Mental Health Month is all about creating awareness, not only during the month of May, but every day.
“That’s what the awareness of mental health is really about,” said Emily Rhamy, Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s dialectical behavior therapy program supervisor. “It lets people know it’s OK to be vulnerable, it’s OK to have needs. If you’re struggling, we can talk about it.”
It’s her job to talk with people about their mental health. She is also open about talking about her own mental health.
“I think Mental Health Month is important because so many people experience shame and invalidation around their mental health,” Rhamy said. “A lot of people think they are alone when it comes to mental health. They think other people have no idea what it’s like to go through these things.”
Rhamy knows. Even as a mental health professional, talking about her own struggles wasn’t always easy.
“Because as therapists we’re skilled and we know all the things to do, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always easy to practice what you preach. I spent years thinking I should be able to jog my way out of depression or meditate my way out of anxiety,” Rhamy said. “What I’ve noticed is the more I talk about my own mental health, the more other people around me are willing to tell me what’s going on with them.”
That was particularly true during the pandemic.
“When I think about the last couple of years, the world has been so unpredictable and there’s so much more stress and pressure, the future feels really uncertain, people are struggling to find hope, and we feel disconnected,” Rhamy said. “So, anything we can do to reach out to each other and let each other know we’re here for each other, it starts to help create a culture of community support.”
Rep. Christina Haswood
Being a Native woman in politics in Kansas, Christina Haswood is different from most of her fellow legislators.
“I don’t look like most people in Kansas,” said Haswood, a member of the Navajo Tribe.
The second-year legislator, who grew up in Lawrence and attended Haskell Indian Nations University, spent her first year in the Kansas House of Representatives trying to prove she belonged. She felt obligated to attend every meeting or social event, serve on panels, reply to every email, accept every media request. It took a toll on her physical health as well as her mental health.
“I wanted to be the best elected official I could be for my constituents, and I didn’t want to be perceived as not doing a good job,” she said. “I felt like being new, I had to attend all these social events. I felt the need to fit in and socialize with my colleagues.”
Rep. Ponka-We Victors-Cozad, a Wichita Democrat and the first Native American woman to serve in the Kansas Legislature, has been a mentor for Haswood.
“She said you have to take care of yourself or you’re going to burn out,” Haswood said. “She assured me it’s OK to create work boundaries.”
Haswood learned to say no; she hired a physical trainer; she spent time with family and made it a point to be home in time to have dinner with her partner.
Haswood understands the importance of asking for help. She reached out to a counselor when she was a student at Haskell. She did again when she attended the University of Kansas Medical School, where she earned a master’s degree in public health.
“Being in public health, we always tell people that if you need emotional support, to seek help,” she said. “I thought I should practice what I preach.”
When Fred Byrd’s best friend moved to Lawrence in 2017, he decided to follow six months later.
“That’s when I first started noticing my mental health,” he said. “I started feeling really anxious.”
Byrd used alcohol to alleviate his social anxiety.
“I would drink to be comfortable around people,” he said. “When I was drunk, it would relieve my anxiety.”
In the Black community, it’s not common to talk about mental health, Byrd said.
“You just don’t talk about those things,” he said. “You’re supposed to treat struggling like it’s a pride thing.”
Being gay, Byrd said he often felt different growing up.
“My parents knew I was gay since I was like 6,” he said. “I’ve always been OK with myself, but I worried about what other people thought.”
Art has been therapeutic for Byrd. He is involved with BLACK Lawrence. BLACK stands for Black Literature and Arts Collective of Kansas. Byrd does mostly photography.
“I’m a perfectionist and I can be too hard on myself,” he said. “I don’t do that with other people, but I’ve always had this thing where I’m harder on myself.”
Since returning to his hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri, Byrd has been seeing a therapist, something he wasn’t ready to do before, and started taking medication for depression.
“I wasn’t ready to let go of certain habits, toxic traits. I had to get to the point where I could be receptive to therapy,” he said. “Therapy has helped me realize I can focus on myself more. That’s changed a lot of things.”
Sheriff Jay Armbrister
As the Douglas County sheriff, Jay Armbrister has an automatic seat on the Bert Nash governing board.
“I take it very seriously and I’m honored to be on the board,” Armbrister said. “Admittedly, that’s not my area of expertise. But I do have a perspective about law enforcement and my own mental health.”
Armbrister will mark his 24th year in law enforcement in August. He got into law enforcement to help people.
“What I wasn’t prepared for was how jaded you become after a while,” he said. “Dealing with only bad situations, you begin to think that the whole world is bad.”
Armbrister did what he thought was expected; he soldiered on.
“We had a culture back then where we’re here to fix things, not to be fixed,” he said. “It was a culture of get back in the saddle and drink it away. Now we know that’s horribly unhealthy on every level.”
Armbrister was on patrol for his first 11 years with the sheriff’s office. In 2010, he became a detective.
“When I became a detective, it wasn’t just the bad cases, it was the worst,” he said. ‘It got to be where I didn’t feel good anymore. Everything was just dark.”
In 2015, it came crashing down.
“I started having panic attacks,” he said. “I describe it as a bird flapping inside of a cage and trying to get out. My heart was racing and so was my mind. And I was constantly crying.”
Armbrister found out about a psychologist who works with first responders. For the next two years, he saw the psychologist at least weekly, and he got on medication. He was feeling better, but still had trouble processing things.
A turning point was when he attended a West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat (WCPR) in Kansas City. He is now a peer for WCPR.
“They helped me unlock some of the pieces to where I could process the trauma,” Armbrister said. “Now as a peer, sharing my story and being vulnerable and talking about going to therapy, we’re trying to create a narrative that says it’s OK to do those things.”
— Jeff Burkhead is communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.
Please join Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center at 6 p.m. on Tuesday for a community conversation focused on Native American/Indigenous populations regarding their cultural experiences around mental health and emotional well-being. Panelists include Shelley Bointy, Freddy Gipp, Melissa Peterson, Laurie Ramirez and Kelly Walker. This event will be held in-person at the Haskell Indian Nations University Auditorium. For more information and to register visit