by Damita Miller-Shanklin
Ujima: How long have you been a part of the CTAAFS conference or board member?
Sonya: I became aware of the Central Texas African American Family Support Conference (CTAAFSC) in 2002. The keynote speaker was Dr. David Satcher the former 16th Surgeon General of the United States and the Assistant Secretary of Health. His keynote and the conference enlightened me on the barriers to access to care and racial mental health disparities of African Americans.
I value the mission of the conference to strengthen family and individual awareness of mental health. Thenceforth, I served in various capacities, I.e., conference attendee, planning committee member, and chairperson.
Ujima: Over the last 20 years, how do you think the conference has built a stronger and healthier community; especially within the Black community?
Sonya: Over 20 years, Integral Care, formally known as Austin Travis County MHMR, has been an essential supporter and host of the conference addressing systemic mental health challenges within the black community. The spirit of the conference is led primarily by African American’s living with mental illness, mental health leaders, families, faith leaders, and community volunteers throughout the central Texas community. Additionally, the supporters and sponsors have been a vital part of the success of the conference.
In my professional and personal life, the conference increases my awareness of an invisible illness within my family and faith community. As clergy, I understand the importance of spirituality and health. I do believe in the power of prayer, however, it’s evident that our faith community had lessons to learn as we ministered to our congregants. As a predominantly black church, our leaders understand how to provide spiritual support, however, they lack the professional skills to address mental health. We are the first contact for a person experiencing a crisis. Sometimes the crisis appears to be family dynamics, financial, physical, etc. Therefore, we would provide them with spiritual consult. I’m convinced the CTAAFS conference was an integral part of our church addressing mental health. There’s evidence that our church is more knowledgeable of the stigmas of mental health and the need for awareness. Our church leaders are actively involved with the CTAAFS conference; we provide awareness events, resource information, referrals, and teachings from the pulpit. We are enthusiastic that our church has led the charge bringing awareness about mental health, recovery, and wellness to our families in the rural Williamson and surrounding communities, especially the black community. We believe it’s significant to have partnerships between faith organizations and mental health providers. We learned that there is an intersection between mental health, physical health, and spiritual health. The scripture of Romans 15: 7 says “Therefore, welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Ujima: When you reflect on the legacy of the CTAAFS conference, what do you think it will be?
As my grandmother said to me, “the foundation is laid, now build upon it.” The conference has gathered over tens of thousands of participants. I believed the legacy of the conference will be celebrated as one of the largest and longest-running African American conferences in the nation addressing mental health led by volunteers.
The legacy of the conference is built by the spirit of the community with a common mission. A mission that continues to strengthen a generation of families. A mission that increases awareness of behavioral and physical health care services through culturally sensitive education, supports, and partnerships. As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the conference, it’s apparent that change is occurring with the next generation, as they continue the conversation.
Ujima: What have you observed to be the impact of the conference up to now and the hope for the future?
Sonya: Before the inception of the conference there was no unified voice about mental health in the black community. This conference came at a time when there was an urgent need to address the mental health crisis. As a result, the conference develops a model where mental health leaders, families, community members, and individuals living with mental illness come together to approach the disparities within the black community.
The conference continues to grow in attendance, sponsors, and volunteerism each year. The conference has developed a sense of a family coming together to empower each other through education. The workshops are reflective of current issues that most families, faith leaders, and community deal with. The conference is not only educational; it’s a place where celebrities, clergy, professionals are all vulnerable and safe to speak their truth.
I hope that the community value the purpose of this conference; especially the faith community. I hope that the faith community understands the importance of shattering stigma about mental health; valuing partnerships with health professionals; and, training clergy to support individuals experiencing mental health. I vision a church where clergy will no longer compare a person’s mental health as spiritual weakness.
Ujima: In celebrating 20 years of the conference, what do you want people to know about CTAAFSC.
Sonya: The conference is one of the largest and longest-running African American conferences in the nation addressing mental health led by volunteers. We are a group of volunteers, passionate and dedicated to bringing relevant workshops focusing on issues that matters to the community. It’s a conference that continues to break barriers, misconceptions, and stigma within the African American community. But mainly, people should know that most of our family members, friends, faith leaders, and even ourselves deal with mental health. This conference is an opportunity to come to a safe place to learn and connect without judgment. It’s a place where our faith community can sit with our counterparts and discuss mental and spiritual health.
Ujima: How can people learn more and become involved?
Sonya: To learn more about the Central Texas African American Conference go to ctaafsc.org. Additionally, they can join the Central Texas African American Family Support Conference Facebook community for ongoing conversations.
Ujima: Is there anything else you would like our readers to know about the CTAAFS conference?
Sonya: Although the CTAAFSC celebrates 20 years, we still have a long way to go. We seek health providers, faith leaders, and community members to continue the journey of bringing awareness and education to our communities. More importantly, our youth should be at the forefront of learning and leading.
Come join us to build a stronger and healthier community.
#ctaafsc #mentalhealth #ujimaatx #sonyahosey #embracingourcommunity #mhpartnerships