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Dismantling structural racism by disrupting mental health care in D.C. – Health News Today


Dr. Charlayne Hayling-Williams wasn’t born into poverty, but it surrounds her in the area around her office at Community Wellness Ventures in Southeast Washington. She’s the psychologist daughter of a mother who was one of just two Blacks to graduate from her pharmacy school. Her great-grandparents graduated from college. She could have settled comfortably in Georgetown with a busy clinical practice.

Hayling-Williams said she could have ended up at a think tank or in academia after she spent 2010 to 2014 working in local, federal and congressional offices in the nation’s capital. But that’s when she decided to work on the problems caused by structural racism from the inside out: Moving from the government offices into the community that most needed the solutions. 

She opened CWV in 2015 in the city’s lowest-income ward and started heading in the direction health policy leaders say mental health has to go: Fully integrated into health care systems. And when it gets there, it needs cultural competence in a one-stop-shop for all the social and health challenges racism has wrought. 

Psychologist seeks to dismantle structural racism by disrupting mental health care in DC

Dr. Charlayne Hayling-Williams opened Community Wellness Ventures in 2015 in one of the Southeast Washington D.C.’s lowest-income neighborhoods.

Davon Harris, Urban Health Media Project, USA TODAY

Her initial attempts to incorporate primary medical care into this “human service agency” were stymied by the pandemic and the broken mostly-Medicaid-covered system in which she’s trying to integrate.

But she remains undaunted, focusing on her successful integration of services including housing, employment and disability services into a center that offers mental health and addiction treatment. CWV programs have reduced the impact of trauma, racism, and poverty, she said. The center also has a contract to run the Pathways to Wellness program for citizens reentering the community after incarceration – part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement.  

Here, she answers Five Questions from USA TODAY health policy reporter Jayne O’Donnell and Caitlyn Taylor, an intern with the Urban Health Media Project, which O’Donnell co-founded. 

The proverbial light bulb went on for me in college when I began to understand more fully the role of oppression and systemic racism in America. I knew at that time I was going to be a psychologist but there was a shift that made me realize I needed to focus on systems and that fully top down or bottom up approaches alone weren’t going to be effective.  I also knew i could accomplish more by integrating policy and practice than i could as a practicing psychologist. There is a tremendous amount of responsibility to train and supervise and help develop the next generation of behavioral health practitioners in a way that leading Community Wellness Ventures allows me to do as well. 

It has long been abundantly clear…

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