On Friday, October 27 the future Universal Hip Hop Museum in association with the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens presented a mental health, wellness, and rehabilitation conference. The forum primarily focused on how mental illnesses are often condemned and refuted within the African-American community.
As an audience member and reporter, I was interested in both attending and writing an article on this event for two reasons: 1) Mental health efforts are usually a highly stigmatized topic within and for African-American society; 2) All of the featured panel members were influential members of the African-American community dispelling the misconception that having a mental illness is a sign of weakness.
How exactly does a panel discussion aimed towards advancing mental health efforts relate to hip-hop? Rocky Bucano, the president and executive director of the Universal Hip Hop Museum whose philanthropic efforts are well-recognized within both New York City and the entertainment industry, claimed that part of the prospective project’s mission will be to help and strengthen the communities that both inspire and are inspired by hip-hop.
“A passion of mine is to use hip-hop to engage with and enlighten communities,” said Bucano. “Because with hip-hop being the most powerful art form on the planet, we want to use our influence and our power to enlighten people. Especially on how things like mental illness have had an impact on our communities…. There are so many Hip Hop artists that live with depression. From Kendrick Lamar to Ghetto Boy, they all wrote about how their minds were playing tricks on them. But in day-to-day life, we don’t like to speak about this topic. So, many of our people live with depression, anxiety, and other types of illnesses, but they hold them in silence.”
Rocky Bucano, President and Executive Director of Universal Hip Hop Museum. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
“The silence” many in the Black community undergo while dealing with their own mental handicaps or struggles is usually a result of being afraid to show vulnerability. As Bucano and others on the panel describe it, the blatant ignorance of the repercussions of ignoring mental health treatment and acknowledgment only fuels the cycle of neglect for self-care and support. This cycle only becomes worse because there is a lack of conversation that acknowledges mental illness as a real health sickness.
Following Bucano’s introduction, the night moved onto a preview of the film Boxed In, a short-film written and directed by actress Tasha Smith, in which a young man struggles with bipolar disorder while his mother and girlfriend learn how to mentally and emotionally deal with the pain of his manic episodes and struggle with mental survival; along with a special appearance made by the First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, and a panel discussion featuring health professionals and mental health advocates Dr. LaJoyce Brookshire, Shanti Das, Dr. Michele C. Reid, and Dr. Cynthia Grace, and moderator Thembisa Mshaka.
Left to right: Dr. LaJoyce Brookshire, Shanti Das, Dr. Michele C. Reed, Dr. Cynthia Grace. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
“Here in New York City one in five people suffer from some kind of mental illness at any given year,” commented McCray after Thembisa recited her introduction, “That means the other four in five are family members or friends or neighbors, and we’re all affected when someone we care or love is suffering.”
McCray, the creator of Thrive NYC, is a long time political supporter for the progression of mental health reform. “People still think of diseases like depression or anxiety as something to be ashamed of. They think asking for help is a sign of weakness. Mental illness and addiction are chronic diseases just like asthma or diabetes, and getting sick is a part of the human condition.” Her endeavors are dedicated to ending the stigma and creating more comprehensive mental health plans.
NYC First lady Chirlane McCray speaking on the importance of mental health efforts and treatment. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
Statistics show that the development of mental health illnesses is only becoming more common, but treatment is not. As the situation appears to become gradually worse, it seems that these numbers are not even beginning to correlate, especially in youth and young adults. “The prevalence of teens who reported a major depression event (MDE) in the previous 12 months jumped from 8.7% in 2005 to 11.5% in 2014. That’s a 37% increase,” added in moderator Thembisa Mshaka while going through a list of statistics, “Despite the rise in teen depression the study, which analyzed the data from the national surveys on Drug Use and Health, reported that there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in mental health treatment for adolescents and young adults.”
Moderator Thembisa Mshaka with NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
Moderator Thembisa Mshaka introducing the UHHM Cares: Mental Health panel. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
Moving onto the panel discussion itself, moderator Thembisa began the conversation by asking what obstacles stand in place of progressing mental health relief. Questions that particularly stuck out to me were on the institutionalized and cultural issues of providing mental health care and how to receive the support needed to maintain one’s mental health.
“The major issue that we have is with the insurance companies and the access to care,” begins Dr. Michele C. Reed, directing the conversation toward the institutions of health initiatives. “Yes, we have a psychologist here, but a lot of psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers are no longer taking insurance. So when that’s the case, you’re cutting a whole lot of people out because not everybody has the funds to pay for the sessions to see someone for counseling.”
Dr. Michele C. Reed, award-winning Physician and Fitness Guru. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
From left to right: Dr. LaJoyce Brookshire, Shanti Das, Dr. Michele C. Reed, and Dr. Cynthia Grace, and NYC First Lady Chirlane McCray. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
“There’s also a huge, huge stigma and we have a lot of misconceptions,” adds psychologist Cynthia Grace. “People will say, ‘Well, I don’t need therapy,’ especially among people of color. One of the things that we need to do is really work hard to remove this stigma, and the first place to start this with is by using language that de-stigmatizes mental illness.”
“Many people will say give it to the Lord, and that the Lord will take care of it,” continues Dr. Cynthia. “But, in fact, there are people who feel like getting help from mental health professionals is an indication that you don’t trust God.” The phenomena that Dr. Grace sites is, at often times, most prevalent within the African-American and Latino cultures; and is one of the many reasons for a lack of acceptance of mental health issues in these ethnic communities.
Dr. Cynthia Grace, Harlem-based Psychotherapist, and Psychologist. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
“I look at mental health as a three-layer cake: you need to have the medication that you get prescribed by a psychiatrist, then go see a psychologist or licensed professional counselor, and then, of course, the self-care,” continues Shanti, the founder of the Silence the Shame Movement and Campaign. “[However] Every case is different. I’ve seen situations where one family member would not have been able to escape the state they were in without medication, and then there are people able to do so without.”
Shanti Das, former music industry executive, and founder of Silence the Shame. Photography by Cynthia Vasquez.
Aside from the obvious misinterpretations and lack of adequate health care aid, many also neglect the connection between how physicality will impact their state of mind and do not take the time to create a mental wellness plan they see themselves benefiting from.
“I wonder if you were paying attention to the beginning of the movie while the credits were still rolling. You see the camera panning all around his apartment, but did you see the vestiges of empty wrappers? Chinese food boxes? Red cups, alcohol bottles, and cans of beer?” says Dr. Brookshire in reference to the short Boxed In, whose practice consists of naturopathic and holistic approaches to benefit both the body and the mind. “This wasn’t food, this was junk. If you feed your body a steady diet of junk instead of a steady diet of good food, you may snap. Because what those junk foods are made of are chemical compounds, and when you start mixing them altogether these chemical compounds can cause a snap. I worked at one trauma center and anytime someone came in due to mental health issues they were currently on a ‘binge moment.’”
LaJoyce Brookshire, former entertainment publicist turned Naturopathic and Holistic doctor.
“Fitness and moving, and my mantra is ‘garbage in, garbage out,’” a mantra that Dr. Michele aka the “Fit Doc” created for her patients. “So if you don’t eat healthily there’s no way in the world that you’re going to be mentally fit or physically strong enough to academically or athletically achieve anything.”
Through a brief audience-and-panel Q&A, I as an audience member realized each panelist eventually reiterated the same belief: self-care is the most important aspect of maintaining and improving mental health. Each panelist stressed the idea that attending to one’s current mental state on a daily basis is the only way to prevent certain “snaps” or attacks from happening.
If the situation had already gotten out of hand, the individual should reach out to either someone they trust, a trauma center, and/or a psychiatric/psychological practice for help. For those who may not be able to get the help they need on their own, they encouraged that those aware of another’s weak mental state also has an equal importance placed upon themselves to help the other individual(s) receive the aid they need.
As the two-hour discussion finally came to a close, each panelist provided their contact information in case anyone in the audience was in need of help. This information is provided below, along with each panelist’s biography.
Dr. LaJoyce Brookshire
Dr. LaJoyce Brookshire is an ordained-licensed pastor and New York Times best-selling author, master herbalist, hospice chaplain, and a certified fitness instructor. She is the NYT best-selling author of the novel Soul Food, based on the smash-hit movie, the suspense-drama Web of Deception, and the memoir Faith Under Fire: Betrayed by a Thing Called Love. LaJoyce has a star-studded connection to hip-hop thanks to her former career as Director of Publicity at Arista Records, representing multi-platinum and diamond certified artists Sean “Puffy” Combs, OutKast, Craig Mac, TLC, and Biggie Smalls. She is the host of Ask the Good Doctor, which comes on Sunday mornings on SiriusXM Urban V channel. To contact her send her an email at email@example.com. Feel free to also go to her website http://askthegooddoctor.org/.
Dr. Michele C. Reid
Dr. Michelle C. Reed, aka “The Fit Doc,” is a board-certified family medicine physician and a managing partner of MS Family Medicine Healthcare PC with medical offices in Queens and Long Island. Dr. Reed serves as a medical director for the Congregational Church of South Hempstead, and as the appointed physician for the Hempstead, Malverne, and Roosevelt school districts. Dr. Reed and her work have been featured on the Rachael Ray Show, The New York Daily News, and Ebony magazine. A member of Alpha Kappa Alpha and recipient of numerous community and leadership awards, Dr. Reed received her undergraduate degree from the State University of New York – Stony Brook and her medical degree from the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine. She is also the author of the Amazon-bestselling book “Mentally Fit, Physically Strong: The Fit Doc’s Guide to Real Life, Real Fitness, and Real Health.” Feel free to send her a message through her social media platforms, she is on Instagram as @askdrmichele and on Facebook as Doctor Michele C. Reid. If you would like to contact her directly or set up an appointment her website is askdrmichele.com.
Dr. Cynthia Grace
Dr. Cynthia Grace is a psychologist, consultant, and author. After directing the counseling center of the CUNY Graduate Center she accepted a faculty appointment in the department of psychology at City College to teach and mentor both undergraduate and graduate students. With a career spanning three decades, she is the first woman and the first person of color to finish a term as chair in the department’s history. She holds two doctoral degrees, one in counseling and organizational psychology from Columbia University and the other in clinical psychology from the graduate center of CUNY. Dr. Grace also attended La Sorbonne Université of Paris. You can check out her practice at cynthiagracephd.com, and contact her office at 212.787.9440.
Shanti Das is an accomplished music industry executive, marketing executive, consultant, mentor, entrepreneur, philanthropist, and author. She is considered a literal hip-hop professional, as she sustained the careers of a long list of multi-platinum recording stars from TLC, OutKast, Goodie Mob, and Run DMC as the senior marketing executive at Arista, Columbia, and Universal Motown. She is also the founder of Press-Reset Entertainment, an Atlanta-based firm, providing independent marketing tactics and strategies. She mentors college students through her Hip Hop Professional Tour and is the author of Entertainment and Business Guise: The Hip Hop Professional, and the Hip Hop Professional 2.0. She is among Crain’s Business 40 Under 40 and Essence’s Outstanding Women in Music. Serving her community in tangible and lasting ways is paramount to Shanti. She started the Silence the Shame Movement to encourage conversation about managing mental health, quoting that it is her “assignment from God” and as she claims “my life’s work.” She enlists her deep contact base of public figures to feed the less fortunate, pamper women in transition, and give free backpacks to students. Shanti and the eight other founders of this campaign host a podcast on iTunes called Silence the Shame, which interviews different healthcare professionals, young adults, and artists that provide information on finding different counseling and therapeutic resources for their listeners. The Silence the Shame Movement also has its own Crisis Text Line; text SILENCE to 741-741 if you’re ever in need of rapid help.
Thembisa Mshaka – Moderator
Thembisa S. Mshaka is a 5-time Telly Award winner and Promax/BDA Gold Award-winning writer who has served in the entertainment industry for over 18 years, spanning the areas of touring, management, magazine publishing, recorded music and technology, advertising, music supervision for film, voiceover, and television. As Senior Copywriter at Sony Music, and 2-time NARM Award winner, her campaigns contributed to the sale of more than 150 million albums for artists such as Lauryn Hill, Will Smith, Beyonce, Wyclef Jean, NaS, Maxwell, George Michael, Wu-Tang Clan, Bow Wow, Jill Scott, and Babyface. Thembisa is extremely passionate about community outreach, and the topic of mental health is one that she believes is in need of reform and more conversation.
Chirlane McCray – First Lady of New York City
Chirlane McCray is the creator of Thrive NYC, a mental health plan that is considered the most comprehensive mental health initiative of any city or state in the nation. She is recognized nationally as a powerful champion for mental health reform. Additionally, Ms. McCray spearheads the city’s Thrive coalition of mayors, with representation from more than 150 cities from all 50 states; advocating for more integrated and better-funded behavioral health systems. As chair of the mayor’s fund to advance New York City, she brings together government, philanthropy, and the private sector to work on some of the most pressing issues of our time. Including mental health, youth, employment, and immigration. In partnership with NYC’s police chief, she leads the domestic violence task force. Ms. McCray is a graduate of Wellesley College, and recently received an honorary doctor of science degree from the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. If you are ever in need of automatic or on-the-spot mental health consoling, the mental health hotline 1-888-NYC-WELL is open to anyone in all 50 states.
Rocky Bucano – Executive Director of Universal Hip Hop Museum
Rocky Bucano is recognized as an interactive technologist, serial entrepreneur, artist manager, and marketing/branding executive. He has a longstanding career in the music industry and began his long-term affiliation with both hip-hop culture and the industry as a teenager DJing in Bronx nightclubs during the 1970s. He is the former Executive Vice President and General Manager of the hip-hop oriented Rowdy Records, the joint venture project of LaFace and Arista Records. He is also the creator of the Total Music Network, a program made for the Optimum Cable Company and the re-branding of MuchMusic USA, now known as the Fuse Network. This is only a small list of his many endeavors and projects, but he is also widely recognized for his philanthropy, charitable outreach programs, and dedication to fostering urban city communities.