GFM The 
    Synergy Center

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Valarie Cunningham

GFM The Synergy Center
Is Faith Enough? The Role of the Church in African American Mental Health

Session Synopsis

History identifies that most African American are more likely to rely on and seek out their pastors or elders in their church for spiritual direction rather than seek out a professional when it relates to Mental Health. This session will focus on the severity of untreated mental health disorders among the African Americans and explore the role of the church in reducing the apprehension associated with mental health disorders. Develop a framework around how clergy and mental health providers can collaborate to reduce stigmas and provide culturally sensitive services for African Americans.


Valarie is the Founder and Executive Director of GFM The Synergy Center (GFMSC) for more than 15 years. She has over 18 years of experience in the Mental Health field and has served as the Interim Director of the Douglass Community Association as well as Director of Foster Care and Adoptions for Family and Children Services. GFM The Synergy was founded as a result of seeing a gap in culturally sensitive service providers for mental health among people of color. Her compassion for individual transformation and community restoration continues to drive her toward community healing. Valarie has a Masters Degree in Social Work and a Bachelors in Business Administration both from WMU.  When available to counsel her specialty is senior leaders, executives, and faith-based counseling.

Joseph Reynolds

Beyond Diversity Resource Center

What is your Professional Obligation? How to Work With A Community in Denial 

Session Synopsis

A denial of need for mental health (and other health-related) care exists among many African Americans. Among the reasons are cultural stigma and generational fear, fueled by historical abuses perpetrated through unethical practices and racist policies often sanctioned by government. Exacerbating this avoidance are current inequitable treatment practices as a result of unconscious (and conscious) bias. Among black men, reticence to seek care is hampered by misguided notions of masculinity. These and other reasons conspire to keep valuable treatment at arm’s length by African Americans. It can leave practitioners frustrated, demoralized or cynical, leading to a potential decline in quality of service. This session educates participants on historical events contributing to current prevailing attitudes about mental healthcare. Through critical discussion, they will surface useful approaches to thinking about and engaging with a black community largely resistant to receiving mental health care.


J.R. Reynolds is Director of Special Initiatives at Beyond Diversity Resource Center, which engages in anti-oppression work. He also sits on the Michigan Good Food Charter steering committee where he chairs the food system racial equity action team. In addition, J.R. is a Certified Professional Coach. His focus is supporting anti-oppression work at the intersection of race, gender, ability, identity and class.

Dr. Carla Adkison-Johnson

Western Michigan University
What's Love Got To Do With It?  The Impact of Mental Health on African American Families

Session Synopsis

This presentation will provide direction for counseling African American families who have members who struggle with mental and emotional disorders. Counseling African Americans from a psychological perspective demands that one selects some theoretical position from among the variety approaches that are available. This presentation will utilize a Contextualized Humanistic Perspective and a Multi-system approach. Effective work with African American fathers will also be addressed.


Dr. Carla Adkison-Johnson has been a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor for over 25 years and is committed to meeting the mental health counseling needs of African American parents and children. She has spent the last 16 years providing mental health counseling to African American families in the Kalamazoo, Michigan community. Her particular focus has been on African American mothers and fathers who struggle with child rearing issues, depression, anxiety and death of child or immediate family member. Dr. Adkison-Johnson has published extensively in the areas of child discipline, culturally competent mental health counseling and African American child rearing practices. Her research has garnered attention in the legal, child welfare and counselor education literature.

Dr. Elishae Johnson

Bronson Battle Creek

Is Your Organization Ready For Me? Developing Culturally Sustaining Practices

Session Synopsis 

Many organizations may believe they are culturally sensitive to the African American client, yet may not be equipped to accommodate and adjust to the unique needs of this population. This session will provide a historical context of structural oppression that contributes to African-American mistrust, ambivalence, and access barriers in institutional medical care. Participants will understand and appreciate the value of relationships to African-Americans, and how developing nonjudgmental relationships, and use of a narrative approach to treatment may increase access to care and follow-through on treatment recommendations. This session will provide skills to improve connection to African-American clients, through communication strategies and office dynamics. This session will also provide cultural considerations to facilitate a culturally sensitive mental health treatment experience for African-American clients 


Elishae Johnson, PhD, LPC, CAADC received her Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from the University of Michigan in 2002, Master of Arts in Counseling from Spring Arbor University in 2006, and PhD from Walden University in Counseling Psychology in 2014. She completed her dissertation research on Clergy's Attitudes Toward Female Sexual Assault Survivors and Sexual Assault Sensitivity Training. She is also Michigan Certified Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor. Elishae was System Manager of Business Operations & Psychotherapist at HelpNet Employee Assistance Program of Bronson Healthcare from 2015-2018, and in 2018 promoted to System Director of Business Health Services. Elishae has a broad range of experience in mental health. She was formerly a Community Educator/Therapist at Sexual Assault Services of Calhoun County, backup child forensic interviewer for the Child Advocacy Center, Psythotherapist at LifeCoach Psychology, Owner of Eudemonia, PLLC, and Chemical Dependency Therapist at Psychological Consultants.

Dr. Sean Harris

Recovery Institute Of Southwest Michigan
Is it Real?: A Historical Review of African American Encounters with Psychiatry

Session Synopsis

Current research indicates that African Americans are less likely to seek out or receive mental health care when experiencing similar concerns as whites. A number of factors confound their access to meaningful care, including a dearth of quality services in black neighborhoods, inadequate health insurance, and a suspicion of service providers who must live down over a century of mistreatment. The Recovery Movement offers an opportunity for African Americans experiencing mental health and addiction concerns to transcend the patient role and become activists in their drive for a meaningful life on their own terms.


Sean Harris has assisted with the development of the Recovery Institute of Southwest Michigan since its inception as a peer run agency in 2006 and was appointed as Executive Director in 2010. He entered the mental health field in 1987 and shortly after moved to Chicago for his formative years. In 1993, he began hiring people in recovery to provide peer support in a housing program. As part of a project sponsored by Northwestern University, he spent several years interviewing people diagnosed with mental illness throughout Chicago and across Illinois, to gain a better understanding of what constituted a quality life and how people got tangled up with the law. In 2007, he earned a Ph.D. in History researching the experiences of African Americans who encountered the psychiatric system at the turn of the century.

Dr. Cheryl Dickson

Homer Stryker MD School of Medicine
Why Should We Care? Adverse Childhood Experiences

Session Synopsis

Overview of ACES and trauma on health outcomes will be discussed. A focus on prevention and understanding manifestations on children’s health outcomes and relation to later life success in career and educational outcomes . Participants will learn of resources in the community and discuss how to work together in community collaborative for prevention.


Dr. Dickson received her B.A from Brown University, and MD from University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. She completed a Master’s of Public Health in Health Policy and Management and her residency in Pediatric and Adolescent medicine. She is the Associate Dean for Health Equity and Community Affairs at WMED and her interest and work has been dedicated to reducing health disparities and creating health equity. Her work in the community includes working with Cradle reducing Black Infant mortality, creating programs for Safe –Sleep education, and has created Pipeline programs for high school and elementary school students to promote their success and introduce them to STEM and Health care career, working together with community advocates and organizations. She is committed to education of the next generation of health care providers to bring awareness about social determinants of health and impact on health outcomes and to understand how to examine the impact of unconscious bias and structural racism as a component.

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