Mental Health Awareness: These Pittsburghers share the importance of supporting themselves and others in this pandemic

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(Courtesy photos)

(Courtesy photos)

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Amid the pandemic and other triggering national news, mental health support is now more important than ever. Helpful tips are everywhere on the internet, but nothing replaces personal experiences. So, to amplify mental health stories in the Pittsburgh area and curate local perspectives, we reached out to about a dozen community leaders and invited them to answer three questions:

  • How do you support your mental health right now?
  • How does your personal mental health story help others?
  • How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

A few contributors shared helpful resources as well, and we included them and additional resources in a box in this article.

This feature is the result of a collaboration between PublicSource and Steel Smiling, a nonprofit organization serving to bridge the gap between Black people and mental health support through education, advocacy, and awareness. Please share these stories and yours, if you are comfortable, using #SteelSmilingTogether on social media.


C.J. Mitchell, singer-songwriter

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

Right now I lean heavily into nature and art. With the world feeling as shut down as it is, I’ve really developed a new appreciation for long walks in the woods and visits to waterfalls and rivers. It’s incredibly relaxing on the surface, but on the deeper side, these things prove as a constant reminder that the best things in life don’t change, pandemic or not.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

I truly believe there are endless amounts of power in our testimonies. I think when I share my mental health journey, it proves survival and freedom are possible to those struggling with chapters I’ve already conquered. This inspiration is the sole reason I’m a songwriter.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

First off, life is all about seasons. What may seem like an impossible thing to handle right now will only make you stronger in the next season of your life. Speak positivity and hope to yourself. Speak life and joy to yourself. Practice this on a daily basis. This habit will change everything.


Peachie Wimbush-Polk, mother of rapper Wiz Khalifa

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

I support my own mental health by staying as connected as possible to friends and family. I don’t consider what we do to stay safe as social distancing. It’s actually physical distancing. I’m taking advantage of technology to keep a sense of community. I’m meditating more and practicing staying present to combat anxiety. I’ve kept in touch with my personal therapist through the Veteran’s Affairs’ telehealth feature. Having someone to talk through challenges anchors me and lets me know I’m not alone. I’m also gardening and crafting and feel no need to “panic create” or for “faux productivity.” These are extraordinary times, so I’m taking it one day at a time. Why? Because it’s ‘find healthy ways to survive or die.’ Death not always in the physical sense (except for this COVID-19 pandemic), but also dead inside.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

Every voice matters. I’ve survived so much: a fall from a second story window before my first birthday, a ruptured appendix, spinal meningitis, war, domestic violence, being widowed, PTSD, depression, a health crisis, being separated from my family, both voluntarily and involuntarily, a 200-pound dog attacking my face, employment in a maximum security men's penitentiary, addiction, discrimination, grief — and all of the common “isms,” like racism, sexism and classism. My story highlights how, with support and an arsenal of tools, you can get through anything. I lost my oldest child three years ago. That loss has led me to be gentler with myself.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

I would encourage those struggling to ask for help. Find it wherever you can. You are not alone. We are all struggling in some way, accepting a new normal as life is being upended by a pandemic. Release any expectations of life ever being the same post-COVID-19.


Jordon Rooney, founder and CEO of Never Fear Being Different

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(Courtesy photo)

How can your personal mental health story help people?

My instincts are to be perceived as strong because people rely on me for strength and motivation. I feel the pressure to appear as though I don’t struggle. Instead of succumbing to that pressure, I’ve learned to be honest with struggle. You can’t overcome something you’re pretending doesn’t exist. The people you're there for need you to be there for yourself. On the other side of downfall is an epiphany. Everything I’ve gone through prepared me for what has come next. I think back to all the times I thought “How will I ever get through this?” and look at where I am now.

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve certainly been tested. We spend our whole lives building habits to deal with our current circumstances. What happens when our circumstances change? I believe one of the worst things for an anxious mind is a lack of control. So how do you deal with the unknown when this is the most unpredictable the world has ever been?

I was able to create new habits. I scheduled out my days – creating structure was important. I learned about new productivity and note-taking apps. My never-ending task list is now the smallest it has ever been.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

Find the right balance of giving to others and focusing on yourself. Being there for others provides purpose. It builds bonds and allows you to feel valued. But, remember it’s okay to be selfish when it comes to your growth. Find a productive outlet so you can look forward to time by yourself. This can be your build stage. Think about the story you can write about yourself one year from now on how you were able to overcome all of this.


Jasmine Green, artist, Black Girl Absolute

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? 

I'm fortunate (and privileged) enough to have access to therapy and the ability to cover my bills, as well as having close friends as roommates to keep me from getting too lonely. But even then, it's hard to not fall into bad habits of mismanaging stress and having an unhealthy and unkind view of myself. So, I'm focusing on making art that makes me feel good, reaching out to support systems and getting into hobbies that keep my mind and body active (right now, that's learning how to roller skate). I'm also constantly reminding myself to be gentle and kind with how I'm feeling.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

A lot of the reason why I'm managing my mental health well now is that I spent the majority of my teens and early twenties not doing well at all. Had this pandemic happened a few years back, I know for sure I would've been a mess (although being a mess now is understandable). I'm leaning on the tools that I learned over the experiences I have been pulling myself out of dark pits, including being patient when I feel stressed and recognizing when I'm not coping in the best ways (and trying to switch to a healthier coping strategy).

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

The best thing you can do right now is be easy on yourself. We're not perfect any other time, so you can't expect to handle things perfectly in the middle of something as life-altering and stress-inducing as a global pandemic. Even though I consider myself doing well, I've still had days when I didn't want to do anything, when my mind spiraled and when the only way I could make it through was to not think about the future. The world already feels stacked against us right now, so at the very least, you need yourself in your corner.

 

Julia Lam, president emeritus of Pitt Active Minds

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

Much of what I turn to for supporting my personal mental health now involves seeking a sense of normalcy and routine. For me, this means maintaining my therapy appointments through telehealth, keeping a daily routine and engaging in activities that give me a sense of meaning and purpose. The little things help keep me grounded and connected, like opening my windows for fresh air, doing something creative, going for a walk or bike ride or talking to friends.

I am thankful to have a community of peers that share similar experiences in Active Minds, a nonprofit that encourages young adults to advocate for mental health. On a local and national level, Active Minds helps people connect, talk honestly and openly about loneliness, coping skills, and how to help a friend. We spread awareness of resources during these stressful times such as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Crisis Text Line, and counselors via telehealth that are still here for us, no matter the distance.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

Before the shutdown, my therapist and I celebrated removing multiple mental health diagnoses from my plan of care. For the first time in my life, I was practically symptom-free. Then, the stay-at-home orders shut down much of the country. After just a week of staying inside, feeling disconnected from many activities that gave me meaning, I started to feel my symptoms come back. The shutdowns serve as a reminder that we all have mental health to take care of. The societal effects of the pandemic remind me of my own feelings and bodily responses to past trauma: perceptions of helplessness, isolation, uncertainty, hypervigilance and fear. In the present situation, I’m equipped with coping skills, resources and a support system, including professional help. I’m thankful to be at a point in my recovery to be aware of my body’s signals and to know what resources to turn to. I advocate for help-seeking and mental health literacy because asking for help has truly saved my life, and I want others to have the same opportunity.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

Reach out. It’s okay to ask for help. Asking for help can take many forms, like talking to a friend about your struggle or contacting a professional. Many therapists offer teletherapy services at the moment. We may be physically distant, but you are not alone.


Coley Alston, program director of the Hugh Lane Wellness Foundation

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? 

I actively seek joy — whether it's nostalgia while playing Animal Crossing, watching a silly TikTok or catching sun rays. I view myself as a complicated houseplant, a browser with too many tabs open and a meat-skeleton powered by sad brain slime. When I can’t tap into joy, I revert to survival mode and assess my needs like a Sim.

When my drive for maintenance falters, I switch to spite. So many people want to see me dead or disappeared that my very existence is an act of rebellion. When I start feeling worthless, I think of who is benefiting from my self-doubt and my insecurities.

I say no. I rest. I mute. I block. I hydrate. I snuggle.

I catch myself when my mind tries to invalidate and downplay my struggle by thinking “but other people have it worse.” I am not other people. I am the only person looking out for me. And no one’s pain is alleviated by comparing suffering.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

Black Queer Trans Lives Matter. Visibility matters. Representation matters. To know someone is going through what you are is comforting, more so when their survival is complex. We need more stories of Black Queer and Trans people LIVING.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

Your mind and body are responding appropriately to the threat of a global pandemic. It is difficult, but try to connect with this present moment. Whether you meditate, focus on your breath, journal, make memes — spend time in the present. You’ve come so far and have risen above all obstacles. In a capitalist wasteland, know that your rest is radical, your self-care is self-preservation and that your worth is not determined by your productivity.


Emily M. Parker, organizer for MindscapesPGH

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

In addition to practicing self-acceptance, I recently identified three virtues important to my personal wellbeing: order, connection and responsibility. Focusing on these virtues, and experimenting with different strategies, has allowed me to start moving beyond easy-to-reach solutions and tap into more meaningful fulfillment. I started using a free habit tracker app to keep myself accountable in my daily routine. Utilizing public parks has been critical to helping me feel connected to others and to nature. Reaching out to people in the community provides a sense of responsibility.

How can your personal mental health story help people? 

Your mental health journey is one of trial and error in much the same way that scientific inquiry is an ongoing process. I am a neuroscientist, and I approach my mental health journey like I approach an experiment. For example, earlier this year I tried mindfulness meditation. Realizing that meditation wasn’t for me prompted my exploration of other avenues, such as connecting with residents of local senior living communities in an effort to mitigate social isolation. Don’t be afraid to make small, systematic changes to determine what works for you. Experimenting with potential solutions is key.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

Neuroscience studies overwhelmingly indicate that high-quality sleep promotes improved mental health. If you have the opportunity during this uncertain time, sleep can be the first step toward relief. Combining basics like sleep with more personalized solutions seems to work best for many. Seek professional help if you think you may be able to benefit. There are many free resources out there, including tools like phone apps that can help you build the foundation for better days to come. Maybe calling an elderly family member or walking around the block works best for you; just don’t forget to experiment.

You may be surprised with what you’ll do.


Rachel Kallem Whitman, author of Instability in Six Colors: A Bipolar Memoir, adjunct faculty at Duquesne University

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why

Things have been tough, but I have two forms of self-care that are really, really helping me stay safe, sane and content: pills and pups! Bipolar disorder is not my identity, so I do everything I can to quiet my symptoms. They get loud, but with the right tools, I can give them a heavy “shush.” Medication is one of my favorite tools. Meds play a huge role in keeping me centered and safe, and they empower me to be myself and live life the best I can — even during a quarantine. Meds are important, but definitely not as cute as my pups! During this tumultuous time, they make me feel purposeful and hopeful. Right now we have very little control over what’s happening in the world and in our lives, and this lack of control feels overwhelming and frightening. But while I can’t control the stress of the universe, I can take excellent care of my pooches who are the center of my universe. Taking care of them is taking care of me.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

Hope, kindness and compassion are not things we keep for ourselves. They’re things we share. Telling your story, creating safe spaces and practicing empathy builds community and reminds people they’re not alone. I share my story because, if we don’t raise our voices, we’ll forget about each other.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

What makes you feel better? Do it. Now more than ever we need to reflect on our needs and commit to taking care of ourselves. Don’t just talk about slapping on that lavender face mask. Do it. Don’t just talk about learning the ukulele. Do it. Don’t just talk about Zooming with friends and family. Do it. You get the idea! You need to find and fill your own toolbox; figure out what works for you, what doesn’t, and make sure it becomes part of your routine — both during this crisis and in the life that follows.


Corrine Jasmin, artist and filmmaker

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

We’re all in the thick of navigating and processing something intense. To say I have a complete grasp on this shift occurring wouldn’t be a full truth. I don’t have a strict routine. I struggle waking up at the same time daily. I don’t cross everything off my to-do list. My desk is cluttered with sticky notes. Some days are very bright and clear and others are foggy and hazy. Nothing since the beginning of March has been linear for me. I’m sure many relate.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

I’ve been prioritizing myself, giving small rewards, things to look forward to, and trying to remain present. I rest when I can. Rest is very necessary. Even in a culture that tends to base self worth off productivity and motion. What’s helped me is staying connected and focusing on what I can control. I’ve reminded myself of my resilience and things I’ve overcome before. Things we’ve all overcome before. I’m still working on maintaining a balance.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

Monitor your energy and listen to your body! Don’t overexert yourself or put too much on your plate. Release pressure. If there’s a strain put on your emotions, ask yourself, ”Is it expendable?” Stay connected to loved ones. If you need alone and recharging time, take it. Calm the urge to over-explain saying “no.” Human connection is crucial, though, even virtually. Reciprocate love when you can, if you have the space. Honor what’s best for your health. Your energy is precious. With turmoil surrounding us, turn inward. and meet your basic needs. Resist over-comparing. What’s working for a friend might not work for you. Make comfort food and take a day to do nothing. Be outside with yourself. Exhibit compassion. Our bodies and minds are processing. We can’t forget to fuel them.


Jordan Corcoran, founder of Listen, Lucy

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

Isolation is real, and being proactive to take care of yourself is incredibly important. The way I’ve been taking care of my mental health now is to check in with myself every day. I talk about issues with my trusted support system. I am maintaining a healthy diet and planning out my family’s meals to feel more in control. I’m working out at least five times a week, but not all of my workouts are an hour long. Sometimes, all I have time for is 15 minutes. Most importantly, I’m showering every day. It’s easy to feel like there’s no need to shower, but personal care is an important and easy way to put your mental health first.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

Living with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and Panic Disorder has been a challenge and a journey. A major part of my story is how stigma stopped me from getting help. Sharing my story gives me the opportunity to end the stigma that so deeply impacted my life. Telling the world my struggles, hopefully, gives other people permission to do the same.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

To anyone out there struggling, I see you and I feel you. I’m so sorry for what you’re going through, and I know how heavy it is to carry the weight of this. I wish you the opportunity to pause and think about how you’re feeling and (hope) that you understand it’s OK to feel however you’re feeling. Your feelings are valid, but they don’t have to be permanent. You do not have to live this way. There is so much help out there, and you deserve to live a happy, healthy and beautiful life. Share your story with someone. Speak up and get the help you deserve and know that it will pass. It will get better and you can endure.


Kai Roberts, professional mental health speaker with Active Minds

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

I’ve been leaning on the tools that I learned in therapy. I’ve been exercising when I can, meditating, finding ways to relax my body and attempting to keep my focus in the present. These are the activities that helped me through my anxiety disorder, and during this crisis, they continue to keep me centered. I’ve also found a sense of calm by consuming news and social media in moderation. This allows me to keep my mind in a more positive space. My personal perspective is that I can only give energy to what I can control, and my family and I are doing everything we can to keep ourselves and others safe.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

Over the course of my anxiety disorder, I experienced the extremes of that emotion. Panic attacks, obsessive and intrusive thoughts became fixtures in my life. In retrospect, this dysfunction could’ve been prevented if I was educated on mental health and was familiar with the symptoms of anxiety. I would’ve sought help from a therapist sooner. The lesson my story leaves people is that mental health is real, that these emotions are part of the human experience and that there are healthy ways to cope with this emotion when it begins to get the best of you.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

Please know that all of your feelings are valid. Our lives are changing very quickly, panic is being perpetuated and everything we know and love seems distant. To the extent that you can, find solace in the fact that everybody in the world is experiencing the same crisis. If you need help navigating your emotions, there is nothing wrong with seeking the help of a therapist. Be gentle with yourself and find activities that calm you. Don’t pressure yourself to keep a sense of normalcy. Nothing about this time is normal. This crisis too will pass!


Alyssa Cypher, executive director of Inside Our Minds

(Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

(Photo by Kat Procyk/PublicSource)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

I am spending time every week in peer-run mental health and disability mutual aid spaces, whether they be support Zoom calls, Facebook groups or game nights. Having a community that understands the unique needs of a person with lived experience is vital for me at this time — there's solidarity, support, empathy and understanding from people who have similar experiences to mine. These are the spaces to request resources, ask for advice or vent to people. These spaces affirm my experiences and make me feel empowered in caring for myself and my community.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

I think toxic positivity is always an issue, but it's especially true now. All emotions are valid, especially in a crisis, and it's okay to have days where you feel down, depressed, anxious, irritable and stressed. It's okay to not be productive. It's okay to be emotionally affected by this situation. We often try to pathologize and individualize everything that happens to us, when in reality we’re experiencing a collective trauma. Knowing how to respond to that is challenging. It is also challenging to find accessible, affordable, culturally-responsive and anti-oppressive mental health resources and support, especially for anyone who hasn't navigated our mental health system previously. This is especially relevant to people from oppressed communities who are experiencing the worst of the pandemic's inequity, in addition to ongoing oppression in our society.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

For those who are struggling, I encourage you to reach out to peer-run mental health and disability organizations and mutual aid spaces for support, in addition to seeking any mental health support that is relevant to you. Having people to talk and interact with who have similar experiences makes a huge difference. I've seen these spaces help community members get connected with resources, find needed supports and navigate difficult situations from an empathetic lens.


Jenna Baron, executive director of ARYSE

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(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now? Explain why.

I'm sure I'm in the same boat as many other people in saying that I'm still figuring out how to support my personal mental health. Throughout this pandemic, on some days, I wake up feeling good and normal; other days, I wake up anxious, stressed and sleep-deprived. I've been using self-talk to remind myself: "I am enough. I am doing enough. I believe in myself. I'm going to get through this." And as cliche as it may sound, I've also been relying heavily on gratitude. Everyone deserves to have the things I'm most grateful to have now — health care for myself and my family, a payheck, food, shelter and safety. It's important for my mental health that I get to be part of movements that make our systems more accessible and supportive for everyone.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

I hope my personal practice of positive self-talk can be a simple practice folks can adopt if it fills the right gap. Everything I tell myself — "I am enough. I am doing enough. I believe in myself. I'm going to get through this" — is relevant to everyone. But you can also identify your own mantras and personal reminders that feel more relevant to your experience. Negative self-talk is a common, destructive force in many of our lives. Everyone has intrinsic power and value, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves that this is true and that we are important in exactly where we are in life.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

Be gentle on yourself. Our negative self-talk and insecurities often make things spiral out of control. For me, the first step is recognizing that I'm doing the best I can, that I'm important and valuable and that things are going to get better. From there, I’d recommend they seek help, if they haven't already. Talk to a friend, co-worker, mentor or family member who has a therapist or is open about their mental healthy journey. I think it's important for folks to remember they aren't alone and that there are people in the world who love them, believe in them and want to help.


Carlos T. Carter, executive director of Homeless Children’s Education Fund, motivational and keynote speaker at Seeds2Fruit Motivation.

(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

How do you support your personal mental health right now?

I exercise a lot, I walk a lot. I actually try to create a lot, so I do a lot of motivational speaking and writing as well, so I create a lot of inspirational videos, blogs and things that help inspire people. That keeps me going as well, and being active with my church.

How can your personal mental health story help people?

I’ve created a post called “navigating the new normal” and I said, “You know, times of great challenge are opportunities (to reset and grow) so this is a great time to reset and grow, and look at the things around you and look internally. Helping others I think is important too, when the focus isn’t on us, but some people don’t have that privilege. Some people are really struggling and you know some people don’t even have their basic needs met. But not being afraid to ask for help if you need that as well, whether mentally or if you need something material. Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

How would you encourage someone who’s struggling mentally and emotionally right now?

I would encourage them to know that this too shall pass. It won’t last forever, but let them know,  Don’t be afraid to reach out for help, but just maintain hope for a brighter future … that things will get better, that this is a phase you can look back at, not so much a phase, but it’s a period of time. You look back in history where we’ve had pandemics that, unfortunately, some people didn’t live through, but many people have survived. They can make it through this.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

It’s important that we take our mental health seriously, that we don’t just ignore our feelings and sweep things under the rug. I think especially for the Black community specifically, you know, a community that has been historically marginalized and hasn’t really put a focus on mental health because people just try to survive.

I think it’s important for all people, but people in marginalized communities especially, to reach out for help, telemedicine or whatever, and realize that they don’t have to suck it all up or hold it all in. It doesn’t make you soft or weak because you seek help. We all need help sometimes. I need to talk to people sometimes, and I’ve talked to counselors before. You can get help, you don’t have to walk alone. People do care about you.

Emma Folts is a PublicSource editorial intern. She can be reached at emma@publicsource.org.

Juliette Rihl is a reporter for PublicSource. She can be reached at juliette@publicsource.org.

The Staunton Farm Foundation has provided funding to PublicSource to cover issues related to mental and behavioral health.

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