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How to Keep Your Sanity While You're Saving the World

Everyday, advocates across the US do vital work to help transform people, communities and society. How do they make sure they take care of their own mental health?
 
 
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Reprinted with permission of Colorlines.com. For more news from a racial justice perspective, sign up to receive weekly Colorlines Direct.

Editor’s note: This is the second insallment of a two-part series on people of color and mental health. Read the first part: “ Young, Depressed, and Of Color: Why Schools and Doctors Get It Wrong.

 

Everyday, organizers and advocates across the United States do vital work to help transform people, communities and society. In the midst of working to achieve these transformations, we face formidable challenges, not least of which is taking care of our own selves and encouraging our peers to do the same, so that we have what it takes for the long haul. Many people and organizations around us are already providing great examples of how to make sure this gets done.

I began thinking about this when talking to Maya Mendez a couple of weeks ago. Mendez is coordinator for a youth development and pregnancy prevention program at the Institute of Women and Ethnic Studies in New Orleans (IWESNOLA) [ http://iwesnola.point2pointdesign.com/]. Because she works to help equip young people with important life skills and since many of the kids in her program have dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I wondered how she balanced work and self-care.

Mental health is top of mind for Mendez. At IWESNOLA, the point of view is that mental health is “not just the absence of mental illness, but also a state of harmonious well-being.” In addition to a component that screens participants for PTSD and other more serious issues, part of the 10-week course in her program involves a focus on emotional resiliency and cognitive reframing that helps kids shift from negative to positive thoughts. The idea is to help them create more positive actions and habits and clear communication.

Mendez’s organization doesn’t have anything formal in place for self-care, but she describes a culture and space that allows people to connect. Staff is encouraged to practice yoga and to meditate. They often have meetings unrelated to work. Someone will bring in an activity for arts and crafts time or they spend time sharing about different interests. As part of her own wellbeing regimen, Mendez tries not to take her work home. If anything happens that’s particularly stressful, she talks about it with the people in her program. She creates balance by making time to hang out with friends, going away for the weekend, taking care of her dog Coquito and talking to her brother, who is a vital member of her support network.

I was happy and surprised to find that there are many more organizations supporting well-being as part of organizational culture.

Dushaw Hockett is the executive director of  SPACES, Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity. The work at SPACES is about creating opportunities for organizers and activists to come together on a monthly basis for two to three hours at a time and learn and practice what it is to be in community with one another. Hockett talked to me about three key elements that help create magical moments in these spaces. Here’s Hockett in his own words:

The power of laughter and letting go. We’re very intentional in these spaces about creating opportunities for people to laugh and to be in joy in ways that they normally may not. According to Gretchen Ruben’s book “ The Happiness Project,” she says that young children laugh or giggle an average of 400 times a day. Adults laugh or giggle an average of 17 times a day. And what’s interesting about that from a place of wellness is, all that we know about the healing effects of laughter and humor. And so we know that laughter reduces the stress hormone cortisol. We know that laughter releases endorphins which not only have a healing effect, but also a feel-good effect. We know that laughter is far more contagious and that it lubricates mental capacities. At a very simple level, one of our simple questions often times tends to be: Share something that made you laugh hard or smile wide recently.

 
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