MoMentum: mental illness in the black community


Erron Thomas, Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, mental illness was rarely discussed amongst older and younger individuals. This topic is still especially rarely discussed throughout the African American community.


Several black university faculty members filled panelist seats for MoMENtum in order to meet the young group of African Americans’ desire for more information on mental illness in their community. 


MoMENtum is a group of young African American men led by a few dedicated faculty members attempting connect with young African Americans in mentorships. Part of this mentorship involves weekly pizza discussions and various events. 


One event that the group hopes to hold annually is a panel discussion addressing a topic students involved in the group are interested in. This year, the topic was mental illness in the black community—certainly not the primary topic one would expect a group of young African Americans to talk about. 


Nevertheless, on Nov. 20 at 4:00 p.m., the presidential Innsbruck suite was filled with MoMENtum students as well as intrigued students, faculty and parents.


All ears in attendance were patiently anticipating insightful information from University of New Orleans associate professor of counseling Zarus Watson, a doctoral student in UNO’s counselor education and supervision program; Danielle Burton, owner and director at Self-Enhancement Center, Inc.; and Dr. Al White, and assistant director and coordinator of clinical training of UNO’s Counseling Services,  Ryan O’Pry.


This topic caught many by surprise. Dr. Watson responded, “It’s a product of the times, you know today more and more of our young folk are becoming more self-aware and care enough to do something.” While the topic was unexpected, it makes sense why it was chosen. Dr. Watson is brutally correct in saying that young people today care more and are more self-aware in what they’re doing. 


Students asked panelists what constitutes ‘s an ideal or healthy mental state, and what does that look like? 


“As a practitioner, I tell my clients all the time that there is no ideal state of mental functioning,” panelist Danielle Burton responded. Her comment suggests that a perfect or ideal mental state isn’t achievable, but that it’s something to be continually strived for. 


“What you can do is define for yourself who you are, what your values are, and what your baselines are in terms of what you’re able to accomplish … So, a mentally healthy person does recognize those limitations, and a mentally unhealthy person is usually just unaware.” 


Burton lets us know what that ideal mindset could potentially look like. She also expounded on this idea that part of being mentally healthy is merely being aware of your mental state.  


Being aware of your mental state is undoubtedly half the battle. “Knowing whether or not you should even be considering some form of assistance is a great first personal step,” says O’Pry. 


The constant theme of the panel was not to be afraid to ask for help – to be conscientious of not just oneself but one’s surroundings, atmosphere and how that impacts you and your mental well being.