UK Project Will Help Black Lexingtonians Access Mental Health Services

Neighborhood Healers project leaders (left to right) Lisa Higgins-Hord, Camille Burnett, Candice Hargons and Danelle Stevens-Watkins.
Neighborhood Healers project leaders (left to right) Lisa Higgins-Hord, Camille Burnett, Candice Hargons and Danelle Stevens-Watkins.

LEXINGTON, Ky. (March 9, 2022) — Historically, studies have shown that Black individuals are less likely to seek and accept mental health care due to concerns regarding stigma as well as mistrust of professionals caused by documented racial inequities in treatment.

In Lexington, the Black population represents approximately 15% of residents, but in 2020, Black people represented only 7% of the population receiving community mental health services in Kentucky’s Bluegrass region.

The Neighborhood Healers Project, a new pilot project led by University of Kentucky researchers, aims to reduce this equity gap by addressing the stigma and helping Black Lexingtonians access the mental health services they need.

The five-year project, funded for $624,787 by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), will create a support system of “first-responders” within Lexington’s Black community who are trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of mental health crises and connect people to needed resources.

“People who are experiencing mental health distress in Black communities may turn to those they trust for help including church leaders, hair stylists and barbers, community elders, family members, civic organization members and educators,” said the study’s principal investigator (PI) Candice Hargons, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and associate professor in the UK College of Education’s Department of Educational, School, and Counseling Psychology. “Through the Neighborhood Healers Project, we will train these Black community leaders so that they can be a gateway to therapy or help facilitate the mental health treatment process.”

Over the next five years, the team will identify 100 leaders within Lexington’s Black community and provide them with Mental Health First Aid training.

Mental Health First Aid is an evidence-based course that provides knowledge about mental health disorders and skills in crisis intervention to de-escalate a mental health crisis until a licensed mental health provider can intervene. Individuals in need of care will be referred to behavioral health services throughout the region.

In addition to training, the project includes a targeted public education campaign to reduce mental health stigma among Black Lexingtonians.

An annual survey will evaluate the impact of the community first responders and education campaign. The results will also reveal more about the prevalence of mental health distress in Lexington’s Black community.

Hargons is leading the project with co-PIs Danelle Stevens-Watkins, Ph.D., UK’s associate vice president for research, diversity and inclusion and an associate professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education; Lisa Higgins-Hord, UK’s assistant vice president for community engagement; and Camille Burnett, Ph.D., a former associate professor and assistant dean in the UK College of Nursing for Equity, Outreach and Social Justice, and strategic advisor for community engagement and academic partnerships in the UK Office of the Provost who now serves as associate vice president of education and health Equity and the executive associate director of inclusion, inquiry, and innovation at Virginia Commonwealth University. Counseling Psychology doctoral student Natalie Malone serves as the graduate assistant for the project and will train all community first responders in Mental Health First Aid. 

The project will leverage the PIs’ expertise in data analysis, psychology and community engagement, as well as their strong ties to the Black community in Lexington, Hargons says.

“While Neighborhood Healers will leverage UK’s expertise and resources to help solve one of the deep-seated health inequities experienced by communities of color, it will also address a critical need within the community our university serves,” Hargons said.

Hargons applied for the grant after the opportunity was shared through UK’s UNited In True racial Equity (UNITE) Research Priority Area, which is focused on supporting research that will promote racial equity.

“This project is just one example of the many ways UNITE researchers are collaborating across disciplines to help address racial disparities while building partnerships between UK and communities of color,” said Stevens-Watkins, who leads UNITE.

The Neighborhood Healers Community Advisory Board include:

  • Russell Allen
  • Commissioner Kacy Allen-Bryant
  • Honorable James Brown
  • Shawn Ka'Ron Bumpasse
  • David Cozart
  • Chester Grundy
  • Rodney James
  • Renee Mitchell
  • Shambra Mulder, Ph.D. 
  • Pastor Michael C. Robinson

The first cohort of Neighborhood Healers Fellows will be selected this week. 

This project is supported by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of an award totaling $624,787 with 0% financed with non-governmental sources. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official views of, nor an endorsement, by SAMHSA, HHS, or the U.S. Government. For more information, please visit 

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