The UNC Minority Student Caucus hosted the 42nd annual Minority Health Conference on Thursday and Friday with the theme of Body & Soul: The Past, Present and Future of Health Activism.
Chairpersons Shewit Weldense and Rachel Singley, both post-graduate students at the Gillings School of Global Public Health, spearheaded the event.
The event hosted speakers from different universities and organizations in the United States and abroad. This year’s theme focused on health activism and equity relating to physical well-being and the emphasized need for comprehensive emotional care for marginalized communities.
The conference is the largest and longest-running student-led health conference in the United States. It typically attracts over 500 people annually, in addition to others who watch it through a livestream. Due to the pandemic, this is the first year the conference has been held exclusively online.
A central point of the virtual event was breaking down taboos surrounding mental health awareness within minority groups.
Sharrelle Barber of Drexel University, one of the keystone speakers, said she is passionate about psychological care when fighting against systems that perpetuate racism in health care.
“Rest is resistance,” Barber said. “Radical self-care is not a luxury.”
To fight against the inequities that people from marginalized communities face, especially within the Black community, Barber stressed the importance of mental well-being. She focused on the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has had on people of color and explained how it has taken a toll on these communities.
Barber reiterated that in order to help address disparities in medical treatment, people must also take care of their emotional health.
Kauline Cipriani of the Gillings School of Global Public Health highlighted the need for inner healing from the crises that have occurred within the past year: the COVID-19 pandemic, widespread police brutality and anti-Asian hate crimes.
“There is much to fix, but there are still only 24 hours in a day, and you cannot pour from an empty cup,” Cipriani said. “Activism can only be sustained when it stems from an overflow, and overflow comes from radical self-care.”
She encouraged listeners to participate in activities that bring joy as a form of self-care to recharge and avoid exhaustion. The dismantling of oppressive systems cannot happen without forceful energy from the people, she said. Whether it be painting, writing or exercising, Cipriani made clear that taking care of mental health in these tumultuous times is crucial.
Wizdom Powell, director of the Health Disparities Institute at UConn Health, gave a presentation about current Black male health inequity in the United States. She summarized some of her research about why disparities in the health care of Black men occur.
“We also have been studying the implications of looking at medical mistrust alongside racism,” Powell said. “We’re learning that it’s not just medical mistrust alone, but it’s the intersection of medical mistrust with exposure to racism that produces male-related barriers to health help-seeking in Black men.”
Black men have the lowest life expectancy out of any group in the United States, which correlates with the distrust of medical professionals and racism they experience in everyday life, she said.
Powell referenced the unethical treatment of Black males in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study as an example of why Black men and boys are more reluctant to reach out for medical treatment.
She said health activism must be guarded to avoid it being corrupted or co-opted by the systems in place today.
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