Minority Mental Health Month is about building community

For Minority Mental Health Month, here are a few stories of people breaking down stigmas and building community.

• • •

Mary Kirkendoll is all about initiating meaningful conversations.

That’s how she became involved in the upcoming Minority Mental Health Awareness Picnic in the Park. The event will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Wednesday, July 27, at South Park. It is free and open to the public.

“It’s all about elevating and celebrating BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) talent and voices in the community,” Kirkendoll said.

Kirkendoll, who works as Douglas County’s community navigator, grew up in Long Beach, Calif. Her mother, who was white, was an inner-city schoolteacher. Kirkendoll’s father, who is Japanese, hasn’t been involved in her life since she was a baby.

Kirkendoll’s mother had a long history of mental illness, but wasn’t diagnosed until later in life, when it was discovered that she had bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

“My interest in mental health really stems from me taking care of my mom growing up. That was a lot for a child,” Kirkendoll said. “We dealt with so many mental health issues. I saw how debilitating her illness was.”

When Kirkendoll was working on her doctorate at the University of Kansas, her mom, who was back in California, was admitted to a mental institution, but Kirkendoll didn’t know what had happened.

“I didn’t know where she was for three weeks; I thought she was dead,” Kirkendoll said. “From that moment on, I decided to take care of her.”

Kirkendoll brought her mom, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, to Kansas and became her caregiver. Her mom continues to be her inspiration.

“Taking care of my mom has opened a window to do this work, which is really beautiful,” Kirkendoll said.

• • •

Randy Vidales was around 8 or 9 when he remembers first experiencing social anxiety. The condition continued throughout his school years. To cope, he turned inward.

“I was very quiet and withdrawn,” he said. “Family members would chastise me for that. I couldn’t tell them that I was uncomfortable in social settings.”

Vidales, a first-generation Latino American, grew up in both Kansas and Mexico.

“Mental health is still a huge stigma in the Latino community,” Vidales said. “Because of that and because of cultural traditions, growing up I didn’t feel like I had much of a voice.”

Mental health wasn’t something his family talked about.

“I would be told that it was all in my head or in my imagination,” Vidales said.

During his second year as a student at the University of Kansas, Vidales decided to seek help. He reached out to a fellow student who was a psychology major. She was also Hispanic American.

“That made it much more comfortable to know that she was from the same background,” Vidales said. “She could relate and understand where I was coming from.”

The friend directed him to health services at KU, where he received a formal diagnosis. Besides social anxiety, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.

Since 2018, Vidales has been a member of Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center’s supportive housing team. He shares his own experiences when working with clients and continues to work on his own mental health.

“It’s been a long journey, a journey that I firmly believe there is no end to,” he said. “But at the same time, I realize that it’s more about the journey, about the progress that I’ve made.”

• • •

Demetrius “Dee” Kemp is someone who’s devoted to helping others, but it took someone just like him to pull him out of the darkest time of his life.

Kemp lost his two favorite people in the span of about two months. His mother died on Nov. 30, 2020. About two months later, his sister died.

“Man, that about killed me,” Kemp said. “I have lost people before but losing the two most important women in my life, back-to-back. My mom and my sister were like my best friends.”

Kemp, who lives in Lawrence, had returned to Alabama for his sister’s funeral and was so down he didn’t think he could come back to Kansas. A friend of Kemp’s told him about a niece, Eden, who was 5 at the time. Eden didn’t want a party or presents for her birthday; she wanted to do a food drive for homeless families in Emporia where she lives.

“I thought if this little girl can do that, I need to get back; I need to go help her,” Kemp said. “I got my friends together and I said, ‘I know this isn’t in Lawrence, but this girl needs our help, so let’s help her.’ We raised enough food for about 30 families.”

Kemp, who is Black, said that when he was growing up, emotions and mental health weren’t something that people talked about.

“People used to say Black people don’t go crazy,” Kemp said. “I knew people who had to have a mental illness, but it was just never talked about.”

When Kemp went to Emporia to help Eden, he told her parents, “I’ve never met your daughter, but she reached down and pulled me back. I was done, I had given up. That little girl, man, she pulled me out.”

• • •

Family and community are very important in Native tribes.

At the University of Kansas, Melissa Peterson, in her role as director of tribal relations, serves as sort of an extended family for Native students. She works closely with Lori Hasselman, Native American student success coordinator.

“Our Native students are used to family and community, so when they come to college, we become that extended family,” Peterson said. “Lori calls it Auntie Love. You hear that often in Native communities.”

Last year was Peterson’s first as tribal relations director — a new position at KU. She actually came to Lawrence to coach volleyball at Haskell Indian Nations University.

Peterson described her role at KU as “really a holistic type of support system, and that includes being good partners with our tribes and building student development through learning about our local tribes.”

Peterson was part of a panel discussion for Mental Health Month in May that was a collaboration between Haskell and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.

“There’s so much to unpack about Native people and the history we have endured, and we’re still dealing with these issues. Here in Lawrence, we like to think of ourselves as being more open minded, and we are, but it wasn’t very many years ago that Native people couldn’t go past 19th Street,” Peterson said.

Peterson was born and raised in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. She said mental health wasn’t something that was discussed. But she sees things changing. The younger Indigenous generation is talking more openly about their mental health, she said.

“My first year in this new position was spent educating others about Native people. We may not talk about mental health specifically,” Peterson said. “But I do try to create events where people can come together in community. Because mental health is best supported when we understand each other and build community with each other.”

— Jeff Burkhead is communications director at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.


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