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by Abby Arcuri

Many people’s journeys bring them to topics they become interested in studying.

Millicent N. Robinson, a former graduate student who worked with CHER, shared her journey, and how it led her to become passionate in her work.

What was your path to CHER?

As a dual degree MSW/MPH student here at UNC, I was also a scholar in the Leadership in Public Health Social Work Education (LPHSWE) Fellowship program. This was a program designed to provide training and education, faculty development and curriculum enhancement to prepare students for leadership roles in public health social work.

During this time, I was also searching for practicum placements that focused on health equity.

I met Melissa A. Green, who is the Deputy Director of the Clinical Scholars Program at one of the workshops hosted through the LPHSWE. We began talking and I informed her of my practicum search.

She informed me that she worked with CHER and that CHER might be a great fit for my practicum placement. I reached out to her afterwards and she later became one of my practicum mentors.

What did you accomplish in your time with CHER?

During my time with CHER, I worked primarily with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholars Program. In my role as a Public Health Social Work intern, I completed a qualitative project with maternal and child health providers to better understand ways in which they facilitate a culture of health for children, parents and families.

I also developed a 5-page sample narrative for future applicants to the RWJF Clinical Scholars Program with the focus of the narrative being a project with children with special healthcare needs and disabilities.

Additionally, I created a database of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion resources for fellows in the Clinical Scholars program that was mapped to Clinical Scholars competencies.

I had the amazing opportunity to also work closely with Community-Campus Partnerships for Health (CCPH). This is a nonprofit organization that works to achieve social justice and health equity through facilitating community-academic partnerships.

Through CCPH, I collaborated on multiple projects including a Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute Town Hall meeting on patient engagement in research.

What are you up to now?

I am currently a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the UNC School of Social Work through the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity.

I am also a certified master practitioner of Reiki Therapy, which is an evidence-based practice used to reduce stress and promote healing and well-being.

Overall, my research now focuses on Black women’s health and healing. More specifically, I am interested in better understanding the biopsychosocial mechanisms that shape the mind-body connection and related mental and physical health outcomes among Black women.

To accomplish this, I have four key objectives:

  1. Identify mental and physical health trends and their interconnections.
  2. Evaluate the role of culturally-relevant forms of coping in shaping these health patterns.
  3. Examine the ways in which sociodemographic and psychosocial factors impact these associations.
  4. Develop, implement and assess culturally-relevant mindfulness interventions to promote mental and physical well-being.

I was recently awarded a National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD) Research Diversity Supplement to assess the acceptability and cultural relevance of an enhanced mindfulness-based stress management program for Black women, with Dr. Cheryl Giscombé and Dr. Susan Gaylord in the UNC School of Nursing.

How have you made an impact in your field?

Coined by Dr. Sherman James, John Henryism is a form of high-effort coping with stressors. This coping style may have particular significance for Black women’s health, as it reflects the broader societal, cultural and historical context that shapes the lived experiences of Black populations navigating racism and capitalism in the U.S.

As prior research emphasized the physical health implications of John Henryism among Black men, the impact of this coping style for women, mental health or ethnic subgroups of Black Americans remained unclear.

I have conducted multiple studies to assess the associations between:

  1. John Henryism and mental health.
  2. John Henryism and physical health.
  3. The role of socioeconomic status (SES) in shaping these patterns among African American and Caribbean Black women.

Studying John Henryism

In one study published in the International Journal for Environmental Research & Public Health, I assessed the association between John Henryism and self-rated health among African American and Caribbean Black women.

Findings demonstrated that although John Henryism was not directly associated with self-rated health among either group. Once sociodemographic characteristics and stress exposure were accounted for, John Henryism was associated with lower odds of fair or poor self-rated health among both groups.

In another study, I examined the association between John Henryism and psychological distress and evaluated if this association differed by SES.

While John Henryism was protective for Caribbean Black women with low and moderate SES, John Henryism was unrelated to distress among high SES Caribbean Black women. This was unexpected such that high levels of high-effort coping are typically harmful for the health of low SES individuals in traditional scholarship.

Collectively, these findings demonstrate the relevance of examining the role of sociodemographic and psychosocial characteristics when assessing mental and physical health patterns among Black women.

In another area of work, I have provided significant contributions to our understanding of the association between psychological distress and major depression among Black women, and the factors that shape these outcomes.

In a study published in the Journal of Racial & Ethnic Health Disparities, my colleagues and I found that although increased distress was associated with greater risk for major depression, this association depended on differences in age and adult SES.

Distressed middle-aged and older Black women were most vulnerable to experiencing ongoing major depression, while high SES distressed Black women were most vulnerable to experiencing major depression in their lifetime.

This work provides a significant contribution by highlighting the factors that are most impactful for Black women’s mental health and indicates that the mechanisms shaping mental health among the broader population may not operate similarly across or within groups.

What do you hope to do in the future?

A major goal of my work is to identify the pathways through which social stress exposure, coping and healing processes shape the mind-body connection and health of Black women while strengthening the evidence base used to inform the development of culturally relevant mindfulness interventions.

A pivotal moment for me came a few years ago when I read Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery by bell hooks. I have returned to this text many times since.

Two quotes that stick out to me and have become guiding principles for myself and the work I seek to accomplish are: “Since society rewards us most, indicates that we are valuable, when we are willing to push ourselves to the limit and beyond, we need a life-affirming practice, a counter-system of valuation in order to resist this agenda,” and “We need to reclaim our ability to live heart-whole.”

I hope that through my scholarship and collaboration with Black women to center their lived experiences and expertise, I will be able to collaborate and meaningfully contribute to a body of work and practice that honors the autonomy and agency of Black women so that we are able to not only survive but also thrive in all areas of health and well-being.