By Christina Sparrock
Being a Black woman with a mental health condition poses serious challenges to living life to its fullest. I have faced discrimination, exclusion and barriers to both care and opportunities. However, living with a mental health condition has been the most difficult of my three marginalized identities; I constantly have to prove why I deserve respect and dignity, why I am not dangerous, why I am not a failure and why I am just a person.
False narratives about mental illness pervade every part of our society — and being bombarded by stereotypes and misinformation takes its toll and adds to the challenge of maintaining my emotional wellness. My recovery required finding the right people, places and resources, while trying to make a difference in my community and sharing my story.
My healing really began when I became a member of NAMI. The NAMI In Our Own Voice (IOOV) training and support groups helped me grow, accept and embrace who I am. They also taught me to be resilient. As a certified public accountant, I particularly enjoyed sharing my own IOOV story at law firms, financial institutions and schools because, despite one’s socioeconomic status and education, anyone can have a mental health condition.
Later I joined Fountain House, a nonprofit organization that provided me with a support system — people who understand my experience and avoid making judgments. I love just being myself and not pretending to be “ok” all the time, as I have had to do in other environments. For instance, when I'd show up in a work environment, I’d make every effort not to talk to myself and not to look different because people were watching. But at Fountain House, if I talked to myself, they wouldn’t think anything of it.
In this community, I have been able to build relationships and meet people where they are: whether they're well, becoming unwell or even in a crisis. We’re able to build rapport and trust with each other, and our goal becomes empowering our peers.
Far too often, policies and programs for people with mental illness are created in a top-down approach. I always say, "No, no, no. It has to be from peer up. It's about us." Throughout my mental health journey, I have learned that we know how best to engage with other people who look, walk, talk and act like us. We speak the same language.
Navigating a mental health journey is exhausting work and resilience. I had a long history of pain and trauma to overcome; I grew up in a verbally and physically abusive home. My mother was unwell and treated me as though I was "bad person and a problem." If you hear words like this for long enough, you start to believe it. I grew up alone and afraid. But somehow, I survived. And my efforts toward resilience and survival taught me that changing a situation requires my resourcefulness to devise a solution. Now, I thrive on making positive changes in the community and helping others. It’s also cathartic and a critical part of my own recovery.
One of the positive changes I have focused on is improving outcomes when people who are unhoused or living with mental health conditions and substance use disorders interact with police during emergencies. I designed a peer-driven emergency response model called the Person–Centered Intervention Training (PCIT) Mental Health Response Pilot in Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn, NY.
PCIT consists of two parts: training and response. The training component teaches participants how to use person-centered, strength-based and culturally responsive language when engaging with people. Care and Empathy are so important in helping people. For the response component, crisis-trained peers or a Social Well-Being Team (SWBT) tour Fort Greene Park respectfully connecting with park patrons. SWBT’s goal is to destigmatize mental health, validate people’s experiences, provide emotional support and connect people to treatment while diverting them from the justice system.
A big step in my journey was sharing my story with Dr. Ken Duckworth for his upcoming book, “You Are Not Alone.” I felt it was important to participate in the project because I wanted to inspire and give hope to others, particularly people of color. I want people to know that recovery is a journey, but it is rewarding and possible.
I wish that I had been given access to role models or mentors when I struggled to manage and cope with my condition (at work, with family and in relationships). I hope that by reading this book, people will find the answers that they are seeking. We are not alone, and we all need support.
Christina Sparrock’s story is featured in NAMI’s first-ever book, “You Are Not Alone: The NAMI Guide to Navigating Mental Health,” releasing on September 20. You can pre-order the book here.
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