The 2021 Women’s Mental Health Conference at Yale (WMHC) will host Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo Movement as its keynote speaker.
The two-day conference, to be held virtually, will kick off with a keynote Q&A with Burke during Psychiatry Grand Rounds on Friday, April 23. Burke will also partake in a virtual breakfast meet and greet with a select group of trainees and students immediately preceding her talk.
Sofia Noori, MD, Fourth-Year Resident in the Department of Psychiatry and co-founder of WMHC, said conference leadership chose to approach Burke to be the keynote speaker because they wanted someone who could speak to psychiatrists from an integrative perspective about the multiple epidemics – including the COVID-19 pandemic and racism – currently ongoing in the United States.
The 2021 conference will center on the theme of racial justice, healing, and the impacts of COVID-19 on women. The keynote Q&A will focus on Burke’s lived experience as a sexual assault survivor, what has helped her and other women heal from trauma, and what it takes to build a movement.
Burke, a civil rights activist from the Bronx, started the #MeToo Movement in 2006. A survivor of sexual assault herself, Burke made it her mission early on to work with young women of color to change their lives. Burke developed the nonprofit "Just Be" in 2003, which was an all-girls program for young black girls ages 12 to 18.
Burke became a vocal spokeswoman for the #MeToo Movement when ‘me too’ took on a life of its own, as survivors of sexual violence stepped forward to tell their stories on social media. Time magazine dubbed Burke and other ‘me too’ activists “the silence breakers,” naming them (as a group) the 2017 Time Person of the Year.
WMHC is the first academic and trainee-led women’s mental health conference. It was founded by Noori and co-resident Stefanie Gillson, MD, and is organized by a team with specialties across medicine, psychiatry, public health, business and law.
The conference is dedicated toward improving the wellbeing of women through better training of future health care professionals. It seeks to center issues of women’s wellbeing in the male-dominated health care professions.
V (formerly Eve Ensler), a Tony Award-winning playwright, activist, performer, and author of the Obie award-winning The Vagina Monologues, was the keynote speaker at the first conference in 2019.
The 2019 conference drew 400 attendees for the keynote and about 180 for the sessions, along with a large waitlist. This year, Noori said organizers are expecting upwards of 1,000 people to attend the conference.
“It’s grown beyond Yale, because people understand this need is a global need,” Noori said.
Originally planned for October 2020, the conference was rescheduled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. To assist local women during the pandemic, WMHC hosted a fundraiser for the HOPE Family Justice Center of Greater New Haven (HFJC), which ultimately raised $7,700 for the organization.
Also in partnership with HFJC, the WMHC sponsored a series of seminars focused on best practices for clinicians in caring for victims of intimate partner violence.
The pandemic has forced conference organizers to get creative in planning the event, which places a heavy emphasis on community building.
"I think the virtual format is going to greatly solidify and sustain networks among participants,” said Casey Chu, MPH, a Yale alumna and member of the WMHC leadership team. “There are now many virtual tools to allow people to collaborate and share ideas, and I think our virtual conference will play a big role in initiating these collaborations across our WMHC community. A virtual conference also allows us to reach people outside the Yale community, which facilitates a national, or even international, movement in women's mental health."
Noori added: “We are really trying to figure out how we can redefine community during this pandemic, and how we can engage people in a way that feels authentic even though the conference is not in person. We’re spending a lot of time designing the experience for people.”
One unique feature the team is working on is a collaboration with digital mental health companies, by which promo codes and subscriptions for products would be matched with specific sessions as benefits for attendees.
The conference is open to all regardless of Yale affiliation and is free to attend, but donations are encouraged. The conference is accepting proposals for 20-minute panels and workshops on a variety of topics in women’s mental health. Because the organizers feel that the work of women’s mental health professionals too often goes undercompensated, all speakers and panelists accepted to the conference will receive an honorarium. Session proposals may be submitted on the conference website by March 7, 2021 through an online form.
"I hope attendees see that you don't have to be a mental health professional to be an advocate for and support women's mental health,” Chu said. “It's important that we have a large community of advocates who engage with different groups of women in different spaces because our outreach and ability to transform women's mental health would be limited if we only relied on mental health professionals who work with women in mental health settings. Our conference has the unique capacity to delve deeper into many relevant intersections within women's mental health and bring together a diverse community of experts and advocates - I think attendees should really take advantage of this."
To learn more about the Women’s Mental Health Conference, visit WMHConference.org.
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- Casey Chu, MPH