Buoyed by American Rescue Plan Act funds — and perhaps chastened by their state ranking dead last in at least one of Mental Health America’s 2022 measures — Colorado lawmakers got serious about mental health this spring.
In advance of a local presentation with NAMI Colorado executive director Ray Merenstein, Mental Health Colorado’s Moe Keller shared a Democratic Legislative Caucus breakdown of how the Legislature allocated $450 million to mental health. Here is that breakdown, with summaries of bills designed to add residential beds, address workforce shortages, divert people from the criminal justice system and more.
On April 3, 2021, Samuel Yeager lost his life during a psychotic episode. He was 23 years old. His mother, Whitney Yeager of Monument, feels strongly that had Sam felt comfortable asking for help, or had the ability to acknowledge his mental health struggles, he might have received psychological support and would still be alive today.
To honor Sam’s life on the first anniversary of his death, and to remove stigma around conversations about mental health, Whitney — a trained professional photographer — has created a photo exhibition. NAMI Colorado Springs is supporting The Sammy Project, and we would love for you to see it.
The Sammy Project will be shown from noon to 6 p.m., on Saturday, April 2, at Katy Tartakoff’s Photo Gallery (Studio 800) at 800 E. 19th Ave., in Denver.
Fernando, one of the local people featured in The Sammy Project.
Sponsored via the Array Parity project, with funding from RedLine Contemporary Art Center in Denver, the show features Whitney’s portraits of young people who have experienced mental health challenges. Each photo subject pairs their portrait with a personal statement that confirms their identity is not defined by their diagnosis.
“It shows strength and courage on the part of the participants to share their stories,” Whitney says. “I hope others who might be experiencing similar struggles see that being vulnerable and seeking help is actually the strongest thing they can do.”
“Self-stigma is so often a challenge for those struggling with a mental health diagnosis,” says NAMI Colorado Springs executive director Lori Jarvis-Steinwert. “Whitney is going to help others by addressing that part of her son’s journey — and by elevating the stories of others who have faced the same challenge.”
It's an honor for us to support Whitney’s work. We’d love to see you in Denver next Saturday, but you can also check out The Sammy Project online.
And please note that Whitney is still looking for photo subjects, with the intention of creating a book from The Sammy Project. Anyone interested in participating, or in finding out more, may email her through thesammyproject.com.
"It's really hard to get better if you don't know how to get better.”
That's how Demi Aretae (pictured left) sees it — and she really wants to help people get better. It’s one of the reasons she’s moving into counseling, following an IT career. She’s also volunteering as a producer for NAMI Colorado Springs’ virtual Family-to-Family classes — where she’s developed a unique perspective on how they make struggling people feel … better.
“The first class is almost like a deer-in-headlights experience,” she says.” A lot of the people are like, ‘What am I going to do? I have no answers.’ And at the end of class, they're like, ‘OK, you know, I don't have all the answers … but I have these two.’ Nobody has the same two answers. But they all have their first two steps, and that is something. That is empowering. Every time.”
Family-to-Family is an evidence-based program for people who love someone with a mental health condition. Once a week for eight weeks, students learn about conditions such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major depression; develop new coping skills and communication techniques; and pick up advocacy strategies for supporting their loved ones.
Demi has produced two courses via Zoom, helping students with technical questions and managing uploads, screen sharing and the chat. She’s seen it help all sorts of people: parents and spouses, retirees and military members, people who are desperate to share their stories and those who come in extremely guarded.
“I've met a couple of people who, at the first class, didn't want to talk,” she says, “and by the third class they talk. Just to know that it's a safe space to talk about these things that are hard to talk about with other people, I think that's important.”
NAMI never tried virtual Family-to-Family classes before COVID. But Demi has seen it work: “If you are both present and honest, then the connection follows.”
For example, she remembers a woman sharing a heart-rending story about having a hard time with her loved one. “One of the other ladies in the class said something like, ‘Oh, I remember that.’ She kind of picked up the other lady's story … they had such similar experiences that she could pick up this other person's story. And the first lady, she started crying because she was so moved.
“It’s a different experience when someone is across the room from you, or in Zoom with you, and you recognize their problem. You recognize their pain.
“It is a really, really powerful thing that NAMI gives away for free.”
Grants and donations are what make it possible for us to offer Family-to-Family — and all of NAMI’s courses, support groups and presentations — for free. If you haven’t already in 2021, please consider supporting NAMI via:
• the Give! campaign, which runs through Jan. 3;
• a check sent to NAMI Colorado Springs, 1615 S. Murray Blvd., Colorado Springs, CO 80916;
• or the Empty Stocking Fund, which runs through Jan. 21, and where each gift is divided among NAMI and 19 other local health and human service agencies.
NAMI Colorado Springs began as an all-volunteer organization nearly 40 years ago. Today, it's still fueled by incredible people who donate their time, talent and heart.
Each month, we’re going to highlight one such volunteer on this blog. And we’re going to start with Shani Jurgensen, a teacher of NAMI’s Basics course. In this short video — assembled by another gifted NAMI volunteer, Crayton Daniel — Shani talks about how she got involved with NAMI and what keeps her connected ... even though she now lives 1,000 miles away. We hope you’ll check it out.
Please keep in mind that if you’d like to join NAMI’s volunteer community, we’re looking for teachers like Shani, as well as support group facilitators and “producers” — people who work behind the scenes to make our virtual offerings run smoothly. Give us a call at 719.473.8477 or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For many people, practicing yoga can provide a major boost against depression, and thus a preventative effect against suicide. And while that’s potentially important for all of us, it should have special resonance for men — whose suicide rate is 3.5 times higher than that of women.
Against that backdrop, and in this Mental Health Awareness Month of May, NAMI Colorado Springs is thrilled to be partnering with Brutal Buddha, a company that develops premium men’s yoga apparel and is on a mission to help active men seeking balance live longer, healthier lives.
The whole month of May, Brutal Buddha Co-Founders Evan Tate and Roe Morris are donating 10 percent of all revenue from apparel sales to our organization.
“Life doesn’t make any sense without interdependence. We need each other, and the sooner we learn that, the better for us all.” — Erik Erikson
Brutal Buddha shorts, available online in five colors, are made of a lightweight, breathable, eco-friendly nylon and spandex blend. The micro-mesh “Package Protector” promises all the support an active man needs and has helped the company earn coverage in GQ and Wired magazines.
You can visit the site to find out more for yourself, or for a man whose health is important to you. (Note: Father’s Day is coming up in June ...) You can also join the Brutal Buddha community at getbrutalbuddhagear.com.
Thanks to Evan, Roe and Brutal Buddha for helping to shine a light on men’s mental health!
When Kathy Brandt and Lynn Shull first met through NAMI Colorado Springs, their connection was sparked by the shared experience — and pain — of fiercely loving and struggling to support someone with a mental illness.
Almost 15 years later, their bond is based on so much more, including major personal victories and exponential growth that they’ve helped bring to NAMI. And that knowledge buoys the rest of us as we have to say goodbye to both Kathy and Lynn in early 2021.
For Kathy, January marked the end of her second six-year term on NAMI’s board of directors. Meanwhile, in February, Lynn is stepping down from her role as programs and volunteer manager to pursue other passions.
“For more than a decade, Lynn and Kathy have been at the heart and soul of NAMI's mission to serve those who live with mental illness and their families,” says Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director. “They've changed NAMI for the better and helped us grow in big ways. I'm so grateful for both of them.”
FROM STUDENTS TO TEACHERS
Kathy first learned of NAMI in the early 2000s, while struggling with a mental health issue in her family. A flier led her to a NAMI presentation at First United Methodist Church, where she talked with a volunteer named Gayle Rappold. “It was my first encounter with another family member, someone who had ‘been there, done that,’ someone who knew my pain and fear, someone who didn’t judge me or the one I loved because of illness. I couldn’t enroll in that Family-to-Family class fast enough.”
Empowered by what she learned in Family-to-Family, Kathy, who worked by day as a writing instructor, started volunteering with NAMI. One day, she was handing out Family-to-Family fliers, herself, at the Woodland Park doctor’s office where Lynn worked. “She was hoping that I would share it with my patients,” Lynn remembers, “but I needed it.”
Lynn describes herself as “extremely broken” at the time. Her husband, Tyler, had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder four years before, and the two of them had struggled to fully understand and manage the diagnosis. In addition, around the time she started class, Lynn’s brother, who lived with severe depression, was hospitalized following a suicide attempt.
“My brother's family kept my brother's illness a very big secret … and Tyler and I were doing the same thing,” she says. “My brother had no idea that Tyler was battling his illness as well at that time. So here we were, two families — and my brother and I were really close, which is even more tragic — who were unable to communicate.”
When Lynn came to Family-to-Family, Kathy was her teacher. (Kathy also served as program coordinator and as a NAMI board member during this very grassroots, all-volunteer era.) Struck by both the love and pain she felt coming from Lynn, Kathy checked up on her frequently during the course — and then afterward, when Lynn’s brother succeeded in another suicide attempt.
Lynn says this one-two punch — her experience in Family-to-Family, and her brother’s death — fueled a passion to fight mental health stigma. She became a Family-to-Family teacher, and excelled. In 2010, Kathy, now serving as board president, asked her to coordinate the program as a volunteer.
LIVING ‘BEST LIVES’
In 2012, Kathy convinced the NAMI board to hire its first executive director, with funding from local philanthropist Clay Taylor of the Bjorkman Foundation. The new ED, Lori Jarvis-Steinwert, heard Lynn’s ideas for gathering information and setting up systems and opened up a five-hours-per-week paid position, which was all the organization could afford at the time. As NAMI grew, five hours became 10, and then 20. Soon, Lynn was the full-time programs and volunteer manager, coordinating 100-plus volunteers, a full suite of educational programs and support groups, and serving on mental health committees around El Paso and Teller counties.
Kathy, meanwhile, was wrapping up her first term as a board member — one highlighted by her colleagues nominating her for NAMI’s 2012 Outstanding NAMI Member Award, which she accepted at the national conference that summer. She took two years off, during which Monkshood Press published the deeply personal memoir she co-authored with her son, Max Maddox.
In 2014, Kathy was re-elected to the board. In her second term, she’s helped NAMI grow financially and in terms of board representation, and been instrumental in every major organizational decision, including the sale of the 510 E. Willamette Ave., office where she spent so many hours as a volunteer.
She’s also continued working closely with Lynn, especially in coordinating Crisis Intervention Team training, which equips local law enforcement to respond more effectively to mental health-related calls.
“She’s done so much to help NAMI grow and flourish,” Kathy says of Lynn. “She’s recruited teachers, renewed programs like Visions [now Basics], developed Peer-to-Peer and the Connection Support Group, and grown Family-to-Family.
“What I admire most about Lynn, though, is her ability to communicate with those in crisis, to be with them, to empathize, and to give them all the time they need, which can translate to hours on the phone or in meetings.”
For Lynn, providing those “helps,” while developing deep relationships with program participants, volunteers and community partners, has been one of the best parts of being at NAMI. Looking ahead, she’ll work to create similar bonds as a life coach, while also helping Tyler manage his growing home-inspection business.
“Our mindset is just completely different,” she says of the two of them. “We don't live in a ‘victim world’ anymore. I'm deciding to live in faith over fear, and throwing myself into the world of my curiosity …
“I've worked with volunteers for all of these years encouraging them to live their best lives, whatever that looks like,” she says, “and now this is my opportunity to do the same.”
Kathy, meanwhile, is looking forward to “longer walks, hikes with my husband, Ron, more time for yoga, plenty of reading, and once we’re past COVID, travel and time with grandkids. And who knows — maybe one of these days, I’ll get back to writing.”
That they’re leaving NAMI at the same time hasn’t been lost on either of them.
“Kathy and I talked about it the other day, just that we've just been on a journey together,” Lynn says. “And she's one of my angels in my life. I don't know where I'd be today if Kathy hadn’t appeared.”
In 2014, when longtime supporter Elaine McWain wanted to officially donate her downtown house to NAMI, local attorney Jill Whitley steered us through the legalities of accepting the donation. In spite of the countless hours of research Jill devoted to this task, she capped her fees at a ridiculously low level, and wouldn’t hear of accepting more.
It was a deeply generous gesture — and a harbinger of what was to come once Jill joined NAMI’s board of directors.
Over the last six years, Jill has provided copious legal expertise while tackling the kind of unglamorous work (read: bylaws updates) from which most would run screaming. She has served as treasurer, a leader of the organization’s Nominating and Governance Committee and a standout donor, as evidenced by the array of Bristol Brewing Company growlers she’s collected as rewards for her annual Give! gifts. And she has provided meaningful insight into every big organizational decision in that time — including moving out of that downtown house (due to a mold infestation) to a new office in Southeast Colorado Springs.
What’s more, Jill has fielded dozens of referrals from NAMI of people and families in need of legal aid. She has always been there to help, and often pro bono.
This fall, Jill Whitley reached the end of her board term. But when we asked her to share a few thoughts on mental illness and the law, and on NAMI’s future, she said sure — answering by email, again working for NAMI over the weekend.
Can you describe your law practice, and how issues related to mental illness sometimes factor into what your clients need?
My law practice has included assisting clients with their estate planning and with establishing guardianships for incapacitated family members. Clients who have a family member living with a mental illness — almost always an adult child — want advice about what they can do to help their child and improve their quality of life.
With estate planning, I feel can be helpful. The law allows you to control the disposition of your assets when you die, and using a trust allows money to be available to help a child with a mental illness. But it is still necessary and critically important to name someone to serve as trustee to manage the trust on behalf of that child. I have clients who struggle with that decision …
With guardianships, I can offer much less help. The standards and procedure for appointing a guardian may make it difficult to succeed in a contested case. Even if you are successful, the authority of a guardian does not include authority to order involuntary treatment for the child’s mental illness, which is usually what my clients want the most. Involuntary treatment for mental illness is governed by a different legal process and laws, and the decision to even pursue such a remedy seems to be in the hands of medical professionals, not parents.
What are some challenges within our legal system that are commonly faced by people and families navigating mental illness?
With respect to guardianship and mental health commitment laws, the legal system is challenged by the tension between individual freedom and helping those who cannot help themselves. We seem to be able to resolve this tension more successfully with other illnesses (dementia) or conditions (traumatic brain injury).
The legal system allows guardians for such people to obtain medical treatment — whether insulin shots, antibiotics for a urinary tract infection, or surgery — against their wishes. But with respect to medication or other treatment for a mental illness, you hear the statement that “people have the right to be crazy.” …
The law attempts to resolve this tension by allowing state intervention only when the person is either a danger to themselves or others or is “gravely disabled.” However, the gravely disabled standard seems to families to be too strict when they are told that their 24-year-old daughter who wanders the streets alone at night without proper clothes in order to fulfill her CIA mission is not engaging in behavior that is dangerous enough to meet that standard.
"You hear the statement that
'people have the right to be crazy.'"
To what extent has your role with NAMI overlapped with or informed your other volunteer work in the community?
My other volunteer work in the community has concerned access to justice. For me, this has primarily taken the form of providing direct pro bono advice to those who cannot afford a lawyer — and whose needs cannot be met by our under-funded and under-staffed legal services office.
I have spoken with parents who, just like my paying clients, want to know what they can do to help an adult child with a mental illness. For them, guardianship is even more problematic since their child will be appointed an attorney paid by the state to fight the guardianship, while no equivalent free legal representation is available to them.
I have also spoken to those living with a mental illness, who have more than the usual difficulty understanding and navigating the legal system and knowing and enforcing their rights as wards, trust beneficiaries, or heirs of an estate. I think my work with NAMI has given me greater sensitivity in doing this work, as well as an additional resource that I can refer people to for help and support.
What positive developments have you seen emerge in the local mental health landscape during your six years on the board?
During the last six years, I have seen the issue of mental health rise in importance in our community. There is a growing awareness that mental health services must be a component of our efforts to reduce homelessness. There is a greater recognition in law enforcement that people with mental illness, particularly those in crisis, should be approached differently so that a conflict can be resolved rather than escalated.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing in the local mental health landscape, what would you change?
The "magic wand" question is always a hard one.
On a grand scale, the biggest change I’d like to see would be to have a variety of affordable residential options for those living with mental illness, where case management is provided and services (health, transportation, employment, legal) can be coordinated.
On a smaller scale, I would bring back the mental health court so those who become involved in the criminal system as a result of their mental illness could receive the supportive services they need to avoid further involvement with the criminal system and even incarceration.
As a board member and treasurer, you’ve seen NAMI from a number of different angles. What’s something that a lot of people may not know about NAMI, but should?
People should know just how many people have been positively affected by the programs and services NAMI offers and, as a result, just how much of a benefit NAMI provides our community. I have attended some Colorado state NAMI events and have been struck by how much more NAMI Colorado Springs offers than the other NAMI affiliates around the state.
And people should also know that the primary reason for that is the quality of our staff and the untiring dedication of both our staff and our many volunteers to the NAMI mission and vision.
If you were referring somebody to NAMI, and they didn’t know anything about the organization already, what would you say about it?
When I refer folks to NAMI (which I do often), I tell them that at NAMI they will get information about community resources, practical advice about navigating the mental health system in our community, and support and understanding from those who have walked their walk and felt their fears and frustrations. And that if they are running low on strength and hope, NAMI can help with that too.
"The 'magic wand' question is always a hard one."
What are your hopes for NAMI’s future?
I hope that NAMI continues to expand its programs to meet the growing need in our community for education and support. I hope that NAMI becomes a more important player and advocate as our local community and our state address issues of mental health services and support. I hope that NAMI can find additional steady sources of funding that will allow it to continue its core mission while taking on bigger and harder challenges.
With programming around creativity and mental health — and an emphasis “on uplifting and celebrating voices of marginalized communities and people of color” — Poetry 719 has broken ground in Colorado Springs. Recently, co-director Ashley Cornelius (left) sat down for a virtual conversation with Max Maddox about how poetry can provide Black creatives the opportunity to shape their own narratives and express personal and community trauma, and about how art can heal individuals while bridging chasms in the wider community.
Max: What is Poetry 719?
Ashley: The goal of Poetry 719 is to uplift the voices of marginalized communities and people of color through poetry and creative self-expression. Among our events, we have Latin(x) Voices Matter, Black Voices Matter, Queer People of Color, Disability Awareness, Mental Health Open Mics … We really just want folks whose stories are often told by someone else, or who don’t really get the platform to share themselves, to get that opportunity through writing, art, through workshops, whatever it is. We are a Black-run organization, and even though our name is Poetry 719 we encompass all artistic forms, so we’re just providing that space.
Max: A lot of us won't know what slam poetry is. Can you explain that a little?
Ashley: Typically, poetry has a lot of formal rules. Slam poetry was born out of the need to move away from these poetic styles, rules and forms. With slam, you write and memorize your poem and perform it on stage. The topics are usually deeply powerful and often political, but it can be about anything.
Slam poetry is inherently a competition. You get up there with your poem and there’s a time limit of about three minutes, and the crowd gives you a score from zero to 10. The name of the game is to impact the judges, people who don’t know you — really just “wow” people. The question is, How do I get my message across, and how do I do it in a way that can spark motivation or passion in a stranger?
Max: How has the social climate today informed your organization, empowered it, or complicated it?
Ashley: I think inherently, poetry is political. Current times have really motivated us as a Black-run organization. The Black Lives Matter movement and racial justice have always been part of our lives and who we are. So this movement has really invigorated us and shone a spotlight on the community.
In Colorado Springs, there are a lot of people who are not used to seeing a Black Lives Matter event. For an hour, only Black people are on the mic, so people can be really resistant and even get really angry.
Although it's complicated, because we’re in this really beautiful revolution and push globally for justice, it has charged us with helping people serve that message. As a Black woman, if I’m saying, “This is how I’ve experienced racism ...” nobody listens to me. But if I write a beautiful poem on stage, people are moved emotionally. So it’s recognizing the power in our voice and learning to craft that message in a way that you can really affect change in your local communities, nationally or globally.
Max: How do you understand the connection between mental health and poetry?
Ashley: I’m an LPCC [licensed professional clinical counselor] finishing my hours to become a licensed therapist. I graduated with a MA in international disaster psychology. During my grad school program I studied under a music therapist, and she’s been my mentor since.
My first real experience with mental health was in inpatient settings, and I got to see how creativity and music can create a holistic picture of a patient. I got to see firsthand through music, for instance, “This person is a talented guitarist,” and they were able to relate to someone musically in a way they wouldn’t otherwise. One person on the unit suffering from schizophrenia wouldn’t talk to anyone, couldn’t make eye contact … but put a guitar in his hand, and that is how he communicated. That was the connection.
I’m not a musician by trade, so I chose poetry therapy in my clinical practice. I have used published poetry to talk about a topic of interest, then encouraged clients to analyze that poetry, and then to engage their own self-expression. Sometimes talking is hard, therapy is hard, expressing ourselves is hard, and if you’re in the midst of a mental health crisis, that communication gets even harder. Drawing, creating, using metaphor, all of that created such a beautiful picture of a patient that a lot of other people didn’t see. The process helps destigmatize mental health to help open what people are willing to see when they look at a person suffering from mental illness.
Max: I want to expand the question to loop in Blackness and mental health and Blackness and poetry, and how art is a special way to reach Black people on the topic of mental health.
Ashley: Mental health is super-stigmatized within the Black community — rightfully so, I must say. There is a lot of history of systematic and institutional racism in the health care system. We’ve seen across hundreds of years that when Black people seek help, typically we’re being treated unfairly or as guinea pigs. It was hard for me, even as a therapist; I thought, “I don’t need therapy, that’s not something for me.” There’s not a lot of Black psychiatrists, psychologists, clinicians, so having someone that can understand can be so deeply valuable.
With many Black patients, poetry and music is a language that makes sense — using metaphor and a language they already understand. They may not have used the “right language” to ask for help. So we often ignore people because of how they ask for our help. Even when people are honest, they still get stigmatized. Black celebrities like Kanye West, who lives with and flaunts his symptoms, are in stark contrast with white celebrities that are open to getting help publicly.
'We often ignore people because of how
they ask for our help.'
There is always this idea of “being less than” that gets added. As we know, Black people were three-fifths of a person once upon a time, so this idea of “being broken” is an extra layer of stigmatization. Do I need to admit that I’m suffering, that I’m weak, that I need help? Because internally, that plays into the question of, “Are people going to see me even [more] differently because of mental health issues?”
As it relates to intersectionality, when there is more than one intersecting identity, racial injustice increases, violence increases, anxiety, depression, mental illness increases. So it becomes even harder. Poetry is that back door — a way to talk about your emotions, to do that work without feeling like it is so sterile, like someone is analyzing you or deciding you’re not good enough.
Max: Part of what you’re saying is that poetry is a way out of stigma. Instead of clinicians trying to “fix you,” there is a way in which people can “fix themselves” through art. A power gets put back in their hands that may have been taken. We’ve also been talking about grief in our interviews, grieving over the death of Black people at the hands of police. In addition to that, there’s a grief that’s deep in time and space. Can you speak to how you deal with grief through poetry, how on a personal level that works for you?
Ashley: I was struggling a lot with depression, grief and mourning. All of these deaths, back to back, in the middle of a pandemic. It is a grieving process, and I think many of us will be grieving our entire lives. We’ve normalized Black death. People are still grieving Trayvon Martin, people are still grieving Emmett Till. These men look like us, like our brothers, our sons, our partners, our fathers. That’s a really scary thing when it comes to grieving: Sometimes you can separate yourself, but it was hard to distinguish myself from these incidents. That’s largely where my writing work has taken me.
At least for me, when I see destruction and death, that’s my cue to create. Out of this world on fire, bringing something new into this world that provides stillness for me. I see a lot of people use art around police violence to heal themselves while continuing a legacy of storytelling in the Black community. I love all of the art created around BLM, art that was created out of a necessity to share, to grow, to live.
When I’m doing poetry therapy, it’s the process, not the product, to create beautiful works of art. Sometimes a prompt for poetry yields a drawing of a cat. It’s not so much what we create, it's what happens in the process. We’re seeing a renaissance in [Black arts], and I think that reflects the fact that we’re grieving and we’re mourning and that creation keeps us alive, keeps us wanting more. I think it's like a bat signal to other artists, to say, “Hey, I’m also struggling, here’s what I created, what did you create?”
Max: There’s grief and trauma, but there’s also anger, the greatest of all stigmatized emotions. Being sort of tied to grief and sadness, how does diffusing anger play into all of this, with the destructive emotions that may have been internalized getting let out in a productive way?
Ashley: I’m so glad you brought up anger — it's always that one emotion that’s super-stigmatized. I tell people to own that emotion. As a Black woman, I’m not really allowed to get angry. I’m super-bubbly because that’s how I survive in this world. If I get angry, I’m “disrespectful, unprofessional,” so I think for me poetry allows me to be angry in a way I’m not going to get hurt. That anger is finally turned into something where people can recognize it.
When I get angry I have to write about it. The safest, most productive way is to perform it.
A lot of identities forbid people from experiencing certain emotions. Poetry specifically allows people to channel that anger in a space marked as safe. There is so much couching of emotions among Black people; poetry allows you to open those floodgates. People feel safe around Black men expressing anger as long as they’re in front of a microphone performing. The art softens it — which says something about systematic oppression, that art is the only way we can be loud.
'Poetry specifically allows people to channel that anger in a space marked as safe.'
From that platform, though, you can create powerful messages that will allow people to listen. For many of us in the Black community, many have not been listening, and we’ve been yelling for a long time, so I found art and poetry is really a vehicle that allows an audience to take stock in the message.
Max: Can you talk to some of the generational issues around art and mental health? I’ve encountered a lot of generational obstacles when it comes to hearing Black grievances, and appreciating the Black arts. How have you experienced being a young clinician and leader today?
Ashley: It’s definitely hard to be a young Black clinician. Often clients don’t expect me to be Black — after all, my name is Ashley Cornelius. Often when I walk into a room, I get these non-verbals of, “Oh, you’re it?” or, “You must be a student.” It can be very difficult, but I’ve been helped with a lot of mentorship from women of color.
We are so passionate about the work, but there is so much to understand from mental health clinicians and leaders in the Black community, the history and understanding can sometimes get lost. Sometimes I think, “I’m young, I know what’s going on, I have a better perspective.” We have all felt that way. Now that I’m getting older, I realize I have a lot to learn and I need a lot of support.
The generational piece is so important in the Black community. This resurgence in racial justice needs a connection to our past leaders. Poetry and art is still the same guerilla-style activism, in the streets.
Visit Poetry 719 online at www.poetry719.com. Or follow Poetry 719 on Instagram or Facebook, where you can witness one of their virtual open mics.
Tina Reyero is a licensed professional counselor at Colorado Springs Thriveworks, a counseling organization that does dedicated outreach to people of color. She also volunteers with the Military Artistic Healing program at the Bemis School of Art (which serves as the home base for NAMI Colorado Springs’ Array Parity project).
As part of our blog series on racism and mental health, we recently talked with Tina about the issues of diversity and inclusion, in both her professional and personal lives.
Can you describe your background a little bit?
I consider myself mixed ethnicity and mixed race, to a degree. I am half Puerto Rican, and my mom has Anglo Puritan heritage. As all of this has become more mainstream conversation, I've reflected quite a bit about the challenges of being mixed race, mixed ethnicity, mixed heritage. I've always leaned more toward being really proud of my Latino and Hispanic heritage. ... And I've really dived deeper, to not deny the roots of my mom's side, and the Anglo Puritan heritage and where I grew up.
I’ve written a little bit recently about my early years of childhood in upstate New York and being immersed in my neighborhood with various backgrounds, heritage and cultures and races. It shaped my understanding, my mindset, my heart, my compassion and my openness more than anything about connecting with others that I might not look like or speak the same language as.
Where in upstate New York were you?
In the Hudson Valley — the Poughkeepsie/Hyde Park area, about 90 miles north of the city. But I grew up going to the city quite a bit, because my father grew up in the Bronx. He was part of that Puerto Rican diaspora in the late '40s, early '50s from the island to New York. We were raised to become familiar and to be comfortable with going down to the city in the 1980s, '90s, early 2000s. So even though I grew up in suburbia, I was familiar with the city … and my [upstate] neighbors were of varied backgrounds.
In your neighborhood then, or in your family, was there talk about mental health when you were growing up?
A little bit, yeah. I think both my parents struggled with depression, and that was brought into discussions about their culture, race, ethnicity and understanding themselves. Especially I think of my dad, who I know felt torn between both worlds — living in suburbia of the mainland United States, but also [knowing] about the history of poor treatment of Puerto Ricans by the U.S.
When you went to New York City, was that kind of a way to stay connected to Puerto Rican culture?
Yeah, that was one way, and of course also going down to the island pretty frequently for holidays. I spent a summer there when I was 13, and I went back for a college exchange semester. It was really important for myself and my siblings to understand that heritage and that culture.
From my understanding of history — and this is where I'm somewhat torn — my father was very, very proud of his Puerto Rican heritage, but also wanted us to really immerse and assimilate into what it was like to be an American in the late 20th century. I think it was always a tug of war and a dichotomy that I struggled with, and I sense my siblings and my dad did as well.
Do you see any of that now in your clients of color? It's a slightly different time now, but I would guess there are similarities.
Yeah, I think I do, especially within Black and Latino cultures that live in this area, versus maybe other parts of the country. I think there's more of a struggle with having their voices heard and being seen and also assimilating and adjusting to their immediate environment.
I talk to Black clients about this, especially in initial sessions: What was your upbringing like? And how has [your world] changed? Just so I can understand their worldview and not just assume that I understand because I consider myself anti-racist along with really embracing cultures, people, languages and the arts. I think it's up to me to be curious about where their struggles are. And I think especially when we talk about the subject — about race and racism, and blending or assimilating into the community — I do sense a struggle to strike that balance between honoring their own culture and heritage, but also fitting in with or challenging the white-privilege norms.
You said you feel the struggle may be more pronounced or slightly different in Colorado or Colorado Springs, versus other parts of the country?
I'm thinking of Colorado Springs even in comparison to perhaps Denver, but especially other parts of the country, considering my framework. My first 25 years of living was on the East Coast, and now I've been out here for almost 20 years, and I'm still struck by the things that aren't "named." It's almost like there are persistent race-related elephants in the room.
"I've been out here for almost 20 years,
and I'm still struck by the things that aren't 'named.'"
How can we really address the issues of race in a more conservative town or city, as Colorado Springs is, versus other parts of the country, where I think it's more open? And I not only say that as someone from the East Coast. Prior to my counseling career, I was a flight attendant for 14 years, so that helped to shape my understanding of people's mindsets and how they functioned in different parts of the country.
Looking at George Floyd’s killing and everything that's followed: Have you seen it affect some your clients, and if so, can you talk a little about what that effect has been?
Yeah, a few clients come who are Black to mind— especially a few who are younger — who I sense feel empowered to speak more freely, and to get involved in protests and movements. I sense that they're still [skeptical] … but I think there's some more understanding and hope, especially from their immediate family.
I think of one particular client who perhaps was not comfortable in his school setting, who has asked to go to a different one. That has been acknowledged as an important part of his grounding and of his desire to be true to himself.
I sense and I hear from them that they have been exposed to various racial instances at school or work or within systems, and I think they're starting to really advocate that equal treatment is equal treatment.
What do you feel that many white therapists get wrong, or don’t understand, about working well with clients of color?
I sense that many struggle ... in regard to their mindset, and think that can be exhibited by microaggressions. I just saw that movie again, Crash, that came out in 2004, and I don't feel like much has changed with regard to some white middle-aged understandings of how people of color have been oppressed. They simply struggle to put themselves in the oppressed people’s shoes. They struggle with being vulnerable and open to having a conversation.
I think there are so many blocks and defenses to having a nonconfrontational, nonaggressive conversation because it doesn't feel safe, and/or they feel they'll perhaps lose some of their power — their control, which they believe they deserve. So I think the mindset and the language that is used is a struggle to be explored, because they go into defensive mode. And I think being defensive is sort of like a microaggression ... that puts up that block and that barrier.
"Being defensive is sort of like a microaggression."
You know, even as I was sharing this … I’ve noticed myself with you, that I feel more comfortable naming this; earlier on I felt a little uncomfortable as I was talking about my heritage. So I'm sure there's more for me to uncover, in feeling judgmental toward myself or my upbringing or my privilege. The more I name that or talk about that, the more comfortable I am.
Well, thank you for talking about it, despite those feelings. It leads into one more question I wanted to ask: That defensiveness you talk about, the feeling of not wanting to feel threatened or exposed ... if there was something that you would recommend people do to help break down that defensiveness, what would it be? Is there, say, a book you've read or an exercise you've found to help people work through it?
I think of two things. I think of micro-communication skills. For instance, of being aware of "I" language versus "you." Saying, "I feel ..." "I think ..." instead of saying, "You are making me feel uncomfortable," or "You are doing this." I think basic communication skills like that, on top of active listening and reflecting, are vitally important to maintain that safety, so we don't go into defensiveness.
That kind of bridges into Brené Brown's The Power of Vulnerability, which speaks to: How can we feel safe in order to be vulnerable? That is, by practicing the skill of active listening and reflecting in order to trust, in order to come back to the healthy cycle of being vulnerable, with safety. … I think that's a skill that we all need to practice, and we can give ourselves some compassion and nonjudgment and understanding that it is a practice. All of this is a practice, and nobody's perfect at it.
Is there anything that I haven't asked you about, or that you haven't gotten to say, that you'd like to add?
I would just say educate, educate, educate. And of course don't take resources at face value — be willing to dive a little bit deeper. You know, just a little bit. Look at it as like, dipping your toe in, dipping the baby toe, then the middle toes, then the big toe. And just coming back to knowing that the more we openly discuss without judgment, the more effective and healthy our minds, our behaviors, and our love toward one another can be.
Next in our blog series on racism and mental health: Max Maddox's interview with Dr. Juliana Deans.
Juliana received her Ph.D. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Nova Southeastern University in South Florida, along with a Master of Science in both Marriage and Family Therapy and Mental Health counseling from Palm Beach Atlantic University. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor, a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and a National Certified Counselor. She runs her own private practice while serving as adjunct professor at a Colorado Springs university, a mental health evaluator at a local hospital, and a counselor for military families. Juliana is a transracial adoptee with a special interest in diversity and family dynamics.
Max: What does mental health look like today, and how do you approach the challenges of mental health in 2020? How well do you feel enabled and supported as a provider, and how does color play into this?
Juliana: Mental health right now, for me, is about going through these struggles personally because of what happened to George Floyd. I’m an interracial adoptee, so my adoptive parents are white and I’m Black. And what happened with George Floyd, which has never happened in any previous situations that I’ve witnessed, is the intensity of it all. He didn’t have a gun; he wasn’t a threat.
I have a son, so it really hit home, and for the first time ever I found myself participating in protest. I consumed my world with that. I kind of exhausted myself mentally, and because of the pandemic and protests, the tools that I would have enjoyed before I couldn’t use.
So one of the things I started doing is gardening, for the first time ever. And one time when I was gardening, it just hit me; I re-realized I really needed to do mind work.
With gardening, it's so frustrating: I would have a plant and I would say, “What’s going on? You’re dying.” So I would move the plant, try to figure out how to fix it. “How do I revive you?” Then I would put it in a pot, and it wasn’t doing well, and I would plant it somewhere else. And then I said, “Wait a minute, I have to change and transform the way I think. I have to transplant myself.” What worked pre-pandemic and pre-protests no longer works. So now, what does that look like? I had to become my own therapist. I had to look internally, as far as how, really, George Floyd affected me.
Now, you mentioned support. I didn't feel supported by my adopted family as it relates to this racial historical movement. I’m saying “Black Lives Matter”; my parents are saying, “All lives matter.” My parents want to stay in the safe zone. My parents and I don’t address conflict very well, and if you don’t have the support you need to deal with conflict in a healthy, productive way, it exacerbates so many symptoms.
One of the things I often do for myself at this time is, when I wake up, I apply what I call “solution-focused therapy.” So if I feel funky, I just ask myself, “What needs to change now, so you can be where you want to be?”
Max: How do you feel supported professionally? How do you feel about mental health and its relationship to Black Lives Matter?
Juliana: Well, anxiety and depression has risen since the pandemic began, and especially for those who are African American and people of color. With the George Floyd movement, we don’t know who’s for us and who’s not for us. We don’t know when people reach out to us: Is it out of flattery? Are you really fighting on our behalf?
This situation has really drawn a line that I didn’t even know existed. I hear from my Black friends, “Now is the time to reclaim your story.” But with my family it has created a dent in our relationship, from an emotional point of view.
Just like the plants, you need things to help you grow. You can put marigolds anywhere, and they will encourage growth. That’s mental health: You want to be around people that will help you grow. Speaking of, if you look at the way peas grow along the trellises, they have little curls and they hold hands, but loosely. So whoever you are growing with, you don’t want an enmeshed relationship, you want support to be nice and loose.
My parents couldn’t teach me what it was like to be Black in America. I’ve had to become my own therapist, and I’ve learned the art of reframing because not everything is Black-versus-white, or racist. People go into this field to heal themselves. For me, I do a daily check-in and make sure I am food for someone else’s soul. In every interaction, I want to be that difference that makes the difference.
Max: There’s always the potential for self-doubt when you feel affronted by someone, or encounter prejudice. How do you avoid that internalization? I see Black people overcoming that doubt. To be able to say what happened to you — that’s huge within NAMI, that you “own” a core set of experiences that can’t be challenged or doubted.
Juliana: That’s one thing I love about NAMI, and that I encourage my clients to do — for them to tell their story, and [know] their story is their truth. I don’t have self-doubt now, but it took me 36 years to get to that point. My issue right now is that I want myself and others that look like me to feel like they belong, and I also want that for people with mental illnesses, because of that stigma that’s out there...
For me, I’m searching for belonging in the United States of America. I know I’m enough. I can’t keep on beating myself up. My clients, when they come to me, they are enough, exactly where they are. Some people will say they're broken. “That’s beautiful,” I say, then add, “I love the fact that you’re broken, because you know what I can do? I can create this beautiful table and I can use you as a mosaic. So you’re enough now, and you’ll be enough when we’re done with therapy.”
'For me, I'm searching for belonging
in the United States of America.'
So it's not about self-doubt for me. I belong here, so stop putting these conditions on me. Self-doubt puts the pressure on me. It's not me who needs to change, it's not other Black people that need to change, it’s society that needs to change. It’s the same thing with mental health: It's not someone with ADHD or schizophrenia that needs to change, it's society.
Max: Do you feel hopeful that even a movement that started with racial oppression could be powerful enough to broach the problems of mental health — going down the line with all the social movements alongside Black Lives Matter, especially as it concerns the police and their treatment of Black people and those living with mental illness alike?
Juliana: There is so much education that’s needed. The police need more classes, hands-on classes, on racial equality. I see the value in police officers guiding us, but it’s the lack of awareness, it's the lack of understanding of their own prejudices and biases. I think it goes back to the training and the exposure. We all need exposure.
I used to be terrified of people with schizophrenia. I didn’t understand those symptoms until I got in the field with them. It’s about meeting the clients where they are. I don’t challenge some of those ideas. I use them. “Who else is on that train ride with us? What are we doing here?” Everything comes down to context. Get to know whoever is in front of you, their story. Don’t just look at the way they’re behaving.
When I’m in the hospitals, and there are patients who are coming in because they are unstable and off their medications, I can tell the police officers who have had training with individuals with mental illnesses and which ones have not. These patients, if you get to know their context, they might be more than willing to go along with the officers. If you put some of the patients in handcuffs, that could be added trauma from their original mental illness symptoms.
When you first get that label of a diagnosis, you feel stripped of what normalcy is. We throw away that person’s life and everything they’ve built. We need to get to know that story instead of stamping it like a red scarlet letter everywhere they go.
Max: How does racism come into play in the clinical setting? There’s the clients, for the first time under the professional gaze of a Black woman maybe, and how you navigate what I assume is a very white setting. Do you feel burdened on a daily basis by race?
Juliana: Research has shown that most mental health clients that reach out are white, and all my clients right now are white. Three Black individuals have reached out to me recently, and there are more Black people reaching out for mental health services than ever before. Now Black therapists are being sought out.
At one of my jobs, I’m the only Black therapist among about 15 of us. We have such a great respect for each other, and we admire each other as people. We’re not competing with each other. I think we have a great balance. But after George Floyd, you could sense that people didn’t know what to say. “Should I bring it up, should I not bring it up?” But it's not the responsibility of Black people to teach you about Black Lives Matter.
I explained to them, “I’m learning. I’m adopted to a white family, I grew up ‘white,’ my school was white, my church was white. I am still seeking out what this means to me today. What do I agree with or what do I not agree with?”
There are people who have been affected more than me. I work with a white woman whose husband is a Black police officer. There are people at that table who are homosexuals, and they’re dealing with their own issues with how they have felt oppressed. This is greater than just Black. When we’re talking about healing, changing, a revolution ... so many people didn’t realize they’ve been suffering from PTSD this whole time until the George Floyd movement.
Max: Where are there adjustments needed in mental health, and where do we need to address stigma in the Black community? How do providers embrace Black people?
Juliana: My husband is Black American and I’m from Haiti. We get into this so often — my “whiteness,” even though I’m Black, versus his “Blackness.” One of the things he was taught is that “what happens in the home stays in the home.” So how do you get rid of that mindset, that whatever goes on here stays here?
As Black people, we keep talking about how people need to be woke, but we ourselves need to be woke, to understand the services and to break down some of our own barriers that prevent us from asking for help.
I think a lot of it is that we don’t want to ask for help, especially of somebody from another race. There are only a few of us that will humble ourselves and say, “It doesn’t matter, and I’ll take the help.” Why are we willing to go to a doctor that’s white, a dentist that’s white, but when it comes to mental health professionals, we halt ourselves? That's really unfortunate. We need to accomplish this together. We all must do the work. NAMI is a great organization. The more we can get people there to understand it, the more likely we’re able to reduce stigma and get rid of it. Be solutions-focused, do more of what works — and if it doesn’t work, then change it. …
'We need to accomplish this together.
We all must do the work.'
The other problem is affordability. Are you going to pay for a therapist, especially if it's against your norms where you grew up, or would you rather save to pay for something else? …
It goes back to availability and cost. I think if it were available to them, they would take it. All the research shows that the higher the degree of education, the more likely that someone who is Black will seek out mental health services. Not only for Black people, but for everybody. It's the language that we use. I tell my students that one of the greatest gifts you can learn is the gift of adaptability. If you can adapt through life, you can make so many changes, and you can allow other people’s experiences to also change you, your thoughts, your views. That’s what I’m asking for from everybody.
You might not agree with everyone’s point of view in the movement, but try to see if there is one view that will help you adapt your thinking and the way you’re seeing the situation. We’re not asking for people to write a dissertation, or people to riot or anything like that. We’re just asking for people to listen and be empathetic to the message.
Hear more on Facebook from Juliana, and learn more about interracial adoptees with other adoptees at the United States Foundation for the Children of Haiti.