With the winter only just beginning, it’s time to grab a blanket, cozy up to the fireplace, pour a cup of herbal tea, and talk about mental health – a particularly important subject considering that 1 in 5 adults experience mental illness. And, on the first (and inaugural) episode of my new podcast, The Waystation, powered by the Pioneering Collective, that’s exactly what we did.
The idea behind The Waystation is to create a place where we use first-person stories to talk about common themes but from vastly diverse perspectives. My goal is to underscore the fact that despite the differences, we share significant similarities that can illuminate, inspire, and, most importantly, remind us that, even if we feel otherwise, we are not alone.
This could be no truer than when it comes to mental health challenges which often come with feelings of shame, fear, and isolation that make it nearly impossible to reach out for help when you need it most. I know I had a hard time owning up to my own struggles so I did what any person would do and made a movie about it. But, truthfully, it’s hard to create or pretty much do anything when you can’t get out of bed. Talking about it helps—especially with people who understand.
Below is from my conversation with three mental health advocates who definitely understand. They share their trials and tribulations and, more importantly, their successes and suggestions. May you find inspiration and comfort. I know I did.
1.     Find a mental health professional who can be an ally.
“A majority of the therapists were white women who I couldn’t connect with.”
Dior Vargas is an American Latina feminist mental health activist who knows of what she speaks. Growing up in an environment of domestic violence, she struggled with opening up for fear of being a burden to those around her. At eight years old, she experienced suicide ideation culminating in an attempt that landed her in a psychiatric ward at the age of eighteen. Being hospitalized was a frightening experience and proved to be somewhat of a pivotal moment. “I decided I didn’t want to live at the mercy of my mental illness anymore,” says Dior.
Finding a therapist who wasn’t dismissive of Dior’s culture and upbringing was challenging, but she knew she needed help, so she persisted. It paid off. A few years later, Dior decided to become a mental health advocate and began the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project after doing a Google search for depression and anxiety and finding mostly pictures of white people. “I just thought there’s no one that looks like my community here,” says Dior. She has since published a bilingual version of the book and has been traveling around the country speaking at universities, organizations, and corporations about mental health – and mental health within communities of color in particular.   
2.     Education is empowerment.
“It gave me more power and more of a voice.”
Cate Cox is a psychotherapist who has worked with patients living with severe illnesses in addition to trauma and PTSD. She’s also a professional jazz singer who has experienced her own challenges with mental health and how those issues intersect with other illnesses. Growing up in a family where being a “high achiever” was a given, Cox found herself “falling into herself.” She took on the mantle of the problem child and was put on medication. “Nobody could point to the idea that maybe behind the curtain [of my family] there was a problem,” says Cox, “so it was very comfortable for them to identify me as the patient.”
Her world crumbled after her father passed away. “I ended up getting very sick with Lupus and a variety of other chronic illnesses and it was clearly the evidence of grief,” says Cox. After seeking treatment, she became interested in how illness and psychology intersected and began graduate studies. “My niche is that I work with people who have chronic illness, especially cancer and end-of-life issues,” says Cox. Bringing her own experience to bear and seeking education and resources, allowed Cox to not only help heal herself but others as well.
3.     Question the stories you have been told about yourself.
Kevin Dedner is the founder and CEO of Hurdle Health, a company described as “the leading provider of culturally intentional mental healthcare” with a focus on Black and other POC clients.
“My mental health journey started purely as an intellectual question,” says Dedner, who found himself with a “literal headache” after he read the George Zimmerman verdict. A question crossed his mind: Could being a Black man make me sick? After diving into the research, he concluded that the reason Black men have the lowest life expectancy is because of unmanaged stress and untreated mental health issues. He never thought that he himself would experience depression and then struggle to find the care he needed.
“For many of us—people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, or women—we had to form our identities under oppression, and I think that that, ultimately, has produced an untrue version of who we really are.” Once Dedner found someone who could help him question and process those false narratives, he found relief. “It is a process of constant reflection and awareness and having support is almost imperative.” In finding that support, Dedner was able to free himself and help others do the same.
If you’d like to learn more about these advocates and their stories, tune in to Episode 1 of The Waystation Podcast where they share their full stories and hopeful insights on Spotify or Apple..
And if you are struggling with mental health challenges, please reach out to the National Alliance on Mental Health at 800-950-6264 or at www.nami.org/help.