On families, mental health, and racial inequality: A Q&A with therapist Otha Brown

In this special Q&A, Therapist Otha Brown of the Men’s Resource Center at The Fountain Hill Center explores discussing civil strife and racial inequality with our children, and the mental health impact of both COVID-19 and nationwide racial inequality on communities of color.

Rapid Growth: Who are your typical clients? Are you working with families with multiple children of varying ages?
 
Otha Brown: My clients are boys and men, ranging in ages from 14 to 60 and over, who experience mental health challenges. Some are men who experience normal struggles such as depression, anxiety, conduct disorder. Some need substance abuse prevention and treatment. Others are young men who need help getting started in life to deal with some personality issues, problems with relationships, and anger management.  
 
I am the lead therapist for a program for young men called Progressions: Young Men in Transition. This program is designed to provide support for young men struggling to find their path to a more satisfying life.  
 
RG: Do you frequently work with families of color and mixed race families?
 
OB: Yes. When I came to the Men’s Center, I felt that I could help to increase access to African American, Latino, and mix race families for men’s services and tackle issues like parenting, domestic violence, and educational problems these communities face.

There are not many male professionals providing mental health services in the schools. We continue to reach out and develop programs to help mentor young men and their families.
 
RG: Have you witnessed any social stigma around seeking mental health services, particularly in communities of color?
 
OB: There are a lot of myths and mistrust towards mental health services in all communities. The stigma is if you come in for mental health services, you are somehow weak, and you cannot handle your life.

Most communities, including communities of color, believe they should handle their own problems without outsiders. It is their first thought when there are problems and struggles in their lives. Mistrust prevents them from forming a relationship with someone who could help them. I have experience in helping people work through their mental health issues and begin to solve their problems. I know how mental health issues relate to school and relationship problems. I work with people to build trust so they get the help they need.
 
RG: How do you advise parents to discuss civil strife and racial inequality with their children?
 
OB: I generally advise parents to watch and listen to their children and deal with the issues their children present. This may be a time when parents can complement their child for having friends and help them to be a good friend to the people around them. We can teach children how to be friendly and to be kind. We also need to teach them how to express their feelings and how to treat people with whom we disagree. It's an ongoing lesson, and we teach by example. For older kids, I suggest talking with them about their attitudes towards other races.
 
While conversations about racism and risks of being a person of color in the community are difficult, it is important we have them with children. Adolescents, who travel in the community on foot, bike, public transportation, and eventually vehicles, need to be made aware of how they can be misunderstood and how to optimize their safety. It is a sad and regrettable lesson to teach, but necessary. 
 
RG: Is there a developmentally appropriate age to begin diving into issues of race and policing?
 
OB: We can talk to our children about police, firemen, postmen, doctors, etc., at any age. They will need policemen, firemen, and doctors and may aspire to become one. 
 
The conversation just evolves over time as children become adolescents and young adults. As I said earlier, men of color in particular need to know about the risks of police brutality and understand the proper safeguards to optimize their ability to safely traverse the community. I try to talk with them about working toward not inviting scrutiny, while knowing that they may get unfairly judged or questioned merely due to their race. And if and when this happens, we work to teach them to minimize escalation and develop the skills to effectively extricate themselves safely and effectively from unfair or protracted containment.
 
RG: How have you seen local events, like this weekend's peaceful protest and later destruction of property, affect the mental health of your clients?
 
OB: This weekend was bad because people are already separated and apart due to the coronavirus. We are not able to confer with our neighbors and come together. That increases fear, stress, and discomfort when we are not connected.
 
We are fighting two viruses that disconnect us — coronavirus and racism. To fight and keep ourselves safe from developing COVID-19 we needed to support each other to separate and be okay with solitude. We needed to treat each other as though we were carriers of the virus, wear masks, and social distance.

In fighting racism, we need to come together, peacefully, protest in large numbers, and gather in circles to listen and understand each other. But doing this type of gathering now puts us at risk of getting COVID-19. This is all too stressful for many clients and they just need a place to sort through these tensions and find hope in discovering a pathway through fighting both of these dangerous viruses in our society now.

RG: How are you helping your clients of color in the aftermath of racial strife that lands at their doorsteps?
 
OB: I am reaffirming who they are, how we belong to a community, and [that] we have a moral standard that has not changed. They can accomplish their goals if they work together. They can make sure their friends are okay. They can plan their response. They can write letters to their representatives. They can plan their gatherings. They can see if they can be a part of the solution.
 
In the end, we are all part of the human race and we have had many before us lay out a vision; a dream of us coming together as equals. This still has not been realized or manifested, but that does not mean we do not continue to work at it.  
 
Some clients are mad, some sad, and some afraid. We meet them where they are and help them work through their emotions safely and productively.

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About Otha Brown, LMSW, CAADC: 

Otha works with boys and men from a wide range of economic levels and lifestyles, and diverse cultural, ethnic, and racial groups. His goal is to give clients access to service that is respectful, clinically helpful towards recovery, and of assistance with discovering healthy relationships.

He meets with boys and men in various circumstances and degrees of discomfort, suffering, and disappointment. They consider themselves flawed, scared, weak, or disgraced. It is his goal to engage and help them discover a new perspective which includes health, recovery, growth, hope, trust, and stability. Within each session, a process emerges that changes the experience from crisis into growth and change.

Otha brings experience, training, and cultural competence to help men build healthier, sustainable relationships within their families and communities through the Men’s Resource Center at The Fountain Hill Center. His practice continues to be informed by a growing understanding of behavioral health care for young adults, adolescents, child psychiatry, and education. He is a clinician dedicated to helping families restore, create, and maintain healthy relationships.
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