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Black Mental Health Matters

Leslie Langston, LICSW, discusses mental health and treatment for people of color.
Black Mental Health Matters
Featured Speaker:
Leslie Langston, LICSW
Leslie Langston, LICSW is a clinical social worker for the MIT Mental Health and Counseling Service. She is also the program manager of “Let’s Chat”, a mobile same-day drop-in counseling service primarily located within the Office of Minority Education. Leslie’s areas of interest and focus are on the mental health and healing of college and university students who represent marginalized populations. She also holds a certificate in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mind/body stress reduction, and has been a clinical supervisor in feminist-relational psychodynamic psychotherapy.

Introduction: It's time for Conversations with MIT Medical, Care For the Community. Here's your host, Melanie Cole.

Melanie Cole: In the African American community, family, community, and spiritual beliefs tend to be a great source of strength and support. However, research has found that many African Americans rely on faith, family, and social communities for emotional support rather than turning to healthcare professionals, even though medical or therapeutic treatment may be necessary. Welcome to Conversations with MIT Medical. I'm Melanie Cole and today we're talking about mental health issues and treatment for people of color. Joining me is Leslie Langston. She's a Clinical Social Worker with MIT medical. Leslie, it's a pleasure to have you on today. And what a great topic. Tell us a little bit about how mental health is different for people of color and what some of the stigma and barriers have been up till now.

Leslie Langston: Well, first of all, good morning and thank you so much for having me. How is mental health different for people of color? Well, first of all, we normally use informal supports, so what typically keeps us strong is our family, our pride, our sense of community, optimism, spirituality, or adaptability. But regarding formal mental health treatment, I do have a little bit of a study, a bit to review from the journal of adolescent health. So it turns out that African American students reported a higher perception of stigma associated with seeking formal mental health treatment. 13,000 students of color participated in a healthy minds study, over 4,333 students of color in the study reported that instead of formal mental health treatment, they had been utilizing informal supports such as talking to a friend, a minister or a coach. And it was stigma and denial around the severity of need that were found to be two of the primary barriers in seeking counseling in particular for male identified African American students.

So as we can see, attitudes in the black community and within ourselves towards psychological struggles can prevent us from seeking formal health. You know, we often hear things such as, I'm not weak, I'm not crazy. What goes on in this house stays in this house. Therapy is not for us. We don't complain, we carry on. We get the job done. Look at all we've been through. Your little complaints aren't enough to go to therapy, or I don't trust those mental health people. So within our day to day lives, this doesn't really help us because of, you know, a lot of factors such as micro aggressions, feeling like an outsider, especially at MIT, which is a STEM school. And we've had to really push throughout our whole academic careers in order to make it to MIT, feeling like an outsider. And whether this feeling is projected towards us or comes from within us, even our own bodies are often seen as either invisible or otherwise objectified by the dominant mainstream culture.

So, and one, a couple of last little points about that is that additionally, what is unique about the black community is that we carry what is referred to as legacy trauma. Legacy trauma is years and years of overt and institutionalize marginalization, economic injustice and oppression. The history of violent atrocities, the trauma of which becomes handed down throughout generations. Our elders and even some of us also suffer from health conditions that are particular to the black community, such as high blood pressure, diabetes. We have higher rates of depression and overall stress. And finally at MIT, many of us are the first to go to college or we come from families who expect us to represent them in a strong, positive and flawless light. The social isolation measures that are put against us currently admit it's even harder for us to have a sense of community and to be able to keep ourselves strong while we're trying to be the strong ones for our families.

Host: Wow. What an excellent explanation that was, Leslie. Really this is fascinating and so challenging. How is talking to a therapist different than talking to a friend or a family member? As you say, they look for these sources of strength and support from faith and family and social communities, but does it seem to you that they're not really identifying these feelings that they have as a mental health condition or they don't want to admit it or talk about it? Tell us a little bit about that.

Leslie Langston: Yeah, thank you for that question. I think a lot of our issues are struggles. You know, we get dampened down. We sort of bottle them up and carry on as we have been doing for generations, generations, hundreds of years. Also, you know, family members often have the same attitudes as I've mentioned earlier. Be strong, keep your problems to yourself, don't burden your friends, pray on it and God will take care of the rest. You know, I think what's different, about talking to a clinical specialist is that friends and family do not have the clinical training to adequately treat issues such as anxiety, sleep, problems of persistent low mood or dysfunctional relationship patterns. Also in college, we also want to keep our relationships with our friends happy in life. We tend to hold things back for fear of distancing our friends or burdening the friendship because therapy is not part of our self care regime.

We don't have much experience with it. What do they talk about in therapy? How can just talk and make a difference? And I think with a therapist, just as the doctor gives you medicine for your ailments, the therapist is trained with many tools in which to treat your depression, your sleep concentration problems. At MIT, you have many different treatment options. We have groups in visual therapy, medication, prescribers as well. University and college therapists are trained to treat many, many different kinds of people and issues. We are very flexible and are continually learning new therapies. It's good to turn to an expert when you feel as though the problem is getting a little bit out of control or you're tired of trying to keep the happy face on all the time.

Host: So expand on that a little bit. How does one know when they should reach out for professional help? As you say, this has been ingrained for so many years and down the generations. Tell the African American community at MIT what you'd like them to know about when you feel it's time to reach out and why you feel it's so important and not part of the stigma you've been discussing.

Leslie Langston: Exactly. That's a great question. I can think of about five things off the top of my head. The first one would be, you know, if you find that your symptoms are causing significant distress in your life. So in many spheres such as work or academic, relationship to yourself or your body, relationship to others. Therapy is also good for major life transitions such as the loss of loved ones, relationship breakups, transition such as moving, graduating college when you're symptoms are causing distress and they're interfering in your day to day licensed functioning. That's one. The first sign really that you should probably be calling us. The second sign would be that everything you've done seems not to be helping as much as it used to. You know, if you've tried a lot of different things lately, talking to a friend, exercising more, seeking out support online, you know, maybe you're reading up on various self-help techniques and nothing has made much of a difference. That might be a sign that it's time to talk to a therapist.

A third one is that perhaps you're over relying on friends or roommates and try to get them to help alleviate your symptoms. For example, having a friend call you to make sure you get to class on time or make sure you're eating well. That's okay on occasion. However, if you're relying on your friends to keep you feeling safe, keep you from eating too much or too little, for example, to keep you out or in the bed to help you go to sleep every night, it's time to call professional. The fourth one I can think of is overusing or relying on substances such as alcohol and drugs, shopping and sex. That's how you know you're using those as negative coping skills and it might be time to call a therapist so that you can get a little more positive coping skills in your arsenal. MIT is a very high pressured environment. It's incredibly academically and personally demanding, so it's good to have a little support now and again. You don't have to have therapy every week for the rest of your life. It could just be a short period of your life, you know, four to eight weeks or throughout a semester. If you have particular, trouble that you feel needs a specialist. We will refer you to a specialist.

Host: So where can they go? Where can MIT students go to reach out for help tell them how to go about this and really how to start the process?

Leslie Langston: There are many rivers that flow into the ocean. I like to think for example, I run, Let's Chat, which is an informal counseling a program. It will happen again. It will happen again hopefully in the Fall semester where students can come and just get a little bit of a taste of therapy and they don't have to really approach MIT medical. Sometimes that can be intimidating. So that's an indirect route. Another indirect route would be to go to your sq., Dean. If you're an undergraduate or your graduate Dean. You can talk with them and maybe they'll suggest that you come to and my team medical for therapy. So in other words, if you feel intimidated by approaching us directly, you can go through some of these support systems. International student support office will also talk with you and see if perhaps coming to see one of us is a good option for you.

If you'd like the direct route. We're here, you know if you're an MIT student, the student mental health and counseling services can help. We have many clinicians to choose from. We're also happy to provide a referral if you feel that's more comfortable for you. If you have the MIT health insurance, which is a Blue Cross product, you can use Well Connection and we will help you make sure that happens. If you have a different kind of insurance, there are a lot of other options available so you can call us and we can get you started into whatever kind of help that you feel like you might need. There are also some skills groups going on. In other words, not sort of deep therapy groups but just groups to help you with anxiety or stress or study skills. So there are a lot of options that you have if you feel approaching us would comfortable enough for you.

Host: That's such great information. Wrap it up for us. Please give us your best advice. You've told us how to reach out now. Tell us what you'd like them to know about taking good care of their mental health, some tips that you can give us, really best advice from the counselor that you are to help the African American community at MIT. And their mental health issues to help them to feel better at this time and really all the time.

Leslie Langston: At this time and all the time. Well certainly, it's really helpful I think to keep a normal schedule and that's true for anyone, right? Get up at the same time every day as you can. Try not to sleep in too much. Put those clothes on. Start your day, increase your exercise if you can. You know, there are a lot of exercise classes that you can take online. I would also say keep up your nutrition. Drinking that water. It might feel as though everything is uncertain. Well, there are a lot of things that are under your control that you can try and make habits for your life. This new life that we have, this new temporary life that we have now. In terms of specific care guide for people of color, I would say that, you know, we often tend to take care of everyone else, and that's part of our resilience and part of our commitment to community, but we have to also feel okay. Please don't feel guilty about taking care of yourself, about taking time out for yourself.

So for your body, for your mind, for your spirit, and that entails whatever you need to do to get there. If you have to say no, sometimes it might be helpful. This is a great opportunity for us to go within and to figure out what we want to take with us and what we want to leave behind when life goes back to normal. The other thing that I would say is, and this might be a little bit on a deeper level, but I'm a psychotherapist so I like to go there, but self-abandonment. So self-abandonment occurs when we take care of everyone else except for ourselves or we put ourselves last on the list. And when we abandon ourselves, we do abandon our community. We abandon our health, we abandon our longevity, we abandon our friendships, we have to water the roots. And I guess that would be the last thing that I'd like to say today would be to please water the roots.

Host: Beautifully put. Leslie, such a great segment, important information for all of us to hear. Thank you so much for coming on and sharing your incredible expertise with these great pieces of advice today. MIT students call call the 24-hr number (617-253-4481) to get urgent support, talk to an access clinician, or learn more about connecting with a local provider through Well Connection/Teletherapy. For information on student mental health and counseling at MIT Medical, please visit our website at for more information and to get connected with one of our providers. And that concludes this episode of Conversations with MIT Medical. Please remember to subscribe, rate, and review this podcast and all the other MIT Medical podcasts. I'm Melanie Cole.