Need Mental Health Help Fast? Call **ASK (star-star-2-7-5) from your cell phone or 1-800-939-5911

Black Leaders Making History in the Mental Health Community

Cardinal Innovations Healthcare — February 19, 2021 — 6 min read
History is being made every day all around us—look left, look right, and you’ll find passionate people fighting for a better world. This Black History Month, we want to highlight three local community leaders for their past and current work in mental health. These individuals have contributed much to the health and wellness of North Carolinians, particularly those in the Black community.

Victor Armstrong: Director of the NC DHHS Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities, and Substance Abuse

Victor Armstrong was born and raised in Plymouth, a small eastern NC town with a population just under 4,000. Growing up, mental health was not a topic of discussion. Armstrong often heard words like “crazy, odd, or weird” used to describe those who likely had mental health challenges.

Early in his career, Armstrong was fascinated by human interaction, the function of the brain, and how humans make sense of the world. He was also drawn to social justice and advocating for human rights. He experienced how those battling mental health diagnoses often faced discrimination. He also recognized the mental health stigma in the Black community and the increasing suicide rate of young Black males.

He helped establish a mental health court in Forsyth County

When he was working with CenterPointe, an LME/MCO that consolidated with Cardinal Innovations in 2016, Armstrong helped establish the mental health court in Forsyth County. The Forsyth County Mental Health Court (FCMHC) hears cases of people with a mental illness and/or co-occurring substance use disorder who have been charged with a crime. The FCMHC links eligible individuals to treatment and support services that help them better manage their mental illness and avoid jail time.

Even without available funding, Armstrong and his team were able to bring together the LME/MCO, the court system, community advocates, law enforcement, and others to work together and make it happen. Within its first three years, more than half of those who participated in their FCMHC program graduated. The majority of graduates did not commit another crime.

Making history now

In his work now, Armstrong is beginning to see more discussions about racial equity in how behavioral health services are delivered. He and the NC Department of Health and Human Services (NC DHHS) are exploring ways to partner differently and better use resources like the faith-based community and minority providers as they reach out to communities of color.

Of his current projects, Armstrong is most excited about “reimagining crisis response services. With the three-digit 988 crisis response number on the horizon, we have the opportunity to create a system designed to protect and nurture those experiencing a mental health crisis, rather than having a system designed to protect the rest of us from the person experiencing a crisis.”

A note on leadership and representation

“Being in this role as Director of NC DMHDDSAS, particularly in this transitional moment, is the proudest moment of my career,” said Armstrong. “It isn’t lost on me that I am one of only two African Americans, or people of color, period, to occupy this role. I recognize that being in this role is not only an affirmation of the trust and respect for my leadership ability and career accomplishments, but it also affords me the opportunity to bring a unique perspective and the ability to address historical health disparities experienced by historically marginalized populations.”

Joan Been: CEO of Living Waters Inc, Mental Health Advocate and Mentor

Born in Jamaica and raised in the Bronx, New York, Joan Been rarely heard her family or community use the term “mental health.” However, Joan’s parents made sure that she was mentally and emotionally safe and secure. “They taught us to build healthy relationships. We learned how to respect and honor each other. My mom always encouraged us to talk through our struggles,” she said.

She brought faith leaders together to effect change in addressing mental health in the Black community

Joan has been in a leadership role at Living Waters Inc for 18 years, during which she has helped influence the way faith leaders approach mental health in the community. Living Waters serves as a link to help faith-based communities collaborate and partner with public and private organizations. Joan and other Living Waters leaders have helped teens and young adults learn skills to cope with mental and emotional challenges.

In 2016, the fatal police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott sparked riots across Charlotte, and many in the Black community experienced collective trauma. To help support those impacted by the events, Living Waters petitioned Mecklenburg County to apply for the SAMSHA ReCAST grant and served on the grant submission team. Thanks to Living Waters’ initiative, in 2018 SAMSHA awarded $5 million to the county to provide trauma resources for marginalized communities.

Most recently, Living Waters hosted its 2020 Mental Health Summit, sponsored in part by Cardinal Innovations. The event brought together faith leaders and communities, behavioral health professionals, and civic servants to discuss mental health care access and ways to work together to support those with mental health diagnoses, their families, and their caregivers.

Making history now

Now, Joan is leading Living Waters to help bridge the gaps in mental health care access for those in the Black community. She’s building connections with faith leaders and state and local organizations to contribute to COVID-19 relief efforts in marginalized communities.

A quote she lives by

Joan shared with us a quote so meaningful to Living Waters’ mission that is printed on the back of every Right Path Mentoring Program T-shirt. The quote, by Benjamin E. Mays, reads:

“It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream.”

Carla Carlisle: Author, Speaker, Child and Mental Health Advocate

Carla Carlisle grew up in Kokomo, Indiana, in a family that didn’t discuss mental health at all. In her community, she remembers seeing a young man who often slept on park benches. “It was confusing to me. People said he liked sleeping outside. Looking back, I’m sure he had mental health issues. Now I know better,” Carlisle said.

She used lived experience to dismantle mental health stigma

Carlisle’s passion for mental health began with her journey to motherhood. She met her now-adopted son through foster care when he was only 10 days old. After several months caring for him, she allowed her foster license to expire so she could co-parent with his birth parents. Those six years co-parenting changed Carlisle’s life. “I learned first-hand about trauma, intergenerational trauma, and mental health challenges. Those years educated me,” she said. Carlisle could no longer avoid seeing the impact mental health had on people’s lives.

Carlisle’s motherhood journey prompted her to share her and her son’s experience. Her book, Journey to the Son, chronicles the impact of unprocessed trauma on a person’s mental health and their loved ones. She wrote the book, “in the hopes of reducing stigma, humanizing mental health, and encouraging others to become trauma informed.”

In 2019, Carlisle also gave a TEDx Talk in Charlotte, during which she explained the importance of being trauma informed. Her talk provided insight into her mental health, her anxiety, her situational depression, and her resilience during her time co-parenting with her son’s birth parents.

Making history now

Now Carlisle is working on an interactive story book that will help children—especially those who have experienced trauma and/or are in foster care—better understand and process their mental health. The book includes journaling, coloring, and stories to make it easier for children to capture their feelings, learn healthy coping mechanisms, and feel supported. Created for elementary school-age kids, this children’s book will likely be released in summer 2021.

Her thoughts on training and advocacy

“After the eight-year battle for my son, I decided to get educated,” said Carlisle. “I went to Mecklenburg County Court College to learn about the system. I spent two years gaining custody and eventually adopting my son. I completed Resource Parent Trauma Training through Rowan County DSS and took lots of other trainings. Those trainings and life experiences changed me forever. I am an advocate for those who have not yet found their voice. I am an advocate for my son. And I advocate for me!”

Was this article helpful?

Join our member newsletter