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Postdoctoral research fellow focuses on how Black women cope with stress

Growing up in rural North Carolina, Millicent N. Robinson, MSW ’17, often wondered why there was a history of stress-related chronic health conditions in her family when White families from nearby communities never appeared to face the same challenges.

“I really wanted to know why the classmates that I had who didn’t look like me, why their families didn’t necessarily experience the challenges we did,” Robinson explained. “I wanted to know what it was about being from a rural town that impacts your health differently.”

Learning that she was born a county over in a hospital that served mainly White residents further piqued her interest, especially as she heard others talk about the hospital’s plethora of resources and better health outcomes for newborns.

“I always knew things were different, but I was a kid, so I just didn’t understand why,” Robinson recalled. “This is why I was always asking questions and if my parents couldn’t supply the answers, that just put a fire under me to investigate on my own.”

Robinson’s curious nature eventually led her to ask even bigger questions and inspired her to pursue a career that focuses on strengthening mental and physical health and their connections, particularly among Black women. Her quest for answers culminated with three degrees from UNC – a bachelor’s in psychology and masters’ degrees in social work and public health. Most recently, Robinson completed a Ph.D. in Community Health Sciences from the Jonathan and Karin Fielding School of Public Health at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Last summer, she returned to UNC School of Social Work as the School’s first two-year postdoctoral research fellow through the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity. The program aims to attract under-represented scholars and prepare them for tenure track appointments at the University of North Carolina and at other research universities.

For Robinson, the fellowship enables her to dig deeper into her research agenda, which incorporates interdisciplinary theories and perspectives from social work, public health, African, African American, and diaspora studies, and medical sociology. Her goals: to address the key interconnections between mental and physical health, culturally-relevant forms of coping with stressful events, and ethnic differences among Black women.

As a certified practitioner of Reiki therapy – an evidence-based practice used to reduce stress and promote healing and well-being – she is also interested in the role that complementary and integrative medicine can play in enhancing mental and physical health.

Long-term, Robinson’s research aims to better understand how Black women cope or don’t cope with stressful life events.

“Black women face various forms of systemic oppression and stressful circumstances, which are associated with poor mental and physical health outcomes,” she explained. “Coping is essentially what people do or engage in to protect themselves from being harmed by stressful experiences, and it has been shown to reduce the chances of an individual developing poor health after experiencing stressful circumstances.

“Thus, if we can better understand how Black women cope with stress and how effective these coping tools and strategies are, this information can help to inform the development of culturally-relevant mind-body interventions that are centered in the experiences of Black women to promote health and well-being among this group.”

Robinson’s academic journey has involved numerous collaborations with nationally ranked scholars, including explorations of the connections between the need for mental health services and the barriers or stigma that prevent Black women from seeking help. She has also investigated how the absorption of stress over time can impact individual health, and how “John Henryism,” a form of culturally relevant coping, may shape this process among Black women.

“When you think about it in the context of the United States, we’re talking about gendered racism, financial strain, chronic stress and so many other forms of stress exposure,” she said. “So, when somebody experiences that level of stress or a variety of stressors at the same time, or it happens too frequently, it starts to wear and tear on your body and negatively impacts your mental and physical health because you don’t have the resources to calm you down, or the circumstances leading to stress are not improving.”

At the School of Social Work, Robinson is working closely with Assistant Professor Rachel Goode, who’s research interests include developing, implementing, and evaluating interventions to address racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in obesity and eating disorders. Goode, the director and principal investigator for the Living F.R.E.E. Lab, which focuses on reducing excessive eating, knows Robinson’s expertise can help to advance the lab’s current projects to treat binge eating, obesity and type 2 diabetes among African American women.

“Millicent’s work challenges us to examine the mind-body relationship in improving the health outcomes of Black women,” Goode said. “In the next few years, I believe her work will make an important contribution to the design of equitable health programs to treat racialized stress and trauma.”

As an emerging scholar with dreams of landing a tenured-track position within UNC, Robinson understands the importance of publishing her research and has already had success in multiple peer academic journals, including the Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Journal of Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities, and the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

“But I’m just as determined at ensuring that the research that I do doesn’t just stay within the confines of academia,” she said. “I want to make sure that my work reaches the communities that I’m doing this for and that I work to bring them into the process so that they are connected to the research all the way through.”