Medical professionals, civic leaders and community members encouraged Americans of color to recognize mental illness as a first step toward being healthy Wednesday at an emotional wellness summit in Pine Bluff.

Medical professionals, civic leaders and community members encouraged Americans of color to recognize mental illness as a first step toward being healthy Wednesday at an emotional wellness summit in Pine Bluff.


Dozens of people took part in the summit at the Arkansas River Education Service Cooperative. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Tri-County Rural Health Network sponsored the event to develop strategies for improving emotional health in Jefferson County residents.


Many Americans of color do not address mental illness because they lack the tools and because of some ingrained cultural beliefs against dealing with it, said Dr. Keneshia Bryant of the UAMS College of Public Health. Bryant specifically mentioned depression, anxiety and bipolar disorders.


Bryant headed a discussion on identifying factors associated with mental illness. She said mental health factors involve where people live, work and play. She asked people in the audience to identify factors and they came up with these stressors: poverty, a lack of transportation, unemployment, a lack of running water and a lack of familial support.


Bryant said 38 percent of Jefferson County children live in poverty, whereas statewide, the average in Arkansas is 28 percent. People who have mental illnesses need to be treated to feel better. Conversely, people who are untreated may hurt themselves or other people. She hears about tragedies in which people remarked they suspected the person was hurting but it is too late.


Fifty-five percent of Jefferson County children live in single-parent households, whereas Arkansas averages 36 percent, Bryant said.


"Food insecurity is a big problem," Bryant said. "When I get hungry, I can’t focus."


Jefferson County Sheriff Gerald Robinson responded to a man in the audience who said that law enforcement officials treat inmates like animals. He invited the man to tour the prison and see detainees are allowed video visitation and recreation.


"By no means are inmates treated like animals," Robinson said. "We feed them better [than they would otherwise be fed]. We are mandated to provide medical and mental care. … You will see why prisoners do not want to leave."


Robinson asked people to raise their hands if they would call law enforcement to report a drug dealer and then to raise their hands to report a hungry child. He lamented fewer people would call for the latter reason.


"It hurts me to see a hungry child," Robinson said.


Dr. Rhonda Mattox, medical director of the Arkansas Minority Health Commission, explained that schizophrenia causes the person to perceive nonexistent sights, sounds or touches. Bipolar disorder causes the person to have racing thoughts. Their mood can change abruptly.


Melva Trask, a treatment coordinator at the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, said she is responsible for about 350 female inmates. She said mental health is a huge problem but it can be managed.


Dr. Tiffany Haynes asked how to eliminate the stigma of mental illness. Trask said start with one’s family members.


Derrick Newby, program administrator at Jefferson Comprehensive Care Center, said that organization provides services to people regardless of their ability to pay.