Opening up is a matter of trust, and that is what happened on Friday, February 18 with the Black History Month event dedicated to mental health thanks in part to the collaboration between the Office of Student Activities, the Office of the President, with the support of the Office of Community Relations and the Office of Governmental and External Affairs.
At the center of the dialogue was the question, why is it so hard for people to open up about mental health?
Director of Student Activities Jerry Rosa welcomed attendees with a short essay raising the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if people could ask for help without fear of feeling rejected or ridiculed?”
Rosa introduced Hostos President Daisy Cocco De Filippis who offered words of solidarity, her words always timely, “In the wake of the ongoing pandemic, mental health issues have been exacerbated by the monumental strain created by widespread illness and loss of life. This situation is complicated but the culture of uninformed attitudes towards mental illness. Perceptions towards mental illness have changed for the better but it still stigmatized and there is work to be done.”
President Cocco De Filippis acknowledged the panelists and Bronx leaders who made their presence felt and it was Dr. Eric Radezky, Director of Governmental and External Affairs who introduced the speakers beginning with New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, the first African American New York State Assembly Speaker. The audience then heard Bronx Borough President Vanessa Gibson, the first African American and first female Bronx Borough President. Then followed Councilmembers Kevin Reily and Althea Stevens. All of them expressed their appreciation for Hostos’ contribution to the Bronx and for the College’s Black History Month event dedicated to mental health.
Bronx native Michele Ayala-Rivera, the moderator and field expert in mental health with over 25 years of experience facilitated the conversation by presenting questions that made panelists and attendees open up. She posed questions, such as: Did your family talk about issues of mental health? What did these conversations look like in your family?
What the audience heard were courageous and candid shares from Student Development and Enrollment Management VP La Toro Yates, Tovah Thompson, counselor at the Hostos Carlos González Counseling Center, and Dr. Eric Radezky.
VP Yates’ compelling story reminded attendees of how the South has dealt with problems, “first at home and then in the Church,” he said. “I’ve seen people pray away situations, but sometimes additional resources are needed. I grew up in violence. My father was murdered when I was 15 months old. My mother raised three boys, and we didn’t have access to the type of resources that were needed to help us heal through that trauma. Part of who I am today is based off of living through that trauma. And my goal is to try and help as many young people as possible to know that there is a way to help them deal with their everyday life.”
Then came Ms. Thompson, who also made a culturally specific comment about how Caribbean people don’t talk about difficulties at all.
“You function from a space of survival. To be able to say I am not okay is not acceptable, to say that I need help is not acceptable, to say I feel is not acceptable, we understand anger, this is something that is okay, this is something that is all right,” Thompson shared. “You learn to suppress whatever you are feeling, and you just put it to the side and you do what you have to do, you learn to function. And if you see someone that is not capable of doing that then now this person is weak and those are the messages we get.”
Another powerful contribution came from Dr. Radezky, whose comment made the panel universal when he added, “As a young boy I was told from early on to ‘take it like a man.’”
His comment hit home because most people can identify with this idea, and we have seen how leaving young boys and men to deal with their pain or conflicts in silence has been detrimental to society.
Thompson went on to say: “It took a lot of courage to be the one in my family to say, ‘hey this isn’t right,’ I was helpful in bringing around that change in my family but that was not an easy task. That was a road I had to travel alone. There is something else that needs to happen to make us all be okay in the long run and not just be okay in the space of I have a roof over my head, shoes on my feet, and clothes on my back, and food on the table because often times when you are functioning from the space of survival this is all that matters. But do I feel accepted, do I feel okay in who I am, is it okay to feel sad, these are all things that are part of the human experience.”
A big take away from the timely panel is that these are rare conversation that need to become less rare, especially in communities of color. For VP Yates, finally embracing therapy as a way to heal was incredibly empowering and he hopes these efforts and others open the door for students to know they are not alone, and it is okay to ask for help.
For Jerry Rosa, the event was important because he heard a Hostos colleague share that she was listening with her children and how she hoped that the discussion would resonate and help them break the pattern of silence about mental health traditionally followed by her family.
“Often times people think that they are the only ones facing great challenges, and when they open up, they learn that there are others in the same position,” said Dean of Community Relations Ana I. García Reyes of the event.
Contact the Carlos González Counseling Center if you need help. Watch the talk here.