Towards Mental Health Liberation: In Conversation with Yolo Akili Robinson

Towards Mental Health Liberation: In Conversation with Yolo Akili Robinson

By Vignetta Charles, PhD and Yolo Akili Robinson | July 14, 2021
Chief Executive Officer, ETR and Chief Executive Officer/Founder, BEAM

In this conversation, ETR’s CEO Vignetta Charles is joined by Yolo Akili Robinson, Founder & CEO of Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM), to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health services, the need for reimagining and redefining mental health interventions, and the push for reclaiming this month as “Mental Health Liberation Month.”

Vignetta (VEC): Yolo, thank you so much for agreeing to chat with me and ETR’s audiences about National Minority Mental Health Month. Before we get into that, I am a huge fan of BEAM’s work and its contribution to rethinking healing. For those who don’t know BEAM, can you tell us a little about the organization and why you founded it?

Yolo (YAR): Of course. I wanted to start BEAM because I was longing for an organization, and a movement, to address some of the things I saw lacking in spaces I had worked or organized in: Black mental health, toxic leadership that created distress and the lack of community care training and support. After 15 years in public health, those gaps were always in front of my face. I realized folks needed more skills to practice and struggle with embodying conflict, peer support, and addressing mental health in a different way. New methods, or in many cases, old methods revisited and reimagined. I wanted to make a space that helped us with the skills and resources needed to get closer to healing and thus BEAM came to be.

VEC:  I saw that recently you were recommending that we rename National Minority Mental Health Month to Mental Health Liberation month. I would love to learn more about this renaming and reclaiming.

YAR: At BEAM, we are not fans of the term “minority.” We also really struggle with the idea that Black, Latinx, Indigenous folks (who are very different and nuanced communities) should be lumped together in a category just because we are all non white. While we will always uplift the labor it took to get Minority Mental Health Month recognized by the late brilliant Bebe Moore Campbell, we wanted to shift the theme of the month away from the tokenism it has become and center liberation, something that benefits all communities and gets us to broaden our vision of what is possible. Mental health liberation is about our most bold, radical vision for mental health in this country and what we can do every day to get closer to that dream. Health is one thing; liberation, which includes and expands beyond health, is another.

VEC: The pandemic really highlighted the unmet needs to address mental health in our country, and around the world. Has BEAM’s work changed during the pandemic? If so, how?

YAR: Our work dramatically changed. One--while we had virtual offerings, we had them nowhere near the extent we do now. We transitioned our two days training into five weekly two hour sessions. We expanded our peer support programs and ramped up creating virtual tools and virtual meditations and workshops. It also expanded our reach. Before the pandemic our base was largely in the U.S because we were going directly to the communities that requested us. Now we have considerable bases of participants in Canada, South Africa, and the UK.

VEC: ETR’s audiences are diverse and include educators and health care providers who are always seeking new solutions to address needs in their schools and communities. How would you suggest that our audiences look for solutions within their communities to promote healing and wellness?

YAR: Talk to the people. And listen to what they say they need. For example, we are a mental health organization and our folks during COVID told us people needed money to alleviate economic anxiety and distress. Traditional public health doesn’t always make those kinds of connections; not always seeing mutual aid as the mental health intervention it truly is. We had to think outside of the models given to us and get to the root of the issue. Complex interventions that focus on giving people super resiliency powers are not the most useful thing when there are super villain structures with more power and endurance. We need to be both tacking systems but also support the base needs folks need to thrive.

VEC: Anything else you would like to share as we continue through Mental Health Liberation month? 

YAR: I want people to think of what it would really mean for them if we had mental health liberation. What would our workplaces, homes, communities feel like?  What about our current systems isn’t helping us reach liberation and what do we need to do to chart a new direction? What do we need to create that feels like freedom? How do we create it even as we don’t know if it will fail? When you hear the word liberation how do you feel in your body? And if that is an affirming feeling, how do we make more of that possible? Those are the questions I am always asking.

VEC: Thank you again for sharing your wisdom and insights and the wonderful work of BEAM. The world is rethinking itself in so many ways right now. We’re so grateful to have BEAM’s strong and visionary work as a part of ETR’s partnerships in the fight for health equity.


Vignetta Charles, PhD, (she/her/hers) is Chief Executive Officer of ETR. Dr. Charles can be reached at vignetta.charles@etr.org.

Yolo Akili Robinson (he/him/his) is the Chief Executive Officer and founder of BEAM. Yolo can be reached at YoloAkili@beam.community.

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