Guest host Mara S. Campo, Anchor and Managing Editor at Revolt Black News, looks at the ongoing national mental health crisis and talks to people who are working outside the box to make a difference.
Mara S. Campo [00:00:05] Hey, everyone. We're so glad you're listening to Our Body Politic. If you haven't yet, remember to follow this podcast on your podcast, your choice, like Apple or Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you have time, please leave us a review. It helps other listeners find us, and we do read them for your feedback. You can also DM us on Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic. We're here for you, with you and because of you, so keep letting us know what's on your mind. We'd also love for you to join in financially supporting the show if you're able. You can find out more at OurBodyPolitic.com/donate. Thanks for listening.
Mara S. Campo [00:00:47] This is Our Body Politic. I'm guest host Mara S. Campo anchor and managing editor at REVOLT Black News. Sitting in for Farai Chideya. Before we get started, I want people to know that we are talking about suicide, mental illness and sexual assault in this show. So please take care of yourself while listening. Now, I want to give you a few numbers. 11 minutes. Suicide is responsible for one death every 11 minutes. And in 2021 hit a near record high, 53 million. The number of American adults who experienced mental illness in 2020. 11 years. The average delay between the onset of symptoms and actual treatment. 155 million. The number of people without access to adequate mental health services. That's almost half of the population. 25%. The percentage of people experiencing homelessness who live with a severe mental illness. 37%. The amount of incarcerated adults in the state and federal prison system who have a diagnosed mental illness and 70% the percentage of children with a mental illness in the juvenile justice system. On our show, we'll talk to people who've been through it and people who are exploring new ways of helping others get through it. But how do we even begin to tackle a crisis this big, Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris says. It has to start at the very beginning. Dr. Burke-Harris is a pediatrician and founder of the Center for Youth Wellness. She was the first Surgeon General of California and is known for her research on the impact of childhood adversity on future wellness. Her research includes more than 17,000 surveys of adult patients with adverse childhood experiences. And in 2018, she wrote the book The Deepest Well Healing the Long Term Effects of Childhood Adversity Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, thank you for coming on the show.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:02:47] My pleasure.
Mara S. Campo [00:02:48] Everything that followed the COVID-19 pandemic from a mental health perspective, you were able to predict at the very onset. So what are the indicators that said to you, we have a mental health crisis that's coming.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:03:03] So my area of expertise is in adverse childhood experiences. And effectively, it's just what's the effect of stress on our brains and bodies? And so when I was in the position as California's surgeon general during the COVID 19 pandemic, it was immediately clear that this is going to lead to interpersonal stress in families and in households, economic stress, but also if there's intimate partner violence happening in a house and you up the stress and then you tell people that they have to stay at home and no one can leave. It was absolutely predictable. And actually what my office did was that we just looked at the data. They said, for other public health emergencies, after earthquakes, after tsunamis, after Hurricane Katrina, what did we see? And we saw predictably increases in stress related health conditions, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, child abuse, intimate partner violence. All of these things are predictable consequences of an intense stress exposure.
Mara S. Campo [00:04:16] But when it comes to that predictability, are you able to look at certain indicators and predict that this person may down the line develop some mental health issues or they may suffer a crisis if these things unfold? How predictable are these things?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:04:31] Well, the term that I would use is risk. So when you have something like a big pandemic, you can predict that more people are going to develop different mental health conditions. What's tricky is that you aren't able to necessarily predict who, but you can predict that as a population, we're going to see many more. Now we can identify who's at greatest risk by looking at their historic exposure to trauma and adversity. And in fact, a lot of this research comes from the CDC and Kaiser Permanente. They did this huge study where what they learned when they looked at exposure to adversity or trauma in childhood, what they found was that the more exposure to adverse childhood experiences that an individual had, the greater their risk for things like depression, suicidal ideation, mental health conditions. But the big surprise was that there was also that same dose response relationship, meaning the higher your dose of adversity, the more adversity you've experienced, the higher your risk. And that was also true for non mental health conditions like heart disease and stroke and cancer and autoimmune disease. And so we now know that the activation of the biological stress response causes changes in our bodies. And those changes affect our brains. They affect our risk of depression and substance dependance, but they also affect our hearts. They affect the lining on the inside of our arteries. They affect our livers and our kidneys, and they increase the risk for chronic health, mental health and behavioral health conditions.
Mara S. Campo [00:06:20] Can you tell me a little bit more about how that works? How do the experiences that we go through physically affect us?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:06:27] So imagine you're walking in a forest and you see a bear. What happens in your body immediately? Your brain sends a signal for your body to release stress hormones. And so you release adrenaline and you release cortisol and your heart starts to pound and your pupils dilate, your airways open up and you actually shunt blood to your big, strong muscles so that you can run and jump and get away from the bear. And all of that is fantastic if you need to flee from danger. Now, if you were to think about fighting a bear, it would not seem like a good idea. And so what happens is that your brain's fear center, it's called the amygdala. It actually sends a signal to the part of your brain that controls judgment's executive functioning impulse control. That's the prefrontal cortex up front. And it actually turns the activity of the prefrontal cortex way down. Because if you need to brawl with a wild animal, the last thing you want is judgment getting in the way of survival. Right.
Mara S. Campo [00:07:39] But is this also why when you're really angry, you're like, flustered and stammering and then later in the shower, you're like, Why didn't I say this?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:07:46] Yes, that's exactly right. What I should have said was you. But the other thing that happens that's less obvious is that if that stress response is activated repeatedly, especially during childhood, when our brains and bodies are just developing, what happens is it actually can lead to long term changes to the way our brains and bodies function, and especially it can lead to long term changes in the way our brains and bodies react to stress.
Mara S. Campo [00:08:18] So our experience of stress affects our future.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:08:22] Experience of stress. Exactly right.
Mara S. Campo [00:08:24] When it comes to children, does trauma actually change our DNA?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:08:30] Yes. Yes, it can. Well, let me let me say, it doesn't change your genetic code, but it actually changes the markers on your DNA to determine there's something stressful going on. We need to be adapted to respond to it. So we're going to change these epigenetic markers and that will actually change the way your DNA is expressed. So if you've had stress or trauma in your childhood, by the time you get to adulthood, you're actually more vulnerable to subsequent stressors biologically.
Mara S. Campo [00:09:06] And so then is that a change that is passed on to your children?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:09:11] Yes, that change can be passed on from generation to generation. But we can actually interrupt that cycle because just as adversity and trauma increases stress hormones and increases these changes to the way our DNA is read and transcribed, when children are exposed to safe, stable and nurturing relationships, it literally does the opposite.
Mara S. Campo [00:09:41] Wow. Can you screen a child at different points in development and have a pretty good understanding of what their risk for different mental conditions is going to be?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:09:50] Yes, that's exactly right. And in California, under my leadership as state Surgeon General, we made eligibility for services that the state is paying for based on risk. So what we're doing now when it comes to the impact of especially childhood trauma and adversity, our policy previously in California was if you don't have a mental health diagnosis, you can't get treatment. And one of the most important policy changes that we made during my tenure as state surgeon general was to say, you know what, we're going to screen folks. And instead of waiting for this child to develop depression or suicidality or anxiety or ADHD or asthma or anything else, we're going to screen you. And based on the screening assessment, you now qualify for services so that we can actually prevent rather than waiting for something bad to happen and then try to treat it.
Mara S. Campo [00:10:51] Are most people having to wait until they have a full blown disease before they get care? So what is the current model?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:10:59] The current model is that you need to have a mental health diagnosis before you can get access to treatment. In fact, if you don't have a. Diagnosis. There's literally no billing code. There is no way for a provider to get paid for treating you.
Mara S. Campo [00:11:14] So there's literally no way to have health insurance cover preventative mental health care.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:11:20] Currently, that is not the standard of care. Yeah.
Mara S. Campo [00:11:23] Even though you're saying there are accurate ways to assess the risk that there are mechanisms in place to identify who could benefit from the preventative care. So you're not guessing?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:11:35] No, no, we're not guessing. And in fact, many folks will say, oh, well, we're paying for care and we want to be judicious with our resources and therefore we require someone to have a diagnosis before we're going to cover their care. That's the rationale. And I think that rationale makes sense until we get more information. So as we hear from Maya Angelou, when we know better, we do better. And that is exactly what we have been doing in California. My office actually did an analysis of what is the cost of adverse childhood experiences to California, and it was $112.5 billion a year. That's over $1,000,000,000,000 in ten years. Or we can invest in screening, early detection and early intervention. And we know that the people who are making the decisions are saying, oh, well, if I have to pay for care, it's going to cost me money. And you know what I was really happy to show as state surgeon general is it's already costing us money. So how do we bring that down? How can we make informed decision based on the science?
Mara S. Campo [00:12:47] I've heard it said that the best way to get mental health treatment in this country is to get arrested. That prisons and jails are the largest providers of mental health services in the country. And, you know, if you have all of these people who essentially don't get any treatment until they get arrested and then they get released, and what does the system look like right now?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:13:10] So 50% of mental health diagnoses are diagnosed by age 14.
Mara S. Campo [00:13:17] So we could be addressing this so much earlier than when somebody is committing a crime. That is right.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:13:22] Yeah, that's right. So I'm just going to be real clear. If we have a young person who is engaging with our justice system, the data and the research tells us that the vast majority of those cases that child is experiencing something they should not be experiencing, like abuse or neglect, or they have a parent who is struggling. And it is a failure of our ability to identify and intervene on that child's behalf. The idea of he's just a bad kid, he's just rotten to the core for me really doesn't bear out. And what happens is that when we don't recognize the signs and when we don't intervene and when we don't actually do the healing work that we need to do, that's when we go to incarceration. If we are able to do screening, early detection, early intervention, because the earlier you intervene, the easier it is to do, the more likely it is to be effective, the less it costs. Like when they say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. That is not just a euphemism like it is the truth. But the way our systems work right now is that we don't screen, we don't get the early intervention, and then we're paying to incarcerate folks. We're paying for our police force to try to keep us safe for public safety. We're paying for all of these things when we could have identified and done some effective early interventions early on.
Mara S. Campo [00:14:52] Is it fair to say, then, that a lot of people are being incarcerated because they're dealing with an untreated mental illness and because of that, they end up doing whatever behavior leads to the criminal justice system?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:15:01] There are a lot of people who are incarcerated who have a preventable health condition. And in 2019, California moved our Department of Juvenile Rehabilitation from the corrections agency into the Department of Health and Human Services, because we recognize that it's absolutely a public safety issue, but it's also a health issue. And if you don't address the health issue, you're going to be dealing with that public health issue.
Mara S. Campo [00:15:36] So then what is the solution? If you could scrap the system and start from scratch. What is the ideal for a society in dealing with these issues?
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:15:48] I mean, if I could change our system so that you don't have to have a mental health diagnosis before we even begin to start treating you, that idea of preventive mental health is something that it may sound like a daydream. And there are probably people out there who are like, How does she plan to pay for that? But we are paying. For it. We are paying for it.
Mara S. Campo [00:16:10] That is the perfect note to end on. Dr. Nating, Burke Harris, thank you so much for your perspective on this.
Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris [00:16:15] Oh, it's been my pleasure. Thank you.
Mara S. Campo [00:16:18] That was Dr. Nadine Burke-Harris, pediatrician and former Surgeon General of California. She's also the founder of the Center for Youth Wellness. If you're looking for more information about dealing with adverse childhood experiences, you can visit numberstory.org.
Next, a deeply personal story from someone who's experienced a mental health crisis and found her way to healing. Camonghe Felix is an award winning poet, performer, political strategist and author. Her new memoir, Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation, chronicles her lifelong mental health journey. The book is named after her learning disorder. But the title also symbolizes how a misdiagnosis following a childhood sexual assault impacted every part of Camonghe's life, including her most intimate relationships. She's here with us to discuss her book, and the struggles of navigating our mental health system and what healing means for Black women. Thanks for joining us, Camonghe.
Camonghe Felix [00:17:19] Thank you Mara for having me.
Mara S. Campo [00:17:20] So you have the new book, Dyscalculia. Tell me about this book. What is dyscalculia?
Camonghe Felix [00:17:25] Dyscalculia the noun is similar to dyslexia. It's a learning disability that prevents an individual from being able to do arithmetical calculations and math in general. And so Dyscalculia, the book that I wrote circulates around the idea of dyscalculia, the noun. We treat it a little bit like a metaphor, and essentially it's about big heartbreak that led me to a big diagnosis. And it's about the different calculations that go into love, that go into heartbreak, and about the way that we think about those calculations.
Mara S. Campo [00:17:57] But this has roots that go much further back for you. You found that there were connections between your ability to do math specifically and things that were traumatic experiences that were taking place in your life. So what was that early connection with math?
Camonghe Felix [00:18:13] Yeah. So when I was around the third grade, I went through a pretty big traumatic experience. And so when third grade, you're doing basic calculations, you're doing multiplication division. Starting to get into long division, you're doing fractions. Prior to that traumatic event, I was doing pretty well. My mom had been helping me at home. She brought me video games and computer games that allowed me to learn and prep, and then I came back to school and no longer had the ability to do those calculations. What I found in my research was that while dyscalculia is not necessarily directly linked to traumatic experiences, the person who has the traumatic experience can develop dyscalculia because trauma to the brain, as one might expect, is very similar to a physical trauma to the brain. The way that it impacts your cognitive abilities in the way that it impacts cognitive decline. Research has found that it can be quite similar.
Mara S. Campo [00:19:08] And you wrote something that I found really interesting. You said I began to think of the experience of childhood trauma as similar to a concussion. Emotional trauma is an injury. What do you mean by that?
Camonghe Felix [00:19:21] So even when we think about emotional trauma that happens to adults, there's a reason why when you go through a huge heartbreak, it doesn't have to be romantic. It could be any kind of heartbreak that happened to you where, you know, you have a hard time going to work the next day or you have a hard time doing the basic functions, executive functions that you need to do to get through life, like showering, eating right. We kind of romanticize some of those symptoms as being directly connected to heartbreak, as being about romance, when really it's about your brain trying to deal with a traumatic event. And so whenever we experience heartbreak, that impact to the mind can result and can present as an injury present.
Mara S. Campo [00:20:01] What was it that you went through at that time that resulted in that trauma for you?
Camonghe Felix [00:20:06] It was an early experience of sexual assault within my family, and then this sort of resulting trauma was having to deal with it. Right. So there's one thing to experience sexual trauma, but then when a young person is dealing with judges and court systems and doctors and legal teams, that kind of extends the trauma and it starts to feel unlivable. So it was really difficult for me as a eight year old to be coming in and out of courthouses, you know, doing things like rape kits and things like that, and then having to go to school to do math work.
Mara S. Campo [00:20:42] One thing that I found so interesting about your story is it often when you read these stories, especially when it comes from little Black girls, you know, they don't say anything. They consider it something that they've done wrong. It is a shameful secret that they intend to carry to the grave. And the message that we send to young girls and boys is speak up, speak out, Let people know what happened to you so that they can be held accountable. And by that measure, you did everything you were. You came forward immediately and you told your family exactly what was going on. And your mother. She took care of you. She sought accountability for the person who had hurt you. It was still such a difficult thing for you to manage. What are the challenges of being a survivor, even when everything is done right?
Camonghe Felix [00:21:27] One of the ongoing challenges for me was having to deal with the legal system. Let me just say there isn't an ideal accountability framework for survivors. Even as a young person, I understood what it meant for someone that I loved. Because even though this person had harmed me in such a gruesome way, I understood what it meant for someone I loved to become an incarcerated person. And I didn't feel relieved. I felt guilt. I felt anger. I felt like I had sent someone I loved to a death sentence. So that's just one example of the many ways that our systems fail survivors and one example of the ways that even when you do things perfectly, the outcome is never what you imagine, or at least what I imagined as a survivor. And I think some of the other ways that we fail survivors is that they're required to sort of process their pain out loud for them to find any healing. So many young women that I know, they feel like the only way they can actually have healing long term is if they say it out loud, if they talk about it, which, as you know, can be retraumatizing. And there is no framework for survivors in which just being a survivor is enough for them to get their healing. They have to do something. They have to help other people not be survivors. They have to take on outsized responsibilities that really don't belong to them, that belong to the state, that belong to the systems in place. They're required to do work that therapists are supposed to be doing, both for themselves and for everyone around them.
Mara S. Campo [00:23:01] What do you think the symbolism is with specifically the trouble with math? After what you went through?
Camonghe Felix [00:23:09] Math seemed like a really fertile ground to try to de-problematize some of the ways that we all think to show people similarities across the way that we all think. We all cause harm. Right? What does it look like to put that harm into a mathematical framework? What does it look like to put it into a calculator and understand where that harm comes from, why you caused it? What is the likelihood that you might do it again? It's just such an apt ground to really think about how the choices we make affect our long term ability to be happy and healthy people.
Mara S. Campo [00:23:46] Now, beyond the dyscalculia, you started to have other struggles in the years that followed in your teenage years through high school. What was happening at that time in your life?
Camonghe Felix [00:23:55] Being an adolescent just was very hard for me. Going to school was incredibly difficult. I went to three different high schools because I really just didn't have the functional ability to show up every day the way that my classmates did. The entire experience affected my cognitive development and affected the way that I learned, the way that I thought when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder almost ten or 15 years later. It showed me that the way I was struggling had an explanation, that it wasn't just random, that I wasn't just not smart or not able, but that what had happened to me had flipped a switch in my brain and ultimately made it really hard for me to have relationships, have friendships too, like myself. And that's a big part of the reason why I wanted to write this book, because in the process of looking back at that relationship, I started to really unpack some of the behaviors that came out of my bipolar disorder, why they were there, what they were actually doing there, and figuring out like, how do I take care of myself? How do I take care of the people around me? How do I stop causing harm to people that I love?
Mara S. Campo [00:25:04] And when you did receive the diagnosis you share with your mother and you write her reaction, she said, That makes sense. They kind of told me that would happen. So, you know, there's this idea that mental illness is kind of random when the research actually shows that it's pretty predictable, predictable cases. And that's what your mother was speaking to, that at some point someone had informed her that you were likely to have these struggles down the line. What difference do you think it would have made for you to have had cancer treatment support much earlier on?
Camonghe Felix [00:25:35] It would have made a huge difference. My mom and I were extremely close, and I think so much of our closeness was built on fear. My mother was incredibly paranoid because she knew that something was going to come out of all of this. You know, like in her head, she was like, something's going to happen. They told me that something's going to happen. And I think that on top of just having resources, it would have just given us some comfort. Part of what I sort of get across in that passage is that my mom was kind of exhausted by the time I told her, this is the diagnosis and this is. What we're working with. She was like child. Not only did I already know, but there's nothing I can do about it now. I'm glad somebody told you, but like, this is yours now. You're an adult. This is yours to figure out. You figure out the doses and everything else. I'm going to take a nap right? By the end of this process, she was so exhausted because she had put so much work into trying to keep her child. Well, when there were no resources, no support. And I just think that she shouldn't have had to experience such exhaustion.
Mara S. Campo [00:26:35] If you could design the system from scratch, what resources systems help should be in place so that when a young woman tells her mother that something terrible has happened, the family is able to get the help that they need so that you are able to be okay.
Camonghe Felix [00:26:53] So in New York City, which is where I grew up, most young people who get free lunch and usually those children are living in poverty at some level, which I was, it was learned that 78% of those kids had been sexually assaulted or had experienced some kind of left changing trauma before the age of 13. So what that tells you is that there is a whole sort of like cadre of young people walking around dealing with trauma that's not being taken care of in school simply because there are so many of them that like one school, one teacher is not properly trained to be able to deal with them. What would it look like if we built a school that was focused on trauma centered learning? Having educators who are trained in trauma based teaching, who understand what it means to have a young person in your classroom who is going through the kinds of things that I was going through and actually putting the resources forward to help them navigate that. And what that would look like is a school that focuses on arts education, that focuses on music education, that focuses on giving kids the ability to do some of that psycho social work on their own, empowering them to actually understand frameworks of care so that they can bring that back to their own homes. I'm not advocating for young people who experience trauma to be isolated from the rest of the world, but what I am advocating for is for an understanding that one young people do experience significant trauma. That too, that it can be debilitating cognitively and socially. And three, that having young people come together with a shared understanding that they are working towards healing from something that is not unique but is traumatizing, makes them feel less alone.
Mara S. Campo [00:28:30] When it comes to Black women, it feels like there are some layers and being a double minority in the expectation of Black excellence, also being the strong Black woman, which thank God we're finally starting to push back against that label and characterization. What unique toll do you think that that takes on us, especially when someone may be dealing with a mental health issue and they're expected to just carry on and handle everything as a strong Black woman?
Camonghe Felix [00:28:58] In my case, especially in terms of trying to like get the resources that I need, being a woman, being queer, being disabled, all of these labels take up real material space and make it really hard for people to see you as human. When I got my bipolar diagnosis and I also got an autism diagnosis, I remember getting those diagnosis and I was like, How is it possible that I've gone 27 years of my life and not a single person could have identified that I was autistic? And it's because I was a Black girl and being raised in a society that problematize this and criminalizes Black girls, we don't get to show our disabilities in the same ways that other people do. We don't get to misbehave in the same ways that other people do. We don't get to cry for help in the same ways that other people do. So it actually makes total sense to me that it was missed. I didn't have the privilege, frankly, to display the kind of symptoms that some of my peers had the ability to display.
Mara S. Campo [00:29:58] So as you look ahead, what does healing look like for you now moving forward?
Camonghe Felix [00:30:03] Listen, I'm trying to live my best life, okay? I write my books. I read my books. I also spend time with my fiancee and try to really enjoy and invest in connection and what it means to be connected to the people around you. Healing for me, honestly, is just it's a never ending situation, but it's also an evolving situation. I feel in many different ways at different times. It's non-linear and I try my best to appreciate that and appreciate non linearity as a strategy towards Healing.
Mara S. Campo [00:30:38] I love that. Carmen, thank you so much for your time.
Camonghe Felix [00:30:41] Thank you.
Mara S. Campo [00:30:42] That was Camonghe Felix , award winning poet and author of the new memoir Dyscalculia: A Love Story of Epic Miscalculation.
This is Our Body Politic. I'm Mara S. Campo, anchor and managing editor at REVOLT Black News. Sitting in for Farai Chideya. Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called Sippin’ the Political Tea. This week, we're talking about innovative approaches to mental health treatment, things that aren't mainstream yet but might be soon. Joining me is executive director of the People of Color Psychedelic Collective Ifetayo Harvey. Welcome to the show, Ifetayo.
Ifetayo Harvey [00:31:30] Thank you for having me. I'm really excited to talk.
Mara S. Campo [00:31:32] And COMHAR Open Door Clubhouse Program director Sandie McRae-Wright. Hi, Sandie.
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:31:37] Thank you, Mara. My pleasure.
Mara S. Campo [00:31:39] So, Sandie, I want to start with COMHAR and the mission of Open Door Clubhouse. So what is open door clubhouse and what is your mission?
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:31:47] Open to a clubhouse is a movement. It's a motto that focuses on the strengths, the talents, the abilities of its members in order to empower and encourage them to achieve whatever their goals are employment, education or what have you. The clubhouse is a standalone organization. We have our own building program kind of addresses living, working, learning, wellness, and we do it through what we call a work order day. And if I can just kind of paint a picture, this might be helpful to understand the model and the workflow for the clubhouse. I don't know if you ever had a clubhouse where, you know, you would take a couple of sheets hanging down from your bunk bed and go under it?
Mara S. Campo [00:32:32] Yeah, like a fort, we called them forts.
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:32:33] I had a clubhouse. It was a big box in the backyard, and the members of that clubhouse really decided what resources and what they want to see and what they want their clubhouse to be all about. And if you can kind of imagine that as the same way the clubhouse was, we have breakfast and lunch at our clubhouse, the members engage in shopping, menu planning, prepping, preparing and cooking the meals. Same thing with cleaning of the facility. There's no outside anything that comes in. So members are learning how to stack a cart, how to properly handle chemicals. The members participate in data entry on computers. They're accessing the internet, maintaining our social media, our Facebook page.
Mara S. Campo [00:33:20] So it's really their clubhouse. They're running the programs.
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:33:23] They’re running the clubhouse. We know, you know, from years of having this model that the resources that we have now are needed by those that are coming at a site. We have psychiatric hospitals or institutions saying, you know, I've had enough. I've been working on my recovery for 17 years or so. I've reached a level in my recovery where I want to reintegrate into the community. So what does that look like for most individuals that come in? They want employment opportunities to obtain GEDs or college credits. Those things we provide in the clubhouse because we know that is what most of the members that come into the clubhouse are looking for, and they're working towards those goals.
Mara S. Campo [00:34:01] You have a lot of members, you have 6000 members. That's quite a big number. How are people coming to you? How are they finding you?
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:34:08] Oftentimes, they are referred by their best case managers clinics. Some of them are self referred. They heard about the clubhouse and wanted to become a member.
Mara S. Campo [00:34:19] Okay, Got it. So if Ifetayo, you're the founder of the People of Color Psychedelic Collective. Tell me about that. What does that involve?
Ifetayo Harvey [00:34:26] So the people of color, Psychedelic Collective, We are a volunteer based, remote based organization. We do education, community building for people of color interested in psychedelics and ending the war on drugs. In the past, we've held conferences, retreats. We've been doing a lot of online programming. And in my role, I do a lot of public speaking. Recently, I was named a Soros Justice Fellow. And so my project that I'm working on now is building a coalition of aligned organizations who want to shape the future psychedelics.
Mara S. Campo [00:35:01] So in recent years, psychedelics have really emerged for a lot of people as an alternative treatment for a number of mental health issues. I don't like to use the word new treatment because this has been something that Indigenous communities have been using for hundreds and hundreds of years. But in terms of kind of mainstream American culture in the last few years, what is the connection between psychedelics and mental health treatment?
Ifetayo Harvey [00:35:24] I've been involved in drug policy reform, psychedelics for about ten years now, and I've seen a recent increase in the past two or three years with more and more people talking about psychedelics for mental health. And I think that's because a lot of people feel like they are out of options or the options that they do have aren't within reach. And psychedelics seems like a tool that people can easily access to use to take control of their mental health.
Mara S. Campo [00:35:57] When you say, you know, they've tried other treatments. That's what I hear the most often when I talk to people about this is that people have tried the kind of traditional pharmaceutical route and they have found that it for a number of reasons, it just hasn't worked for them. So when we're talking about psychedelics, what specific substances are we talking about and how are people using them therapeutically?
Ifetayo Harvey [00:36:15] Psychedelics refers to a class of drugs like psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca, peyote. There's so many out there, some synthetic, some derived from plants or fungi. Right now they're therapeutic models being developed by researchers. I used to work for an organization called MAPS, a multidisciplinary association for Psychedelic studies, and their primary focus was MDMA assisted psychotherapy for people with PTSD. That's been at the forefront of a lot of people's minds, and their therapeutic model is basically two therapists working with one patient over the course of several hours. You know, there's also a lot of talk of developing models beyond the clinical setting and looking at ways to develop community based models, because a lot of folks, particularly people of color, aren't always comfortable in medical settings. And so some people prefer doing that kind of therapy or healing work outside of the doctor's office.
Mara S. Campo [00:37:22] With both of you, there's this community approach that's involved. Sandie, I want to start with you on that. Why do you think the sense of community is so important to treatment that's really effective?
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:37:36] Yes, I think people know that they're going to a place where they're not being judged. They feel safe and they have voices. Oftentimes in our treatments, our traditional behavioral health organizations, they're told what to do. Everything is judgeship for them. They don't have a voice. And oftentimes even well-intended caregivers will hinder the progress of the movement because they're afraid they're not able to do certain things. So we kind of encourage at the clubhouse, peer support. Members that have been there longer will gravitate or work with a new member coming in and we'll train them. So from day one, they've already been partnered with someone that's going to walk them through and explain to them everything that's happening within the clubhouse. I think having a community of people who are dealing with these same type of challenges and issues, having their own place where they can be themselves and discover more about themselves is what makes the program so successful.
Mara S. Campo [00:38:41] Ifetayo, Sandie mentioned judgment, and I have to think that's particularly relevant in the community that you're involved with because there's a lot of drug stigma still, and in a lot of cases, the psychedelics that people are using therapeutically are illegal. So how does community play into the work that you're doing?
Ifetayo Harvey [00:39:01] I think part of the reason why I created my group was because I saw a lack of space for people of color, and I wanted to create a space just for us. I think people are mostly looking for their experiences to be reflected through another person, to be able to relate and connect. Because a lot of times psychedelic experiences are kind of beyond words. And like you said, because they're illegal, there's still a stigma attached to them and so people don't feel like they can just talk openly online about their experiences or gauge to see if the other person will judge them or not for using drugs. I think the creation of a lot of community groups like mine have led to people feeling like, okay, this is where I belong, This is where I can talk and connect about this specific issue. And for people of color specifically, we've realized we can't really depend on the bigger institutions, the more money institutions to create the spaces for us. We have to treat them ourselves.
Mara S. Campo [00:40:05] And how do you measure success in that space? Are there people that you've worked with or this may even be your own story that really have seen a big difference thanks to the help of psychedelic treatment?
Ifetayo Harvey [00:40:15] Mmhmm, Psychedelics definitely helped me heal. When I was a senior in college, I got diagnosed with major depressive disorder and I heard about psychedelics being used therapeutically for people with end of life treatment, and that convinced me to try psilocybin mushrooms for the first time. Because of that experience, I am able to share with other people who might be going through something similar. You know, people hit me up and say like, “Oh, I saw your article. It's helped me. You're the first Black person I saw on my Google searches talking about psychedelics.” I've seen people be able to manage their mental health a bit more. I don't want to position psychedelics as a magic bullet for mental health because I believe it takes a lot of prep work to even get to taking a psychedelic substance and also involves a lot of aftercare, a lot of integration work. Some people say it feels like a reset on their mental health. For me personally, my first journey with psychedelics, I felt like I could laugh and I hadn’t had that feeling in such a long time that it felt very healing to be able to just laugh uncontrollably.
Mara S. Campo [00:41:34] Yeah, laughter is great medicine, and I have been reminded recently of how therapeutic laughter is. Just bouts of stomach-aching, tears streaming down your face, laughter and how you feel after that. Sandie, How do you measure success?
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:41:52] Well, first I can say that mental health impacts one in five adults in the U.S. and one year of holistic recovery service is delivered to clubhouse for the same cost as a two week psychiatric hospital stay.
Mara S. Campo [00:42:07] One Year?!
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:42:08] One year.
Mara S. Campo [00:42:10] Wow. So it is 1/26 of the cost.
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:42:13] Yes. The success for us is seeing them having less readmissions into the hospital. A New York study in 2015 showed less than 11% readmission rates in clubhouse members versus 17 to 23% of nonmembers. It also shows that clubhouse members are less likely to visit emergency rooms, less than 12% versus 14 to 20%. Also, the criminal justice system involvement is substantially diminished during and after clubhouse membership.
Mara S. Campo [00:42:50] Why do you think that is? What is it about your model that you think is accounting for those numbers?
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:42:56] I think mostly it's just the individual really having their own voice and coming up with their own plans and goals for how they're gonna move forward in the community and society. Having that encouragement and that support to say, yes, you can do this. This is possible. I think that's what's making the difference. They're no longer being told what to do and how to do it. They are making these choices for themselves and then they have people around them that are encouraging and empowering them along the way.
Mara S. Campo [00:43:28] Certainly there are a lot of mental health professionals who have devoted their lives to treatment and are doing amazing work. But there is a lot about the system that is not working. Ifetayo, what do you think is not working in the system? What do you see that's failing?
Ifetayo Harvey [00:43:43] I think that there's a lack of access for the average person in the U.S. when it comes to therapy. It's very expensive for the average person, especially if you don't have insurance. When I think about how you're integrating psychedelics into this system that we have, I think about how psychedelic treatments will take on all of those shortcomings, right? Lack of universal health care, not really accessible, affordable therapy that is it already overburdened. We also have a shortage of therapists of color. So all those things kind of present barriers specifically for Black people by really looking for help. And if you're already under mental duress, you are looking for help. All these barriers are just going to make it worse.
Mara S. Campo [00:44:38] As you move forward in your work, specifically because a lot of what you're doing is so tied directly to policy and what's legal and what's not and how laws are enforced. How important is policy change around the work that you're doing?
Ifetayo Harvey [00:44:50] I think policy change is crucial because policy informs our culture and also vice versa. But a lot of the drug policies that we've had in the US have ruined people's lives for the past five, six decades. And by making better policy, we can save more lives. We can help more people. I believe that drug formalization should be a thing of the past as we work to legalize and decriminalize all these substances. We have to remember the previous laws that we had affected so many people. Our prison rates have grown exponentially and we can't just move on from that. There's a lot of narratives that are saying, you know, Black people are afraid to try psychedelics or like it's white people stuff. And to some extent that is that is very true. And we also have to consider the fact that the war on drugs has destroyed our communities. Going back to the seventies and eighties, the crack era, we saw so many of our community members get the help they need and. There's a history of people experiencing mental health challenges, not being treated while also being criminalized. We also have to right the wrongs of our past and write into our policy components that are focused on equity. For example, with the cannabis industry that's been growing over the past ten years. Early on, there wasn't a lot of talk around reparations for people who went to prison or communities that were heavily criminalized. And I think now the conversation has changed. We still have to reckon with, you know, big tobacco, big alcohol, trying to cash in on cannabis industry and the emerging psychedelics industry. But I think that people are starting to recognize if we want folks who are disadvantaged or have a record because of a drug offense in the industry or to have a business, we have to write that in the policy. So I think part of it is education within our own movement and centering the people who've been most impacted by our harmful drug laws, bringing those folks to the table and letting their lived experiences inform the policy that we're writing, because without it, we simply to repeat those same harms just in a different iteration.
Mara S. Campo [00:47:19] And Sandie, what are the biggest challenges for you? What do you need to be able to continue your work strongly in the future?
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:47:26] The biggest need for us is funding. I know that the Department of Behavioral Health and CBH allocate a smaller amount towards mental health and clubhouses being the smallest allocation. We really don't have a whole lot of support from our government agency, so it takes a lot of just seeking out opportunities privately to get funding to run this program. Just being able to promote the program, being able to bring awareness to those services being provided.
Mara S. Campo [00:48:01] Hopefully the work that you're doing and the success that you're seeing leads to more funding to be able to continue that very important work. Sandie, thank you so much for sharing your story.
Sandie McRae-Wright [00:48:10] Thank you for inviting me. It's my pleasure.
Mara S. Campo [00:48:13] If I tell you. Thank you for joining me.
Ifetayo Harvey [00:48:14] Thank you.
Mara S. Campo [00:48:16] That was executive director of the People of Color Psychedelic Collective Ifetayo Harvey and COHMAR Open Door Clubhouse program director Sandie McRae-Wright.
Thanks for listening to Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts, you can also find us on Instagram and Twitter @OurBodyPolitic.
Our Body Politic is produced by Diaspora Farms and Rococo Punch. I'm today's host Mara S. Campo. Farai Chideya and Nina Spensley are executive producers. Emily J. Daly is our senior producer. Bridget McAllister is our booking producer. Anoa Changa is our producer. Natyna Bean and Emily Ho are our associate producers. Monica Morales-Garcia is our fact checker.
This program is produced with support from the Luce Foundation, Open Society Foundation, Ford Foundation, Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, Democracy Fund, The Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.