Flint native Dr. Aisha Harris talks mental health care in the Black community

FLINT, Michigan — Dr. Aisha Harris is a highly needed and underrepresented professional in the Flint community. Graduating from Georgetown University School of Medicine in 2017 and serving patients directly at Hamilton Community Health Network, she created the Flint Health Hub which serves to educate, inform, and connect patients with doctors in the area,

Harris also hosts her BLK FAM DOC podcast, serves on the board of the Genesee County Prevention Coalition (GCPC), and advocates for mental and physical health in the Black community. For her, “health literacy can be improved within the home if families talk about their health care experiences and medical history. The health care system and the human body are complex, but they can be simplified one piece at a time if we all work to get better each day.”

Dr. Harris states that the Black community can work towards creating safe home and community support systems with open communication that are sustainable and adaptive to the daily and long-term stressors the Black community experiences. Throughout her work, she encourages people to reach out to the helpful health resources that are available to them. We caught up with Dr. Harris to learn more about her background in medicine, her new podcast, and prioritizing mental health care in the Black community.

FlintsideWhat influenced your decision to go to Georgetown University and become a family medicine physician?
Dr. Harris: "Becoming a doctor was not my original plan when I graduated high school. I went to undergrad at UofMich to become a chemical engineer with the idea of working in the health industry. When I was 17 and graduating from Carman, I was more focused on what I was good at regarding a future career but as I got older, I learned about so many more opportunities and my focus shifted more to my passion and what I enjoy. I have always been a community-oriented person and realized that I wanted to become a community doctor instead of looking into healthcare from the outside. So I graduated with my engineering degree and focused on becoming a doctor because I wanted to work directly with patients and be a trusted resource. At Georgetown University, I learned about Family Medicine and fell in love with the idea of being able to help patients and a community in diverse ways through my skills and training within and outside of clinical care."

FlintsideAre there any actions that Flint residents and healthcare professionals can take to address issues surrounding healthcare literacy?

Dr. Harris: "I think healthcare professionals that are more aware of social determinants of health are more equipped to improve and adapt their delivery of information, both in content and amount, presented in one moment. Time restraints often make it difficult to go into more details but concise and basic delivery of health information can really make an impact. Also, having more health professionals involved in different aspects of the community can help show the direct and indirect impact of various initiatives on health outcomes. Patients and residents that ask questions can help a doctor fill in a gap in the information, or clarify something, but the health setting also has to create an environment that is welcoming to questions. Patients who are able to tell and understand their stories are able to improve their health literacy because they have established a solid foundation by actively working to understand their medications and medical problems."

In addition to her podcast episodes, Dr. Harris also updates content on BLK FAM DOC's YouTube channel.
FlintsideWith there often being reluctance in the Black community to pursue mental healthcare due to various reasons and barriers, how can it begin to resolve these issues?

Dr. Harris: "Mental health is more prevalent than people think. Each aspect of our lives can be better at supporting mental health from home, to work, to school, and to the community. I believe that as a collective, we have to give ourselves grace when it comes to being human. Actively engaging in small efforts to understand the impact of our stressors, triggers, exposures, and abuses would make our mental health awareness and support better.

The Black community has for years not utilized the health system to its full capacity because the health system has not always been a friendly place. It has a long way to go but mental health care and resources can be provided in diverse ways within and outside of the health system.

Social determinants of health from housing, to finances, education, to work environments influence a person's mental health stability so addressing and improving many of the social determinants of health can provide a positive impact on mental health in general. Representation plays a big role in mental health access for patients as relatability and trust are key factors in mental health resources but pipeline development is not an overnight fix." 

FlintsideOn your podcast Black Family Doctor, topics range from income inequality to suicide. Why is it important for you to speak on these issues?
“The world is a busy place, and sometimes having a small world of good things happening makes me happy.” - Dr. Aisha Harris
Dr. Harris: "So much of health is outside of the health system and beyond the clinic, specifically in regards to prevention and social determinants of health. The podcast topics are fueled by the daily conversations I have with my patients and the barriers they face in their lives. I deeply believe that awareness can help save lives before it is too late and that people genuinely want to be healthier and have a healthier community. That people want to be more knowledgeable about the bigger picture of health, and what indirect things contribute to their life expectancies and health outcomes. I think sharing my knowledge and experiences with my community reminds me why I went into medicine and primary care which was to ultimately help the whole person and my community."

Flintside: Through your mental health advocacy efforts what improvements are you seeing within the community?

Dr. Harris: "Most of the mental health work that I can see is in the clinic so I regularly see people inquiring more about therapy or open to medical interventions. With BLK FAM DOC and the Flint Health Hub, I get some community engagement with my content that I believe creates more awareness for people. Also, I have seen more people in the community recognizing the mental health resource shortages in the community that makes it challenging to access the care that’s needed so it makes me feel like change will come soon."

Flintside: How can the Black communities within Flint come together to formulate and strategize healing solutions regarding mental health?

Dr. Harris: "There are many grants and funding for mental health services related to COVID, the water crisis, and general mental health needs, as well as funding for addressing social determinants of health. I think people, including myself, should continue to try and be present at the city and non-profit organization open public meetings that are taking comments from the community. We can help give recommendations for fund allocations and also see how improving every aspect of a person's day-to-day life can impact their mental health and help the community. Also, supporting and enjoying community events can create a positive environment and a chain reaction of healing and improving mental health."

Flintside: When prioritizing your own mental and physical health, what are some of the things you find that work best for you?

Dr. Harris: "I first remember that I am human and I try to have a collection of small victories in my diet, exercises, relaxation time, and more. I try to have creative outlets that I enjoy and go to art-related events when possible. I spend a lot of time with my favorite people and focus on what I can control. The world is a busy place, and sometimes having a small world of good things happening makes me happy and is a good reminder that l should be taking care of myself."

To keep up with Dr. Harris and her work, visit: blkfamdoc.comAlso, find and stream the BLK FAM DOC podcast here.

Read more articles by Briana McNair.