Mental health was the topic of a recent Black in Edmonds panel discussion, hosted by Edmonds resident Alicia Crank.
Since 1949, Mental Health Month has been observed in May in the U.S., to increase awareness and educate the public about the impacts mental health can have on people’s lives.
The panel discussion was the ninth Crank has hosted since starting them in 2020.
Mental health has been an ongoing focus for panelist Richard Taylor, the author of seven books and a motivational speaker, adding he views it “not just from the educational aspect, but also from the lived experienced aspect” as he works with both young people and adults. “I don’t take that lightly,” he said.
“I think mental health for this year has been on the top of our minds for all of us.,” Crank said. “Because of the pandemic and everything that has happened in the past 14 months.”
Panelist Perry Janssen, an integrative psychotherapist for 30 years and an Edmonds resident since 1998, noted that mental health in the past has generally not been a priority, adding that “People were embarrassed, and they had shame.” But now, Janssen says that therapists are like Starbucks, everywhere.
“A primary factor about why our culture is messed up,” she added, “is because we are not taught emotional intelligence.”
Crank agreed with Janssen and said, “In my household and in my community, therapy was not an option. You grew up with this sense of whatever happens in the house, stays in the house. Whatever happens in the family stays in the family, you don’t go out and talk about those things.”
Crank then asked the panelists for their views on helping someone who is seeking therapy combat some of the challenges and taboos associated with it.
Panelist Melody Murray, a marriage and family therapist, remembered telling her sister she was on her way to a therapy session, and her sister’s response was, “Black people don’t go to therapy, Black people go to church.”
“It’s a wonderful thing to just be honest with yourself about what you’re going through.” Murray said, noting that her clients are from all walks of life. “It’s not just a Black thing, Hispanic thing, or Asian thing – it’s a very difficult thing for all of us to be vulnerable and to say I need help,” she said. “There’s such a big advantage to be able to have someone that is on the outside looking in and guiding you through a process because it normalizes what you’re going through.”
Panelist Kaylee Allen, a certified music therapist who works with Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, talked about what she has been experiencing with her patients, who are dealing with the pandemic on top of other illnesses or diseases.
“It’s really important to keep someone healthy physically, but the mental health aspect is huge, and music has been really important for breaking through that isolation and for addressing those issues and those feelings that can sometimes be bigger than words.” Allen said.
She explained that older adults are a population that are always isolated and put off into their own corner in our society, and the pandemic elevated that practice.
“In my circles with older adults living with multiple diagnosis and other health concerns, there is increased grief, increased chronic pain, financial burden, decreased autonomy and freedom, and those are all risk factors for depression and anxiety,” she said. “For older adults with dementia, we just think it’s part of the dementia. Feelings of sadness, feelings of isolation, feelings of frustration, those are normal. Those can fluctuate. Depression is not a normal part of aging, and we need to get that out of our cultural ideas.”
A millennial, Allen said that her generation and the one just behind — Gen Z — are mental health-literate compared to other age groups. “We know what anxiety and depression is like, and we talk about it,” she said. “There’s not the huge stigma there was in my parents and grandparents’ generations.”
Taylor said that while he agreed with Allen, he added that “from an intergenerational standpoint we have to be able to come to the table and understand that it’s not a comparison of trauma. It’s not who had it worse, we all need help.”
Crank then asked Taylor how community members can help one another stay mentally healthy.
“When it comes to having community,” Taylor said, “as capable as we are in our own right and power to make changes and to do things, the reality is that we can’t do it alone right? We’re going to need individuals whether they come in the form of associates, friendships, mental advisors, whatever it might be, we need people around us in different areas of life, and this is something I’ve had to open myself up to. Community is going to look different to everyone.”
Janssen said it’s not just the pandemic that is causing isolation but also the lack of community. “If we had true community, therapists would be out of work,” she said. “We would be out of work, if we really took care of each other; if we really cared about each other, if we were really attending to our community, we would be out of work and that would be the very best thing ever actually.”
Murray said the American society has evolved over the years and become very isolated. “I think part of it started with the loss of the porch,” she said. “When houses had porches, people would walk up and down the street and hang out with their neighbors. Now you can have a neighbor that lives next door for years and you have no idea what their name is.”
Crank asked Taylor what mental health struggles he was seeing in students and what advice he would give to both them and their parents.
“We have to move out of this place of being reactive and start being pro-active,” Taylor said relating to his own story of being bullied and having suicidal thoughts as a youth. “That has been one of the biggest pushes for me and that’s why I share my story the way that I do. I’ve been doing this for 10 years and I’m an open book.”
Taylor has reached over 100,00 students in high school, college and postgraduate levels and says, “there’s power in your story. There’s power in your experience.”
In closing the discussion, Crank asked the panelists where people should go to support one another when it comes to mental health.
“As a community we need to get to that place where we are able to sit in uncomfortable situations,” Murray replied. “Watching George Floyd’s murder was very difficult for a lot of people. We need to change everything. The world wasn’t working for so many people and we need to address how things were so out of whack and understand that we can survive being uncomfortable.”
Added Janssen: “Don’t fix, don’t analyze, listen. When we’re analyzing and trying to fix each other, duct tape your brain and your mouth and listen. We’re taught to hear but not to listen. Everybody needs to be heard.”
Allen said, “As we are walking into the new normal and walking into a world that is more open after having been closed off, we really need to emphasize conversations of consent. If you want to wear a mask, that’s fine. I think we really need to have those conversations before you are face to face in front of a person.”
The reality, Taylor said, “is that your mental health might not have been triggered right now, it’s not to say that given the right circumstances or the right unfortunate reality, that you could be triggered and find yourself in the position of that person you might be casting judgment down on, or you might be ridiculing. With this concept that we all have mental health, we have to remember that in that same breath, let me treat others how I want to be treated if I was in this very wounded and vulnerable state. Whether you struggle or not you are still a human being that deserves to live your best life.”
You can watch the entire panel discussion on the Alicia in Edmonds Facebook page.
— By Misha Carter