As part of our series on people who live with both racism and mental health issues, Max Maddox this week talked with Courtney Maupin, who has been a NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV) presenter in Denver for seven years. IOOV presenters work together in pairs to relate intimate, personal stories related to their own mental health. These are NAMI’s peer ambassadors to the public, representing the myriad ways mental illness can take hold of our lives — and be overcome with diligence and tenacity.
Courtney has delivered her harrowing story, a bilateral struggle with race and mental illness, to audiences all over Denver, from inpatient psychiatric settings to the Crisis Intervention Team Training (CIT) program with the Denver Police Department. Here’s part of it, as told to Max.
"I’m half black and half white. Our whole family has a history of mental illness. My mom did the best she could, being a single mom and a disabled veteran living with mental illness. When I was age 13, she just couldn’t handle it anymore. So I went into foster care for a while and then eventually I went to live with my aunt and uncle. They really tried to turn me against my mom, tell me she wasn’t sick, you know, put her down for everything she had gone through ...
"But at age 16 I had my own job, I was paying all my own bills, I paid for my car, insurance, phone — you name it. I was getting my own food at school and from my part-time job working fast food. I started taking care of myself at 16, graduated high school at 16, and went to college at 17. Then I became pregnant at 18, and had my daughter at 19. That’s when my symptoms really started.
"For the depression side of my bipolar type II disorder, it’s like I have these thoughts that just tell me, I’m not good enough, I should kill myself, Nobody cares about me, No one wants me around. I’m then sleeping all the time and can’t get the energy to get out of bed. It’s just a huge burden on my life. I don’t have interest in anything — it’s like, What’s the point of life? and Everything’s boring.
"Then with the hypomania, it’s just impulsivity. You can’t control it, and thoughts come with it, too. Like you think, Oh it’ll work itself out, or Oh it's not a big deal … I’ll feel better if I go on a shopping spree. You just don’t have the impulse control to think things through.
"Then I have mixed-episodes where I feel depressed, and with hypomania I can be really irritable, agitated.
"My aunt and uncle weren’t around for me — they only wanted to talk about how 'I wasn’t that sick' or how they really didn’t think anything was wrong with me. I knew I had to find a better support system. That’s when I found the NAMI support groups. That was awesome, the Connection Recovery Support Groups, because I had an instant support system. The people that understood, that knew, checked up on me. I’m glad I had that. I now had that validation and I learned your worth doesn’t depend on anyone ... anyone else’s opinion. And those were the biggest things I took from intensive outpatient therapy, on top of getting on medication and attending therapy.
"Recovery takes a lot of work, and that’s why I think people with mental illness are some of the strongest people out there.
"Recovery takes a lot of work, and that’s why I think people with mental illness are some of the strongest people out there."
"Just like anyone facing any physical illness, you have one more thing you have to overcome. But it’s such a different ballgame when your mind is working against you. For my symptoms of depression, some people think, 'Oh, depression is ’cause you’re sad,' or, 'You can be depressed and not be sad …' And you can go through grief — that closely emulates depression — but you don’t have a chemical imbalance.
NAMI is taking a hard look at its own struggles with diversity, and the knowledge that despite past efforts, we need to do more to reach further into the black and brown communities. Max asked Courtney what NAMI can do to be more inclusive — a question Courtney has grappled with deeply and personally.
"In terms of mental healthcare in the Black community, and minority areas in general, it’s not there. The support is not there, the stigma is even higher.
"So with NAMI, I just think it would be pulling in … minorities that we have already in the program, and allowing us to speak to these communities — and for people to see that there’s a different side to what they may have been accustomed to, or exposed to, with mental illness. You know, 'You need treatment' — let them know where treatment is available that works. Just like we do for everyone else in the community, but to really focus in on those areas.
"I think NAMI does such a great job with mental health advocacy, support, education ... again I think it’s going into those areas that really need to hear it.
"And we need to find more minority speakers. We need people who come from the Black culture who can be a testament to how they address mental illness and how they overcame it. We need IOOV in Spanish, and to get Hispanic people on board. We need to have them talk to the communities and reach out to support them.
"We also need to vocalize it. … What are the mental health providers? Where do people go to get help? What are the places that can partner with our Law Line, where can we hold Family-to-Family courses, where can we hold Peer-to-Peer classes? And how can we do this in all areas of the community, and expand even more?"
In his statement last week, NAMI national CEO Dan Gillison said that the organization is “early in our intentional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion journey.” Without question, that’s true of NAMI Colorado Springs as well. We’re a small, mostly white group with much to learn about the communities of color that we seek to better serve.
One of the best ways to learn, of course, is to listen. So at this time of anger, anxiety, protest and reckoning, we’re talking about racism and mental health with people of color who live with mental illness.
Over the weekend, Max Maddox, an artist, author, In Our Own Voice state trainer and a project manager for NAMI’s Array Parity program, interviewed Rochelle Johnson, a fellow artist and Denverite. Years ago, Rochelle joined a Connection Support Group, where peers helped her better understand her schizoaffective disorder. “I was searching for some answers then about why this was happening to me, and how do I deal with it,” she says. “I met a lot of good people that were suffering from mental illness and were searching for the same thing.”
Rochelle currently manages her illness with the help of the Mental Health Center of Denver and through drawing and painting, for which she was recently featured in Westword. Creating art helps her manage her stress and her symptoms, while also giving her a way to make statements about social justice.
“I’m pretty sure change is on the horizon,” she says.
Note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Max: Can you share some of your story, Rochelle?
Rochelle: After I graduated from art school, I moved to Seattle, in 1992. In 1999, I had my first break. It stemmed from working at an association there where I experienced a lot of hostility and stress, and a lot of it was about race. That really was my first attempt to work in corporate America, and my skin color presented a problem for most of the employees there — so much so that eventually I experienced my first break and they fired me, took my medical insurance away, and I was left to fend for myself. …
I wouldn’t stay in the hospital in Seattle so [my parents] took me back to Denver and I got treated here, which is where I’m from. …
The second break was when I worked at an art organization and I experienced the same kind of racism. This time I spoke up and left before it got too bad, but eventually I was hospitalized after I left that situation. Once again I had to start from zero and build myself back up.
During all that time I was working on becoming an artist. So my journey is intertwined with art and hospitals. [Laughs.]
Max: Can you say more about what your relationship with what the mental health system has been like? NAMI always wants to know how to work with the black community. This question about how to adapt our narrative of mental health to make sense to the black community … there’s always been this question since I started working with NAMI.
Rochelle: I think it's all due to the location — where we are at. Colorado has fewer black people living here, per capita, than most major metropolitan areas. But there are black psychiatrists and black representatives that have their own thing going on around black mental health.
I don't really know if it really has a lot to do with the church, or the fact that NAMI doesn’t really reach out to the community. It could be that right now, the community is all spread out. Five Points used to be a destination for people to find black people in general, their location, but not anymore.
There is a percentage of black folks that deal with mental illness. Right now, during this time of the pandemic, people are grieving — and I guess that could be considered a mental illness, or not, just a mental wellness issue. People are grieving and may not know how to navigate that.
Myself, I’m kind of numb. I’m numb to the fact that black men are being killed, black people are being killed, and the nation is doing nothing about that. There’s no response.
So maybe it's time to talk about grief, the stages of grief, how you can manage that on a day-to-day basis. I’m managing my mental health issues right now, but I’ll tell you it's hard for me not to cry. Or even talk about the issues when I turned on my social media and saw a man’s life just be taken. How do I rationalize that? It was during the day! It was on social media.
And the way the nation is dealing with it, I think is a good way, protesting, peaceful protesting, talking. Of course there’s always the rioters, but hell, if a certain group of people just want to focus on the rioting and the looting, I think there’s something wrong with them mentally. So, as a nation I think we need to talk about mental illness, mental well-being, how we can heal from this.
Max: I love that you put this in terms of grief. I mean we’re talking about a dead man right now, we’re talking about dead people … I think that’s part of all our helplessness — and that part of the grief is to experience this helplessness, too. How has your studio work played into this: the social-political aspect of it, the healing aspect of it …?
Rochelle: My work has always had a focus on the black community, how black people are doing now, how they spend their day-to-day time. Specifically I focus on black men, because I know they are more of a target than the rest of us.
There is a longing, and an emotional connection, I have when they move into white spaces. I know at some point they will be villainized, because I go through that. How they react and how they relate in those spaces has always been something that I’ve captured in my paintings.
Right now my practice is going to be talking about both of the pandemics: COVID-19 and the killing of black people. I’ve always been one to paint everybody, but at this point I think the focus should be on black lives, because black lives matter.
You can follow Rochelle on Instagram at @rochellejohnsonstudio. Check out and purchase her work, and find Rochelle’s contact information, at rochellejohnsonstudio.com.
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, NAMI CEO Daniel H. Gillison Jr. issued the following statement:
“The effect of racism and racial trauma on mental health is real and cannot be ignored. The disparity in access to mental health care in communities of color cannot be ignored. The inequality and lack of cultural competency in mental health treatment cannot be ignored.
“Our nation’s African American community is going through an extremely painful experience, pain that has been inflicted upon this community repeatedly throughout history and is magnified by mass media and repeated deaths. We stand with all the families, friends and communities who have lost loved ones senselessly due to racism. And, with more than 100,000 lives lost to the coronavirus pandemic — disproportionately from minority communities — these recent deaths add gasoline to the fire of injustice.
“While there is much we need to do to address racism in our country, we must not forget the importance of mental health as we do so. Racism is a public health crisis.
"Racism is a public health crisis."
“As the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization, it is our responsibility to serve all. While as an organization we are still early in our intentional Diversity, Equity and Inclusion journey and have much to do, we have renewed our commitment to our values. We continue to strive to deliver help and hope to all who need it.
“NAMI stands in solidarity with everyone impacted across the country. You are not alone.”
In the Pikes Peak region, we encourage anyone dealing with mental wellness challenges related to the anger and upheaval of this moment to contact our office at 719.473.8477. Beyond NAMI's own programmatic offerings, we can provide referrals to culturally competent mental health professionals in the area. As Dan said above, you are not alone.
In 2014, Mary Ellen Benson joined the NAMI Colorado Springs board of directors because she was passionate about starting more conversations about mental health. Little did she realize the impact that would have on her own family.
It’s not as though Mary Ellen was throwing her loved ones a huge curveball with her board membership; after all, she’s worked at AspenPointe since 2010, where she’s now vice president of community relations and business development. But when it comes to mental illness, she says, “There wasn’t conversation or really even awareness of it, on both sides of my family.” At least, not until she asked her mom, husband, kids, in-laws and others to come to the NAMI breakfast.
“That really did a lot to compel their acknowledgment that we all have family members living with mental illness, yet people weren't talking about it,” she says.
Now her clan comes to the NAMI fundraiser every year, many of them driving down from Boulder (where Mary Ellen spent her teenage years).
“It's been an avenue to open up conversations that may have never happened,” she says. “My daughter even sang a song at one of the NAMI breakfasts that she had written about her own kind of day-in, day-out struggles with just living. Living as a teenager is hard. I'm not sure if she would have felt the freedom or the voice to do that, had it not been normalized and part of my family.”
After six years as board secretary, Mary Ellen is cycling off due to term limits. Her departure means the loss of a great colleague and a gifted strategic thinker. (Consider: Before AspenPointe, Mary Ellen served for six years as HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital CEO, a position she earned at age 33.) So as a final board request, we asked Mary Ellen last week to share her thoughts about where NAMI’s been, and where it should go.
How much did you know about NAMI when you joined the board?
I really didn't know that much. I was overseeing an arm of AspenPointe where we were working a lot with the military. … Someone came in with, probably, a first-episode psychosis situation — kind of a young kid — and a clinician was trying to connect this family with NAMI. And I was like, "Tell me more.” Once she relayed its purpose, then NAMI started to pop up all over the place.
When Lori [Jarvis-Steinwert, executive director], and Dan [Zarecky, former board president] asked me to join, my biggest push at the time was addressing the stigma around mental illness in the community. And there still is stigma — hear me that this has not been solved — but it was so brutal, particularly in the schools. This was before the rash of suicides. It was so not known for kids to say, "Oh, I'm going to therapy," or, "I'm going to my counseling appointment.”
I also felt like there was such a disconnect between the business community and what was really going on within their organizations, with mental health challenges.
So what got you excited about being a board member? Where did you see opportunity?
It was pretty early on in that journey that we started participating in the National Dialogue on Mental Health. That was probably one of my proudest moments of really feeling like I was part of the community and trying to bring awareness to mental health.
I was coming at it from a provider perspective. There wasn't this connection with users and providers and the community, a space of just honest, humble, open dialogue. It was usually providers versus users.
I loved that work; that was an incredible campaign that we did.
At the same time, we were also trying to move out of a working-board model into a governance board. It was really nice to be able to bring a voice forward that said, "We've got to figure out our business model, we've got to figure out sustainability.”
You've long been active on boards. How have you decided which boards to get involved with?
For me to give my time and energy to something, I need to feel personally connected and inspired by the work, and know that the goal of the organization is to make a difference.
When I was on the American Heart Association board, we were doing a lot of work around awareness of women and their “Go Red For Women” campaign. I just really believed that there was so much focus on breast cancer awareness, and yet stroke and heart disease has such a huge impact on women, and we weren't even able to get the word out.
Ironically, when I was a board member, my dad died of a sudden heart attack. That was a life-changing experience for me. He was a marathon runner, he didn't show any signs or symptoms, he was on no medications. His healthy lifestyle probably prolonged his life despite genetic heart issues. But it was one of those things that I could feel really proud of and say, "I would like you guys to support the Heart Association in honor of him."
It's been a similar journey with NAMI, honestly.
What’s your take on how NAMI and AspenPointe complement each other?
AspenPointe has been in the community for a long time, over 150 years. NAMI is newer. And yet, we're both trying to work with folks who have had struggles for years upon years. How I've worked with trying to bring together NAMI and AspenPointe is asking, "How do we tell the story, and put a human face on people living with mental illness and their families?"
We've been able to partner through some unique programs, like our Creative Expressions Art Therapy program, some of our programs with our peers, some of our programs around recovery.
If you were referring somebody from AspenPointe to NAMI, and they didn’t know anything about NAMI, what would you say about it?
I think the biggest thing is, "You're not alone. There are people just like you who can talk with you and help you understand how they've gone through their own journeys.”
I've said to Lori so many times, "You can't separate the clinical provider side from the peer, or personal experience, side. If you try to, providers are going to fail.” Because you can only give folks health intervention one hour a week, whatever it is, and people are living this journey for the remainder: days, weeks, years.
It's kind of like going to your primary care doctor who you see twice a year, and they tell you, "Lose 50 pounds, stop smoking, don't drink soda, start exercising.” In order to tackle any one of those things, you've got to find peer groups or support avenues. So what you might learn in therapy is made real, breathing and living through NAMI.
"What you might learn in therapy is made real,
breathing and living through NAMI."
Even though so much is uncertain right now, do you have a sense of what a healthy NAMI might look like in five or 10 years?
I think there's going to have to be some private-public-nonprofit partnerships, and leveraging of resources to really further shared missions.
Over time, particularly as we go through COVID and we have a recession and all of these pieces, we're going to have to look for other opportunities for revenue. So what does that look like? Can NAMI start to leverage the business community so that business and human resource programs are partnering in a financial sort of way?
I think the shift is going to have to be moving upstream into a prevention or early intervention model. If you look at the American Cancer Society and the American Heart Association and some of these different illness-based organizations, they've all moved a lot more into health/wellness/prevention types of platforms. It’s about intervening early to help people stay as healthy as they can.
What else would you want to say about your experience with NAMI or about the organization that you feel people should know?
You can't go through a journey with NAMI without giving credit and love and acknowledgment to Lori. She's just, day in, day out, really helping change this conversation in our community. And I do think the people involved in NAMI — the volunteers, the board members, the staff — are a special group.