By Javacia Harris Bowser
For The Birmingham Times
It began with a T-shirt.
Longtime friends Danielle Mars and Renee Smith were discussing how therapy had helped them through hard times when Smith had the idea to design T-shirts with the statement, “Yes, I have a therapist” to challenge the stigma around mental illness.
But they didn’t stop there.
Mars and Smith launched a Facebook page called “Yes, I Have a Therapist” and hosted candid conversations each month via Facebook Live. Then, they took the movement offline and in Sept. 2018 held their first in-person event.
On Saturday, Sept. 21, Mars and Smith will host their second event, a women’s empowerment brunch they’re calling “A Seat at the Table” at the Is-Able Center, 244 West Valley Avenue, #206, in Birmingham.
“We named it ‘A Seat at the Table’ because she and I both have been in positions where we were at a table but we weren’t invited or we weren’t appreciated for the different things we brought to that table,” Smith said. “So, we wanted to do an event where women could come and have a seat at the table and a voice.”
The event, which will be held at the Is-Able Center in Birmingham, will include activities designed to encourage women to pursue their passions and will also highlight the importance of self-care.
“It’s also a place for black women to meet other black women,” Smith said. “It’s hard for an adult to meet new people and meet new friends. So, we want to open up a space for women to talk together, to laugh.”
It Takes A Village
At this year’s event, Mars and Smith will honor local poet Salaam Green with the inaugural Village Award.
“There’s that proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ but we think it takes a village to become your full self,” Smith said. “And we believe that Salaam embodies that.”
Green is the founder and executive director of the Literary Healing Arts Foundation and hosts workshops that encourage people to use writing to begin the process of healing from emotional trauma.
“She has given us a foundation,” Mars said of Green.
Green is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in a number of magazines, newspapers, and websites. In 2018 she was a speaker at TEDxBirmingham and she was the 2016 Poet Laureate for Innovation and Entrepreneurship for the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama. Yet, Green said this award from Yes, I Have a Therapist is special.
“To be seated at the table with other women who are using their voices to heal their lives, which is my mantra and personal mission, is a true honor,” Green said. “I am truly grateful and surprised they chose me, but ecstatic to be at the table that is prepared for us all.”
African Americans and Mental Health
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. Yet, the National Alliance on Mental Health reports that only about one-quarter of African Americans seek mental health care, compared to 40 percent of whites.
Mars and Smith, who spoke at this year’s Minority Mental Health Awareness Summit in Birmingham, recognize there are several factors at play.
“As an African American you feel you can’t show any weakness because there are already so many other obstacles against you,” said Mars, who by day works with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.
Research has found that many African Americans often rely on faith and family for emotional support rather than turning to health care professionals.
“There’s also often a misunderstanding of what mental illness is,” Smith said. “A lot of times when people hear ‘mental illness’ they think of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ or something really ridiculous, but there are people that walk among us every day that are in need of help.”
Mars and Smith recognize that lack of access to affordable health care can also keep people from getting the help they need.
“Awareness has risen, but actions haven’t met the overarching need, especially in our community,” Smith said.
On the second Monday of each month at 5:30 p.m. Mars and Smith host discussions via Facebook Live on various mental health related topics.
“A lot of our conversations have been about what we didn’t get as children,” Mars said. “We didn’t get the space to say I feel anxiety or I’m feeling depressed. So how do we re-parent ourselves as adults?”
In each conversation Mars and Smith are open about their own struggles, too.
Smith, a regional supervisor for a family service center, has used therapy to improve her marriage and parenting skills. Mars turned to therapy after a major surgery left her feeling depressed.
“It’s about people being able to put a relatable face on mental illness,” Smith said. “We’re two professional black women and if you were to look at us on the outside, we have everything together. But we are all a work in progress.”
A Seat at the Table is set to begin at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 21 at the Is-Able Center, 244 West Valley Avenue, #206, in Birmingham. Tickets are $20. To purchase tickets and learn more about Yes, I Have a Therapist visit www.facebook.com/YIHATBham.