Put Your Own Oxygen Mask On First: An Interview with Jan Desper Peters

Our BlackHer Shero of the Week is Jan Desper Peters, executive director of the Black Mental Health Alliance (BMHA). BMHA’s mission is to develop, promote, and sponsor trusted culturally relevant educational forums, training, and referral services that support the health and well-being of Black people and other vulnerable communities. The Congressional Black Caucus recently invited Peters to serve on its Working Group for the Black Youth Suicide and Mental Health Taskforce.   Her organization is also a regional partner for the Can We Talk? Conference and Benefit Dinner, an event hosted by Taraji P. Henson’s Boris Lawrence Henson Foundation to raise awareness and money for mental health services in the Black community.

Jocelyn: Jan, how did you come to this work?

Jan: It’s an interesting story.  My background is not in mental health.  I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in public administration.  After graduating, I was focused on working for an elected official.  But one of my first jobs was working at the Maryland Department of Health in Baltimore.   While I was there, I met a nurse.  She was on the board of the Black Mental Health Alliance.  BMHA was looking for a new executive director and she urged me to apply.  This was the early 90s and I knew nothing about nonprofit management or mental health.  But I agreed to interview, and the board president and I hit it off.

I thought. I am smart.  I can get the information I need and learn this.  I can become a subject-matter expert.

I got the job!

I was there for seven years and have been back since 2013.  In the early days, I was really focused on building the brand, increasing funding, and advancing the mission.  One of the highlights of that period was our Optimal Mental Health Conference.  It was an annual event where we brought in luminaries that looked like us.  We had Iyanla Vanzant before she became a star!

Jocelyn: That’s a great story.  I admire that you believed in yourself and your own abilities enough to take a job outside of your chosen field.  That’s a great model for other Black women to follow!  What does the Black Mental Health Alliance do?  And how do you help Black women in particular?

Jan: We provide education and training to the community on mental health issues.  We also provide referrals to folks to secure mental health services.  Our founder, Dr. Maxie Collier was the first Black psychiatrist to serve as the Baltimore City health commissioner.  His goal was to help people reach their maximum human potential.  We honor his legacy and are still following in his footsteps.

One of our key programs is called the Trilogy of Trauma: Valuing, Thriving, and Healing!  When we surveyed the community to learn more about mental health issues and needs, trauma was something that kept coming up.  It was like a blinking red sign.  Whether it’s the strain of hearing gunshots at night or daily experiences of racism and white supremacy, our community is under considerable stress due to the impact of historical and current traumas.

The Trilogy of Trauma is a three-part interactive series with a session each for women, men, and young people.

In the session for Black women, we shared information to encourage Black women to love ourselves first.  We’re natural caregivers and want to help others improve.  But sometimes we give to the detriment of our own well-being.

We tell women that like they say on planes, “put your own oxygen mask on first.”

Our recent Trilogy for Trauma series for women was led by Black women academicians, social workers, and other clinicians.  It’s important to us that our presenters look like the women we serve.

One of the women who participated in the event was Dr. La Keita Carter, a licensed psychologist.  She’s also on my board of directors.  She asked the attendees, “If I gave you $1,440 and asked you to give $60 back. Would that be a reasonable request?” The women agreed that it would be reasonable. She then told attendees, “There are 1,440 minutes in every day.  We’re urging Black women to spend at least 60 of those minutes on themselves.”

Jocelyn: I love that.

Jan: We’re also participating in the Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic States’ Good Health & Great Hair Initiative. They have a health van that visits local salons on Saturdays to provide health care screenings for free.  They realized that while they have services to address physical health, they could do more to help women address mental health.  BMHA hosts a monthly mind health talk in a local beauty salon to continue the mental health conversation in a safe space.

Jocelyn:  What a great idea.  This may be a dumb question but what is stress and why is it so harmful to our mental health?

Jan: I tell folks that not all stress is bad.  Stress can focus and motivate us.  But if stress is the only gear that you know, if you spend all day, every day under stress, you will not be able to perform.  You will not be on your A-game.

Black women know that caring for our physical health is important.  We’re starting to understand that physical and mental health are intertwined.  You can’t have one without the other.

Jocelyn:  How do you help Black women get past the stigma of mental health issues and access the care we need? 

Jan: I tell folks not to overthink things and to take baby steps.  Getting more sleep is a good first step.

Jocelyn: Amen!

Jan: When I was going through my divorce I had real difficulty sleeping. Later, when I remarried, I began sleeping better, and that’s when I realized that getting enough sleep makes a huge difference.  We also help and encourage women to journal.  Journaling is a lost but powerful art.  You don’t have to write a book.  You can just write down your thoughts at the end of the day.  We also encourage Black women to make a note each day of one or two things that they are grateful for.

Jocelyn: I love that you are helping Black women to feel better about and make more time for ourselves.  But what can we do about things that are out of our control like the environment and the economy?  These stressors are also damaging to us.  What are the policy issues that we should help advance to improve mental health in our communities?

Jan: This is not a policy issue, but it is an important structural issue.  One of the things we’re working on now is mapping the mental health programs available to Black women.  We provide a lot of referrals for our local community of Baltimore.  But we receive calls from women across the country.  We want to have a comprehensive database of services so that people will know what helping services are out there.

We’re also working on creating a database of black psychiatrists with the Black Caucus of the American Psychiatric Association.  This will be the first of its kind in the nation.

Jocelyn: Jan, is there anything else you want BlackHer subscribers to know about you or your work? 

Jan: We must stop waiting for other folks to come to save us.  Sometimes, we feel that white people and white institutions have the answers because they have the money and we rely on these organizations too much.  And then power struggles take over.  We do need to have a space for others (allies) to be involved but we also need to be leading in our own mental health.

Black women can help by volunteering for Black-led mental health organizations, supporting us financially, and speaking out on policy issues.  It’s very important that we get resources to the organizations on the ground that are doing the work.

Jocelyn: Let me ask you the miracle question.  You go to sleep tonight and wake up and its June 2020 and a miracle has occurred for Black women.  What happened?

Jan: Black women have taken ownership of their health and know how important it is to care for themselves first.  And they are not ashamed or apologetic about embracing their own health.

The people in their lives have shifted as well.  They are supportive of our efforts to be whole and healthy.  They no longer chastise us or make us feel bad about taking care of ourselves.

We are taking space and time to take care of ourselves.





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