Whatsinthemirror? Addressing Mental Health Among the Queer Community of Color in Central Texas Through the Arts

Tarik Daniels, the 2019 winner of the Austin Under 40 Award for Arts and Entertainment, sat down to chat with us about his work here in Austin, his journey to becoming a playwright, his passion for tackling mental health in the Black queer community, and his current projects with the organization he founded and for which he serves as executive director – whatsinthemirror.

Shortly after moving to Austin in 2012, Tarik procured his first grant from the city that allowed him to focus on playwriting. While working with the Austin Creative Alliance, he started whatsinthemirror as an initiative of their work, but branched out in 2016 to develop the project as its own independent organization focused on using art to address the intersections of mental health in the black queer community, particularly around HIV. Since 2016, whatsinthemirror has produced a play each year, starting with “The Counseling Session,” Tarik’s first play script based on an experience with suicide he witnessed as a 15-year old in Detroit. Tarik felt a natural fit with writing about the intersections of mental health and HIV in the black queer community, as he found that many folks in his community “weren’t able to find outlets in the mental wellness spectrum that allowed them to be free, to be true about what was going on in their life” and were contracting and dying from HIV at higher rates than their counterparts. He wanted to use art and his story to help others get rid of the shame and the stigma around mental health and HIV. He also says that he’s “always been around people with mental illness; that was normal to me. It was always a battle in our family,” and therefore the combining of passions is such a natural fit for him as he pursues this work. 

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health reports that Black communities are more likely to report serious psychological distress.  The National Council for Behavioral Health found that Black Americans are less likely to seek out treatment and more likely to end treatment early.  The intersections of Black and queer identities only increase daily stresses of entrenched racism and homophobia, increasing the likelihood of psychological distress.  However, there are very few opportunities for accessing competent and affirming treatment. Less than 2 percent of the American Psychological Associate members are Black and many people who do seek out help, report experiencing racism and microaggression from their therapists.

Whatsinthemirror is a healing justice social movement that provides suicide prevention and mental health awareness to communities of color through art, advocacy, and affirming care with a focus on LGBTQIA+ people, youth, and women. The organization currently has two main projects: the development, publication, and promotion of a mental health database for the queer community of color in Central Texas, and their latest project, ArtHeals, started in January 2020 thanks to a grant from COMPASS/Gilead.

The mental health database came out of a realization through their work in the community hosting events connecting mental health/wellness practitioners with community members, and recognizing the need for a one-stop resource for queer people of color in Central Texas to find affirming practitioners. All database listings have been called and vetted by the organization and can be found directly from their website: https://whatsinthemirror.org. While the database currently functions as a Google spreadsheet, their eventual goal is to create a standalone website and app.

Their biggest current project is the ArtHeals project, which was recently awarded a Transformative Grant from the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work as part of the COMPASS Initiative® to build on community-driven solutions that are reducing stigma and improving the health and wellbeing of those impacted by HIV in the South. With this grant, whatsinthemirror is currently running several support groups (currently meeting virtually) for Black queer people living with HIV and allies. This work also includes a Mental Health Monday Facebook live event. Through the support groups, they feature guest speakers each meeting and spend time planning their culminating event the Art Heals Festival, a multimedia social justice festival, occurring in August of this year. The festival, which will occur primarily, if not entirely online, at this point, strives to end HIV stigma through art, particularly among queer people of color, and will provide a platform for empowering people living with HIV to both showcase their art, but also take part in the planning process.

The festival aims to create a forum for dialogue and collaboration between diverse communities united by an interest in local social justice issues and to support the community of progressive artists, activists and community workers. They are currently looking for provocative, radical, inspiring, empowering, innovative and/or enlightening works from across the artistic media (i.e., film, poetry, performing arts, music, visual arts and anything else you consider art). Proposals must address local social justice/activist/human rights issues. To learn more about the festival, the mental health database, whatsinthemirror, or to submit a proposal, visit whatsinthemirror.org.

Finally, we asked Tarik his recommendations for organizations looking to address mental health among people of color living with HIV in their own work, and you can listen to his response here:  

Tarik Daniels is an AfroQueer artist and HIV & mental health awareness activist. He is the Founder and Executive Director of Whatsinthemirror?, a social movement that provides mental health awareness and suicide prevention through art and advocacy to communities of color. Currently serving as a City Commissioner for Austin’s LGBTQ Quality of Life Advisory Board and HIV Planning Council. Tarik has written, directed, and produced several plays and released a novel, No Bonds So Strong, in 2018 and cohosts the Black queer podcast, What Works for Us. He is the winner of the 2019 Austin Under 40 Awards in Arts & Entertainment, 2019 Richard “Torch” Hopkins Community Leader from Integral Care, and 2020 SXSW Community Service Honoree Award. 

The Intersection of Violence and HIV

In our efforts to end HIV as an epidemic, we must consider the impact that exposure to violence and abuse can have on a person’s health and well-being. As people across the US and the world have been isolating and practicing social distancing, numerous organizations and individuals have drawn attention to the danger this isolation poses to people who may be isolated with violent partners. 

The intersection of intimate partner violence and HIV in women, men, and transgender individuals can occur through:

  • Forced sex,
  • Limited or compromised negotiations of safer sex practices, and
  • Increased sexual risk-taking behaviors.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience sexual violence at similar or higher rates than heterosexuals. The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects (NCAVP) estimates that nearly one in ten LGBTQ survivors of intimate partner violence (IPV) has experienced sexual assault from those partners.

Studies suggest that around half of transgender people and bisexual women will experience sexual violence at some point in their lifetimes. According to a 2015 survey of more than 27,000 transgender individuals, more than half of the respondents had experienced some form of intimate partner violence, including coercive control and physical harm.

Research indicates that approximately 55% of women and 20% of men living with HIV experience intimate partner violence. IPV not only increases the risk of HIV acquisition, but it often keeps people from engaging in or remaining in HIV care.

Collaboration with organizations that address intimate partner violence is essential to our efforts. Below is a post that was originally published by the Safe Alliance on safeaustin.org on February 20, 2019. The SAFE Alliance exists to stop abuse for everyone by serving the survivors of child abuse, sexual assault and exploitation, and domestic violence. It is re-posted with permission.

Violence and abuse intersect in a million ways

Written by SAFE

How long did it take for people to talk about R. Kelly’s abuse of numerous Black women as more than a punchline? When Monica Loera, a trans woman of color, was murdered three years ago in Austin, why did police fail to identify her by the correct gender? How is it possible that having a disability makes you 7 times more likely to be sexually assaulted?

Across the board, violence and abuse disproportionately impact marginalized groups. Part of our work involves changing the established systems that harm these communities and so often keep people from seeking help.

If you’re familiar with SAFE’s story, you’re no stranger to the idea of intersections. We work to stop child abuse, domestic violence, and sexual violence. These issues are all connected – we see it when a little boy grows up to beat his girlfriend after years of abuse at the hands of his parents, or when someone who was molested their entire childhood is sexually assaulted as an adult. In every example of abuse, an abuser is exerting their power over their victim as a means of control.

The power and control dynamics that lead to victimization are amplified depending on the victim’s gender, race, ability, sex, status, and many other factors. So people of color, people with disabilities, members of LGBTQIA+ communities, and members of many other groups all face a greater risk of violence. And the various ways these groups intersect change how they experience that violence and what resources will help them escape.

For example, a queer Black man who relies on a physically abusive partner to help with their disabilities faces a different set of hurdles than a heterosexual Asian-American woman who is experiencing homelessness and selling sex to survive. And when a straight white man with no disabilities is attacked by his girlfriend, what he experienced is every bit as valid – it’s just a different experience.

Violence doesn’t discriminate. It can affect anyone. So when we say our mission is to stop abuse for everyone, we mean everyone.

The Importance of Providing Integrated Care to PLWH

By Raymond Castilleja Jr., LCSW, MBA, MHSM/ Behavioral Health Director at Prism Health North Texas

Tremendous biomedical advancements in HIV prevention and treatment have led to aspirational efforts to end the HIV epidemic. However, this goal will not be achieved without addressing the significant behavioral health conditions (mental health and substance use disorders) among people living with HIV (PLWH). PLWH can experience behavioral health issues that can affect quality of life, health care access, adherence to treatment and continuity of care.

Continue reading “The Importance of Providing Integrated Care to PLWH”