Two Doctors Save Lives with Talk Therapy and Hip-Hop


hankerson williams nyc heart health Two Routes to Stronger Hearts

The cardiovascular heart epidemic is a complicated one, fueled by myriad factors and producing an array of distressing results. So it’s no surprise that the two highlights of the Center’s May 2 Heart-2-Heart conference to reduce the rates of strokes and heart attacks in Harlem focused on two seemingly unconnected topics: therapy for depression and hip-hop.

sidney hankerson depression african americans

Breaking the Stigma of Mental Sickness

Dr. Sidney Hankerson, a psychiatrist at Columbia University, argued that not only is depression strongly linked to heart disease, it is more common, more severe, and less frequently treated among African-Americans than the country as a whole. Hankerson attributes much of this to the stigmatization of mental illness in the Black community, but finds in that same community hope for improved treatment.

Hankerson turned his talk into a conversation, posing questions (which he quickly indicated were not rhetorical) about depression and its stigma. "What words does depression bring to mind?" he asked. The answers came back: sadness, suicide and stigma, among others.

“Depression is a real, devastating illness,” Hankerson said, adding that there are effective treatments. Psychiatrists must adjust their attitudes to appeal to African-Americans by promoting treatment that is respectful of spirituality and prayer, and making sure that local churches and leaders are involved in the effort.

olajide williams stroke hip hop

Hip Hop As a Cure

Dr. Olajide Williams, like Dr. Hankerson, spoke eloquently and forcefully, but on a rather different topic. Williams, an academic neurologist and public health expert, started with what sounded like a feel-good story: an emergency treatment for strokes called thrombolysis, aka “clot busting.” It's so effective, it's called the "Lazarus treatment" for its seeming ability to bring people back from the dead. Then came the bad news: of all the stroke victims at Harlem hospitals, only 3 percent undergo the procedure

Why? Because thrombolysis must be administered within four hours of the stroke, and many patients don't get to the ER until 6 or 12 hours afterward, sometimes up to a week later.

Again, why? The problem, said Williams, is a lack of stroke literacy: the ability to identify a stroke and respond appropriately. Drawing on his personal experiences helping his two kids with their homework, he decided to capitalize on children’s natural talent for absorbing and spreading knowledge. Thus was born Hip Hop Stroke, a school-based program to educate fifth and sixth graders about the signs of a stroke though music.

Doin' the Stroke!

Hip Hop Stroke teamed up with rapper Doug E. Fresh to produce a video titled “Stroke Ain’t No Joke – Doin’ the Stroke” that turns warning signs into recognizable “moves”:

Walking funny, stagger unsteady /

A twisted face will show that you’re ready /

To do that dance we call the stroke /

Ice pick headache, it ain’t no joke.

Last year, 182 children and some of their parents participated in a trial run of Hip Hop Stroke that yielded terrific results. The parents took stroke literacy tests before and after their children went through the short program. In the pre-test, only 3.9 percent could identify all five major stroke symptoms and had an action plan. In the post-test, that number rose to 29.6 percent.


Innovative Thinking

So what connects these two approaches, beside their focus on improving health? They're both innovative yet simple. How do you encourage African Americans predisposed to distrust mental health care to seek help for depression? Design a treatment plan that fits the community.

How do you teach Harlem residents to recognize a stroke before it's too late? Teach their kids a remarkably catchy song their parents will never escape. It's this sort of thinking that's needed to bring life-saving change to Harlem and the world. - Alex Davies

Check out photos from the conference on the Colin Powell Center Facebook page.

Alex is the communications coordinator at the Colin Powell Center. Find out more about him and other contributing writers here