultural strengths can help build stores of resilience and emotional well-being.

“How do you reassure yourself that you have an emotional storage bin and within that storage bin there are all these things that you can pull forward to build your emotional strength?” Azzahir asked. “These cultural strengths preexisted the trauma you’ve just experienced. If you really study your culture, you can go all the way beyond the pain, suffering and struggle.”

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Azzahir said that she is pleased to be able to deliver an inspiring message in these dark days.

“I get to be the cheerleader,” she said with a laugh. “That’s a role I’m happy to play.”

Target: caring professions

The summit’s intended audience, Oni said, is individuals in caring professions, including teachers, physicians, medical professionals and social workers. He said that conference organizers wanted to help participants increase feelings of empathy and understanding of the cultural mores and nuances that impact the behaviors of the people they serve.

Increasing empathy and understanding helps build relationships, Oni said. “You build connection through empathy. When you look at people emotionally and align with them emotionally, that is empathy – and that is a good approach.”

Teachers, especially, can benefit from increased understanding of and sympathy with the unique cultures of students and their families.

“As a teacher, how do you look at your students and empathize with them?” Oni asked. “Through your teaching, through your approaches, through observing people and the way they express their culture.”

This patient, observational approach can improve teaching styles, he said: “Some people, for instance, are very much oriented to writing and reading. Some people just listen. Their orientation is to the oral tradition. When you have students who prefer to listen, because that is their cultural orientation, you need to be able to present some lessons to them orally.”

This approach requires an understanding that the accepted ways of looking at the world aren’t necessarily the best way. “My presentation topic will be more on the area of how do you see yourself in other people’s shoes,” Oni said. “As helpers, as doctors, as social workers, as janitors in schools, how do you contribute, how do you become humble?”

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Humility can be difficult to cultivate for some people, he added, but being humble can benefit everyone’s emotional well-being.

“When it comes to mental health, we are saying, ‘How do you connect with someone who is suffering from mental illness?’ ‘How do you do you build connections?’ Putting yourself in their shoes helps build understanding — and community.”

Jane Reilly

Jane Reilly

Jane Reilly, executive director and co-founder of Stillpoint Engage, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works to develop resiliency among first responders, is another conference presenter.

“I’m going to be talking about resilience and how during this time of COVID, when we are overwhelming communities, our health care, individuals, our teachers, our education systems, how we can dip into that internal strength and how we can do that collectively,” she said.

Reilly explained that emphasizing the importance of building connections and “collective learning” is a way to help people facing severe challenges build resilience.

“People right now are finding themselves isolated from one another,” she said. “Often the feeling of distance that mandated isolation creates it is not necessary. I will talk about reaching in to not only find individual strength but also community strength and helping to support each other.”

Resilience, Reilly added, “is a state of mind and a state of heart. We say ‘social distancing,’ but it’s not distant. Yes, we need to physically distance, but we don’t need to be emotionally distant from each other.”

Though this physical distance is mandated for the time being, she said, “Our hearts don’t need to be distanced. It is about staying emotionally connected and looking at the individual as part of a whole community. It is also about individual resilience and strength. We’re not separate. We’re all connected.”

Culture matters

The connections between cultural understanding and mental health are clear, Oni said. When a person is confident in their own culture, they innately understand the best way to approach and treat mental illness. This cultural understanding should be acknowledged by mental health workers and other people in caring professions.

In a culturally aware approach, he said, professionals will “encourage people to apply what best works for them when they are working on their own mental health.”

In his professional life, Oni said he’s learned that not all cultures see mental illness the same way: “A lot of the time I see people experience and express mental health differently.” Some people may prefer to see a shaman for mental health issues, rather than a therapist working in a Western-based tradition: “A shaman may approach treatment differently from a doctor who would push medication.”

In her talk, Ola said that she will emphasize the concept that deep cultural understanding — of your own culture and that of others — should inform a professional’s approach to care. She believes that building strong self-understanding is key not only in trying times — but also in normal ones.

“I will be talking about culturally oriented mindful self-care,” she said. “If I have a self-knowledge of myself I will know when to understand when I am tired and when I need to take time for myself.” She wants to pass that self-knowledge on to summit participants. “As Africans, sometimes we don’t know when to stop. We are always out there. As immigrants, too, we don’t always know when to stop and take care of ourselves.”

Ola said she plans to emphasize the importance of prioritizing responsibilities in supporting mental health: “You have the ability to say no to what you don’t have time to take on. When you take on too much you cannot perform in all the areas of your life. It is part of having that cultural competence and mindful self-care.”

Continuing education credits are available to African Mental Health summit attendees. The event is free, and registration is available online.

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