4 Female Psychologists Create Mental Health Company for Black Community: 'Break Down Stigma'

"We have to do better. We have to find other ways to reach these young people," says Dr. Dana Cunningham, co-founder of Black Mental Wellness

Black Mental Wellness
Photo: Iris Mannings Photography

Meet Dr. Nicole Cammack, Dr. Danielle Busby, Dr. Dana Cunningham and Dr. Jessica Henry, a group of four psychologists setting out to make waves with their company Black Mental Wellness.

While each of the women brings unique experiences and expertise to the table, the team is united behind one mission: "We're really trying to break down that stigma about mental health services in the Black community," Cunningham, 44, tells PEOPLE.

Since Spring 2018, the organization has been providing culturally sensitive educational resources, programs and workshops, many of which are free of charge, according to their website. They also offer an ambassador program for students and working professionals in order to promote mentorship and establish partnerships across the country.

"If we look at the history of medical health care and Black people, it hasn't treated us well," Busby, 32, says, referencing a recent UCLA article on the legacy of mistrust in health care for the Black community.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Black adults in the U.S. are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, but only one in three Black adults who need mental health care receive it.

Additionally, Black adults are "less likely to receive guideline-consistent care, less frequently included in mental health research and more likely to use emergency rooms or primary care instead of mental health specialists," NAMI reported.

"It's hard for me to tell people to come [receive services] when I see it's not always safe, or we don't always have the resources for this particular group of people," Busby adds. "That's what made me so passionate about this. Having the resources available to make those things happen is really important."

Black Mental Wellness
From left: Dr. Dana Cunningham, Dr. Danielle Busby, Dr. Nicole Cammack, and Dr. Jessica Henry. Iris Mannings Photography

The idea for Black Mental Wellness initially came from Cammack, 39, while she was working with active duty service members on a military base in 2016.

"At the time, there was a lack of information that was accessible to the everyday person... and it was glaring, how many Black women were suffering in silence," explains Cammack, who is also the program director of a mental health clinic at a D.C.-based VA Medical Center.

"I wanted to create resources that spoke to what mental health means in the Black community," she says. "And help redefine the 'strong Black woman' being able to ask for help."

So Cammack took action and started her company solo, before rallying Busby, Cunningham and Henry — acquaintances she had met at various points in her life — to join the executive team.

Inspired by witnessing or experiencing the issue in the Black community firsthand, all three were instantly on board.

Henry, a clinical director for a maximum-security male prison in Georgia, says she saw it "regularly" with most of her inmates.

"They don't get treatment until they're in prison. That's unfortunate because a lot of them have trauma histories," says Henry, 37. "I wanted to bring something new to our community."

Black Mental Wellness
From left: Dr. Nicole Cammack, Dr. Dana Cunningham, Dr. Danielle Busby and Dr. Jessica Henry.

Cunningham, the program director at the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine, had a similar experience in graduate school.

"I did one of my rotations at a juvenile justice detention center in Illinois that was predominantly African-American or Hispanic male youth," she explains. "For many of them, that was, unfortunately, the first time that they had ever encountered counseling."

"If dollars have been redirected to mental health services... they could have gotten what they needed and not had to be incarcerated and have life trajectories changed," she continues. "We have to do better. We have to find other ways to reach these young people."

Busby, an assistant professor at Baylor College of Medicine/Texas Children's Hospital, works primarily with kids suffering from depression and at risk of suicide.

"A lot of times when I had families that identified as Black or African-American, they came way later... and were always on the more severe side of things," she says. "That was alarming to me because if we can intervene earlier, we could have different outcomes."

With their individual experiences, Cammack says they started crafting a list of "intentional" resources, including mental health disorder fact sheets and coping/wellness strategies, from a Black perspective — all free of charge.

"In addressing barriers to care, money is often one of them," Busby notes. "We want to assist in breaking down those barriers. It's a small way, maybe, but a way for sure."

Along with accessibility, the women are working to create more representation for Blacks in mental health — in part through their ambassador program.

Their goal is to grow a strong, nationwide mental health network for the Black community so that there is enough space and resources for them to succeed and thrive.

"If you look at the research... there aren't a lot of people in the profession that look like you," Busby explains. "That could be a real barrier when we're talking about racial stress or racial trauma."

"It is this whole systemic thing," says Cammack. "It's how we educate, it's who is in the field, it's the historical aspects. They all play a part in the stigma that you see currently."

One of the people to benefit from the program is Tida Tambedou, a 21-year-old recent graduate of Spelman College working towards her Ph.D. in clinical psychology.

As part of her ambassadorship, Tambedou helps run a blog related to college student mental health on Black Mental Wellness' website and receives mentorship by Busby.

"While applying to Ph.D. programs last semester, I had so much doubt, but Black Mental Wellness was so encouraging," she tells PEOPLE. "I think I would have definitely waited if I didn't have their mentorship and support, but I'm so glad I did."

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For the founders, running the ambassador program has become one of their favorite things about Black Mental Wellness because of the hands-on guidance they provide and the ability to make an impact.

"We're giving them the opportunities to flourish in other ways that they would have never been exposed to," Henry shares. "And allowing them to be their authentic self and own who they are."

Adds Cunningham: "It's always about paying it forward. I think we're creating that type of avenue, and they're super excited to then help the next. It's nice to kind of be their bridge."

With their programs and partnerships now all over the U.S., the women are hopeful their story will inspire the Black community to also bring their "visions to life."

"It's been a journey. We're learning in this together and it wasn't a blueprint," Cunningham says. "But you're influencing people just by doing the thing you feel you've got to do 'cause it's a problem."

"I want that ripple effect, to keep having people talk about these things and find new creative ways that we don't have," she adds. "And I want to make it fire for us as a community."

If you or someone you know need mental health help, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

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