One Nurse’s Dedication To Supporting Mental Health in Boston’s Black Communities

Three-day public event aims to reduce mental health stigma and pave the way for candid discussions

July 11, 2022

My Mental Health Matters is dedicated to supporting the mental health of Boston’s African and Black communities. The free, public event, which runs from August 19-21 in Waltham, Massachusetts, is the brainchild of Dorothy Ssebakka.

Ssebakka began her career at McLean in 2000, a year after she immigrated to the United States from Uganda. She started out as a mental health specialist and went on to nursing school. Since 2008 she has been a registered nurse at the hospital, where she currently works in The Pavilion and the OCD Institute.

Ssebakka is also a minister and the founder of Women of Purpose International (WOPI-Boston International), an organization that empowers African immigrants as they settle into their new homes in the U.S.

Because of her different roles, Ssebakka is in a unique position to understand the mental health concerns of Boston’s African community and connect people to resources.

Ssebakka is often seen as a trusted resource, with friends and neighbors often approaching her with questions about mental health. Some of her expertise comes from personal experience.

“Back home when I was living there, we lost a brother through suicide years ago,” Ssebakka said. “It was not until later, after I started working here at McLean, I realized the impact untreated mental health can have on someone.”

Dorothy Ssebakka, BSN, RN

Dorothy Ssebakka, RN

According to Ssebakka, the challenges faced by members of Boston’s African community are two-fold: the lack of extended family people had back home in Africa, and stigma around mental health conditions.

Ssebakka regularly hears from families whose children struggle with depression, and she observes groups of young men in her community drinking heavily. She talks to women who are helping others—working in grocery stores, nursing homes, and hospitals—who feel depleted and are not getting the help they need to care for their own families.

“Before we arrived in this great nation, we had extended families we could depend on,” Ssebakka said. “But when you come here, there is no one to depend on—it’s you. Not even the neighbors. When I arrived, there wasn’t even anyone to say hi to. Those are the things that can make a person feel so down.”

Ssebakka founded WOPI in 2008 to provide the fellowship she felt was missing for her and people she knew. Members of WOPI connect to each other through preaching, conferences, and charity work.

“When we are together, we feel like we can encourage each other,” she said.

Although Ssebakka supports people through their mental health challenges, she says that stigma prevents many from being more open and even from receiving essential care.

“Some people have depression, but they don’t want to come out as being depressed because they fear being labeled,” she said. “Some people have children with psychosis that may be an inherited thing in their families, but they don’t come out because they fear people will judge them. They are afraid people will not want to marry into their families.”

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Mom and baby outside

In the spring of 2021, Ssebakka heard from parents whose child was suicidal. She helped the family find treatment and visited the child in the hospital. “This child was nine years old. At nine years, I didn’t even know what depression was,” Ssebakka said.

The situation, and many others, weighed heavily on her.

“I was praying to God to do something in our Black community by that time,” she said. “I already had a burden in my heart for my people who were depressed, in great distress, and some who had passed on via suicide. I was like Nehemiah in the Bible.”

Later that year, McLean’s president and psychiatrist in chief, Scott L. Rauch, MD, stopped by The Pavilion on rounds one night while Ssebakka was working.

She approached Rauch and said, “I need help with my people.”

“Dr. Rauch looked at me and asked, ‘What do you mean, ‘my people’?’ I told him, ‘I’m Ugandan and we have an immigrant community in Waltham, Watertown, Burlington, and Woburn, who can benefit from what we have here at McLean.’”

Rauch listened. By the next day, he connected Ssebakka with McLean’s Education Outreach team to create My Mental Health Matters.

“I think God was intending me to meet him to help me bring out my vision because it’s huge,” Ssebakka said.

Hosted by WOPI-Boston International, the event at the Hilton Garden Inn in Waltham will have a film screening with a Q&A, talks on mental health topics, and fun, hands-on activities for families focused on understanding the brain.

Ssebakka said, “I want it to be the beginning of open conversations, communication, and action regarding mental health within our immigrant community and those outside. We want to partner to create substantial, sustainable mental health support.”

“McLean coming out to our community in Waltham is huge,” she added. “The people in my community need people that they know in order to trust.”

Thanks to Ssebakka and WOPI, McLean and more members of Boston’s African and Black communities will now become acquainted—reducing stigma and improving access to care.

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