While sitting at a traffic light at a busy intersection in Philadelphia, Glenn Wilson looked in his rearview mirror and spotted a young, black man in a hoodie running toward his car. His first reaction was to be prepared for danger; was someone chasing him, was the young man in trouble? Should he call the police?

As the hooded man slowed down and started to jog past his car, Wilson realized that his fear was misplaced. “He wasn’t running from anyone,” said Wilson, a victim advocate for the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance. “He was running to catch the bus. My fear is a perfect example of affects of systemic, institutionalized racism and the mental anxieties caused by the residual traumas of enslavement.”

The mental affects of enslavement, anxiety, depression, suicide were just a few of the issues related to mental health in the black community discussed during the 5th Breaking the Silence on Mental Wellness Conference. Sponsored by State Sen. Vincent Hughes the two-day conference held at Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia included more than 100 interactive workshops and group discussions that addressed topics related to mental health and how the community can work together to develop strategies to address mental wellness.

“The vision for this conference is to tear down barriers that hinder people from getting the help they need, educate communities about disorders, and reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health,” Hughes said. “We’ve internalized a lot of pain as a community. It’s time to stop suppressing it and open up the dialogue.”

The stigma attached to mental health makes it challenging for those who are suffering to seek help. This is particularly true in the African-American community, said conference presenter Argie Allen, director or clinical training in couple and family therapy at Drexel University. Mental illness can disrupt a person’s feelings, thoughts and ability to relate to others. Millions of people and their families are affected by these disorders, which can cause unspeakable pain that severely impairs how they function in the world.

However, trans-generational patters can be broken when people are willing to take the time to seek out support, Allen explained during a panel on mental health in families.

“We’ve proven that we can be resilient as a people, we just need the access to mental health services that help us fully heal,” Allen said Although mental wellness is essential in order to live a full, productive life, many mental health challenges are ignored or never diagnosed. Fully embracing the concept of wellness not only improves health in the mind, body and spirit but also maximizes one’s potential to lead a full and productive life, said Wilson.

“We have more tolerance for folks who have to go to the emergency room because their blood pressure is too high, but those who have mental health issues or experience a relapse are often harshly judged,” he said. Deborah McCoy, 26, a Philadelphia native now living in New York City, knows first hand that those affected by mental health issues need a strong support system to heal. After watching her brother try to readjust to life after imprisonment, she insisted that the entire family seek counseling.

Although McCoy’s brother wasn’t open to the idea of going to therapy, once she got him to commit to a session she watched his entire world change.

“It was the first time he had an opportunity to shed his mask, let down his guard and address his feelings with the support of his family,” she said. “It was also the first time I realized what my father meant when he said the most important thing I could ever do was love a black man… loving my brother enough to help him seek healing was a life-changing experience for my entire family.”

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