A local organization dedicated to creating space for conversations about mental health in communities of color is hosting a panel discussion on Saturday focused on advocacy and mental health.
The event, which will be streamed on Facebook, is part of a weekly series of panels from DeeDee’s Cry titled “Black Mental Health Matters,” held in conjunction with July being recognized as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) Mental Health Month.
“DeeDee’s Cry believes that when we share our stories, we chip away at the stigma that surrounds mental health in communities of color,” founder and executive director Toy Burton told Boston.com. “I know for me, when I share my story, I help myself in getting it out there, for releasing it, and it also helps other people hearing it, because they know that they’re not alone.”
Other panel discussions in the series have focused on activism and mental health and media and mental health.
Burton founded DeeDee’s Cry in 2017 in memory of her sister, Denita Shayne Morris, who died in 1986 at the age of 23 by suicide. The Roxbury resident said she felt spurred to action after a friend, who was dealing with the loss of a loved one to suicide, asked her for her advice on how she got through her sister’s passing.
Burton recalled that when she went online to search for resources she could pass on to her friend, the feeling she got from sites for support services was stark.
“Just being on the website, I felt like it wasn’t meant for me,” she said. “Like I wasn’t welcome, and it made me angry. So I was like, ‘I’m going to start my own organization, and it’s going to be for people of color.’ Because the events on these pages, to me, they weren’t accessible. How is someone from Roxbury or Dorchester going to go all the way out to Waltham or Newton — the places where they were having their events. So I was like, ‘I’m going to make sure these resources are accessible to these communities.’”
Before the coronavirus pandemic, DeeDee’s Cry held in-person events throughout the year focused on its mission of lifting the stigma associated with mental health within communities of color by making resources and education available on mental wellbeing, centered on family and the community.
Early this year, before the virus outbreak began, DeeDee’s Cry planned to hold a series “Mental Health While Black.” They were able to hold the first event in person in February, but the second part was held virtually in May as Massachusetts remained shut down due to COVID-19.
Heading into June, Burton said she planned to do a panel focused on men’s mental health, related to Father’s Day and the month being designated as men’s health month. She invited individuals who work with young men in the community to serve as panelists and called the event “Men Have Feelings Too.”
The discussion was already in the works when George Floyd was killed, she said.
“Then it went to that area,” Burton said of the panel discussion. “How do you feel about that and the perception that society has with Black men, like they don’t have feelings and they’re scary and this and that. I really wanted to break that myth and show people that men have feelings, too.”
Brandy Brooks, who serves as director of operations at DeeDee’s Cry and has served as a moderator for many of the panels, said the hope is that the conversations elevate education, people seeking help, and the need for more funding at the local, state, and national level to support more services and resources.
“In order to decrease the stigma, in order to make sure that there are more supports, there are more services, there are more access channels, people first have to acknowledge that the issue exists and it is real and it is problematic within communities of color,” she told Boston.com. “So these conversations bring that to the surface. You hear stories from Black men, you hear stories from activists, [on Saturday we heard] from journalists and media representation about, yes, this is an issue.”
And while every talk is centered around mental health and mental wellness, it isn’t limited to just that subject, she stressed.
“It’s also a conversation about physical health, it’s also a conversation about financial health while Black, and it’s also a conversation about spiritual health while Black,” Brooks said. “And now, given the circumstances, today and yesterday and the days before and maybe even the days going forward, it’s also a conversation about historical and structural discrimination, racism, oppression, white privilege — it’s all of those things wrapped up into the conversation. So while we focus on mental health, all of these other issues are still present. And they impact our mental health and our mental wellbeing and our mental wellness.”
Here’s the first installment of DeeDee’s Cry’s month-long series Black Mental Health Matters, Activism and Mental Health.
It’s a lot to unpack, Brooks said, which is why Burton was so intentional about creating specific topics for each panel during the series “Black Mental Health Matters.”
The confluence of ongoing police discrimination and violence, surging support and attention on the Black Lives Matter movement, and the disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on communities of color all mean conversations about mental health in the Black community are important right now, Brooks said.
But they’re also important “tomorrow and next week and next month and next year,” she emphasized.
“These issues have been present — not the pandemic — but these issues have been present,” she said. “So one thing we have to do and always remind ourselves of is that while now, it’s definitely being focused on nationally and locally, it’s something we still need to focus on tomorrow, when the news changes to something else.”
Burton said the name for the series of discussions in July — “Black Mental Health Matters” — underscores the challenges the Black community faces due to racism and systemic inequities on top of those everyone experiences related to mental health.
“Even though we all go through mental health, it’s part of our being — Black mental health just needs a little more focus from everyone,” she said.
DeeDee’s Cry Presents Media and Mental Health DeeDee’s Cry Brandy Brooks Keri D. Singleton #BlackMentalHealthMatters #MediaEdition
Posted by James W. Hills on Saturday, July 18, 2020
The two women agreed that even though hosting the events in person had a palpable impact that could be experienced in the room, the virtual events are being well received and making their own impact. People are engaging in the comments during the event, and still more people, who might have missed the live discussion, are coming across the videos after the fact and engaging with them.
The conversations are difficult, but important, Brooks said. And they all end in emphasizing the importance of self-care, which is more important than ever, she said.
“Because in the end, it will take care of the community,” Brooks said.
Both Burton and Brooks agreed the biggest challenge in addressing the stigma around mental health in communities of color is that there is still a need for more support and services and increased funding.
DeeDee’s Cry is turning three in September, and the organization is working on launching a website. Burton said she recently received support from Eastern Bank and the Boston Foundation, but funding remains the greatest hurdle.
It’s frustrating to receive denials in response to her grant applications, she said, given the need for support and resources.
“We’re doing this work because we want to do this work,” she said. “But it would be nice if people saw the importance and that it needs to be funded, too.”
The Roxbury resident credited her daughter, Taniah Sheffield, as her essential support in founding both DeeDee’s Cry and the Roxbury Unity Parade in 2017.
“I wouldn’t have made it this far with DeeDee’s Cry or the Roxbury Unity Parade without her help and belief in her mother,” Burton said.
She said four years ago she never imagined that she would be in the position she is now, advocating for mental health awareness.
“But I do find joy in helping others, and I found joy in sharing my story,” Burton said. “Because like I said — I cannot stress this enough — the more we share our stories, it just breaks down walls because people know that they’re not alone.”
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.