White Privilege, Poverty, and Mental Health

Today I’m sharing a GUEST BLOG POST by my friend, Janelle Junkin

by Janelle Junkin, MA, MT-BC

Even as sit down to write, I wonder if what I have to say is even worth saying and then the many faces that I have worked with over the years float through my mind like a tapestry to remind me that their stories are important and need to be told.

This last year has seen an increase in conversation about the issues of mental health in this country, especially related to gun violence. As I listen to these conversations, it became clear that people are having the wrong conversations: the question is not why didn’t “these people” seek help, but, in my opinion, what is happening in our society that is contributing to the mental health needs of our citizens? Once the question is re-formed, the opportunity for real dialogue, change and healing can begin.

Recently, I read Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg about the role of women in business; I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. However, as I read the book, I realized that while I had no problem identifying with her description of women and the struggles we have and the pressures put on us by society, I realized that I am white woman (I did know this before reading the book) and that I am the audience that this book is directed at. So, while it was an excellent read for me, it is lacking in any understanding or acknowledgement that the gender inequality of women goes much deeper for women of color.

As I realized that this book is lacking in the discussion related to women of color, I began to reflect more on the discussion related to mental health and violence and the lack of understanding related to gender and race: we are only discussing mental health, I believe, because it is white men committing the mass acts of violence. Having worked in the mental health field with those in poverty, mostly African American and Hispanic, I know that the conversation about mental health and violence would not be present if it was a person of color committing these atrocities and, I suspect, it would be a wholly different conversation if it were a woman.

Reading the book has re-engaged me in reflecting on poverty, violence and mental health. Inequality has so many faces and manifestations. While I acknowledge that there is gender inequality, I also recognize that there is inequality within gender based upon socio-economic status and race. Conversations about mental health are often tilted, negatively, towards those of lower socio-economic status and race; there seems to be little regard for the mental health concerns, instead it is a condemnation of “those people” and a willingness to label them with a diagnosis. However, the conversation takes a considerably different tone when it is people of a higher socio-economic status and who identify as white; here the conversation is the need for increased assistance for the families and willingness to create some type of dialogue about the role of mental health needs. I have to ask myself about the unintended consequences of such a discrepancy in the understanding and discussion of mental health needs for people of all socio-economic statuses and races. Truly, I believe that this stilted conversations, labeling and lack of understanding contribute to the myriad of mental health needs in this country. Poverty, inequality, violence, and mental health are uncomfortable, often murky conversations that do not tend to have black and white answers. For this reason, so called experts and critics of mental health often seek an easy answer, a way to categorize others without fully understanding or addressing the real issues at hand: fear, poverty, entitlement, and lack of options, lack of education, and lack of support within communities.

Until we, as a nation, are willing to enter into these murky conversations and, truly sit in them, true healing and change is going to difficult to achieve not only in the suburbs, but in our cities and rural communities, too.

Janelle Junkin

Janelle Junkin

Janelle is a board certified music therapist practicing in Philadelphia, PA; she works with children, youth and families. She is currently pursuing her PhD in International Psychology. She is an active member and youth leader at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church.

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About Calenthia Dowdy

Calenthia Dowdy (PhD, American University) is a cultural anthropologist and youth ministry educator who focuses on urban youth and culture in the U.S. and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Alongside teaching, speaking and writing on youth, cities, race, gender, and faith, she serves as the director of faith initiatives at a comprehensive community health center that specializes in HIV/AIDS care