When and how we need to change our attitude, actions, and approaches to others’ – and our own – mental health
By Kacie Brown
A successful dog trainer and restaurant manager in South Miami, a young woman who chose the same name as her mentor’s after transitioning, a patient in distress who smiled and sang in community with others: these are just a few examples of people whose lives have changed, in big ways or small, because someone took the time to help them feel valued – and because they had access to mental health care.
The World Health Organization reported a 25% global increase in anxiety and depression due to COVID-19. But the majority of these people will go untreated. In the United States, many people still lack basic physical health care. And access to mental health care lags behind despite the rise in mental distress.
The United States has also been facing its difficult past – and present. Conversations about the collective trauma of oppressed groups, grim effects of inaccessibility, and sorrows of systemic injustice aren’t happening at the margins of our societies anymore. They’re at the center of public discourse. As people are realizing the mental toll these stressors take, many organizations are using unique pathways to support them.
In May, the community organizations featured here participated in a centerpoint of Miami’s public discourse, the annual 10 Days of Connection, a collaborative movement that brings together social impact leaders, community organizations, and locals to step out of their comfort zone and join conversations on taboo topics in a safe environment. Produced by Radical Partners and powered by hundreds of leaders, the 10 Days of Connection is an open invitation to everyone to engage in acts of connection around mental health and more.
We talked with some of these changemaking organizations to find out how they nurture mental health in those having the hardest times.
Advocate for Yourself
Nurturing mental health, in part, means meeting people where they are on the journey of accepting and identifying their mental struggles, Peter O’Connell, CEO of the Center for Independent Living of South Florida (CILSF), says. In the community of people with disabilities, mental health issues are common. In fact, the Pan American Health Organization says they’re the world’s leading cause of disability. But the signs of mental illnesses are often invisible and the effects underestimated, and for people with disabilities, they’re yet another diagnosis, another stigmatized challenge.
As CILSF serves clients often represented more by numbers on a spreadsheet than their own voices, much of the organization’s work promotes what Peter describes as self-advocacy. They partner with initiatives like Catalyst Miami’s Enable Project to explore intersectionality and encourage civic engagement. And it’s not about pushing clients to become full-time advocates, Peter says. Sometimes the work is simply in discovering how to tell one’s own story. “It’s important that we can relate our experiences to someone who doesn't share them,” Peter says. “And there is a much greater likelihood of achieving success if you bring a solution and a willingness to engage.”
Recognize Yourself in Another
FLITE Center serves a particular community of young people most disproportionately affected by mental health issues: LGBTQ+ teens transitioning out of foster care. This isn’t their sole focus, but their desire to create a safe, comfortable space for everyone – and adapt if they’re not achieving that – sets them apart.
Executive Director Christine Frederick says this group of young people faces the kinds of problems, like homelessness, that the rest of the population transitioning out of foster care does, but may also struggle with the trauma of being rejected for their identity and face a greater risk of exploitation and trafficking. FLITE helps get young people on their feet, providing resources like housing and health care assistance, employment training, and holistic support for human trafficking victims. And while LGBTQ+ youth face daunting challenges, Christine says some of their emotional needs are actually very simple.
“Working with this population really taught me a lot about how I wanted to be as a parent, the support that I wanted to give my children. I always wanted to make them feel they were loved beyond measure and that nothing would rattle that. And I think that's so important because that's a lot of what a lot of young people are missing, just that unconditional support.”
Find Your Tools
When faced with a challenge, we often search for a tool to make overcoming it a little bit easier. Mind&Melody’s tool of choice is music. “I like to think of music kind of like a type of magic that we have as humans,” Program Director Eric Guitian says. The organization serves children and adults with neurological impairments through music groups and lessons that provide rich social interaction and cognitive, physical, and creative stimulation. And they see results. “Sometimes we work with people who can’t talk, but just through the songs, we start to learn about them,” Eric says.
He described working with one patient the week prior, a new resident at an assisted living community where Mind&Melody holds classes. She wandered around the room at first, agitated and upset. But as the group sang, Eric noticed a small smile on her face. She tapped her hands, shook a maraca, and finally joined in the singing. Mind&Melody can’t cure or fix the disorders their musicians face, but they can bring smiles and connection to people who we often forget still need them.
America’s social systems weren’t built to foster health and stability in all its populations. Studies like The Sentencing Project’s, which found a 475% rise in women’s incarceration rates between 1980 and 2020, reveal the symptoms of systemic injustice. This is what Mahlia Lindquist witnessed as a prosecutor, and it’s also what made her quit. Now, as executive director of LEAP for Ladies, Mahlia helps serve women transitioning out of prison. LEAP (Ladies Empowerment and Action Program) provides a select group of incarcerated women with workforce readiness training, entrepreneurship classes, and transitional housing and employment, but the organization also addresses root causes of incarceration. LEAP acknowledges the trauma behind many of their participants’ pathways to prison, and each woman that traverses LEAP’s program takes part in an intensive, five-month-long, trauma-informed addiction program. “No one is going to be successful in business or as an employee if they’re not dealing with past trauma or addiction,” Mahlia says.
LEAP enables lasting change, and Mahlia has plenty of stories about LEAP graduates’ successes. One now serves on the board. One manages a restaurant where her second-chance hiring helps others who have been incarcerated. Mahlia argues that LEAP’s programs don’t just open possibilities for individuals, they create systemic change for everyone. Women who are working, engaged in their communities and have their psychological needs addressed aren’t committing crimes, meaning communities are safer and fewer children are in foster care, she says. “We all benefit when women are given the resources to succeed,” Mahlia says.
The Dragonfly Thrift Boutique is a LEAP initiative to empower women to put prison in their past….. 100% of the boutique’s proceeds support LEAP’s mission. Photo courtesy of Good Miami Project
Take Your Oxygen Mask First
In seeking support and advocating for your own care, it can still be easy to forget that those playing supportive roles – teachers, parents, doctors, therapists – need support themselves. A life devoted to helping others demands a strong sense of self-worth. The Children’s Movement of Florida recognized this. They’re a nonprofit that advocates for children through healthcare, education, and parental support, and their recent event with 10 Days of Connection gave educators a chance to come together to share the struggles they’ve experienced throughout the pandemic.
Statewide Engagement Director Rocio Velazquez says during this event, they gave teachers a children’s book on mental health to take back to their classes and used mindfulness practices to help address the difficult feelings educators were experiencing. She says parents can even use tools like these at home to help ground themselves in distressing situations. “You don't need to go anywhere else to have a moment with yourself and value yourself and help your child feel valued as well,” Rocio says.
“Oftentimes, a teacher is a mentor, a support, a motivator, they play all these roles in a student's life, but now they also have to be protected,” continues Dr. Blaise Amendolace, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years of professional experience.
Today's teachers are navigating the threat of all-too-frequent school shootings (in a country that’s already seen 27 in the past six months), pandemic and post-pandemic adjustments, and intensifying political interference in their lesson plans – all while their too-low wages remain stagnant. In the 1970s, the U.S. certified roughly 200,000 new teachers per year. That has fallen to below 90,000.
“Many of our teachers are really struggling with all of these unwanted thoughts and feelings. And I would just really encourage teachers to make sure that they're taking care of themselves so that they are able to be as helpful as possible for our students; take your oxygen mask first,” states Dr. Amendolace.
The same safety advice works for parents and adults as well.
“Sometimes we are having our own reaction that our children are not. If our children aren't being directly exposed to gun violence, they might not be having the same level of a reaction as the adults in their life. We want to be really careful not to put the fear and the anxiety and the stress of adults on to our children,” he adds.
Instead, Dr. Amendolace encourages establishing good communication from a young age and regularly remind your children that they can talk to you about anything.
“If your child was experiencing a physical illness, you'd probably ask them a lot of questions about their symptoms. And we really encourage parents to have that same approach if your child is potentially emotionally or psychologically struggling. We should open the door of communication. Have age-appropriate conversations with children about any reactions, any emotions, any questions that they might have on what's happening in our world today.”
These Summer Series Stories, funded by Florida Humanities, are developed in
collaboration with the 10 Days of Connection, a movement that empowers hundreds of community organizations, leaders, and locals to burst bubbles, engage in acts of connection, and celebrate differences. Please visit www.10daysofconnection.org for more information, or follow them on Instagram/Twitter at @10doc. The 10 Days of Connection is a movement produced by Radical Partners and powered by 200+ organizations.