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National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month: Insight and Advice from The Steve Fund’s David Rivera

July is National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month  — established in 2008 to bring awareness to the unique challenges that racial and ethnic minorities in the United States face when it comes to mental health. The month was created in honor of Bebe Moore Campbell, a renowned author and mental health advocate who dedicated her life to shedding light on the mental health needs of minority communities.

To recognize the month and all of its importance, The Consortium spoke with David Rivera, PhD, senior national advisor to The Steve Fund — an organization focused on supporting the mental health and emotional well-being of young people of color — and a counseling psychologist with over 20 years of experience in higher education. Rivera discussed what he sees as the increasing de-stigmatization around mental health and wellness, as well as the need for people of color to advocate for themselves, and shared simple steps that busy MBA students and business leaders can take to actively track and manage their mental health.

With the growing focus on health and wellness in recent years, do you think people are increasingly prioritizing their mental and emotional health and well-being? If so, what do you think is driving this trend?

I’ve come across so many examples, both in my personal and professional life, that there’s been an incredible de-stigmatization of mental health over the past four or five years, since 2000. The pandemic — as many global traumas, either human or naturally occurring, do — brought to the surface things that weren’t going right already. I think it forced people to take a deeper look at their wellness, how this global stressor was impacting it and what may have been impacting it before. So, we saw a drastic de-stigmatization in wellness, in mental health, in therapy, in help-seeking.

A big part of what I’ve been doing is around mental health awareness, getting people to buy into the idea that their mental health and wellness have an impact on everything they do in life — the world of work, how they relate to their family, how they take care of themselves, how they relate to nature and the environment. We’re now seeing a lot of organizations, places that we may not have connected with mental health, come out and be vocal supporters of it. We’re seeing organizations wanting to take a deeper dive into how their organizational structure is impacting the wellness of their employees.

Many colleges and universities are now redefining and reconceptualizing what it means to provide mental health services on campus, too. Beyond the traditional approach of having people come to the counseling center to speak with someone, they’re going out into the community and thinking about how to infuse wellness into the community: How do we make sure that faculty understand how to navigate wellness issues in their classroom? How can they become wellness resources themselves while still upholding their duty to teaching and providing academic support to their students? They’re really thinking about it as a community-wide effort. Many institutions are focused on that peer-to-peer level of support, knowing that’s where people often go first.

Do you think that stigma continues to have an impact on individuals’ willingness to speak up or to seek help, particularly for people of color?

I do. But I also know that activism, social activism within their institution, within their larger communities, within the global setting, can be a conduit to healing for many people. Some students might take that activistic energy and apply it to … help encourage their institutions to be more overt in addressing the needs of students of color.

I always tell my students, “You are the reason I have a job. If you weren’t here with your tuition dollars, I wouldn’t be. So you’re really the one who should be taking ownership in this institution.” I think students are really starting to do that and starting to see that they do have power, and that their power can actually lead to some functional changes.

Why is awareness essential to prioritizing and taking steps to improve one’s mental and emotional well-being?

Awareness is key — not just overall awareness, but specifically, what does mental health mean? What can you do to harness your mental health in ways that are productive? What can you do to help others as well? Really understanding the dynamic nature of mental health and wellness and how it’s ever present in everything we do and in every context that we navigate. That awareness creates dialogue, and that’s what we’re finding is helping with de-stigmatization.

I find that anything that we’re scared of or that we don’t understand, if we talk about it, that’s going to, more than likely, bring about more understanding. Talking about it also helps communities of color reckon with and make sense of the harm they’ve endured in broader medical systems and healthcare agencies, and how that impacts the stigma they’ve developed around mental health and healthcare in general. That’s where I’m seeing a lot of evidence for breaking through the stigma. I’m hearing conversations all around me, which is exactly what needs to be happening — dialoguing about this in everyday situations. That’s the only way we’re going to get over the stigma and the harm that these past [experiences] have caused. It starts with awareness — it starts with an awareness that includes accurate information and data.

What advice do you have for people of color entering new spaces and pursuing new experiences, such as an MBA student or business professional, as they encounter new stressors and expectations? What can they do to ensure they can not only manage but also thrive in these situations and environments?

I would recommend to any person, especially in this context, to find and cultivate your community. We are not meant, as people, to do many things alone. However, we live in a very individualistic society that often purports that you should do everything alone, that you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps and succeed alone. But that is a fallacy. Everyone has some support along the way. Everyone has some community along the way, even if it’s a small community.

What we’re finding is that community support is one of the most essential factors to helping someone flourish, that’s going to help someone find a sense of connection, a sense of purpose within whatever organization they’re navigating — and that includes a graduate program. So, I tell folks, you need to find your community. I say that based on my own experience. I say that based on the research. I say that based on the fundamentals of group process and how we live, flourish and heal in groups and communities.

If you’re a student, that community should include other students who are pursuing the same journey as you, because they’re going to have an understanding of what you are functionally and practically engaging with. We have a cohort model in my counseling program, meaning that students come in with a group of students and they progress together, taking the same classes together over two years. What we find is that when they graduate and we ask them what the best thing about the program was, they say the cohort model. So, community support is vital, especially in institutions that are still trying to figure out how to best support students from the institutional side.

What tools, activities, resources or other outlets do you recommend for avoiding as well as managing stress and anxiety?

I would point everyone to The Steve Fund. We have a number of online resources that anybody can access to further their own education about a number of issues regarding mental health and wellness for people of color across the educational pipeline, including those critical transitions from pre-college years to the world of education, and from the world of education and academia to the world of work. We have a knowledge center on our website I’d encourage people to take a look at that; it includes a number of videos, webinars and articles. We have different healing spaces for young people on our website that focus on specific skills. There’s one, for example, on grounding exercises for stress and anxiety; grounding exercises can be considered a form of mindfulness. These are practices that people can do on a regular basis, in nearly any context at any time, with somebody or by yourself.

We also have programs geared toward specific demographics, so young women of color, for example. We also know that dialoguing about these issues is really important, so just watching a video of two people having a genuine conversation about their own mental health and wellness can give people a framework for how to do that in their own lives, especially if you’re coming from an environment where mental health and wellness wasn’t spoken about as openly and honestly.

[All of these are designed to] help people understand the power they have within themselves to monitor and interact with their own wellness trajectory.

Thinking about the day to day, as people experience certain stressful events or situations — things like exams or business presentations, for example — are there specific things you would recommend people do to manage those?

I would highly encourage anybody who has not incorporated mindfulness practices into their life to do so. Oftentimes, when people think of mindfulness, they think of meditation. But it’s actually becoming aware of your thoughts in a non-judgmental way, to prevent them from lingering and impacting you in negative ways. So, becoming non-judgmental about what we think, what we feel and how that impacts how we understand the world around us. That’s a skill that’s effective across people, contexts and communities, and it’s something that indigenous cultures have been practicing for millennia.

What we’re finding is that when somebody engages in mindfulness, it can help bring about clarity. It can help make people less judgmental, and it actually makes people more open to listening to other people. I encourage my own students to do a brief mindfulness meditation before an exam. This can help them to feel more anchored in that environment, which might help them perform more optimally.

I always tell people that you are the expert on your wellness journey. Regardless of whether you’ve been seeing a therapist for years, regardless of whether you’ve even talked to your family or your friends about what you’re going through, no one will ever understand what it is like to be you. But there’s power in that. We need to harness that power.

I also encourage people to take stock of their mental health and wellness on a daily basis. That may be through journaling. Or, it could be something as rudimentary as opening up your calendar on your phone every night for a few minutes and thinking about your wellness that day. What impacted it in a good way? How are you feeling right now? And then give yourself a number between one and 10 — one being completely horrible, 10 being you feel great — or use an emoji; choose the emoji that matches how you’re feeling. So, you’re creating a record for yourself. You’re approaching your wellness in a more direct way, thinking about it more critically. You’re doing this over time — which is what’s important — then looking back and reflecting on how you’ve been doing. This can serve as an indicator as to whether or not you need to seek additional support.

If we address our wellness earlier it might not require an incredible intervention. Maybe it’s just taking some time for yourself, taking a day to regroup. Practicing mindfulness and taking regular stock of your mental health and wellness so that you can intervene are some of the most powerful things I can recommend that people do.

Is there any other insight or advice you’d like to share?

We focused a lot on the individual level, but systems, like graduate schools and programs, need to be thinking about how their structure and how their policies and procedures are aiding in the flourishing of students of color. We have programs within The Steve Fund that can help institutions do this. We have an Equity in Mental Health on Campus program that helps institutions take a deep dive into what they are doing institutionally to support students and, if they’re not, helps them understand how can they change their institutional frameworks — their policies and procedures — so that they are more well-equipped to help students of color flourish.

A lot of issues stem from these systems that were created sometimes centuries ago, but that haven’t shifted how they operate so that they can fully and effectively take care of their communities, which are growing increasingly diverse over time.

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