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In Fall 2020, WUSF began reporting on how distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine exposes inequities in Florida's health care system. Our stories focus on the voices of residents in communities of color and how Florida's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution affects them.WUSF’s reporting on disparities in health care access is funded in part by the COVID-19 Response Initiative of Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Mental Health Events In Pinellas Promote 'Healing While Black'

Logo for "Healing While Black" summit.
The Well For Life
Organizers say the Healing While Black summit is the first step in a long road to recovering from the coronavirus pandemic's effects on mental health.

Organizers say the summit is the first step in a long road to recovering from the pandemic's effects on mental wellness. It follows a recent town hall focused on mental health and vaccine hesitancy.

This weekend, health professionals and members of the public are gathering in St. Petersburg to talk about mental wellness in the Black community. It's part of a three-day summit called Healing While Black.

Black counselors, state and county health officials, and other experts trying to improve health equity in the community are leading the three-day summit. Guest speakers include Florida Deputy Secretary for Health Shamarial Roberson, and Kent Butler, president of the American Counseling Association and chief equity, inclusion and diversity officer at the University of Central Florida.

It also involves community events such as a block party in the historic African American neighborhood The Deuces, a basketball tournament and "Textured Conversations" in hair salons and barbershops.

These offer safe spaces for attendees to talk about one of the most critical topics: mental wellness, according to organizer LaDonna Butler. She’s executive director of the Well For Life in St. Petersburg, which provides counseling services to BIPOC patients and trains clinicians in trauma-informed care.

Butler said the coronavirus pandemic and police killings of Black people have taken their toll on many people of color this past year, and she expects it will be a long road to recovery.

“And as we come out of separation and isolation, it is a beautiful thing for us to be able to celebrate in community with each other on such a topic about our total community well-being,” she said.

Butler views this weekend as a "family reunion" of sorts that will lead to deeper dives into mental health issues throughout the year.

“You see this sets up the conditions for us to talk about suicide, domestic violence, substance use, rebounding from COVID in a meaningful way,” she said.

Some events in the schedule are specifically designated for Black and brown attendees but others are open to people of all races.

Ongoing mental health engagement

Another recent event in Pinellas County hosted by the Clearwater Urban Leadership Coalition also focused on mental wellness in underserved communities.

The town hall, held last week in Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood, addressed topics like the role of faith communities in mental health and how vaccine hesitancy is connected to mental wellness.

People sitting around tables in a gymnasium for a town hall on mental health.
Stephanie Colombini
Organizations including the University of South Florida, Clearwater Urban Leadership Coalition and Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County recently hosted a town hall on mental health in Clearwater's North Greenwood neighborhood.

Many area organizations collaborated on the effort, including the University of South Florida, the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County, and local churches, among others.

“Faith-based organizations are part of the public health safety net of our country and it’s important to acknowledge that,” said organizer Joe Bohn with USF’s College of Public Health.

Among the speakers were pastors Doug Walker with Tyer Temple United Methodist Church in East Tampa and James Williams with Mt. Olive AME Church in Clearwater. They’re working to remove stigmas surrounding mental health and substance use disorders in the church and train faith leaders how to guide members of their congregations to counseling and addiction resources.

A panel on vaccine hesitancy included health department representatives Andrea Peaton and Dr. Nosakhare Idehen. They talked about how trauma from racist experiences in health care can cause anxiety about the COVID-19 vaccines and distrust in the medical community for some Black and brown residents.

Organizers of the town hall are continuing outreach efforts in the coming months to encourage more people of color in the region to get vaccinated.

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Dr. LaDonna Butler helped run the town hall on faith and mental wellness in North Greenwood. She was a guest at the event.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.