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Huston-Tillotson Aims to Ease African-American Mental Health Stigmas

KUT News
An unidentified person photographed at the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless in 2011. East Austin’s Huston-Tillotson University hopes to open a community mental health clinic next year. ";

Robert Winston knows he has a mental disorder – but he didn’t know that for a long time.

He’s convinced his life would’ve turned out much differently had he been diagnosed as a young adult. He probably wouldn’t have left his wife and kids in California. He probably wouldn’t have become dependent on alcohol. He probably wouldn’t have ended up homeless in Austin.

Winston is African-American and he is 52-years-old. “[I’ve] tried to commit suicide twice,” he says. “And I couldn’t understand why I was having a hard time dealing with just the basic things of life.” 

Dr. William Lawson is also African-American. He chairs the psychiatry department at Howard University Health Science in Washington D.C. This week, he was in Austin advising Huston-Tillotson University on strategies the school can apply in creating a new clinic specifically for the African-American community in Austin.

Lawson says one reason African-Americans are under-diagnosed with mental health issues lies in the racism of the past. “Historically, it was thought that African-Americans simply did not have the mental apparatus for becoming mentally ill,” he says.

Times have changed. But another persistent struggle is the very small number of African-American psychiatrists and psychologists in the U.S. Huston Tillotson University President and CEO Larry Irvin says it is “critically important” for a patient to be able to relate to his physician. Looking alike is one way to make a connection. Irvin calls that “a linkage.”

The school is still raising funds to build a brand new campus clinic that will also serve the broader community. The hope is to have it open in 2014.

As for Robert Winston, the man who lives on the streets, he now believes his parents must have struggled with some kind of mental illnesses themselves.

He knows two of his daughters back in California are also dealing with mental illnesses. But the girls were open to treatment. Now, Winston says, they’re thriving in college.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.