Brandon Johnson is a public health advisor at the Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA, in the suicide prevention branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, HHS, where he oversees a number of suicide prevention grant programs. Outside of his work at SAMHSA, Brandon is the creator of the Black Mental Wellness Lounge, a YouTube channel dedicated to discussing black mental health and healing.
In this episode, Brandon speaks to us outside of his role representing SAMHSA. Everything that he shares with us are his opinions, not those of the agency he works for.
Why he founded the Black Mental Wellness Lounge
[2:18] With the pandemic happening, it shifted all of our ways of life– the things that we could do, where we could go, how we felt about our own safety, how we felt about our own health, as well as the health of people that we cared about.
And at the same time that the pandemic was happening, there were a couple of really traumatizing incidents in the Black community. We had the death of George Floyd. We had Breonna Taylor’s death, we had Ahmaud Arbery’s death. And this is all during the pandemic, right?
On cultural humility
[8:23] It’s taking that step further from cultural competence, which says, I am proficient enough and know enough about your culture to be able to service you, right? Cultural humility says that I will never know everything about your culture. That is not a realistic thing that I can do. However, what I want to know is how your culture impacts you.
On mental health advocacy at the local level
[12:32] We’re the organizers, we’re the infrastructure, right? We are the place where plans can happen. We’re the conveners, right? We can bring people together to work on topics and issues.
[25:12] We can’t expect ourselves to be perfect and exemplary every day. So we can’t expect our kids to be, either. That’s something even as a parent, with my 11 year old, eight year old, that I’m trying and learning myself in my parent’s journey.
(Transcripts may contain a few typographical errors due to audio quality during the podcast recording.)
[00:01] Britt: I’m thrilled today to welcome Brandon Johnson to the podcast. Brandon is an extremely dedicated mental health and suicide prevention advocate all parts of his life. He is a Public Health Advisor at The Substance Abuse Mental Health Service Administration, SAMHSA. In the suicide prevention branch of the US Department of Health and Human Services, HHS. Where he oversees a number of suicide prevention grant programs. Outside of his work at SAMHSA Brandon is the creator of The Black Mental Wellness Lounge —a YouTube channel dedicated to discussing black mental health and healing. Before we really get into the conversation, I just wanted to clarify that Brandon is speaking to us outside of his role representing SAMHSA. So, everything that he shares with us are his opinions not those of the agency he works for. Brandon, welcome to the podcast.
[00:46] Brandon: Thank you. I’m excited to be here and share with you all today. This is exciting.
[00:52] Michael: Brandon we are so excited to learn from you. Before we jump into our many questions, I was wondering if you could share something you’re grateful for today. Maybe something that helped provide you some grounding, some perspective, or put a simple smile on your face.
[01:09] Brandon: I’m really grateful just to be back home. I just spent some time in Las Vegas at a conference really talking about health equity issues when it pertains to mental health. And so, I had a really, really great time and it was my first time traveling since the pandemic started. So, it was a bit anxiety producing at first, but everything went well. And I feel really good about how everything went and so I’m just excited to be back home and be back with the family.
[01:40] Michael: That’s wonderful and it’s wonderful to go and establish or reestablish those in person connections. Brandon, outside of your day job you also run as reference The Black Mental Wellness Lounge —a YouTube channel dedicated to discussing mental health with the black community specifically you, what inspired you to start this?
[02:01] Brandon: The Black Mental Wellness Lounge was… is really what I call my pandemic baby. So, there was as you can remember a lot of things happening in 2020 —2020 started off really, really normal. Things were okay and then with the pandemic happening it shifted all of our ways of life —the things that we could do, where we could go, how we felt about our own safety, how we felt about our own health. The health of people that we cared about— And at the same time that the pandemic was happening there was really a couple of really traumatizing incidences in the black community so—we had the death of George Floyd, we had Brianna Taylor’s death, we had Al Aubrey’s death. And this is all during the pandemic, right? And so, the things that we know now about the pandemic, we were just finding out then.
So, disproportionately African Americans were impacted particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. Disproportionately black businesses closed during the early days of the pandemic. They couldn’t quite manage the break-in. Being able to deliver services or provide goods and do business as normal. And so, on top of you layer in those instances that I shared. And you’re talking about a very traumatic stressful time within the black community.
And so, I have worked in public health, mental health, suicide prevention for a while. I wanted to find a way to get to community, right? I saw so many people struggling online. So many of my friends and family members trying to process everything at once. And I was just thinking, what can I do from this position? Because when you’re of feds that’s the 30,000-foot view, that’s the furthest away from community that you are. And so, I was like, what can I do?
And so, I thought about let me just take some of the things that I know—record a video and talking about—how to process the trauma, how to deal with it, how to find ways to cope—and so, I did one video. It went pretty well it got a couple thousand views on Facebook. And so, as I did it there were a lot of people that reached out to me saying, “This was helpful, thanks for putting this up,” and so, at that point, I was like maybe this is a way to continue to engage people. Maybe this is a way to connect. And so, from there the Black Mental Wellness Lounge was born, and definitely something that I hope to continue. It’s a labor of love for sure. It’s a lot of work that goes into it but that’s really where I moved into that space of creating it.
[04:56] Michael: That is fantastic to go and understand and learn about how you rose to the moment, so to speak. And really were thinking beyond yourself and going and doing something that was so very needed at that time for the community. Now, a few weeks ago it was Black Youth Suicide Prevention Week and we know that at present we’re seeing historical rates and incidents of mental health related problems amongst our youth. You spoke about this, Black Youth Suicide Prevention Week, on your YouTube channel, which of course was bustling with activity. Can you share some of your takeaways from that week and the conversations you had regarding this very, very serious and important issue?
[05:46] Brandon: So, this was the second Black Youth Suicide Prevention Week. And last year was really, just wanted to create awareness for this issue. It’s not one that I think a lot of people are aware of and know about but we’ve seen consistent increases in the suicide rate among black youth, particularly between the ages of five and 12. We’ve seen significant increases in the last 10 years —10 to 12 years at this point of suicide attempts among black adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17.
And so, seeing these rates it was something that I wanted to really get to our community, other communities. And I wanted to create an awareness campaign about this issue. And so, really, I had… during that week I had five guests come on we released a video every day. So, was truly, truly happy to see it grow, in that way and to. Get this information out.
[06:52] Britt: I also wanted to ask you. So, how do you think about improving mental health resources for vulnerable communities over different timeframes. So, for example, one thing that I think comes up frequently on your channel, and in all of these conversations is that there aren’t enough mental health providers that look the communities they serve.
And so, we can’t grow that pool of providers instantaneously. How do we both create stop-gap solutions? I guess you were just talking about some of those with slowing down a little bit and getting trained. How do we create those stop-gap solutions and also invest in the pipeline for the future?
[07:26] Brandon: I think this is a really good question. And so, what I would say is that in terms of the right now, you’re right. We’re not going to enough providers of color to engage the young people that need care. That’s something that is not possible unfortunately for where we are in the system.
And so, obviously, we know that individuals of all racial ethnic backgrounds, if you go to a counselor or mental health professional that shares a lot of your identities that there are better outcomes. We do know that from the literature and things. However, what we also know is that other clinicians who are not of the same racial ethnic background. Do not share those identities can be just as impactful if they engage in a way that meets the client’s needs.
And so, one of the things that I always talk about and preach about is cultural humility, right? Taking that step further from cultural competence which says, “I and proficient enough and know enough about your culture to be able to service you, right?” Cultural humility says that I will never know everything about your culture that is not a realistic thing that I can do. However, what I want to know is how your culture impacts you. What does it mean for you? How can your culture be embedded into this process of healing where it can be impactful for you and be an asset for you during this time? And so, if we have more clinicians able to do that regardless of who they’re serving to go in with that mindset of wanting to learn and knowing that I may make a mistake in this therapeutic process and I’m able to hold myself accountable, apologizing and try to move forward, I think that we can help to bridge those gaps. And also looking at our community-based organizations, our faith-based organizations those places within community that have buy-in that can that usually try to meet the needs of the individuals that they’re connected to. I tell people, one of the biggest things about suicide prevention that I preach constantly is the social determinants of health, right?
We have these individual factors that impact us, but our relationships impact our health, our communities impact our health, society impacts our health. It’s hard to do well in the therapeutic process if you don’t have affordable housing. You’re working multiple jobs to sustain yourself. And it’s hard for you to keep food on the table because of that. Faith-based organizations are great at meeting those needs, right? So, it’s connecting with them community-based organizations. That we’ll find ways to create healing practices within a community, collaborating with them is a really good way to bridge those things together to help meet those needs.
As far as the pipeline, it’s important for us to encourage young people take a look at fields such as —mental health, suicide prevention, social work, public health— to really engage them in that process. Many young people in high school and college don’t even know that this is a field. I can tell you very personally, I had no idea about the suicide prevention field. Feel when even when I was an undergrad—I was a psychology major. It wasn’t in that sphere I didn’t even know about public health. There was I presented at a conference at school at my alma mater, Morgan State University, and there was a professor there that said, “Have you they looked at what in my research and what I was doing, which was around community violence and mental health?” And they said, “Have you ever thought about public health?” And I was like, I’ve heard of it, but I don’t know anything about the field. And then I ended up going to a Public Health School and getting a Public Health Master’s Degree.
So, exposing our young people to those and having them understand where their race and things are. And sometimes that that is enough to get young people activated to want to help to get engaged. And it’s also quick plug, why I have a Future Black Voices Series on the Black Mental Wellness Lounge. Where I bring in professionals of color in mental health, social work, and public health to give advice. Just free advice about—finding a mentor, how to choose a major, how to deal with challenges on the job—I mean just things that I wish I knew when I was trying to go into the workforce and things that. So, I think it’s important for us to help drive young people to those spaces.
[12:09] Michael: That’s fantastic to hear and I could tell with the way that you speak about this that passion is clearly present. And you having had these experiences at the local state and federal level. I’m wondering if you could go and share with us briefly. What are the roles of each of those levels of government as it relates to going and dealing with these mental health care related issues?
[12:30] Brandon: I think that we’re the organizers we are the infrastructure, right? We are the place where plans can happen, we’re the conveners, right? We can bring people together to work on topics and issues. And I think at the local level very much coordinating with the state to understand where their priorities are. And how to feed information about what’s happening at the local level to the state, right? It’s understanding and being able to collaborate and connect within community to say, “Hey, not sure if you know but our veterans in this community are struggling. Hey, we have a large immigrant population, in this county. And they’re struggling right now.” Whether it be things that are happening on the news, it could be a policy issue that’s impacted them. But we’re seeing increases in mental health utilization down here. We’re going to need resources, right?
So, the local level you’re in the community—you are the community. You’re a part of the community with every level of government that you go up. You’re further away from it. So, the local piece has to be within community, right? To know community, get outside of the walls of the local health department. Talk to people get engaged within that. Local community that I was in, I met with churches, I met with community, I stayed out in community, and you get to learn and grow and have them be a part of things. And I think at the state it’s more so that’s where there are more resources, right? And so, they can delegate resources and get things to high-priority need.
So, in my role at the state, I was in community I talked to local governments. I said I was out in the community a lot getting information and data. But it was also my job to know what was happening above me at the federal level to know what their priorities were. Where funding was coming in at where their resources are. Because at the federal level, we produce resources a lot. There’s a lack that comes out of the federal government and the things that come out of the feds are free, right? So obviously we do funding, but the resources themselves—webinars, toolkits, frameworks, communities of practice, all those things are free. So being engaged with that. So, the state is in the middle, setting those priorities and understanding from the feds and then articulating them to a number of different sectors, I think of the state. I engaged with the child welfare system, juvenile justice schools, and then at the feds, it’s our job to set the stage. It’s our job to say, “We have, here’s the data, here’s what’s happening.” And it’s our job also to listen to the states. At SPRC, we do a lot of interfacing with state suicide prevention coordinators. SPRC does a drop-in session, every quarter. All the state suicide prevention coordinators and their staffs are able to come tell us—what’s happening, tell us what’s going on, how can we help, where do you need resources—so those type of things. And also, talking to one another in our agency.
So, SAMHSA, talking to CDC, talking to HRSA, talking to Administration of Children and Family, talking to VA, right? making sure that we are all communicating. And we do that there as well with the caveat that I’m not representing the federal government on this podcast. But those are the type of things that happen. So, I think that those are the type of conversations across those levels that we can do to impact with.
[16:06] Michael: Brandon from a research perspective concerning Black Mental Health and Black Youth Mental Health more specifically, what gaps do you think exist at present?
[16:17] Brandon: This could be a whole separate podcast. I’ll keep it quick. One and again not representing any federal space in this just making sure I cover that a lot. But so, from my view very much Brandon Johnson’s point of view funding is one piece. There is a huge discrepancy on who gets funded for research and what topics get funded. There is a huge disparity among funding for white clinicians and researchers versus researchers of color. There’s a huge disparity there. Understanding what works in our community. We need funding behind that to do the research, to know how to help there aren’t many at all. Interventions and things that are what the field considers evidence-based. Evidence-based means you have gotten funding to do a trial. Usually, randomized control trials the best one that’s the gold standard. You’ve published it in a reputable journal, boom. That’s evidence, that’s evidence-based, right?
But if our researchers aren’t getting the funding to study what they believe works and what’s happening at the local levels within these communities. Then it’s hard for us to drive a list of evidence-based practices, right? And so, which is why a lot of our spaces we do and engage with promising practices. So, we have data on them they’re doing well, they’re just not published. And also practice-based evidence. We know things that have worked, and we’ve built an evidence-based, based on what we’ve seen work with that. And so, those are particular challenges. If we don’t solve the funding issue if we don’t get our researchers and things connected to that work and build out and understand where we can be impactful and be more impactful. And then bring things to scale and disseminated, right?
So, without that piece, it’s hard for us and without that funding to build up things that we know that works and then get them in other places, right? We have examples like this place in Detroit is doing this thing place in Baltimore is doing this thing this place in Houston is doing this thing that’s great. How do we amplify that and get what they’re doing to other places so we can be impactful and because of those research disparities it’s been really hard.
[18:42] Michael: Absolutely. This year’s Johnny Martin Mental Healthcare Challenge is focused on mental healthcare for vulnerable adolescents in both urban and rural areas. So, we’d love to go in here more about how you think about how access to mental healthcare for youth differs depending upon geography.
[18:59] Brandon: It absolutely does. One I want to shout out before I even start this HRSA, the Health Resources Services Administration as a part of US Department of Health and Human Services has an Office of Rural Health Policy. They do amazing work in rural health across the country. I would definitely encourage anyone who is interested in this to definitely reach out to them at their website is hrsa.gov. And from there you can navigate and find the Office of Rural Health Policy. But definitely would check in with them. But there’s a huge we talk about equity access to services is a big one, and in rural communities you have some people where especially working you’re talking about adolescent health.
For a parent to find a co a child therapist or psychologist maybe driving two, three miles. Two, or three hours, to get to a mental health professional is difficult to get there. They’re also the clinicians in those spaces are booked more, right? They may be fully booked and so you’re waiting out months because they’re the only provider in a huge mile radius to be able to provide services. They’re also additional challenges with our young people in rural communities with isolation, right? They’re more isolated. There’s less connection and what we know around suicide on the individual level that loneliness and isolation can be a challenging thing, especially for young people to manage. That’s a time where a lot of what you get is built off of connection with other people, right? And so, whereas in an urban environment, you may say, “If a young person’s school really isn’t, I don’t have a lot of friends at school and things that, but I may have a bunch of friends in the neighborhood.” It is certainly a challenge. I would say one thing if you can find a positive silver lining around the pandemic it was the creation of more Telehealth Services and Tele Behavioral Health Services. We saw the need of how do we deliver care if we can’t physically get to people if we can’t have that connection. And so, I definitely always encourage people in rural communities to see find places that offer telehealth. I know Psychology Today has a pretty big resource list and a lot of the people there have indicated whether or not they do virtual services, as well.
[21:27] Michael: One of the things that I’ve seen of late is that athletes and artists are diving head-first into mental health, under the guides of performance improvements. How important is the lens in this case performance improvement when it comes to black youth seeking out mental health resources?
[21:44] Brandon: It’s definitely important and I do, I’m a big sports person and it’s so awesome to see so many people being open and honest in this space of we got —Simone Bows, Naomi Osaka, DeMar Rosen, Kevin Love, Michael Phelps — native Baltimore in there. But there are so many people talking about this and this side of it which I think is really important.
And so, in terms of performance and improvement, I definitely think in terms of seeking out resources for black youth suicide. I think engaging with our young people it’s still a very stigmatized issue. It’s still one that they have concerns talking about and sometimes they feel tough about being vulnerable with it. And one of the things that I try to give young people that I work with through my church and other places that I give back is really we want you to be your best self, right? We want you to be able to reach your maximum potential. There’s so much that you can offer. And I think in terms of performance it’s really, it’s all depending on what lens you want to use with that.
So, even I tell young people this is beyond just what you can do at school, right? Whether or not you can get good grades or excel if you’re playing a sport because those things from young people what I’ve heard that’s where some of the pressure comes in at. It’s feeling I can’t mess up I can’t get a beat here. Everyone’s talking about how pristine my transcript has to look if I want to get into college if I want to play D one I have to have these performances in these games. And they talk about the pressure whether it’s internal or external. I talk a lot with them about that. These pressures that I have it’s even just there are other markers outside of that. Were you happy this week? Did you do something that made you happy this week? Did you feel your best self? When something happened that was funny, did you feel you could laugh? Did you feel that you had people to support you when you didn’t feel good? Did you have places and things in place that you could do those things?
So, whatever your best self looks on that day, are you able to meet it? Because if we’re very honest, even just as adults. Our capacity on a day-to-day basis. Our performance on a day-to-day basis it winds. Some days I can give you 120%, I can give you 150% today, tomorrow I can give you 30 because to my day didn’t go well. I have other things on my mind I got some bad news this thing happened car breaks down here, something happens here. So, my performance is going to wane depending on that. I just didn’t have a good week. I don’t have it, or sometimes I don’t even know, sometimes I just didn’t wake up. I didn’t feel great, right? But I have resources to be able to maintain and go throughout the day and just say tomorrow will be better. Tomorrow will be a better one. We’ll go forward from there. So, I think with our young people, just encouraging them to be their best selves.
And I think for us around young people is also to give grace in their performances as well. We can’t expect ourselves to be perfect and exemplary every day. So, we can’t expect our kids to be also, and that’s something even as a parent with my 11-year-old and eight-year-old that I’m trying and learning myself in my parents in journey to do that also. So, I think when it comes to that performance improvement —performance it depends on how you look at it. And I think a more holistic view of how we view performance is definitely something that we can use to encourage our young people.
[25:40] Britt: Brandon, thank you so much for joining us today. This has just been such an incredible conversation. I think the number of times where we you’ve paused and said, we could have a whole episode or a whole series on this just makes me so grateful that you, that you actually have that. So, we’re going to direct everyone to your Black Mental Wellness Lounge. For all those moments when Brandon said we could talk much deeper about this, hopefully, he has or will on that channel. So, really appreciate all the insights you’ve shared with us today. You’ve shared so much about your professional journey your thoughts on the field. As well as your personal journey, the role models that you’ve looked up to. And it’s just been a really wonderful conversation. And I was going to end with any verts of advice for listeners looking to be supportive friends and family as well as advocates for mental health and wellness in their communities. I think we’ve already covered a lot of that. But do you have any closing thoughts or any questions that we haven’t yet asked you that you were really hoping that you’d get a chance to talk about today?
[26:38] Brandon: No, I think we’ve covered all the questions. And again, thank you for having me on for this. I think for one thing I didn’t do was shout out my own parents in this, so shout out to my mom and their support of me also and being the best role models, I could have asked for. But also, for anybody just listening to this just wants that wants to be better in this space. I would tell them it’s a process and one thing I’m big on is just, the things that we want. To do to show up for other people are things that we should be doing for ourselves and how to show up for our best selves. And so, I tell people a good place all the things you want to practice, that you tell people to practice —forgiveness and self-care and supports and things that. And giving people grace, practice with yourself first, right? Give yourself grace. Give yourself forgiveness. If it’s something that you’re struggling with that you didn’t quite get quite right. Give yourself time to recover give yourself that self-care. Something that I admittedly am not the best with my wife if she was here could tell you that that’s not something I’m great at. But something that I’m working to approve.
So, give yourself those opportunities to recover. And for those in this space, give yourself an opportunity to get away from the work for a bit passion projects we don’t have to burn ourselves out doing passion projects, right? Give yourself that grace but just show up for people and be a safe place to land for people. For young people —listen without judgment, give them an opportunity to talk. They really want to be hurt. If that’s the one consistent thing that they talk about is that they feel their experience are minimized.
And things that I always give the example of young people saying they having a trouble in their relationship. If they’re in high school and things that an adult going, you’re not going to remember that person. That’s just popular things that. And I think we all if we can transport ourselves back there, had experience sometimes where it was the world to us, right? And so, giving them that space to do that but just everyone taking care of themselves and once we are able to do that, we can show up better for other people.
[28:53] Britt: Wow. I thought you were out of advice but there you go with one more really, really solid piece of advice, and enjoyed the shout out to your parents too. It’s important to remember where we came from and to express that gratitude.