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PHOTO BY THOMAS BARWICK / GETTY IMAGES

The Power of Community to Heal Our Minds

Why Your Mental Health Is About Everything and Everyone

Illustration by Dimitri Otis / Getty Image

Illustration by Dimitri Otis / Getty Images

Johann Hari’s experience with depression is something of a lightning rod within mental health circles. There are those who cheer his nuanced views of the disorder, grateful for a take on mental health that emphasizes the impacts of environment and experience. Others argue that the British journalist is too dismissive of medication. “Is everything Johann Hari knows about depression wrong?” reads a headline that ran in a U.K. newspaper.

Travis Lupick is a journalist based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction. @tlupick

The extreme reactions to the bestselling author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions also speak to the binary way people tend to view mental illness and mental health. You either have it or you don’t.

Nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population will experience a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime. Every single person, every day, is passing through the continuum that is mental health, from building resilience to dealing with challenges like anxiety and depression to recovering from trauma to living with severe disorders needing constant medical care.

When Hari was a teenager in the 1990s, he felt a debilitating sadness that he couldn’t explain or even understand. “My doctor told me a story that was entirely biological. He said, ‘We know why people feel this way. There’s a chemical called serotonin in people’s brains. Some people lack it, you’re one of them, and all we need to do is drug you and you’ll be fine.’”

Paxil, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, or SSRI, corrected the serotonin imbalance in his brain that was causing him to feel sad. Hari says his mood improved. But, he learned a few months later, it only worked for a while. Then the sadness returned. His dose was increased, feelings of melancholy receded, but again only for a time. A pattern set in and continued for years.

It wasn’t until he was researching Lost Connections that Hari says he began to understand the roots of his depression and discovered lasting solutions to the mental health challenges with which he had struggled for so many years.

Social stress. Lack of community. Childhood trauma. “It was a combination of social factors,” he says. “Growing up in a culture where you’re taught that what matters most is money and status. Growing up in a place with no community. … And I’d gone through childhood trauma, and childhood trauma can lead to adult depression.” With a fuller picture of his mental health, Hari realized he focused too much on himself and self-promotion. He began making a conscious effort to spend time helping others “and to just be present with the people I love,” he adds.

“Really, it was a radical transformation.”

From the Executive Director

The Mental Health Issue

My beautiful older sister, Bess — a smart, passionate, popular soccer star — killed herself when she was 17. She took my parents’ gun, drove to a park, and shot herself in the head. The effect on my family was profound. Though I’m generally a warm person, for the next 15 years, I avoided people with big emotions, or people who seemed fragile. For me, they were dangerous, unpredictable, unhelpable. I didn’t want to get too close, for fear of being responsible for them in some way. I limited my range of empathy because I was sure if I went too far, I’d be swallowed whole.

Cover of YES! Issue 87

One day, 15 years later, my friend and colleague Karen came to work, shaken by something. I simply asked what was wrong, and she told me her partner had tried to end her life. We talked for a long time. She shared, I shared. We both healed each other a little that day.

There was another conversation with a stranger at a party a couple of years later. A young woman a lot like my sister, on the precipice. I asked, she shared, I shared. More healing.

Over the years, these and many other connections have helped me understand that I can go down into the depths of empathy and not be weakened or incapacitated by it, not swallowed whole. In fact, I’ve become more whole because of them. I’m touched more deeply by beauty, humor, and suffering. I can feel more of everything — from joy to outrage — and for me, it makes for a more complete life.

YES! Photo by Chris Marion

Bess, left, and Christine

Depression comes in so many forms, and for so many reasons. Dealing with it — my own and others’ — is still hard for me, especially when it touches loved ones whom I care for and rely on the most. But with every act of acknowledgment, each gesture of empathy, each conversation, it gets easier. And in those moments when I have the courage to empathize deeply, I find when I come back up, the air’s a little sweeter.

Being human is hard, but there are chances for healing in every moment. Whether you suffer from depression, anxiety, or stress, or you know people who do, I hope this issue of YES! can give you the courage to connect, to peel away a layer or two, and let healing begin.

Return to the story

The personal story Hari recounts in Lost Connections reveals emotional well-being as significantly more complicated than a binary system that oscillates between resilience and illness.

“There are three different kinds of causes of depression, and we’ve been focusing way too much on the biological ones and not anywhere near enough on the social and psychological ones,” Hari says.

This broader understanding of mental health — as a continuum, and one that is deeply and continually affected by environment, circumstance, and experience — is further revealed in the many statistics repeated after the suicides in June of celebrities Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. A June report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that from 1999 to 2016, suicide rates have steadily increased in nearly every state to make for a national rise of 30 percent. “In 2016, nearly 45,000 Americans age 10 or older died by suicide,” it reads. “Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death and is one of just three leading causes that are on the rise.”

What has happened to Americans over those decades? It’s unreasonable to think biological chemistry alone has undergone significant changes. Our environments have changed. Our food. Our stress. Our relationships — our “lost connections,” as Hari puts it.

According to the Cooperative Institutional Research Program’s annual Freshman Survey, in 1985, 18 percent of first-year college students said they “felt overwhelmed.” In 2000, that number was 28 percent. In 2016, it was 41 percent.

The portion of American children ages 6 to 17 who experience a lifetime diagnosis of anxiety or depression was 5.4 percent in 2003 and 8.4 percent by 2011–2012, according to an April paper published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. “Youth mental health is worsening,” reads a blunt assessment by Mental Health America. According to the nonprofit, the rate of youth with “severe depression” increased from 5.9 percent in 2012 to 8.2 percent in 2015.

As troubling as these numbers are, there is a small positive. If mental health challenges are so common, if we are all at various stops on the continuum of resilience to illness, no one should feel ashamed for experiencing one.

“A Normal Response to Abnormal Circumstances”

There’s another takeaway, too. If we are all in this mental health thing together, then there’s a large role for each of us, and the wider community, in prevention and healing.

In 2008, Dr. Gabor Maté published In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, a seminal book on the subject that explains problematic drug use as a common response to childhood trauma. Or, as he explained addiction in a recent interview, “a normal response to abnormal circumstances.”

“Just about every mental affliction is actually an adaptive response that then becomes a source of problems later on,” Maté says. “People push down their feelings in childhood when the environment of their childhood cannot receive those feelings. In order to stay acceptable to the nurturing environment, the child pushes down their feelings. Thirty years later, they are diagnosed with depression.”

Maté is working on a book that’s tentatively titled The Myth of Normal: Pathways to Health in an Insane Culture. “A society that erodes communities and isolates people, which this society does in major ways, that itself is going to create insanity,” Maté says. “That is insanity.”

Johann Hari

“There are three different kinds of causes of depression, and we’ve been focusing way too much on the biological ones and not anywhere near enough on the social and psychological ones,” author Johann Hari says. Photo by David Levenson / Getty Images

To explain, he takes a step back in time: “We evolved as communal creatures,” Maté says. “We could not have survived on our own [in prehistoric times]. No human being could have survived.”

Imagine a small tribe of indigenous people living in Central America some 2,000 years ago. Positive feelings of community kept humans in groups large enough to foster collective security. Now think of the ways so many of us live today: in 30-story apartment towers where it’s become a social oddity to introduce yourself to your neighbors, and in gated communities where massive parcels of personal property keep families in geographic isolation from those living nearby.

Maté’s reference to premodern humans is reminiscent of the work of John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago who dedicated his life to the study of loneliness. He established that “negative” emotions such as loneliness were actually necessary to our success.

“Meaningful social connection, and the pain we feel without it, are defining characteristics of our species,” Cacioppo wrote in his 2008 book, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. “In the same way that physical pain serves as a prompt to change behavior — the pain of burning skin tells you to pull your finger away from the frying pan — loneliness developed as a stimulus to get humans to pay more attention to their social connections, and to reach out toward others, to renew frayed or broken bonds.”

In Central America 2,000 years ago, a solo hunter with pangs of loneliness would return to his tribe, to relative physical safety, and to a comforting feeling of belonging in his community. Today, in a society that encourages isolation, it’s as if we’re forgetting that sort of solution is still available to us.

“Depression Is Political”

Of course, it’s not that simple. The relationship between community and an individual’s mental health is a complicated one. And political. Sometimes you’re White and feel capitalism is isolating and making you depressed. Sometimes you’re Black and afraid for your teenage son to leave the house wearing a hoodie.

“I am here sitting in my bed fighting my depression, trying not to bask in somberness for too long, pondering how I’m going to shatter ceilings with three generations on my back,” wrote Bobby London, a writer and journalist who often covers social movements including Black Lives Matter, in a 2015 essay, “Depression Is Political.” “Depression is, at least for me, something that is structurally created,” she continues. “I am depressed because I live in a White-supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist world. I am depressed because people that look like me are constantly being murdered.”

The politics of depression and anxiety at the community level looks like this:

According to a June study published in the Lancet, police killings of unarmed Black people harm the mental health of the victims’ entire communities. And researchers noted that the mental health impacts were not observed among White people and resulted only from police killings of unarmed Black Americans, not unarmed White Americans or armed Black Americans.

For several years, Ashley Yates has candidly shared her experiences with depression and anxiety on social media under the handle @brownblaze. She’s also become an advocate for self-care and for dialogue around the mental health challenges that are especially pronounced in communities of color, from violence to invisibility.

“The ways in which we are treated when we access social services is completely different from other races. The ways in which we are treated in our health care system is completely different from other races,” Yates says. “It is really stressful. It creates depression … when you know that you are going to have to fight doubly or triply hard just to get normal care, just to get your necessities, just to be seen.”

In August 2014, 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a White police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. It was one of several fatal police shootings that collectively gave rise to Black Lives Matter and a re-energized movement for civil rights. In Ferguson, Yates participated in protests for police accountability for several months. She recounts how she became a part of something in which she found strength but which paradoxically presented simultaneous challenges for her mental health.

“Dealing with that sort of repression, dealing with that sort of violence — the only thing that I can think to compare it to is active warfare. You are having war waged against you by your government,” she says.

Yates remembers that she first scoffed at the idea she would experience post-traumatic stress disorder. “I don’t know if it was cognitive dissonance or just ignorance on my part, but I had no clue that it would impact us so deeply. But every single person that spent significant time in Ferguson absolutely suffers from PTSD.”

Yates didn’t always speak so openly about mental health. “At first, it was definitely like, ‘Will I be stigmatized?’ And there was stigmatization,” she says.

Then a comrade killed himself.

According to a June study published in the Lancet, police killings of unarmed Black people harm the mental health of the victims’ entire communities. And researchers noted that the mental health impacts were not observed among White people and resulted only from police killings of unarmed Black Americans, not unarmed White Americans or armed Black Americans.

In February 2016, MarShawn McCarrel, 23, a prominent member of the Black Lives Matter movement, shot himself on the steps of the Ohio statehouse. “It told me that it was time to speak out no matter the cost,” Yates says.

At the same time, Yates began a conscious effort to take better care of herself, which she says was not easy. “There are a lot of barriers when it comes to access to therapy or mental health services for Black people,” Yates explains. “Coming from a Southern Baptist religion, there is not a lot of space for me to do something other than to take it to Jesus. And so that was a huge barrier that I had to overcome. Another one was cost and insurance and all of the things it takes to find a therapist who understands racism and structural inequity.”

Yates began with small steps she describes as “accessible” and “affordable.”

“Finding my joys in life was a huge thing,” she says. “Something that happens a lot in activism is that people forget we have lives outside of it. We forget to do pleasurable things. So for me, it was getting back to writing, getting back to drawing, getting back to reading, getting back to just seeing a movie sometime, and remembering that we live full, well-rounded lives. Those were some of my very first steps.”

Yates also reconceptualized her mental health as more nuanced than either “unhealed” or “healed.”

Because she had so much trauma, she says, a state of “healed” seemed impossible. “But when I remembered that healing is a process … it became a more tangible reality, and something that is a lot more feasible than flipping a switch.”

“Sometimes People Get Stuck”

Recovery from an oppressive situation takes time, according to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. He is a clinician and researcher who specializes in post-traumatic stress and is founder of the Trauma Center in Boston. Van der Kolk says that for a child living in an abusive household, for example, or a person of color who has repeatedly experienced unjustified interactions with police, healing will be a process, and often a long one.

“People adapt to very bad situations,” he explains. “The response to trauma is the mind’s way of coping with whatever is going on, to help you to survive. But sometimes people get stuck.”

At the Trauma Center, van der Kolk and his team make less-traditional treatments available alongside mainstream therapies. A child can play a video game that promotes neural feedback, for example, where they interact with a visual representation of their own brainwaves to relieve anxiety and promote a better mood. There’s trauma-sensitive yoga that promotes self-awareness of the relationship between body and mind.

Van der Kolk also emphasizes the powerful role of community both to harm and to heal.

“Trauma is, in many cases, about a breakdown of community,” he explains. “If the very source of protection becomes a source of danger, that is really, very bad for people. The community is protective, but if the community turns against you, we become very vulnerable.”

He recounts how the significance of community healing became clear to him during work for South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was convened in 1995 to help address the wounds of apartheid.

“After a collective trauma has happened, people tend to sing and move and dance and eat,” he says. “None of that is incorporated into [North American] mental health systems, but most of us who have worked with other cultures, or who have worked with refugees, see how much comfort people get from singing, moving, and dancing. … Songs and communal sounds that we make let us feel at one with the people around us and are very powerful, very comforting ways of re-establishing connections with human beings.”

Hugh Lampkin volunteers with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users

Hugh Lampkin volunteers with the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, leading training sessions for overdose response, holding meetings on political developments that affect drug users, and generally keeping the headquarters running. He says that here he feels valued and useful. Photo by Jackie DIve

A Life-Saving Connection in Community

In an impoverished neighborhood of Vancouver, British Columbia, called the Downtown Eastside, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users is a sort of union that advocates for drug policy reform, operates harm reduction programs such as needle exchanges, and gives drug users a voice in Canadian politics.

Hugh Lampkin is a board member, former president of the organization, and a prominent community activist who’s taken a lead role through VANDU in Canada’s response to North America’s epidemic of drug overdose deaths. For Lampkin, a drug user himself, the road to helping others has been a journey, one that began with childhood trauma. “I grew up in Toronto,” Lampkin begins. “I always had issues, being a person of color. I used to get beaten up a lot and chased around by other kids who were White.”

A number of incidents of abuse led him to self-medicate with heroin and other drugs. “It allowed me to shut myself off, to not feel anything,” he says.

“I didn’t feel I had any sort of connection with anybody,” he remembers.

After nearly three decades lost to drugs, Lampkin traveled across the country to Vancouver. “I didn’t want to be around my family and friends, because I understood that I was going to make them hurt. So I decided to come out here [to Vancouver] to kick off … to off myself.”

Lampkin describes one evening in 2006 or 2007, when he prepared his last meal.

“I went and bought a bottle of 12-year-old Scotch,” he recounts. “It was $180 for the bottle. And a bottle of wine that was $200 or $300. I had prime rib and lobster — surf and turf — with scalloped potatoes. And some dope. And dessert, tiramisu.” Lampkin ate, drank, and then injected the heroin — enough to kill himself, he was sure.

“And then I remember hearing birds chirping,” he continues. It was 13 or 14 hours later, and Lampkin was lying on his apartment floor, exactly where he had fallen the night before. “OK, I’m still here,” he remembers thinking. “It was a relief.”

Shortly after, Lampkin was walking through downtown Vancouver and bumped into a small group of people who were smoking cigarettes outside what looked like a cross between a community center and homeless shelter. “They looked like the sort of people I could hang around with,” he says. “I felt comfortable. I felt at ease.” Lampkin had found VANDU.

“And I’ve been here ever since, with our little clubhouse of losers,” he adds with a smile.

At a subsequent VANDU meeting, Lampkin shared some of what had happened to him as a child. “And there was more support than I had been given my entire life,” he says. “I saw people with tears in their eyes, and there was an acknowledgement. What had happened to me had happened to them.”

Today, nearly 10 years later, Lampkin practically lives at VANDU. He volunteers countless hours, leading training sessions for overdose response, holding meetings on political developments that affect drug users, and generally keeping VANDU’s headquarters running. It’s a supportive, nonjudgmental atmosphere of organized chaos.

What’s kept him there? Lampkin says that in the drug users community he found a home, one where he feels valued and useful.

“I wanted people — somebody, even if only one person — to feel what I felt that day,” he explains. “To give a person someone to talk to without wanting anything from them. To just listen. Because for a lot of people, that’s all they want. For a lot of people, that’s life-saving.”

Travis Lupick is a journalist based in Vancouver, British Columbia. He is the author of Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle With Addiction. @tlupick

Just the Facts

5 Fake Facts That Fuel Mental Illness Stigma

Illustration by Tomasz Walenta / Marlena Agency

Illustration by Tomasz Walenta / marlena agency

In a culture that stigmatizes mental illness, there are harmful consequences for the 1 in 5 adults dealing with it at any given time. Only 44% receive needed treatment. And internalized stigma is associated with increased suicidal thoughts and low self-esteem. Stigma worsens the effects of mental illness and not only delays treatment, but complicates it: People feeling stigma take a less active role in their own treatment. Worse, they might not reach out for help at all. How to reduce stigma in society? For starters, make sure everyone has their facts straight.

1
“Children are resilient. They don’t get mental illness.”
infographic 1

2
“The mentally ill are violent.”
infographic 2

3
“People who kill themselves are clinically depressed.”
infographic 3

4
“Mental illness is a permanent condition.”
infographic 4

5
“White people are most resilient.”
infographic 5

Sources:

Intro: NIMH. mentalhealth.gov. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, June 2017. American Psychiatric Association, April 2017

1 NIH. Kessler et al., 2005. CDC, Bitsko et al., 2016

2 American Psychiatric Association, Knoll et al., 2016. mentalhealth.gov

3 CDC’s National Violent Death Reporting System, data from 27 states in 2015

4 New York State Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services. Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Surviving Schizophrenia (5th Edition), Torrey, 2006. NIMH, 2008

5 Brookings Institute, 2018. Cambridge University Press, 2006. Brookings Institute 2017. NCBI, 2008

Barbershop Therapy

In the South, Barbers Are Training to Be Counselors

Lorenzo Lewis, founder of The Confess Project

Lorenzo Lewis, founder of The Confess Project, holds a barbershop talk in Columbia, South Carolina. His demonstrations show barbers and their clients how men hold in their pain — and how to break through. Photo by Santanna Hayes

Amid the sound of television and hair clippers buzzing around him at Goodfellas Barbershop in Little Rock, Arkansas, Lorenzo Lewis was trying to get a man wearing a mask to talk about his emotional pain.

Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a freelance writer and editor from Portland, Oregon. @celestehdennis

Lewis asked the man how he was doing. “I’m good, I’m good,” he responded. Lewis said how he’d noticed he seemed on edge recently. Same response. Lewis kept asking questions until the man eventually took off his mask. “I’m hurting,” he said. “I’m just really going through something right now.” When asked if he was feeling suicidal, the man nodded.

Lewis is founder of The Confess Project, a mental health initiative for boys and men of color. His demonstration was attempting to show barbers and their clients how men hold in their pain — and how to break through.

Why do it in a barbershop?

The barbershop in the Black community has historically been a safe, nonjudgmental space for men to talk about anything — sports, politics, religion, women, manhood. The 90-minute conversations about mental health, called Beyond the Shop, are an opportunity to deepen sharing that is already happening, Lewis says. The initiative is similar to New York City-based Barbershop Books and the Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program in Inglewood, California, which focuses on hypertension prevention.

Through an interactive format, Beyond the Shop aims not only to help Black boys and men confess their vulnerabilities and give them resources to begin a healthier way of living, but also to show barbers how they can be mental health advocates, too.

“When you go to your barber, you’re trusting them with your prized possession — your hair,” says Goodfellas owner Matt Dillon. “So if you can trust and respect someone to do your hair, you can trust and respect them to help you with a problem.”

For Black men, seeking help can be difficult, an effect of stigma that Beyond the Shop is hoping to erase.

“At the barbershop, guys are already outspoken and opinionated, but we don’t tend to talk about self-care and the things that make sure we’re around for our kids and future generations,” says Sam Johnson, a Beyond the Shop participant in Louisville, Kentucky. “The biggest thing I took away was checking on my brothers. We’re so quick to say, ‘Man up,’ when I really should be asking more questions and letting him know that if he needs help, I’m here.”

The numbers are telling: Black people more frequently have post-traumatic stress disorder than other ethnic groups. Yet Black men are less likely to get treatment than the general population, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. There’s a lack of mental health awareness. Disproportionate access to health care. Increased exposure to violence. Distrust and misdiagnosis due to the lack of culturally competent care.

Lewis’ approach with Beyond the Shop is modeling vulnerability through storytelling. He draws empathy from his own story.

Born in jail to an incarcerated mother, Lewis struggled with depression, anxiety, and anger throughout his youth. At 17, involved with a gang, he turned it around. Reaching out for support from family and friends was key, as was professional help. “I was in bad relationships, and not able to get along with others. I had a horrible time getting girlfriends, and when I did, I didn’t know how to treat them right because I’d been through so much trauma,” he told the men in Goodfellas. “I started realizing, maybe I need some therapy.”

The Beyond the Shop initiative

The Beyond the Shop initiative aims not only to help Black boys and men confess their vulnerabilities and give them resources to begin a healthier way of living, but also to show barbers how they can be mental health advocates, too. Photo by Santanna Hayes

Since starting The Confess Project in 2016, he’s facilitated mental health awareness sessions for thousands around the country — from national universities and organizations, including NAMI, to local health fairs and high schools. He draws from his experience of working in behavioral health facilities in Little Rock for over a decade, where he underwent training in suicide prevention and cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.

At Goodfellas, the men were apprehensive at first about Lewis interrupting their haircuts. They didn’t know what to think of him — or the strange mask the man was wearing, to illustrate how men hide their emotions.

But the men in the shop did start talking. One man spoke about the pain of being separated from his children and the stress of child support. Another admitted how he turned to unhealthy outlets to cope with working menial jobs. Heads nodded. In the next chair over, a man talked about the anger and fear that come with being pulled over by police. A common thread was how society treats Black men.

“Our mental illness is criminalized. You take a person not of color that goes in and shoots up a school and automatically the response is, ‘He’s mentally ill.’ When a person of color does anything remotely like that, not that we even do, he’s a thug,” says Dr. Karen Mathis, psychotherapist in Little Rock. “But I think we would rather be labeled a thug than mentally ill. Why? Because it’s a sign of weakness. And we don’t want to appear weak.”

Mental illness in the U.S. carries a stigma. For the Black community, especially for men, Lewis says, that stigma is manifold and gets in the way of asking for help.

At the end of Beyond the Shop, along with holistic ideas for self-care and information on suicide prevention, Lewis provides information on local support groups and culturally competent therapists. Black mental health professionals make up only 2.6 percent of the field, according to the American Psychological Association. And therapy can also be a financial barrier for many.

That’s where barbers step in.

left double quoteThe biggest thing I took away was checking on my brothers. We’re so quick to say, ‘Man up,’ when I really should be asking more questions and letting him know that if he needs help, I’m here.”

Barbers learn how to help the men in their chairs — from recognizing that lack of eye contact might be a sign of depression to being comfortable asking someone if they’re suicidal (this can be the best way to identify risk, according to the National Institute of Mental Health). They can point to resources in the community.

“I feel more able to help somebody,” says JJ Harness, owner of Broski Barbershop in Little Rock. “Now, once I see the hints they’re throwing out there that they need to talk, I’ll open the door up for discussion.”

Increasingly, communities are starting to see the need to equip unlikely first responders to better recognize health concerns in the people they interact with on a daily basis. Librarians in Sacramento, California, for example, underwent “mental health first aid” training at the beginning of the year to be able to identify issues in the homeless people who come through their doors and point them to help. In Duluth, Minnesota, a community-wide effort trains everyone from neighbors to business owners to support people living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Baristas double as mental health aides in a new coffee shop in Chicago that’s openly committed to mental health awareness and suicide prevention.

Since the initial pilot in Little Rock, Lewis has taken Beyond the Shop to five other barbershops in cities across the South: Louisville, Kentucky; Memphis, Tennessee; Columbia, South Carolina; Atlanta; and, most recently, New Orleans. Response to Beyond the Shop conversations overall has been positive. A survey of participants even showed 58 percent would be more prone to seek treatment if a therapist was located in the barbershop.

In Louisville, a city that saw its highest ever homicide rates in the past two years, 40 people, including the mayor, showed up at The Campus Barbershop in January. Representatives from the Louisville Urban League and Metro United Way also came. Men openly shared their stories and offered each other advice.

Shortly after the event, owner J. “Divine” Alexander went to a homeless shelter to volunteer his barber services. He met a man there who was without a job and feeling down. Alexander, who struggles with depression himself, has been more open with others since the talk. He gave the man a haircut and a beard trim and at the same time encouraged him to seek help. A few months later, the man came into his barbershop — employed and ready to become a regular.

He credited Alexander for the turnaround. “He was like, ‘Yeah, man, it all started with a haircut and a conversation to do better.’”

Celeste Hamilton Dennis is a freelance writer and editor from Portland, Oregon. @celestehdennis

Commentary

I Stopped Playing the “Strong Black Woman”

Photo by electravk / Getty Images

Photo by electravk / Getty Images

I never saw my grandmother rest. From morning to night, she appeared to be in service: cooking and cleaning, helping and caring for others.

She died of a heart attack at 69.

As I reflect today on the high rates of heart disease, stress, obesity, and other physical as well as mental ailments among African American women, I wonder what would have been the impact had she said, “I ain’t cooking tonight, everybody is on their own,” or “I’m headed out for a walk,” or simply, “I’m tired, and I need to rest.” What messages might I have inferred from watching her take 15 minutes of quiet time in the morning to “get centered.”

Instead, I observed what appeared to be a never-ending pace of busyness, problem-solving, and making ends meet. As a result, I found myself behaving similarly. I didn’t dare go to her or the other Black women in my life with what I couldn’t do. I worked hard to figure things out — to trudge through my storms. I mimicked what I saw and became a professional at it.

I realized later that my grandmother and I were not the only Black women who existed in this way. There were thousands of us — of all backgrounds and ages — silently suffering, while proudly praising our abilities to make a way out of no way. The more women I engaged with, the more I discovered that we had taken the chaos in our lives and normalized it.

Normalizing chaos is a coping mechanism. It’s what Black women have passed on and collectively reinforced, generation after generation, perpetuating the strong Black woman stereotype. This accepted idea that Black women have an extraordinary strength beyond that of other women — that we feel no pain, we don’t cry, we don’t need help — has done us more harm than good.

Black women are taught to push through, keep going, and endure difficult times without protest. Asking for help — or even believing that we’re deserving of it — is a sign of weakness and vulnerability that we’ve been taught we cannot afford. More than 80 percent of Black mothers are the primary or major financial providers for their families, compared to 50 percent of White mothers. And more than 4 million family households — about 30 percent of Black families — in the United States are headed by Black women. Nearly 1 in 3 of those households lives below the poverty level. Gendered racism, which cuts across all socioeconomic and educational levels, has been shown to be a key component in health disparities.

We are paying for this myth we’ve bought into with our lives.

Normalizing chaos is a coping mechanism. It’s what Black women have passed on and collectively reinforced, generation after generation, perpetuating the strong Black woman stereotype.

Minimizing our mental health, masking depression, staying busy, overeating or not eating at all, and normalizing all of it is killing us slowly. Not only do Black women continue to have higher rates of physical illness with poorer quality of care, we also experience higher rates of depression than our White counterparts. And we are more likely to receive lower rates of mental health treatment.

The upside is, as national attention shines a spotlight on mental health, Black women are slowly joining the discussions and the efforts to heal. Some are using social media and podcasts to share their stories and emphasize the importance of self-care. Others are sharing their stories with friends and family. This movement for Black women to embrace self-care is gradually spreading.

Kellee Monet Rice-Jalloh, who works in pastoral care in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, helps women like me navigate the chaos in our lives. As she is one of the few Black women on her university campus, Rice-Jalloh’s office has become a space where Black women feel they can be vulnerable and authentic — removing their masks and capes.

She warns us that we have to stop pretending we’re not in trauma every day.

My wake-up call came in the form of burnout, exhaustion, and depression. While studying for my Ph.D., I was working full time and raising three children. I didn’t want to go to work, but I pushed through, put on my mask daily, and pretended I was OK.

I wasn’t.

I was in the rabbit hole of my normalized chaos and couldn’t find my way out until I admitted to the harm I was causing myself. I took a hard look at my life and committed to practicing self-care. I stopped saying yes to everyone and every opportunity. I started paying attention to my nutrition and physical activity. I started to remember things that bring me joy and made time to do them. I reminded myself that I am deserving of rest, with no guilt or shame. And I spend time alone.

None of these behaviors did I learn from watching my elders, but I am confident they are saving my life. I am doing the work daily, loving it, and loving me.

With climate catastrophes increasing, a Northern California community has lessons in recovery one year after devastating wildfires.

What the Fires Did to Our Minds

A fire-destroyed neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California

A sign of resilience posted on a tree in a fire-destroyed neighborhood of Santa Rosa, California. Photo From AFP CONTRIBUTOR / Getty Images

It’s late spring, and I’m hiking Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County with therapist, ecopsychologist, and California naturalist Mary Good. A mist is drifting down, and we have the park mostly to ourselves. In October 2017, 80 percent of Sugarloaf’s 3,900 acres of oak woodlands were scorched by the firestorms in California’s North Bay. But today, most of what stretches out before us is green and vibrant, brushed with the last signs of a wildflower superbloom that erupted from the ash earlier this spring.

Dani Burlison

Dani Burlison is a writer in Santa Rosa, California. Web: daniburlison.com

A dozen miles west in Santa Rosa, contractors are rebuilding some of the more than 5,000 homes destroyed there. The last of 2.2 million tons of fire debris has been hauled away from the 383 square miles of charred land in the region. And therapists like Good continue seeing fire survivors pro bono, helping them navigate the aftermath of the disaster.

“It was an absolute trauma for everybody involved. The fire is over, but the grief may last a long time,” Good says. “We live in a time where these natural disasters are going to be happening more and more. How do you develop resilience? What do you do to feel like you can be safe in the world again?”

Developing that resilience seems crucial. According to climate research from NASA, we can expect more droughts, stronger and more intense hurricanes, and big changes in precipitation patterns.

As climate change-related disasters become more common, there is a critical need to address the mental health of survivors after a catastrophe. Santa Rosa residents — and the greater Sonoma County community — rushed in to offer support services through pop-up holistic clinics, mental health education, and free counseling services. It’s a response that may help other communities cope with future disasters.

The magnitude and chaos of the North Bay fires left local government and nonprofit organizations overwhelmed — the fires plowed through several neighborhoods overnight, sending more than 4,000 people to 43 shelters at the peak of the fires. The Red Cross and local organizations offered psychological first aid, an emergency response tactic defined by the World Health Organization as “humane, supportive, and practical help to fellow human beings suffering serious crisis events.”

National programs can help address people’s mental health needs during disasters like these fires and in the immediate aftermath, for example, the Disaster Distress Helpline — a confidential, national 24/7 call and text service.

Christian Burgess, the Helpline’s director, says that most calls during disasters are from people feeling overwhelmed and anxious, seeking information about the event.

“During the long term recovery … we start to see deeper mental health concerns from callers and texters, such as persistent anxiety; depression; and substance abuse, which can be related to traumatic exposure during the event; loss of loved ones, including pets; and financial strain,” Burgess says.

Other organizations in Sonoma County took a more grassroots approach to offer support.

Tré Vasquez is a youth organizer at the North Bay Organizing Project, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that organizes working-class and minority communities to build political power.

When the fires erupted, Vasquez and his team mobilized quickly, collaborating with local churches, herbalists, acupuncturists, ancestral healers, counselors, and community volunteers to launch community healing events called Sanación del Pueblo (“The People’s Healing”) to support those impacted by the fires, especially the region’s large immigrant population.

The first event was hosted within days. In the following weeks and months, Sanación del Pueblo provided physical and emotional support, referrals, and meals, and donated respirators to nearly 600 people. The events have been hosted at a community garden, a local Unitarian church, and a branch of the Sonoma County Library in a largely working-class and Latinx neighborhood of Santa Rosa. Vasquez says the events are still offered on a quarterly basis and include people of all ages sharing meals or chatting while they wait for their turn at massage tables, counseling sessions, or limpias — traditional Mexican spiritual healings.

Renee Johnson stands in the middle of her burned home

Renee Johnson stands in the middle of her burned home in the Coffey Park area of Santa Rosa, California, on Oct. 20, 2017. Photo From AFP CONTRIBUTOR / Getty Images

According to Vasquez, Sanación del Pueblo centers people who have been historically underserved by medical providers, including undocumented immigrants, women and trans people, those with existing mental health concerns, and others at risk of being left out of emergency response services.

Other local organizations stepped up to provide emergency relief after the fires. In central Santa Rosa, the Lomi Psychotherapy Clinic — a sliding-scale outpatient mental health clinic — opened their doors to fire survivors immediately, advertising drop-in services over local radio to draw people in.

Thomas Pope, Lomi’s co-founder and clinical director, says they have seen about 50 new clients in their fire survivor program. The program offers free and reduced-fee counseling services and was partially funded by the North Bay Fire Fund, which raised over $32 million in four months after the fires. Pope and his staff of roughly 30 therapists hope to provide services to survivors for as long as they need them.

“What we know is that three months to a year after a disaster is when the most need happens; that’s why we want to keep this going,” Pope says. “I think it’s going to be quite a while until this community finds its way out of this initial stage of shock.”

Pope’s advice to other communities responding to large-scale disasters echoes NBOP’s actions: Create safe places for people to go where they will have connections with others and positive activities to focus on. He says that finding a balance between discussing what happened and engaging in activities that bring pleasure and nourishment is key.

“Looking at disasters and the wide range of traumatic response, it’s really good for our communities to know that there is a huge range of response,” Pope says. “And it’s important to attend to all of it.”

Pope says that providing services as soon as possible should also be prioritized. Immediately after a disaster, people need help navigating resources, calming themselves, and problem-solving — all key aspects of psychological first aid. For survivors, having trauma validated and finding a supportive environment quickly can be critical for long-term well-being.

“And we really need to learn in recovery, to be able to shift attention away from difficult things to what’s working well: love, connection, beauty, and joy,” Pope says. “I don’t want to sound callous at all, because in the middle of trauma, we can’t always do that. But in the short range we also need to learn how to get out of the well of despair and find goodness, also. And that’s what we saw in this community: There’s an amazing amount of goodwill and care and love and goodness. That’s part of recovery: being able to allow that support and to internalize the care that is here.”

Throughout Sonoma County, other support networks have surfaced, including free trauma-informed yoga classes, support groups through hospice organizations, brown-bag lunch discussions, presentations on how to recognize and support loved ones with post-traumatic stress disorder, and holistic health care providers offering free services. But as the land regenerates and homes are rebuilt, the traumatic memories and uncertainty of being unhoused remain painful realities for many.

David Leal, a U.S. Navy veteran, utilized many of these services immediately after he and his wife lost their home of 10 years — in the Coffey Park neighborhood of Santa Rosa. He attended a free yoga class for fire survivors three days after the fires started.

“The instructor was very compassionate and offered her support at no cost,” Leal says. “It was my first lesson in receiving help.”

By spring 2018, fairy lanterns, or Diogenes' lanterns (Calochortus amabilis), bloomed

By spring 2018, fairy lanterns, or Diogenes’ lanterns (Calochortus amabilis), bloomed on the 3,000-plus acres of charred landscape at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park in Sonoma County. Photo From Dani Burlison

Leal also attended the first Sanación del Pueblo event, where he received a free massage and herbal supplements that he continues using today. He also continues a regular yoga practice and has received free and low-cost acupuncture and herbal supplements that have helped him immensely with the service-related PTSD that was reignited after losing his home.

“The fire triggered a lot of old stuff that I had experienced all the way back to childhood. The greatest challenge has been loss of sleep due to dreams and nightmares of so many different painful episodes from my past,” Leal says. “But between yoga practice and chats with my Navy psych friend — and the herbs — I’ve been able to recover from the sleepless nights.”

He says that the early support has helped him to be calm, especially as he deals with the stress and red tape of rebuilding his home.

“We have a moment right now that’s really calling upon us to figure out how we’re going to return to living in a good and balanced way,” Vasquez says. “We can create spaces in which the way that we care for each other is a glimpse into the world as it should be. Or as we hope for it to be, as we mean for it to be.”

Back at Sugarloaf Ridge, Good says that community training and planning before disaster strikes is a must as communities look toward adapting to the new normal of climate catastrophes. She says that connecting with nature, even after a disaster of this scale, is critical, recounting stories of fire survivors regaining hope when the scorched land showed signs of regrowth. Yet she acknowledges that survivors face long roads to recovery.

“Putting an entire life back together — it just stops people in their tracks,” Good says. “Where do you even begin? How do you pick a point and start?”

The light rain is letting up at the park, and Good is excited about showing me a large bay tree that was badly damaged by The Nuns Fire. A hole has been burned through its trunk, but there is new growth sprouting around its blackened base, and leaves are springing out from its branches.

“It’s such an amazing example of how you can be burned through to your core both literally and metaphorically, and even after being burned through to the core, [the tree] still leafed out this spring,” she says. “It’s a great example of individual and community regeneration.”

Dani Burlison

Dani Burlison is a writer in Santa Rosa, California. Web: daniburlison.com

What Hurt Wild Animals Can Teach Hurt Children

A serval named Savannah

A senior member of Wildmind’s education team with a serval named Savannah. Photo From WIldMind

Luna, a small great horned owl, was learning to fly when she flew into the road and hit somebody’s car. The person pulled over, wrapped Luna’s injured little body in a jacket, and rushed her to a wildlife center to save her life.

Today, Luna is a “wild teacher” at Wildmind, a sanctuary for more than 50 non-releasable wild animals in Half Moon Bay, California. She helps heal and inspire children and young adults who visit the sanctuary to participate in its At-Risk Youth Program, which works with homeless, foster, and juvenile detention center youth in the Bay Area. “Everyone who comes to us has a different backstory, but the one thing they all have in common is that they’ve lost their way or don’t see that they have a place in the big picture of things,” says Michele Durant, Wildmind’s programs and wildlife manager.

Like many of the young people who visit Wildmind, the animals who live there have been separated from their families or forced to relocate, they’ve been hurt, and they’ve had to learn to trust new people.

“By the kids hearing about the animals going through these very traumatic, tragic things that happened to them in the wild [and having] lived through them and found another purpose, the kids begin to understand that that applies to them, too,” Durant says.

A serval named Savannah

Luna, a great horned owl, was blinded in one eye in a collision with a truck when she was just a fledgling. Photo From WIldMind

Healed by Trees

The Surprising Ways in Which Green Growing Things Restore Us.

Photo Illustration by Tim Robberts / Getty Images

Photo Illustration by Tim Robberts / Getty Images

In some of my earliest memories, I’m perched between two branches of a plum tree that grew in front of my house. To climb, I’d grip the lowest branches and stretch my foot as high as it would reach, pulling myself up to sit comfortably in my little throne of branches. There, I’d peer through the pale purple blossoms, across the sidewalk, admiring the tops of cars.

Natalie Slivinski is a Seattle-born biologist and freelance science writer. She focuses on mental health, disease, pollution, and sustainable biotech. Web: natalie-sly.com

I don’t remember any fear — just the scrape of callused feet on bark; the triumph of successfully hoisting my knee onto a branch; the comfort of my hands circling that final limb as I reached the perfect nestling spot.

Growing up with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, I was anxious a lot. I procrastinated constantly because I didn’t know how to prioritize. I was worried I might be stupid because I couldn’t finish basic tasks. Sitting still in a circle was torture. But at the tops of familiar trees, seeing everything through a veil of leaves or delicious-smelling blossoms, I could make my brain stop spinning.

Even now, laundry stays in the washing machine for three days because I forget about it. I leave half-full glasses of water all over the house. Currently, I have 52 tabs open in three Chrome windows. The other day I went into my bedroom to get my phone charger but only managed to change my shirt. Spending time with plants is still my reset button.

In my quest for introspection and mental quiet time, trees have been my most stalwart allies.

Nature’s “Cognitive Restoration”

Globally, more than 300 million people live with depression, 260 million with anxiety, and many with both. An estimated 6 million American children have been diagnosed with ADHD. Physical activity is known to to help combat and prevent these disorders, but a walk down a busy traffic-filled street doesn’t cut it. A walk in the woods, however, is different. Just 90 minutes can decrease activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex — a region associated with rumination (dwelling on negative thoughts, for example).

Urban environments are overwhelming. City dwellers are constantly bombarded with complex sights, sounds, and smells. … Captivating natural scenes, however, can restore attention and help combat mental fatigue.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, exposure to nature can significantly reduce stress. It also alleviates symptoms of anxiety, depression, and ADHD. Spending even a short amount of time in green space can lower blood pressure; it can also help people develop healthier habits and form more positive relationships. People’s mental health is markedly better in urban areas with more green space.

Attention Restoration Theory helps explain why.

Urban environments are overwhelming. City dwellers are constantly bombarded with complex sights, sounds, and smells. Researchers believe that this has a negative effect on executive functioning, making us less able to cope with distractions. Captivating natural scenes, however, can restore attention and help combat mental fatigue.

Interestingly, some built environments can have the same effect. Cities that incorporate water, or “blue space,” are more restorative than those without. Monasteries and countryside cottages fit the bill because, like nature, they evoke a sense of “being away.” Museums and art galleries are restorative because they provide an escape from the cacophony of urban life. These scenes all give one a sense of space — of room to explore.

The more interactive we are with restorative space, the better; a weekend stay in a cozy wooded cabin will do more good than staring at a picture of one.

The Problem with Urbanization

Over half of the world’s population, and counting, lives in an urban setting. People in cities run a higher risk of both anxiety and mood disorders than people in rural areas — 20 and 40 percent higher, respectively. We’re also more sedentary than ever, and green space has been shown to promote critically important physical activity.

Apartments, office buildings, subways, traffic-filled streets — we’re spending more and more time away from nature. Researchers estimate that if every city dweller spent just 30 minutes per week in nature, depression cases could be reduced by 7 percent. Globally, that’s a whopping 21 million people. But for a busy city dweller, a visit to a beautiful monastery isn’t always feasible. We all have read about the benefits of “forest therapy,” but a half-day hike in the woods is a luxury many can’t afford.

The answer lies in incorporating green space into urban planning, weaving nature into the fabric of everyday city life.

To understand our fraught relationship with urban nature, consider the evolution of big cities. Urbanization exploded in the 1800s as more people left their rural homes to look for work. With the focus on high-level priorities like sanitation, not to mention basic transportation and housing, green space just wasn’t considered sufficiently important for human welfare.

Apartments, office buildings, subways, traffic-filled streets — we’re spending more and more time away from nature. Researchers estimate that if every city dweller spent just 30 minutes per week in nature, depression cases could be reduced by 7 percent.

Kathleen Wolf, a social science researcher at the University of Washington, studies the human benefits of nature in cities.

With the industrial boom and huge population influx, rates of disease went up, she says, and we focused on clearing space for sanitary engineering systems. “What we think now is that, maybe, the pendulum went a little too far in removal of nature from cities.”

Racial and Class Inequity in Green Space

Modern higher-income communities — often predominately White — have the time, influence, and financial resources to build green space and cultivate a sense of appreciation for urban nature, Wolf says. But poorer communities — including some communities of color — don’t always have the same luxury.

“There are top-level priorities in communities of need with regard to health: crosswalks, sidewalks — really fundamental needs — assurance that people have housing. I would guess that if our cities could mobilize and satisfy those high-level needs, people in those communities would then begin to say, ‘We have now a baseline quality of life; now [we can talk about] parks.’”

Yet these are the people who need green space the most. People with less financial security often have more demanding lifestyles. “They may be working multiple jobs. They may be single parents. They may have inadequate support systems,” Wolf says. “People in those situations … benefit even more from green space encounters.”

Add to this the growing demands on our nation’s young adults — expensive housing, out-of-control student loans, unprecedented pressure to succeed — and it’s easy to see the dire need for cities to address cognitive fatigue, especially in stressed and underserved populations.

Investing in “Green”

Integrating green space doesn’t have to be difficult. Someone just has to lead the charge.

“The direct integration of nature into buildings in a substantive way makes quite a difference,” Wolf says. “Biophilic design … is an intentional effort to integrate nature into the places where people work, learn, and live.”

Nor does it have to be cost-prohibitive. "With any innovation, the early adopters pay more. Once it’s more broadly accepted … best practices emerge,” Wolf says. “You reach a threshold of implementation, and costs come down.”

Already, cities are taking steps, often going above and beyond planting trees. Chicago; Baltimore, Maryland; Portland, Oregon; New York; and Philadelphia are all investing in green infrastructure to improve city life and reduce their carbon footprint. Internationally, cities are leading in “smart design.” In parts of Singapore, garbage trucks are replaced by chutes that vacuum up refuse. In London, city planners are restructuring the city’s lighting to save energy and lessen the negative impact of light pollution on human health and sleep.

Workplaces are also using green spaces to address employees’ health and well-being. Research shows that companies that invest in green infrastructure and promote nature-oriented activities see reduced absenteeism, higher productivity, and better problem-solving in their employees. For these cities and workplaces investing in green infrastructure, there is a clear cost benefit.

Now, greater attention must be directed to low-income communities to address racial and economic disparity — the “green space gap.” In California, there are a number of community-level efforts. The Little Green Fingers initiative in Los Angeles promotes urban parks and gardens in low-income areas and communities of color. In Sacramento, the Ubuntu Green project helps convert unused land like brownfields into urban farms and gardens in low-income communities. And the Oakland Parks and Recreation department is working with the Oakland Climate Action Coalition and the Oakland Food Policy Council to preserve green space in the face of gentrification.

Indigenous architecture

Photo by Aliyev Alexei Sergeevich / Getty Images

Houseplants Bring Nature Inside

People living without sufficient access to green space, particularly those living with anxiety, depression, or ADHD, may also benefit from bringing nature into their homes.

More robust research in environmental psychology needs to be done to tease apart the complex benefits of houseplants, but the existing literature is promising. Indoor plants have been shown to soothe mental fatigue, lower blood pressure, and improve quality of sleep. Some hospital patients who underwent surgery were found to have higher pain tolerance, less anxiety, and even shorter recovery times when they could see plants from their beds.

Houseplants respond to our care and can pull us to slow down. They are living reminders of the importance of staying on track and not neglecting our responsibilities.

Indoor greenery also brings in a distinctly interactive element that outdoor natural space can’t always provide: the opportunity to grow and nurture something. Houseplants respond to our care and can pull us to slow down. They are living reminders of the importance of staying on track and not neglecting our responsibilities. They can help us maintain good habits. Research has shown that caring for a pet can help improve mental health by alleviating loneliness, calming stress, and restoring a sense of purpose and responsibility; for people unable to adopt a pet, houseplants may be a great lower-stakes alternative.

There is an important caveat to this. As Wolf points out, lonely, isolated people are more prone to problems with mental and even physical health. Indoor plants are no substitute for community-wide solutions. Wolf encourages apartment dwellers to advocate for shared outdoor green spaces. They may benefit more from establishing “little sitting gardens” in place of “boring landscape materials” or ensuring that green stormwater infrastructure is designed “so it becomes a people space, as well,” she says.

Ultimately, we benefit most by incorporating interactive green space at every level of city life — for individuals, cities, and everything in between.

I look, with cautious optimism, to a future full of trees.

Chelsey Luger

Kayla DeVault is an Anishinaabe and enrolled Shawnee. She’s a certified engineer who has researched land reform on the Navajo Nation and the energy efficiency of traditional housing. The author lives in a Phoenix rental. She previously lived in a trailer and in her car. @htiaf_alyak

Commentary

My Grandfather Gave Me His Trauma — and His Healing Culture

Myles McDougall, the author’s grandfather, at age 13

Myles McDougall, the author’s grandfather, at age 13, in a 1939 school photo Photo from Elizabeth Hawksworth

My grandfather used to say that he’d never attended an Indian residential school. He’d shrug off his abuse in school, as if it was no big deal. After all, everyone he knew was abused by White teachers. They were all beaten for speaking Ojibwe, beaten until they forgot how to speak it altogether.

The Methodist-run residential school for Native children my grandfather likely attended was called Mount Elgin Industrial Institute. It was known on the reserve by another name: Mount Elgin Residential School. But he wouldn’t call it that.

He wouldn’t name that school or his trauma, but it was still there. And I inherited it, even if I spent my early years not realizing it.

I grew up away from the reserve, in a middle-class, White-passing family in Ontario. Being Native was not a way of life for me. In fact, I didn’t know that I was Ojibwe until I was in the first grade. It just wasn’t something my family spoke about.

Once I learned, little things poked at my sense of worth — things like regular, everyday anger and racism toward Native people in Ontario. Clashes between Natives and White communities made headlines there regularly while I was growing up. I was constantly told by the adults in my life that the Natives were “causing trouble.” That they were “bringing it on themselves.” It was easy to believe this racism. After all, I was surrounded by it.

At the same time, I was surrounded by family and friends who denied my Indigeneity. The racism and denial took a toll. I was constantly anxious, especially around authority. I flinched when people moved too quickly or raised a hand around me. And I was hyper-vigilant, something that continues to this day.

The mental illness diagnoses began racking up, and I turned to addictive behaviors — cutting, self-hating, and starving myself. And though I sat through therapy and popped anti-depressants, I continued to feel displaced and angry.

Some of that began to change after I reconnected with my grandfather. It was after I graduated from college, and I mentioned that I felt myself in a constant struggle, trying to figure out where I belonged. I was resentful, I said, feeling like I had no religion, no culture, and nowhere to go to find those things.

“That’s what being an Indian is,” he replied, touching for the first time on our shared blood and culture. “You’re an Indian woman, so it’s no one’s place to tell you anything, but you’re not going to find it easy. It hasn’t ever been easy for us.”

Then his voice turned serious.

“You’re the storyteller in the family. You need to listen to me. It’s your job to keep our culture going. Smarten up now.”

Returning to culture is a duty my grandfather believed elders had to their communities. And he passed this on to me.

The author's sister Meghan Hawksworth, her grandfather, and the author

Left to right: the author’s sister Meghan Hawksworth, her grandfather, and the author on Myles’ 90th birthday, 2016. Photo from Elizabeth Hawksworth

Around this point, I began learning about intergenerational trauma. While Native people have experienced it for years, researchers are just beginning to learn about how trauma is stored and passed on at the cellular level in the emerging field of epigenetics. A 2014 study showed that trauma altered gene expression in mice, and that these changes were passed down to their offspring. Knowing this is helpful for me. It helps me understand why I, and other family members, have experienced psychological issues that appear to have no trigger. Trauma changes the way our genes are expressed. It lives in our cells and becomes a part of who we are.

But that doesn’t mean my trauma has to define me, my community, or my family. As Native people, we are no less resilient when we admit that colonialism has had lasting effects on us. And it starts with naming the trauma.

In his final years, my grandfather returned to culture and used storytelling as a way to heal from the trauma he experienced as a child and adult. By choosing me to tell his stories to, we both found a way to heal.

Using traditional practices has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health for Native people. Natives celebrating who we are, even in the face of erasure, has helped bring many of us back to our cultures, readying us to fight harder for what is ours. It makes sense that activities that are culturally affirming would build mental and emotional resilience. And while trauma can be passed down generations, so can healing.

In his final years, my grandfather returned to culture and used storytelling as a way to heal from the trauma he experienced as a child and adult. By choosing me to tell his stories to, we both found a way to heal.

Connecting back to culture has been one of the hardest things I’ve done. Without my grandfather, I would not have known where to start my own journey. Sometimes I feel like an imposter or like I’m letting down my grandfather and the legacy he gave me, but then I realize that I’m doing exactly what he told me to do.

I am telling our story. I am healing my family’s trauma by being exactly who I am — a Native woman who belongs, and has belonged, all along.

7 Strategies to Turn Trauma Into Strength

Researchers Are Studying How Some People Get to Post-Traumatic Growth

Illustration by Eva Bee / Getty Images

Illustration by Eva Bee / Getty Images

When Army surgeon Rhonda Cornum regained consciousness after her helicopter crashed, she looked up to see five Iraqi soldiers pointing rifles at her. It was 1991 and her Black Hawk had been shot down over the Iraqi desert. Dazed from blood loss, with a busted knee and two broken arms, the then-36-year-old medic was subjected to a mock execution by her captors, sexually assaulted, and kept prisoner in a bunker for a week.

Michaela Haas is a solutions journalist and the author of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). Twitter: @MichaelaHaas

Her crisis included textbook causes for post-traumatic stress — a near-death experience, sexual assault, utter helplessness — and yet, after her release and medical rehabilitation, she surprised psychiatrists by focusing on ways she improved. “I became a better doctor, a better parent, a better commander, probably a better person,” she says.

One might suspect Cornum was suppressing the real toll of her ordeal, but her experience is far from unique. “Post-­traumatic growth,” a term coined by University of North Carolina psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, describes the surprising benefits many survivors discover in the process of healing from a traumatic event. After counseling bereaved parents, people who had lost the loves of their lives or were severely injured, cancer survivors, veterans, and prisoners, the researchers found growth in five main areas: personal strength, deeper relationships with others, new perspectives on life, appreciation of life, and spirituality.

Post-traumatic stress disorder gets more attention, but post-traumatic growth is much more common. Tedeschi found that as many as 90 percent of survivors from all walks of life report at least one aspect of growth. “But it is important to make clear that not everybody experiences growth, and we are not implying that traumatic events are a good thing,” ­Tedeschi stresses. “They are not. In the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life, and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: People become more vulnerable yet stronger.”

Former prisoner of war Maj. Rhonda Lee Cornum, a flight surgeon, sits next to U.S. Army Col. Richard Williams

Former prisoner of war Maj. Rhonda Lee Cornum, a flight surgeon, sits next to U.S. Army Col. Richard Williams on a transport aircraft after her release by the Iraqi government during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. She retired in 2012 as a brigadier general. Photo from Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Tedeschi estimates that most of us — almost 90 percent, according to his calculations — will experience one or more traumatic events during our lifetimes. For instance, 1.6 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year. About 3 million Americans are injured or disabled in traffic crashes. Many women have experienced sexual assault. Although most people will suffer from post-traumatic stress in the aftermath of trauma, few will develop the full-blown disorder, and even of those, most will heal with therapy and time.

Tedeschi rejects the designation “disorder” because of the stigma the term carries. “When someone crashes their car against a wall at 60 miles per hour, they’ll have many broken bones. Do we say they have a broken bone disorder? They have an injury. Same with trauma survivors; they have been injured. Psychologically injured, maybe morally injured.”

left double quoteIn the wake of trauma, people become more aware of the futility in life, and that unsettles some while it focuses others. This is the paradox of growth: People become more vulnerable yet stronger.”

Psychiatrists and psychologists have focused on the negative impact of trauma; after all, they’re trained to track the symptoms, what’s wrong. But this deficit model adversely impacts survivors. Many trauma survivors simply assume that they are damaged forever. In reality, although we likely do carry a traumatic event with us forever — in our minds and bodies — we can heal and even thrive.

Cornum is convinced that resilience is like a muscle that strengthens when exercised and atrophies when neglected.

Together with specialists, she initiated a comprehensive resilience training that ran its first pilot program in 2009. Every single U.S. Army soldier now participates in the $160 million program, which has been shown to significantly decrease substance abuse and increase optimism, good coping skills, adaptability, and character strength. The training is so successful that psychologists are convinced that it can help not only soldiers but people from all walks of life.

Here are strategies trauma psychologists have found particularly helpful to turn struggle into strength:
1
Mindfulness

At the resilience boot camp in Philadelphia, soldiers start each day with mindfulness meditation and breathing exercises. Because the most common PTSD treatments — medication and psychotherapy — only work for about half the survivors, the army is experimenting with alternative methods, and meditation has proven to be one of the most promising. Harvard neurobiologist Sara Lazar has shown that “meditation can literally change your brain.” It can actually shrink the amygdala, the “fear center” in our brain that might be enlarged after a trauma and trigger flashbacks of anxiety and panic.

2
Vulnerability

Post-traumatic growth is not the opposite of post-traumatic stress. Rather, the stress is the engine that fuels the growth. Before we can overcome suffering, we need to go through it. Covering up a raw wound with a smiley face Band-Aid does not lessen the pain. Neither does suffering in silence, which only increases the risk of PTSD. Instead, growth arises from acknowledging the wounds and allowing vulnerability. A significant part of the training consists of teaching survivors to communicate openly, admit fears, and reach out to seek help.

3
Self-compassion

Shame, self-blame, and guilt are all too common in the aftermath of trauma. Practices of self-compassion and loving kindness under the gentle guidance of an experienced, trauma-informed instructor can allow survivors to reconnect with parts of themselves that have been wounded, at their own pace.

4
Finding meaning

“After trauma, it’s important to acknowledge mental suffering will happen,” Tedeschi instructs. “At a certain point, and in tandem with continuing distress, a crucial foundation of post-traumatic growth is making meaning out of and reflecting about one’s trauma.” As Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl realized, “Those who have a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

5
Gratitude

One of the single most effective practices for resilience is keeping a journal of gratitude. The army calls it “Hunt the Good Stuff,” but the exercise is the same: noticing three good things every day and reflecting on them. According to studies at the University of California, Davis, grateful people not only report that they are more satisfied, optimistic, and content with their lives, but they also have fewer medical symptoms, more energy, and even sleep better. In addition, cultivating gratitude improves our mood, and makes us more social and willing to help others.

6
A holistic approach

Dr. Karen Reivich, the co-director of the Penn Resiliency Project, and her team teach 14 core skills, such as goal setting, energy management, problem solving, and assertive communication. “When people have mastered and used these skills in their lives, they are more robust in the face of stress, they can cope more effectively with problems, and they have tools to be able to maintain strong relationships. So, the goal is to enhance the overall well-being and resilience,” Reivich explains.

7
A team effort

“Nobody ever does it alone,” civil rights icon Maya Angelou recognized, years after being raped at the age of 8. Resilience is always a team effort. Moving forward after a crisis depends not only on the individual’s resources and their genetic makeup or upbringing, but also on their connections to the people around them and the quality of support. The best kind of support encourages survivors to focus on their strength but doesn’t gloss over their wounds. Nothing is as powerful as knowing we are not alone.

Michaela Haas is a solutions journalist and the author of Bouncing Forward: The Art and Science of Cultivating Resilience (Atria). @MichaelaHaas

What a Society Designed for Well-Being Looks Like

Nope infographic

Economic Justice Goes a Long Way Toward Improving Mental Health Up and Down the Socioeconomic Ladder

In early June of this year, the back-to-back suicides of celebrities Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, coupled with a new report revealing a more than 25 percent rise in U.S. suicides since 2000, prompted — again — a national discussion on suicide prevention, depression, and the need for improved treatment. Some have called for the development of new antidepressants, noting the lack of efficacy in current medical therapies. But developing better drugs buys into the mainstream notion that the collection of human experiences called “mental illness” is primarily physiological in nature, caused by a “broken” brain.

Tabita Green

Tabita Green is a worker-owner at New Digital Cooperative, a digital communications firm based in northeast Iowa, and a new economy advocate. Twitter: @tabitag

This notion is misguided and distracting at best, deadly at worst. Research has shown that, to the contrary, economic inequality could be a significant contributor to mental illness. Greater disparities in wealth and income are associated with increased status anxiety and stress at all levels of the socioeconomic ladder. In the United States, poverty has a negative impact on children’s development and can contribute to social, emotional, and cognitive impairment. A society designed to meet everyone’s needs could help prevent many of these problems before they start.

To address the dramatic increase in mental and emotional distress in the U.S., we must move beyond a focus on the individual and think of well-being as a social issue. Both the World Health Organization and the United Nations have made statements in the past decade that mental health is a social indicator, requiring “social, as well as individual, solutions.” Indeed, WHO Europe stated in 2009 that “[a] focus on social justice may provide an important corrective to what has been seen as a growing over-emphasis on individual pathology.” The UN’s independent advisor Dainius Puras reported in 2017 that “mental health policies and services are in crisis — not a crisis of chemical imbalances, but of power imbalances,” and that decision-making is controlled by “biomedical gatekeepers,” whose outdated methods “perpetuate stigma and discrimination.”

Our economic system is a fundamental aspect of our social environment, and the side effects of neoliberal capitalism are contributing to mass malaise.

In The Spirit Level, epidemiologists Kate Pickett and Richard G. Wilkinson show a close correlation between income inequality and rates of mental illness in 12 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development member countries. The more unequal the country, the higher the prevalence of mental illness. Of the 12 countries measured on the book’s mental illness scatter chart, the United States sits alone in the top right corner — the most unequal and the most mentally ill.

The seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences Study revealed that repeated childhood trauma results in both physical and mental negative health outcomes in adulthood. Economic hardship is the most common form of childhood trauma in the U.S. — one of the richest countries in the world. And the likelihood of experiencing other forms of childhood trauma — such as living through divorce, death of a parent or guardian, a parent or guardian in prison, various forms of violence, and living with anyone abusing alcohol or drugs — also increases with poverty.

Illustration by Mark Airs / Getty Images

Illustration by Mark Airs / Getty Images

It is clear that many of those suffering mental and emotional distress are actually having a rational response to a sick society and an unjust economy. This revelation doesn’t reduce the suffering, but it completely changes the paradigm of mental health and how we choose to move forward to optimize human well-being. Instead of focusing only on piecemeal solutions for various forms of social ills, we must consider that the real and lasting solution is a new economy designed for all people, not only for the ruling corporate elite. This new economy must be based on principles and strategies that contribute to human well-being, such as family-friendly policies, meaningful and democratic work, and community wealth-building activities to minimize the widening income gap and reduce poverty.

The seeds of human well-being are sown during pregnancy and the early years of childhood. Research shows that mothers who are able to stay home longer (at least six months) with their infants are less likely to experience depressive symptoms, which contributes to greater familial well-being. Yet in the United States, one-quarter of new mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth and only 13 percent of workers have access to paid leave. A new economy would recognize and value the care of children in the same way it values other work, provide options for flexible and part-time work, and, thus, enable parents to spend formative time with their young children — resulting in optimized well-being for the whole family.

In his book Lost Connections, journalist Johann Hari lifts up meaningful work and worker cooperatives as an “unexpected solution” to depression. “We spend most of our waking time working — and 87 percent of us feel either disengaged or enraged by our jobs,” Hari writes.

Perhaps if enough people recognize the clear connection between mental and emotional well-being and our socioeconomic environment, we can create a sense of urgency to move beyond corporate capitalism.

A lack of control in the workplace is particularly detrimental to workers’ well-being, which is a direct result of our hierarchical, military-influenced way of working in most organizations. Worker cooperatives, a building block of the solidarity economy, extend democracy to the workplace, providing employee ownership and control. When workers participate in the mission and governance of their workplace, it creates meaning, which contributes to greater well-being. While more research is needed, Hari writes, “it seems fair … to assume that a spread of cooperatives would have an antidepressant effect.”

Worker cooperatives also contribute to minimizing income inequality through low employee income ratios and wealth-building through ownership — and can provide a way out of poverty for workers from marginalized groups. In an Upstream podcast interview, activist scholar Jessica Gordon Nembhard says, “We have a racialized capitalist system that believes that only a certain group and number of people should get ahead and that nobody else deserves to … I got excited about co-ops because I saw [them] as a place to start for people who are left behind.” A concrete example of this is the Cleveland Model, in which a city’s anchor institutions, such as hospitals and universities, commit to purchasing goods and services from local, large-scale worker cooperatives, thus building community wealth and reducing poverty.

The worker cooperative is one of several ways to democratize wealth and create economic justice. The Democracy Collaborative lists dozens of strategies and models to bring wealth back to the people on the website community-wealth.org. The list includes municipal enterprise, community land trusts, reclaiming the commons, impact investing, and local food systems. All these pieces of the new economy puzzle play a role in contributing to economic justice, which is inextricably intertwined with mental and emotional well-being.

In Lost Connections, Hari writes to his suffering teenage self: “You aren’t a machine with broken parts. You are an animal whose needs are not being met.” Mental and emotional distress are the canaries in the coal mine, where the coal mine is our corporate capitalist society. Perhaps if enough people recognize the clear connection between mental and emotional well-being and our socioeconomic environment, we can create a sense of urgency to move beyond corporate capitalism — toward a new economy designed to optimize human well-being and planetary health.

Our lives literally depend on it.

Tabita Green

Tabita Green is a worker-owner at New Digital Cooperative, a digital communications firm based in northeast Iowa, and a new economy advocate. Twitter: @tabitag

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