By LaShawn Gooden, PhD Candidate
The Mary Ellen Strong Foundation strives to support African American mental health providers. In addition to contributing to the development of the next generation of psychotherapists, MESF is also devoted to supporting therapists currently working to heal underserved communities. Last year, MESF hosted its inaugural Providers’ Wellness Retreat. This culturally specific retreat was designed as a restorative experience for African American women who are mental health providers.
Often wellness retreats do not incorporate culturally specific healing practices in their efforts to combat burnout and compassion fatigue. By centering programming in healing practices specific to women from the African diaspora and by offering this program in a culturally closed space, a safe environment for deeper, restorative healing work was created.
Twelve women participated in the retreat. The women, who all identify as Black/African American, were healers from mental health and other backgrounds and practices. The setting for the retreat was a large lake house located in Minnesota and specifically designed for retreats and healing work and there were no others allowed into the space that weekend.
Workshops and lectures on Cultural Wellness, Financial Wellness and Reconnection through Play offered research-based healing opportunities. Circle times, led by Elders, allowed for exploration and experience with African healing practices.
Therapeutic massages and guided body movement sessions were available throughout the weekend and individuals had time to explore the natural surroundings as they wanted. A crucial ingredient for the retreat was the food. Healthy snacks and beverages were available at all times, but the focal point was the family style meals. These meals were prepared by an on-site chef (who created dishes from the Africa diaspora with recipe modifications to follow an anti-inflammatory dietary guideline (no dairy, no gluten, no sugar). The meal times not only allowed participants to receive nourishment and education about healthy eating practices, but the mealtime conversations were opportunities to form deeper connections with one another.
On the last day of the retreat participants were asked to share their reflections of the weekend.
Reflections of the Retreat
Many of the participants reported that they came to the retreat with few expectations, simply thinking they would have time to rest and relax with other African American women who were mental health professionals. All participants expressed that the retreat exceeded their expectations. They stated that they enjoyed the opportunity to relax, meet like-minded professionals, gain tools to implement wellness in their daily lives and receive valuable information.
Things that participants said that they plan to implement include: setting clear financial goals to increase financial wellness; creating time and space for self-care activities, including yoga; cooking with more diverse and healthier ingredients; spending more intentional time with and in community and being more aware of cultural dynamics.
A common theme in the feedback was the appreciation for the focus on cultural wellness. One participant stated that learning about ‘mental illness’ as an adaptation to systems (of oppression) was really empowering for her, and she plans to integrate this information in her work with clients. Participants also reported that the retreat helped them replenish themselves in a way that will allow them to be more present and improve their work with clients. One participant stated, “I feel like I’m in a better space to give care. Before coming, I wasn’t in a good space.”
Overall, there was agreement that the retreat was a much-needed experience for those working in the mental health field. “I texted my supervisor and talked about the impact of trauma on healers and working with trauma. I told my supervisor we need to implement programming, like this, to make sure healers are well.” Participants shared their deep appreciation for an environment that allowed them to nurture and uplift each other as African American women. “It was a pure space. People genuinely wanted to support each other, and that made it special. There was an alliance of love.”
For more information about the Mary Ellen Strong Foundation go to their website: https://maryellenstrongfoundation.org/