Talk about Mental Health: Join the Self-Care Revolution

For Suicide Prevention Day, I am Calling for A Self-Care Revolution

When I first realized it was Suicide Prevention Day, I was excited about having an excuse to create this post. I feel very strongly about mental health, particularly as it goes unaddressed in school systems and affects younger people. But, more recently, as I reflect on my own personal experiences, I’ve become very concerned with mental health (and suicide prevention) as it affects community leaders too.

Around this time last year, an NYC-based LGBT activist and youth leader,  Joseph Jefferson committed suicide. I remember the feeling of shock many people expressed at this news. The media and accompanying community response had been so focused on addressing the surge of youth suicides that had been occuring; almost overnight, it seemed people had forgotten that young people aren’t the only ones who struggle with coming out, depression, and the challenges of reconciling one’s identity with the world around them. That an adult, who was also a community leader and youth worker, would take his own life was a hard reality for people to swallow.

The news of Joseph’s suicide hit close to home. I thought about the past five years of my life as a community organizer, and all those moments, nights, months that I’d “gone under” and no one knew about it. That was no one’s fault but my own; it’s often much easier to avoid internal problems by staying busy helping everyone else. Community organizing had become my way of avoiding the deep feelings of isolation I’ve felt on and off for most of my childhood and adult life. But then again, it’s not like the culture of the community I was a part of encouraged this kind of disclosure. How many Nigerians or people of color do you see talking openly about depression? The very thought of posing the topic activates the middle-aged African woman’s voice inside my head: “Depression? What’s that? Ojare, there are people with real problems — starving on the street, no where to live, and you, you’re talking about depression??” *insert teeth-sucking here*

I’ve struggled with depression for as long as I can remember, but had never really learned to talk about it. But when the country’s focus shifted to creating safer (LGBT-friendly) spaces for our youth, I realized I had a responsibility to speak, and finally break my silence. I wrote about my coming out and attempted suicide in a piece that was published last year.

However, as I was reflecting on Suicide Prevention Day this morning, I came to the realization that I’ve only ever written and talked about my experience with depression and mental health in the past tense; like it was no longer a reality for me to whisper under my breath ten times a day, “one day at a time”; like every – single – winter, I don’t spend weeks in my pajamas, without the energy or will to eat or even shower, to the point that I lose track of what day it is; like I still don’t have mornings when I wake up and think “I just can’t do it today.”

Food for Thought: In the US, suicide takes the lives of over 30,000 people each year. For young people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death. The strongest risk factor for suicide is depression. There are twice as many deaths due to suicide as there are for HIV/AIDS. And men, are at a higher risk than women. You would think that the LGBT community (in particular, communities of color) would make it a priority to address the stigma around mental health. But so far, the silence remains.

I myself was inspired by a brave activist’s vulnerable speech about her personal struggle with drug addiction at a dyke march several years ago. Since then, I’ve made it a point to project that kind of transparency, openness — humanness — into every part of my life in which I have influence. For instance, I believe it’s extremely important for someone in my position to talk frequently and openly about mental health (and how to practice self-care). I intentionally refrain from romanticizing community leadership to others who have been inspired by my work and make it clear that this seemingly endless supply of energy I have is only possible because I’ve learned how to really take care of myself. Nevertheless, the fact is, as a collective group, activists simply do not talk about mental health enough. We spend so much time trying to maintain our images as pillars of strength and resiliency, “empowering” other people, that I think we ourselves often forget that we are not superhuman.

So here’s a reminder: Life as a leader can be very rewarding, but it can also be very lonely and taxing on your spirit. We’re sponges for inspiration, awe, disdain, envy, disrespect, all of it. In fact, just by being visible, people automatically think they have full access to who you are, the right to comment on your personal life, spit at your values and beliefs. A good friend of mine once said to me, “We’re not paid nearly enough to be treated like celebrities.” I laughed but the statement has stayed with me; it haunts me anytime I read a tabloid about Britney Spears, when a politician’s quotes are taken out of context, when people say really mean things about Obama… They forget that these leaders — these people are human beings, who feel and have emotions just as they do. For some reason, when you’re in the spotlight, people can’t see the blood flowing through your veins illuminated; you become a symbol of something, an issue they support or rally against, an obstacle, an institution. And when they want to take you down, it is no fun.

My way of dealing with the ups and downs that occur in this path has been to set up very clear boundaries for myself. I practice self-care religiously and have adopted other long-term strategies for maintaining a healthy mindset during both the standing ovation and the onslaught of criticism. They don’t work all the time, and they won’t work for everybody, but they work often and well enough for me. And just like with every other type of health care, every little bit counts.

Warning, PSA to follow:

Maintaining good mental health is key to continuing our work (and not constantly burning out); so even if you’re a martyr that would rather care for a community before yourself; just think of it this way, you in bad shape means your community is in bad shape.

Over the next few weeks, as my way of contributing to the discussion about mental health, I will be sharing my own personal tips, strategies, and philosophies with you, my readers. My hope is that some of what I share will resonate enough with you that you pick and choose which tips and practices to apply to your own life. I doubt that this post — or the ones to come — will make even a small dent in the work we have to do as a community to combat the stigma around mental health. But just as with any kind of daily health care routine, I am positive that these tips, practiced often enough, will turn into the long-term healthy behaviors our community needs to heal itself.

So join me in the self-care revolution. I encourage you to share/post your own tips as well, so that we can all support each other as we strive for collective community health. Let us say no to the martyr complexes that plague activist communities. Let us say no to setting a bad example for others through unhealthy workaholic tendencies. We can change the face of activism from being a worn-out, on-the-verge-of-burnout humble activist that complains all the time to an energetic, enthusiastic, and optimistic armor of healthy mind, body, and spirit! We would all be better able to support each other if we could learn to better take care of ourselves. It won’t happen overnight, but we can get there…  as long as we take it one day at a time.

[box type=”shadow”] Questions for You, Readers: — Please Comment Below: What self-care practices are currently part of your daily routine? When and how did you come up with them? If you don’t have a routine (yet), how often do you schedule time to check in with your mental health? Are there current stigmas around mental health in your circle, network, community? What are they? How have they influenced your mental health care overall? [/box]

  • Janice

    I am a big advocate for self-care. I practice this by taking a monthly mental health day from work where I don't do anything at all except rest and nourish myself. I mediate daily and journal in the quiet hours of the morning. I also make myself and my needs first before other people. I say "No" a lot. I ask for help when I need it. Most importantly I honor my feelings; whatever they may be (sad, happy, tired). I listen to my body. I pay attention and I am aware of myself as a whole person; mentally, spiritually, and physically. When I am nourished and whole then I can give from a larger place, a loving place. I believe we can only give what we have and if have nothing because we are tired and spent then that is what we bring to the world when we show up.

  • Yarimee Gutierrez

    Brave and beautiful post Spectra…. *HUGS*

    Like many people, I'm used to ignoring my needs and pushing to finish work, help a friend, run an errand…etc. Our society continuously reinforces that denying yourself makes you a "good person" and celebrates the martyr complex and those people that subscribe to it. Especially so in POC communities or in the case of women (as mothers women are supposed to inherently be the biggest "martyrs"). We will not become better as a whole until we change that mentality, your post and call for a self-care revolution is a great way to start! Nothing will change until it's called out, and we celebrate new habits and ways of taking care of each other. Thank you for the honesty and the nudge ;)

    For myself – I'll start by blocking out one period a week for myself. Whether that be an hour, an afternoon, or a day for me. Solitude helps/forces me to listen to myself and how I feel so I can't distract myself with other things/people.projects. I'll take walks. I'll call one of those friends who knows me and knows when to be fiercely protective, or lovingly challenging. I will ask for help when I need it, and not feel bad about not being able to complete something entirely on my own. I will try to be less critical. I'll support the people around me in taking care of themselves too. I'll forward this blog so the revolution continues!! ;)

    • Cricket

      I totally agree, both with the fact that this post is brave and beautiful, and with you, Yari. This is SO perfectly timed because this Saturday is the first day I've EVER marked off in my calendar as a "me day", after 28 years of just letting me time happen on its own and finally realizing that it's been WAY too long since I've had my head above water AND I'd begun to get really cranky. Before I considered myself ANY type of activist or ally, I was already a Theater Geek, and Boy Howdy does this all translate perfectly over to the theater mentality, as well. I'm sooo privileged and blessed to have friends and peers, mentors and role models who are speaking out about this revolutionary concept!

  • Sarahi Yajaira

    for self care… i write. i share this piece with you (i wrote it back in february of this year during my "winter" depression):

    thank you soooo much for this Spectra! your words are right.on.point.

    abrazos fuerte. pa'lante!

  • Adriana Raines

    “Depression? What’s that? Ojare, there are people with real problems — starving on the street, nowhere to live, and you, you’re talking about depression??” *insert teeth-sucking here* I can picture the adults in my life making such a statement as they mastered the skills to stuff their feelings deep inside and deal with "important things". Thank you for this piece Spectra and for contributing to a much needed awareness. I must admit that I am guilty of dedicating my life to helping and uplifting others and avoiding asking for the same when I navigate through turbulent times. Many forget that I too am human and may need a phone call or just a hug to get through some days.

  • Adriana Raines

    Having said this, I believe that just as we are l responsible for each other, we are ultimately responsible for self. It’s ok to be sad, depressed, angry, hurt and it’s ok to experience days when you really see no reason for going on. I have been there too many times and remember my mami struggling with being a community activist, feminist Latina, Spiritual/Metaphysics Student/single mother showing the world her Wonder Woman persona yet surviving on a daily Valium pill. What I also remember and carry with me is that she taught me about Quantum Physics, Metaphysics, Nutrition, and Spirit and never let a day go by without telling me how special I was.

  • Adriana Raines

    As the years went by I continued learning, searching, feeding my thirst for knowledge for I knew as a little girl that there is so much more to life than this body (not to say I don’t worship and care for it faithfully). I think everyone must find something that, independently of people, places, events, circumstances, connects one to inner peace. It may be prayer for some, exercise for others. singing, writing, walking, reading……..that place that allows you to be with your yucky feelings and yet assures you that they will pass. I have been blessed to have an awesome mami, and now an awesome wife and sister in law and a few family of choice who share my beliefs and ,believe it or not , have picked this Wonder Woman off the ground and dried her tears. Spectra you may think that this post will not make a dent but I KNOW LIKE I KNOW that it is our responsibility to make it ok to speak about mental health issues, its effect on our communities and share how others have positively addressed their own. I look forward to continue to be a part of your path.

  • Renee

    My self-care revolution has been a spiritual one. When I first became a single mom, I told myself I could do it all. I ran myself ragged working full time, trying to please all the right people, and being the best mom I could be. As my child got older, more and more of my home got taken over by her toys, books, and art supplies. I lived perpetually at the 'end of my rope' and my stress took its toll on both me and my child.

    Then one day I received inspiration. I have a room, previously devoted to clutter and storage of my child's father's things. I gutted it. Threw much in the trash, stored some of it elsewhere, until the room was a blank canvas. I spent an entire weekend (during which my daughter thought I was crazy) collecting images and objects that bring me peace, including a fountain, some crystals, and some drawings of my own. I created a various altars to honor the energies that keep me balanced and fulfilled, and in this space I began to meditate, to write, to read, to make important decisions, and to hear my own inner voice.

    Since that day, I have become a woman who honors her own knowledge. Although my daughter, now five, appreciates this sacred space and the beautiful things that live in it, the room remains the one place in the house that is devoted entirely to ME. No toys allowed. After she is in bed, I enter and I breathe in deeply the scent and the sensation of the room, completely different than that of the rest of the house. And in this room I tap into my love and my spirit yet again. It has kept me sane.

  • Alison

    Thank you for writing this poignant and courageous post, and for bringing the topic of mental health and suicide to light, Spectra. Mental health is something many of us take for granted, yet how can we do what we do without it? I tend to put other people's, and the greater community's, needs before mine, sometimes as a way of not having to deal with my own stuff. More and more though, I'm realizing just how important my own self care is, and that I can't be the best organizer, or friend or person, for that matter, if I'm ignoring my own mental health.

    My self-care consists of the following (and is a work in progress): keeping physically active, getting regular massages, meditation, one on one time with good friends; Listening to and trusting myself and what I need; Learning how to express my feelings and needs; Knowing when I've reached my introvert social limit and making time to recharge; Baking – the artful act of creating something delicious is relaxing and rewarding. Reading, listening to music, dancing (especially at QWOC+ Boston parties and The Basement ;) is so freeing. Pets are paws down the best promoters of mental health. Viva la Self-Care Revolution!

  • Constance

    “For young people 15-24 years old, suicide is the third leading cause of death.”

    I did not know the ratio this. Thank you for enlightening me.

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