July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month, which was designated in 2008. This year’s theme is “Better Health Through Better Understanding.”
Derek Kwan, Executive Director of the Lied Center of Kansas
The Covid pandemic impacted people in different ways. For Kwan, who is Chinese, the impact was compounded by his ethnicity and the racism and violence that was directed against Asians during the pandemic.
“My own mental health wasn’t great,” he said. “There was a spike in anti-Asian violence, and that certainly added stress to the situation.”
Kwan and his sister were the first generation of their family to be born in the United States. Both of his parents immigrated from China and became naturalized citizens.
Kwan had experienced racism before in other places where he lived but not in Lawrence. However, the pandemic made him more nervous about being out and about in public.
“Even in Lawrence, I would have to think about it,” he said. “I was anxious because folks were blaming Asians for this horrible virus. It got to the point where I would tell my wife (who is not Asian) I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out for a walk by myself just in case something would happen.”
Kwan began seeing a therapist years ago for anxiety, which was a big step for him.
“It was very much outside of my comfort zone based on the way I grew up. Asian culture is one of the cultures that doesn’t acknowledge a lot about mental health challenges,” Kwan said. “Mental health wasn’t something that we talked about. You’re supposed to be strong.”
Kwan sees it as a strength to be able to ask for help.
“Especially in this day and age as we emerge from the pandemic, it’s so important for folks from all cultures to try and reduce the stigma about mental health,” Kwan said. “Our community of Lawrence is wonderful in that talking about mental health has been more normalized as compared to other places where I’ve lived. And we’re so fortunate that we have Bert Nash and now we have the TRC (Treatment and Recovery Center) to serve our residents in the best possible way.”
Traci Dotson, program manager for the Doulas of Douglas County
In her role as a doula, Dotson sees how racism affects the health — and mental health — of women of color.
Studies show Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women.
“When we talk about traumatic births, it’s Black and Brown women who are experiencing this at alarming rates,” said Dotson, who is Black. “And a lot of them also don’t get mental health support. But as doulas, if we can get women connected to mental health services, we will.”
During the pandemic, Dotson needed her own supports. Her father, Willie, died suddenly at the age of 48 from a heart attack and she gave birth to her second child. She also has a 6-year-old.
“I was struggling with all the things going on the in the world, the loss of my dad, and I have young kids,” Dotson said. “I was experiencing a lot of anxiety. I had the support of my mom, and she suggested I talk to someone, so I did, and it worked. With my social work background, I think I was less resistant to the idea of seeing a therapist.”
Dotson also found support from her church.
“The Father’s Day after my dad died, I got baptized. That was something that was really important to me, and it made me feel close to him,” Dotson said. “I really leaned into my church community. That is a type of mental health for me. I would go there every Sunday and I would feel rejuvenated.”
Dotson said historically mental health isn’t something that’s talked about in the Black community, particularly with Black men.
“We need to break down barriers, reduce stigma, show it’s OK to talk about mental health and when needed, to ask for help,” she said. “I really do believe in meeting people where they’re at. It doesn’t always mean going to therapy. I’ve seen conversations in the barbershop be therapeutic. I’ve been there and I’ve seen those men and how they take care of each other.”
Mental health, she said, is not a one size fits all.
“The timeline is different for everybody.” Dotson said. “I have had a lifetime of experience of tapping in and tapping out of mental health support. You don’t have to see someone forever. Mental health in the minority communities is so important and not all of us have the same experiences. That’s important to highlight and acknowledge.”
Manny King, guidance counselor, Haskell Indian Nations University
Since coming to Haskell in 1985, King has held several official positions, but his unofficial role has become that of mental health advocate.
“This isn’t exactly what I expected to be doing, but it has evolved that way,” King said. “I have a lot of experience working with our students and since the pandemic the interactions started having to do with mental health. I think the word was getting out on campus that I am the mental health go-to guy.”
Thanks to a grant that Haskell received for mental health services, King has been working closely with the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
“I’ve had a high percentage of students wanting help and are willing to visit with a therapist. I feel fortunate that students feel comfortable seeking help,” King said. “Students that I approach about wanting mental health help, I have been able to utilize the services of Bert Nash. The students trust me and are receptive to seeking mental health support. The relationship with Bert Nash has been awesome.”
After the pandemic, King noticed more students were struggling with their mental health.
“Covid was just rampant in our Native communities, it affected so many of our students and their families. Once the Covid vaccinations were available and families started receiving them, it helped our communities so much,” King said. “I noticed that when our campus opened back up and students started returning to campus, that more and more of them were dealing with mental health issues.”
King will offer to drive students to their appointments at the Bert Nash Center and will be there when students are finished with their appointments and drive them back to the Haskell campus.
“If they don’t have a car, I will drive them,” King said. “And when they go, I thank them for going. I tell them they are helping themselves. If they receive a bill, I tell them they don’t need to worry about it, we’ll pay the bill. That’s what the grant is for.”
Haskell students come to Lawrence from different tribes, different backgrounds, and from different parts of the country. King is from the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana.
“With all the students here, Haskell is like a melting pot of native cultures,” King said. “That’s what I like about being here, the Haskell community becomes like a family to one another.”
King said it is important for Haskell students to maintain their cultural identity, which is also good for their mental health.
“I believe anything we do culturally is what we call good medicine, meaning it’s a blessing,” King said. “Culture, for us, is mental health. We put up a teepee, that’s good medicine. We play hand game, that’s good medicine. We light the firepit and burn sage, we believe that smoke takes our prayers to Creator God, that’s good medicine.”
King tries to be visible on the Haskell campus so he can interact with students as much as he can.
“It’s hard to ask for help, especially for the guys. But some students can be so receptive,” he said. “I’ve noticed that taking care of one’s mental health is more acceptable now. But if someone doesn’t want it, I’m not going to stop asking. There are so many others that need it. I’m going to continue to help the ones that want the mental health services. I feel blessed to work here and I will continue to do what I can to help our students.”
Kevin Willmott, KU film professor and Academy Award winning director and screenwriter
When looking back on his own experience of knowing someone who was struggling with their mental health, Willmott thinks about a cousin he had growing up.
“I’m actually writing a film about my growing up in Junction City and one of the characters is mentally ill,” Willmott said. “She was a cousin of ours and my mother helped to take care of her. The story we heard was that she had had a mental breakdown. Back then if you had mental illness, you were considered crazy. Most folks, Black or white, that’s how we saw mental illness.”
Years later, that cousin’s daughter showed up at Willmott’s front door. She was a heroin addict and living on the street.
“That’s generational trauma,” Willmott said. “That’s a big problem in the Black community.”
Racism can be part of the generational trauma that affects the mental health of people of color.
“Racism can deeply affect your mental health, but It’s hard to measure, because racism is the silent killer,” Willmott said. “We’re scared as hell all the time. That’s been Black life in this country forever.”
Racism and the trauma caused by it are central themes in Willmott’s work as a filmmaker and screenwriter. But not everyone wants to watch it or hear about it.
“Something I hear a lot in my world is people who say they don’t want to see those Black trauma movies or hear about the bad things that happened in the past,” Willmott said. “Now we have laws being passed in states saying we’re not going to study that, we’re not going to watch it, or we don’t want our kids exposed to it. And people are falling for that stuff.”
But trauma is a part of the Black story, just as it is for other minority groups.
“You can’t tell our story without talking about trauma,” Willmott said. “The fact that we are trying to is detrimental to our mental health.”
For Willmott, trauma is something he immerses himself in for his work, yet he’s found a way to deal with it.
“I’m thinking about trauma and talking about it all day. It’s all trauma every day,” he said. “People ask me, why do you laugh so much? It’s because I’ve learned to laugh at it. The Black experience has always been to take trauma, to take these horrible things and take ownership of them and turn it around. You gain strength from it, and you eventually learn to laugh at it, at the absurdity of it, at the people who are inflicting this pain upon you. You take the suffering and pain, and you turn it around. It’s empowering you and it’s also entertaining you because there’s truth within the joke.”