Harlem Word: Dr. Sidney Hankerson brings ground-breaking mental health programming to NYC African American churches

Dr. Sidney Hankerson is a psychiatrist who teaches at Columbia University and sees patients at the New York State Psychiatric Institute .  His work focuses on increasing access to mental health treatment for African Americans. Here he talks about his background and how he came to work in the mental health field. He also talks about how his work makes use of churches as important places where community members can get the information and care they need for mental health issues.

Q. Can you tell us about your background as a psychiatrist?

A. I went to medical school and did my psychiatric training at Emory University in Atlanta. I then came to New York in 2009 to do a joint research fellowship at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute in Washington Heights.

Q. What first interested you in this area of research?

A. During my psychiatric residency, I mainly worked at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta. Grady is a large, community hospital that serves patients who have no insurance and in that respect, it is very similar to Harlem Hospital in Manhattan. While at Grady, I was heartbroken by the many barriers that prevented African Americans from seeking mental health treatment. These barriers included ideas of shame about mental illness, lack of education about different treatments, and mistrust of medical providers. I wanted to conduct research to identify ways we can overcome these barriers to provide people with the high-quality care they need. 

Q. What does your current research involve?

A. I’m using African American churches, as places to promote education, screening, and, ultimately, to provide depression treatment for African Americans. The reason that we decided to use churches for this work is because we know that they are a very central and trusted place in many African American communities. Also, public health workers and doctors use churches to address many health conditions, including diabetes, cancer,  high blood pressure, and obesity that African American communities more often experience compared to other racial communities.  So, the church is a great place to continue to build trust and also provide treatment for depression.

Harlem Word is a series of interviews with Northern Manhattan health experts, written by HHPC and reviewed by our Health Advisory Board.

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