AF: Your work as a mental health advocate started in a very personal way. How did your journey begin?
KR: About eight and a half years ago, I almost lost my then 18-year-old daughter to suicide as a college freshman. The depression and anxiety had been there in high school, but we just didn’t recognize it as such and then she got to a place of crisis. I want to be clear while I was not ashamed of her, there was a great deal of shame—shame for myself as a parent. I really felt like I had failed in some way as a mother. If my daughter had been hospitalized in a diabetic coma, I would not have thought that way. But there is a lot of shame around mental health, and a lot of not understanding that it’s a health issue.
AF: How did you cope with it?
KR: Being the mom that I was, I was doing a lot of research and trying to find answers because we were so anxious. I stumbled across NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and they had this 12-week course for families impacted by mental illness. I took the class and—I don’t want to sound like I’m exaggerating— but it was transformative. I sat in this room full of people who looked just like me. They were all good people in similar situations. I wasn’t alone anymore. And then, because it was educational, I quickly came to understand that it was a health issue. I learned there were things that I had missed, but NAMI helped me understand that you can’t know what no one has ever told you!
AF: What happened after that?
KR: I finished the class and never thought I was going to be doing this work. Later, I stumbled across some information when they were looking for their first professional position. I had already been working in non-profit, and I contacted the Board president who had taught my class to congratulate her on this big step for the organization. She asked if I knew anyone who might be a good candidate. One thing led to another and here I am.
AF: What have you learned about helping families who are struggling with mental health issues?
KR: We’re focused a lot on empowering and educating teachers on what social and emotional learning is, which is fantastic. But we’re not taking the time to also include parents in that; for example, helping parents understand that feelings are not bad things, and the power of naming those feelings. We need to let them know that they have the capacity to transform how their kids navigate the world, and their mental health, by what we do at home. As a parent, I know that so often what I’m guilty of is “putting on my cape” when my kids come to me with something. I’m ready to fix it. We don’t know how to just listen and engage our kids in the solutions. I came to the realization that we really needed to be equipping parents with how to talk about this, how to create a safe space and how to be better active listeners.
AF: So, how can parents do that?
KR: I was on a panel with KXAN, and one of the other panelists said something that struck me. She had done a teen group and had asked them, “What are some of the things that adults can do around this issue of mental health?” And this bright young man said, “They can take care of their own mental health.” I just thought that was brilliant because I do firmly believe that one of the ways that we can parent well is to model what that looks like. As parents, so often, we don’t take care of our own mental health and we don’t take care of ourselves. We live in a culture that says, “Go, go, go.” We don’t stop.
Self-care looks no different for teens and kids as it does for adults. It’s about getting enough sleep, eating right, taking time to rest, taking time to play. We’re not a culture of playing. Do a little survey with the adults in your life and find out how many of them have taken a two-week vacation in the last five years. Many adults are not modeling self-care to kids. Self-care does not just impact you; it impacts everybody around you—the people you work with, the people you live with. When we are anxious, overwhelmed, and stressed, it ripples through our families, our workplaces, and everywhere.
AF: What sort of services does NAMI Central Texas offer?
KR: Fundamentally NAMI provides free classes and support groups for families and individuals living with a mental health issue. We equip people with great learning and support. But if they still go to work and school and church and other places, and people (in the community) don’t understand mental health issues, we haven’t completely accomplished our mission and our work. So, a lot of the work in the last three years has really been about changing the mental health conversation in the larger community.
AF: What can parents expect when they call NAMI Central Texas?
KR: Parents can call us and just explain what’s going on. We are constantly collecting information about organizations and programs designed to help families. We can send them a resource guide and links to information about other resources in the community. Then, of course, we talk to them about our own free programs, including classes and support groups. We’re not a single point of entry because we don’t offer direct services like counseling. But we’re a place you can call where there’s a warm, friendly, welcoming voice who will reassure you and provide you with resources that can help.
AF: What programs do you offer designed for kids and parents?
KR: We’ve been doing these fabulous programs in schools for teachers, parents, and teens called “Ending the Silence.” We visit middle schools and high schools, and do a very short presentation that provides students with information on how common some mental health issues are, and how important it is to find the adult in your life who you can go to if you’re concerned about yourself or someone else. And then we bring in a young person who shares their story. There are always these powerful stories of hope that say “You know what? Yes, this is a health issue and you’ve got to learn how to navigate it, but it doesn’t have to be the thing that defines you, nor does it have to be the thing that keeps you from achieving your goals.”
We also launched a program called “Let’s Talk.” I still remember sitting and talking with my daughters who asked me, “What are you working on?” I said, “Well, I’m developing this new program that’s to help parents talk about mental illness with kids.” And one of my daughters looked at me and said, “So, it’s like the ‘sex talk’ except about mental illness?” And I said, “Yes! Exactly.” Parents are as uncomfortable and fearful about talking about mental health as they are about sex. We’re equipping families with the language and understanding that they don’t need to be ashamed and that mental health issues are really common. We help them discover what it really looks like when you have proactive conversations.
Interview by Jennifer Hill Robenalt