Black History Month: Centering Black Mental Health

A Q&A with Tara Wilhelmi

Q: What brought you to the field of Mental Health? 

A: I have always had a “counselors heart”.  Even as a youth I often played the role of conflict mediator.  Talking with new people, having brave and authentic conversations has always come naturally to me.  In 2018 I was invited to attend a peer specialist training hosted by a local start up organization focused on interrupting community/gun violence.  As I sat in the training learning about what it meant to be a peer specialist I remember thinking “WOW! I have been doing this for most of my life & you’re saying I can make a living doing it??”

Q: What do you think are some of the systemic barriers for black people within the mental health system?

A: Generations of white supremacy & anti black ideology and practices in healthcare & educational systems specifically have created a pool of mental health providers and administrators who engage Black people on a spectrum that ranges from awkward to oppressive.  White supremacy upholds practices and ideals that strip Black people of their humanity – how can you understand and empathize with people who subconsciously you have been programmed to view as subhuman or “other”?   Even when providers are Black/BIPOC their “white washed” eurocentric education often forced them to internalize the same white supremacist concepts and ideals about Blacks in America as their non Black colleagues. 

Q: Can you share more about the work you are doing with Chrysalis to create a Certified Peer Specialist Learning Community?

A: My community recovery and wellness organization, EOTO, has been partnering with Chrysalis over the past year.  After meeting Dani & Alysha we quickly discovered a shared passion for expanding and supporting the peer movement in Dane County and throughout Wisconsin.  We had several lively conversations about siloed peer specialists, challenges for non peer or clinical staff to provide supportive and reflective supervision to those peers when they often lacked a true understanding of the peer role, and the lack of diversity in Wisconsin’s current peer workforce.  We also discovered that we shared both solutions based and social justice focus outlook on these issues.  The planning for our current collaboration began almost organically from those conversations and now we are ready to launch our Certified Peer Specialists Learning Community.  Our cohort based, collective learning curriculum highlights best practices to support organizations who are interested in integrating new peer support programs or expanding existing ones while also providing a sense of community and professional support to peers in the workforce.

Q: Why is this work important to you?

A: Peer Support has allowed me to continue my own personal journey of recovery and wellness, it has provided me with bankable skills that combine (among a list of other things)  my “counselors heart”, my own lived experience and resilience, and my entrepreneurial spirit with the ability to share those things with others.  As a Black woman in Wisconsin I am deeply impacted by our state’s continued status as “the worst place to raise a Black family” and other sadly familiar narratives about racial disparities in our home state.  As a mother to Black children I have to do everything I can to impact change – everything to help them heal and belong to a community that is healing- from generations of racialized trauma and internalized white supremacy ideologies.  As a member of the extended village that is the African Diaspora I feel obligated to use my voice and the lessons I have learned to support others on their own journey to healing and wellness.   Partnering with an established and respected organization like Chrysalis – working side by side with impressive, knowledgeable and passionate women like Dani & Alysha – feeds the fire of hope for our future that sustains me when fighting for equity, equality and systems change starts to weigh too heavily on my mind & soul.

Q: What can the community do to support this work?

A: The community can connect with us and other organizations to learn more about what peer support is and how it impacts long term recovery.  Individuals who would like to join an email list to receive our Certified Peer Specialist Learning Community Newsletter can click here to do so. We’ll share updates about free training opportunities, information on how to support Certified Peer Specialists within your community, and more.

You can donate here to EOTO LLC to support Tara’s amazing work: