It is brain health, and we should think about it the same way we do any other major organ in our body. Why are conversations around someone’s thyroxine levels different from their serotonin levels? How is it that we don’t get regular preventative annual check-ups on our brain in the same way we do our heart or lungs? Why does our collective culture around mental health create an environment where we are often waiting until something goes wrong before we deal with our brain’s health? Why do we continue to allow the stigmatization of “mental” impede our ability to properly take care of our brain’s health despite its significant role in our ability to thrive, produce, and function?
The problem with how we discuss, diagnose, and treat mental health does not just impact our ability to address our own health in smarter, more efficient, and safer ways - it also has larger economic and societal implications. Throughout my career, I worked on various poverty alleviation and economic empowerment programs around the world, where the impact of trauma on a person’s ability to lift themselves out of poverty becomes abundantly clear.
I have spent more than three decades in the field, and I haven’t really seen the sector as a whole truly acknowledge the direct link between brain health and a person’s ability to rise above extreme poverty. Yes, there are organizations out there addressing mental health, especially organizations that provide direct services to extremely vulnerable populations, but despite plenty of evidence showing how trauma impacts the brain’s ability to focus and make sound long-term decisions, the relationship between trauma and cycles of poverty receives nowhere near the attention it should. It is one of the least funded interventions and it is oftentimes added on as a secondary or tertiary intervention on top of core programming that tends to focus on education or economic empowerment. In fact, despite the United Nations outlining a whopping number of Sustainable Development Goals in 2015 (17 in total) – mental health barely gets a shout out under the larger goal of Health.
The relationship, between trauma and poverty resilience, was hammered home when I was working with RefuSHE, an organization that serves refugee girls and young women in East Africa. Mental Health is an integral part of RefuSHE’s holistic model and its co-founders Anne Sweeney and Talyn Good built its programming with a trauma-informed lens. At RefuSHE, I witnessed the levels of chronic and complex trauma the girls they served faced. It was impossible to ignore the very clear relationship between mental health and the ability to concentrate in school or make focused long-term business decisions. Additionally, I learned that many of the latest neuroscience-based somatic therapies for trauma are not yet taught in professional institutions in Kenya and that there was no specific word for “trauma” in Kiswahili. Without the language or the lexicon to talk about trauma, how could we properly explain and address the root of how trauma was impacting our girls from a physiological perspective?
In 2020, RefuSHE partnered with licensed clinical therapists Rachael Miller and Teddy Chakee to roll-out a workshop on “The Science of Trauma,” to help the girls and young women at RefuSHE actually understand the science behind what is happening to them physiologically in order to empower them to be invested in their own mental health. Seeing the immediate results and impact of that partnership led to my decision to join forced with Rachael Miller to launch Impact Alchemy following my tenure with RefuSHE.
Launching Impact Alchemy comes from my deep desire and commitment to contributing further to this space through research, exploration, advocacy, and innovation within the larger social sector.
Until we recognize the need to invest in deep trauma-informed interventions, we will continue to invest in economic development programs that don’t have the long-term durability needed to not only lift but keep people out of poverty.
I have seen millions of dollars being poured into economic development programs aimed at lifting people out of extreme poverty without the needed emphasis on mental health and its impact on their ability to thrive. The idea that education, skills training, and market opportunities can lift and keep people out of poverty, without addressing the deep and often generational trauma they are dealing with, is flawed and short-sighted.
As a sector it is time to not only talk about mental health but to fundamentally change how we talk about it. It is time for a seismic shift with regards to how humanitarian and livelihood interventions are designed, developed, implemented, and funded.
To actually achieve the impact we want to see - we need to focus, invest, and center our work around - let's call it what it is - brain health.
Jailan is a global development executive and strategic consulting powerhouse. She is the drive behind our leadership development.