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Black Mental Health: an Exclusive Interview with Yolo Akili Robinson, Executive Director of BEAM, #GDBHT2021 Nonprofit Partner

Published on:
September 30, 2021

As many of you know, Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM) is our 2021 Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech nonprofit partner. I was so excited to sit down with their Executive Director, Yolo Akili Robinson, to learn more about their incredible work and how they are supporting Black people with their emotional health nationwide.

AND, we were so blown away by all of their incredible initiatives, we are proud to make an additional donation to their new Southern Health Support Fund, matching up to $10,000 of donations at this link here. Join us and double your donation today!


We’re pleased to support BEAM’s latest fund, the Southern Healing Support Fund is a community driven fund that provides awards to Black mental health and healing practitioners including clinicians, yoga practitioners, community workers, and group facilitators to implement innovative healing and support strategies in the Southern United States. 

Why this fund, why now? 

According to the office of minority health, African Americans are 10% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than Non-hispanic whites. Medicaid plays an incredibly important role in mental health access. The federal program is the largest provider of behavioral health  (mental health and substance use treatment) coverage in the United States. In 2015, Medicaid covered 21% of all people with mental health needs, 26% of adults with serious mental illness, and 17% of adults who received substance use treatment. The Affordable Care Act helped make behavioral health services as widely covered by insurance as all other health services.  However, only four Southern states have expanded Medicaid, keeping the affordability of mental health programs out of reach. Nearly 90 percent of all people left without health coverage are in the Southern states, due to the lack of Medicaid Expansion. African-Americans are 13% of the total population but represent 24% of those left without health coverage without Medicaid Expansion. 

Mental and emotional health is critical to the lives of Black folks’ well-being. And yet, it is often overlooked. We are more likely to be uninsured and can’t often afford the services or activities that support our healing, or they’re not accessible because they’re not located in our neighborhoods. If you’re in the South, where most states didn’t expand Medicaid, access to all kinds of health care, including mental health services, are further out of reach.

History of the Fund: BEAM and the National Queer and Trans Therapist of Color Network (NQTTCN)  came together to establish a fund aimed at supporting the mental health and wellness of Black communities in states where Medicaid has not been expanded under the Affordable Care Act. This project builds on the pioneering work of NQTTCN in establishing a mental health fund for queer and trans people of color.

More information can be found on our website at https://www.beam.community/southernhealing

Below, you can read our transcribed conversation, or you can watch the interview here:

​​Solome Tibebu  0:01  

Hello everyone! My name is Solome Tibebu, the Founder of the Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech Summit. And I am so pleased to have the Founder and Executive Director of BEAM (Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective), Yolo Akili here today with us. Yolo, welcome! Thanks so much for being here. Please introduce yourself and let us know what is BEAM.

Yolo Akili Robinson 0:25  

Hi, everyone. First of all, thank you so much for inviting me to this conversation, for your support of BEAM and our work, it really means a lot. I'm so excited about continued opportunities to collaborate and grow and cultivate healing for our community. So let me just say thank you to you, first. Everyone, my name is Yolo Akili. I am the Executive Director and Founder of BEAM which is the Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective. We are a national training, movement building, and grant making institution dedicated to the healing, wellness, and liberation of Black and marginalized folks. How we came to be... So, the last 15 years of my life I worked in public health in a variety of different sectors, from mental health, to HIV, intimate partner violence, substance use, and really at the intersections of all those particular sectors. Because, of course, none of them are in silos. Honestly, I always had this desire to cultivate something that could speak to the gaps of what I was seeing in the work. Whether it was the gaps of being able to address mental health in a way that was communicating to our communities, in a way that was discernible and not so academic. Whether it was a way in which I was hoping to transfer and support more skills being refined for all members of our communities. That really led me to start talking to other folks in the community, other colleagues and ask, "What would that look like, if we made something like this?" And that's where we came from, how it came to be. The biggest part of BEAM's work that is really important to me is that, our premise is that in order for our communities to heal, we just can't rely on social workers and therapists and psychiatrists. They are wonderful, but we need to also have everybody in the community, from the teacher, to the parents, to the activists, to the barbers, the stylist, to have their skills uplifted to respond to mental health distress, as well as more skills to unlearn and reframe our conversations around healing and mental health that we have every day. Because often those folks aren't the first responders, teachers are often first responders to distress. We know that many parents are. Many stylists and barbers hold a lot of conversations where the stigma gets enforced or gets unlearned. So our work is really focused on that village care model that says we can all do different things with different capacity and different skills, because we all clearly have different boundaries.

Solome Tibebu  3:02  

That is just so amazing. I'd love to learn more about some of your major initiatives right now.

Yolo Akili Robinson 3:10  

We have three different buckets of our work, the training, the grant making, and our community organizing. Right now with our training, we have our Black Mental Health and Healing Justice Peer Support Certificate. And that used to be a two-day in person training. We miss being in person with our folks. We used to have all kinds of fun. But now we do it virtually over the course of a month as an immersion online. It's five, two-hour sessions. Generally, we try to keep the cohort down to 50 to 60 people. Sometimes we get a lot of demand, but we try to keep it smaller so that we can go deeper. So that's the one of our initiatives. 

We also have our Black Masculinity Reimagined Program, a program that I'm really proud of. It's led by Leroy Mitchell and Cydney Brown and our team. That program looks at the intersection of masculinity of Black masculinity and mental health, and how those two impact the wellness of Black men and masculine adults, but also how it can impact community violence, violence towards women, towards Black women towards Black, Trans and Queer folks. So it really focuses on unlearning skills, tools, community building, so that Black men and masculine folks can have more people around them to help them reinforce new ways of being in the world that don't center misogyny, or transphobia, or homophobia. I'm really proud of that program. They just recently were awarded the LA 84 Foundation Champions Award for their work in the community, which I'm really proud of them. They're amazing. So those are two programs I'm really proud of. 

Other initiatives we have, our grant making initiatives. We believe that in order to cultivate wellness in our world, it has to go beyond BEAM. We have a really powerful, mighty team and network across the country, but it's going to take more than just us. We need to be in collaboration and deep collaboration. We have our Southern Healing Support Fund, which last year we partnered with Lipton. What we do with Southern Healing Support Fund is we give out funds to wellness leaders, people who are doing innovative projects in the rural South around healing and wellness. We see wellness really broadly. We don't see it just as talk therapy. Talk therapy is one amazing strategy, but we also have other strategies for wellness. So we've funded doulas. We funded a doula retreat, which is for prenatal folks, for people who are pregnant. They had like 60 people in church in Memphis, which was amazing. We also funded barbershop education, going into barber shops and training and teaching them different things, free our accessible therapy. That is a big part of our grant making initiative is really saying, if we get resources to BEAM, how do we also channel these resources into other parts of the community that may not necessarily get access to them across the country. And the South is of home to some of the biggest disparities in our country, just hands down. Then we have our Black Parent Support Fund, which gives economic resources specifically to Black parents who are living with mental conditions or supporting children living with a mental condition. That was really inspired by Kelli Lewis, who many people may know on she did an amazing Washington Post article, where she talked about her experience with her children, her son Ahav and Analiel. They both were living with mental conditions and talking about what she's learned navigating the system and the support that she needs. That was really inspired by talking to Kelli about what we need to do to support more parents. And then last but not least, we have our Black Wellness Innovation Fund, which we just kicked off with Healthline Media. That is to fund innovative projects around mental health and wellness across the country. We're focusing on Black trans women on Black gay men living with HIV, Black expectant folks (people who are expecting children) to make sure to have doula and birth support. And we're also focusing on trying to incentivize more Black therapists to do more group sessions, because we recognize that we're not going to one-on-one our way out of this crisis. And while one-on-one care is important, we need to also incentivize that, when you create a community of folks who can kind of support each other in that model, you can do a lot more impact. We're trying to incentivize a lot therapists who are like, "I don't know about group therapy." Let us give you some tools and strategies around what it means to have four people and building that because not all therapists receive those kind of facilitation group skills. So we're trying to figure out how to do that. So that is some of the things we have going on right. So it is a lot.

Solome Tibebu  7:33  

I don't think that's enough! Amazing, truly unbelievable. And for those that aren't familiar, I would love for you to explain why it's so important to take that community-based approach. It's obviously very powerful, but if you could shed a little light on that.

Yolo Akili Robinson 7:53  

I'm a big believer of "it takes a community to heal a community". The community-based approach is important in our communities, to me for a couple of reasons. One, I think it's so important to name that Black people in this country, up until relatively recently, and maybe people will say not even now, have never gone to therapy in large numbers. It's never been broadly accessible for us. We've had other strategies that we've navigated. Some of them were wonderful, and some of them need to be refined, and some of them may be not as useful. We've had other strategies for healing and wellness. Understanding that also the disparities and the inaccessibility of therapy as a strategy for many Black folks in the country who are at higher rates of not having health insurance. Income inequality. So if this is the reality of this particular approach, how do we do a multi-fold approach? How do we try to make this more accessible? But how do we also build up skills for everybody to know about what healing and mental health is, about how to respond to mental health crises? So the entire community is now built up and has a different skill set. We talked to many communities across the country, many folks don't have a therapist or psychiatrist in their community, but they may have a trusted what we call big momma's or a community activist or someone that people rely on and trust. How do we say, you're the person we're going to work with and support you in refining some of the skills because we have a lot of skills already, that's really important. But we'll refine the skills and also getting you connected to other resources. Because that's gonna be more sustainable. More community, more community support, and more people who have access is going to be more sustainable than just us trying to get more therapists. Because the reality is while we need to do that, we know that SAMHSA has issued several reports about 2025 being short 30,000 therapists that we need. There's no quick solution to that. It's gonna take time. So what other practitioners? Whether they're pastors, how do we get pastors trained to understand mental health more? And know their boundaries, but also have more language and discourse to listen and affirm and validate and support folks. How do we do that? And that's what I think of being a community is important because accessibility, income, and also we are collectivist communities. And I believe that's a big part of who we are.

Solome Tibebu  10:20  

This is, as I said over and over, truly incredible work. I'm so proud that we've had the opportunity to partner with BEAM through Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech. And last question, how can our audience support your work?

Yolo Akili Robinson 10:37  

I tell people all the time that the way to support BEAM's work is to do your work. That's a big part of it. If you go to our website, you'll see many opportunities to engage even as a Black person. But also, as allies. I tell people all the time, while we do have specific things like our peer support spaces, which are only for Black folks. In our educational and training spaces, our allies are welcome. Even though we're very clear, it's very Black-centered. So you come into a space on a centered Black experience, but we have really amazing allies who come to learn and listen, and they're always welcome. So come to our trainings. Get involved in that way. You also can find  toolkits on our page, for everything from journal affirmation prompts, to tools about how to support someone with distress for various different diagnoses. Share those tools to your community. Have conversations with folks around those particular pieces. We have articles and books that you can link to. Educate yourself and your community, and really build up their capacity and your capacity. You also can do traditional routes, you can also donate. We'll always welcome any support. And of course, your support and the support of Going Digital: Behavioral Health Tech to really make that possible because it does take money to do the work. Definitely spreading the word, having conversation, engaging our tools, coming to our trainings and learning and sharing that with folks -- that's how we really transform the landscape of mental health and wellness in this country.

Solome Tibebu  11:57  

Excellent. Yolo, how could I thank you for your time and all of the incredible work that you're doing in so many communities. Thank you so much for being with us.

Yolo Akili Robinson 12:07  

Thank you so much for having me. And thank you the same to you because you were doing the same. So I appreciate you. I'm excited to learn more from you and the community. Thank you!

Learn more about BEAM here and make a contribution of any amount to the Southern Healing fund here.


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