May 2021 Alumni Spotlight
In this special Mental Health Awareness Month spotlight, we speak to to alumna, self-described Social Impact Professional, and Senior Program Coordinator at the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health, Kenya Kirkman.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. How do you recognize that both personally and professionally?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which is very important to me because mental health impacts all of us. Professionally, I have worked over the years with various non-profits and city agencies to address and support New Yorkers facing mental health challenges. I was a care manager for several years, helping children and adults living with mental health disorders. I feel that the startling statistics are embedded in my head: more than 1 in 5 New Yorkers has symptoms of a mental health disorder, and 1 in 10 adults and children experience mental health challenges serious enough that it affects how they function in school, work, and with their family.
I am a strong advocate for addressing mental health challenges among youth and families, mainly because, unfortunately, suicide continues to be the second leading cause of death for young people ages 15-24 and the third leading cause for youth aged 10-14. Our young people are feeling unsupported, unheard, and anxious more than ever. For many, their mental health outcomes are tied to the experiences in their social environment, such as the availability of adequate housing, household food, and neighborhood conflict. Despite attempts to raise awareness to promote and address mental health, mental health challenges continue to rise. Over the years, I have witnessed the barriers to effective care, from stigma and discrimination to people not acknowledging signs to insurance limits. It can be a lot to digest, unpack and even share that things are not alright. More so now because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Before I continue any further, I would like to encourage everyone to continue to seek support if needed during these uncertain times- to continue to check in on loved ones and check in with yourself to make sure you are mentally well. As a mental health advocate, I know the importance of being a resource for others, but it is always essential to make sure that I am a resource to myself. I acknowledge that it can be a challenge navigating one’s mental health but having candid conversations, seeking healthy support, writing, and being kind to myself always makes a difference.
Tell us about your role at the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health and your joint initiative with UNICEF. How did this come together, and what’s your mission?
Yes, I am the Senior Program Coordinator at the Arthur Ashe Institute for Urban Health. I was brought onto the Community Engagement and Research team to spearhead the institutes’ joint initiative with UNICEF. The Institute is launching a mental health and psychosocial support program (MHPSS) that aims to acknowledge the lived experiences of Brooklyn families, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are developing a training curriculum specific to Brooklyn that will provide the necessary data, resources, and education material to help community members engage with and support the mental health and wellbeing of children, youth, and young adults in Brooklyn.
The work has been intense but necessary and aligned. Since working on this project, I have been a strong advocate for if we are going to make a training curriculum about supporting children and young adults, let’s actually talk to children and young adults. Often, curriculums, training, and resolutions are constructed without going directly to the target audience. It has been a pivotal part of the process and exciting, engaging young people from the ages of 12-24. Unfortunately, we learned that adjusting to remote learning has been hard for them. Many shared high levels of isolation, loneliness, and lack of motivation. Some shared how community-based organization has supported them over the last year and their appreciation for the support. Then there were moments when middle schoolers shared their lived experience with being clinically diagnosed with depression or how they supported friends who were suicidal. We, unfortunately, spoke with other youth who shared the effects of a close friend and suicide. We have heard parents share their own depression and feeling of uncertainty. We listened to some parents share they started therapy with the convenience of telehealth. All in all, it has been exciting, engaging youth and families and really speaking with them on a community level. Often there are safe spaces where people can be heard or have the opportunity to share authentically.
We are deploying our community education workshops this month (as in May) and plan to host a few interventions with youth (art therapy workshop, additional listening sessions, etc.).
Do you believe traditional mental health systems fail to address the Black experience in America? How can they better serve Black and other communities of color?
Absolutely! When I think of “traditional” mental health systems, lack of access and support comes to mind. We all witnessed how the lack of access and support played out during the pandemic. Mental health is often seen as an individual issue when in reality, it’s the long-term effects of lack of access and support. For some who have worked within the realm of mental health, you also know that it’s not a simple fix. You start to realize that it’s also the long-term effects of how several “systems” operate and oppress black and brown communities. If we look at police-involved shootings to treat pregnant black mothers to children not having access continue to endure while pregnant within the health care system, these lived experiences impact communities of color and their mental health and wellness. From health care to education and even the criminal justice system, these systems fail to seem to disregard the black experience. Also, I do not wish to discredit the hard-working mental health professionals/advocates who continue to do their best to address the lived experiences of the Black and brown community.
I think more than ever; we learned significantly that we have a long way to go with reforming these social systems. It’s not a simple fix at all, because again, stigma plays a huge role. Also, the need for more culturally component clinicians and support staff. There is also the need for more cross-collaboration and fewer silo operations. When I wrote my statement for the Marxe program, I wrote about bridging the gaps between the New York City Department of Homeless Services and the Department of Education, specifically for middle schoolers. I had a grand plan and everything, but I say that there is a need for more long-term collaboration. I know that they have established a more permanent partnership since then. I know there is an initiative to foster better collaboration between mental health professionals and the NYPD. Therefore, instead of the NYPD coming to deescalate mental health challenges in the community, trained mental health professionals will assist in the community.
There are so many ways that traditional “systems” can be improved to serve communities of color, especially when we are speaking on mental health. I am so fortunate for the continuous support from Marxe and how the graduate program has helped me tackle these issues professionally and personally.