We speak a lot about changing many aspects of mental health in this country, from stigma to education to actual care. What is always inspiring is when peer-generated efforts jump in to assist initiatives in smaller communities. The power of those with mental health conditions reaching out to help others to relieve stigma and to create awareness is a most incredible means to reaching a day where everyone can live stigma-free and get the care we need. It’s in this spirit we celebrate our final Hope and Grace Fund grant recipient, The Transformation Center.
This interview is unlike the others in that not only are we celebrating The Transformation Center, but specifically their Together Empowering Asian Minds (TEAM) Initiative, a partnership that’s working together to bring much-needed care, peer support, and education to Asian women who, due to cultural stigma, may not receive the support and care they need. We had a chance to speak to the three women responsible for these initiatives, and will shed a light on this inspiring, powerful partnership that is changing the lives of some members of our communities who so desperately need it:
“My name is Deborah Delman, and I’m the Executive Director of the Transformation Center. We are a Massachusetts-based, peer-operated training, technical assistance, and support networking organization. We’re staffed with a board, most of whom have mental health conditions, and work together to change perceptions of the society at large as well as the understanding of the fine grain of mental health recovery. We train and certify peer specialists who work in traditional mental health services, and we also support and train community members to think about emotional resilience, always including exercise and nutrition along with mental health care. Our goal is to transform mental health policy and practice in communities by facilitating the growth, well-being, and diverse voices of people in all stages of dealing with mental health diagnoses, including addiction and traumatic experiences. We exist to help “water the roots” of the peer support and mental health recovery movement, acting as the fiscal, training, and program development partner to help educate and alleviate the stigma around mental illness for those who need it. We look organizations, (particularly those in underserved communities) with whom we can partner and spread education, awareness, and support for those living with mental health concerns.
When we first began in Massachusetts, the system didn’t really understand that mental health recovery is possible. Through efforts such as ours, that has become so clear: we now have over 600 peer specialists in Massachusetts working in emergency services, community-based flexible support services, programs for community treatment teams, and psychiatric hospitals. They’re also in peer-operated centers that we helped pull together across the state, peer-support centers that do outreach in many community locations, homeless shelters, libraries, coffee shops, and church basements to spread the message and understanding around mental health recovery and resilience.
Our successes include these peer support regions and the work that is happening by those peer specialists, but I guess what is exciting is that there is strong, emerging evidence across the country that mental health peer support — when it’s delivered in keeping with mutuality and colleagueship from a peer-to-peer perspective — is effective. It has been documented to reduce the use of psychiatric hospitals and emergency services (that kind of revolving door that people can get into,) and provides a powerful inspiration that recovery is real, that it’s possible. How do I get through this long night? How do I manage my life and find the things that everyone wants? Recovery from a mental health condition includes work, family, friends and comfortable home, and that all of that is possible.
We’ve also been recognized by SAMHSA as a national leader in helping communities understand the prevalence and impact of trauma. Trauma includes early childhood adverse conditions as well as trauma that is a result of racism and disenfranchisement. That is another exciting dimension of how communities unify when the conversation is about healing. The conversation may be about suffering, but finding connection and joy as a result of our connection in the face of all that can be extraordinarily healing.
The work of the mental health system has been, nationally and locally, very focused on white, English speakers. Therefore, a lot of the voices in the peer support movement and a lot of the methods used by the peer support movements are driven by English-speaking, white culture. What The Transformation Center has been trying to do is exploring multiple ways of approaching mental health with many cultural voices. We always look for partners with these efforts, and there’s a lot of activity going in the Asian community around mental health. This is how we came to create our TEAM project, where we’ve partnered with Asian Women for Health and Saheli, Support and Friendship for South Asian Women. I’d like for them to tell you more about what they do individually, and how we’re working together to bring assistance and peer support to the women of their communities.”
“My name is Chien-Chi Huang, and I am the founder of Asian Breast Cancer Project, which later expanded became Asian Women for Health. Because of the culture and language barrier, many Asian women have a hard time accessing support in a timely fashion. We’ve been working with other women’s groups and other agencies serving the Asian population on how to remove these barriers to provide proper care and support for Asian-Americans, particularly women. We know that our cultural values tend to place a lot of emphasis on the group, which means Asian women are taught to put everyone else’s needs before our own. Therefore, due to parental pressure and societal expectations, we’re taught not to speak up and talk about our pain and suffering. As a result, Asian women aged 15-to-24 have the second highest suicide rates in the country. In Boston, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for Asian women age 24-to-55. The group of us working on this initiative have been meeting since 2014, and we’re hoping to find ways to destigmatize the choice to seek help, and to raise awareness for mental health issues in our community. TEAM is the result of this effort, and Asian Women for Health is very pleased to serve this continuous road to bring organizations like Transformation Center, who has a lot of experience in peer support and helping people with mental health illness or conditions, into a position to help even more people receive proper care and to recover.”
“My name is Gouri Banerjee, and I am the Co-Founder and Board President for Saheli, Support and Friendship for South Asian Women. The word ‘saheli’ means ‘female friend.’ We are primarily a domestic violence organization, but in the past five years we have evolved more into providing mental health services for the South Asian community for two reasons. One, there is a huge amount of stigma around talking about violence within the Asian community. I would say the majority of women who are suffering don’t reveal the violence. The stigma perpetuates the suffering. The consequence of long-term violence is a significant amount of depression, anxiety, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder in these communities. Therefore, mental health and domestic violence go together, like the right and left hand. Our mission is to make the lives of women safe and healthy, which are very benign terms that don’t offend traditional members of the community.”
“The Transformation Center and TEAM initiative is honored to be named a Hope and Grace Fund grant recipient. We are working to launch a national media campaign, which will include a resource website with downloadable resources and links along with personal stories. We are also going to do a PSA open call to encourage people to create their own public service announcement, and to encourage people to use it. We will have a voting process to pick the winner, and then will have screenings on campus where we will encourage people to use our website as a resource. We thought it would be a very effective way to reach the mass because we know 80% of Asian Americans use the internet as a way to get information and entertainment. We’ve put in a proposal to create a public awareness campaign with video, a resource website, as well as an open call for a PSA. We’re hoping to use this as a way to ignite the movement, and to initiate dialogue in our communities.
We feel it’s wonderful that an organization as large as Philosophy is taking a huge step in addressing some social issues. So far, we have relied on the government to do the funding and the support, so the support from Philosophy is a landmark in our community. When we were working on the proposal for the larger campaign, we learned the Philosophy has a key message of self-care that is really aligned with our mission. We are trying to get Asian women to realize that self-care is so important because we mirror Philosophy’s message that if you don’t take care of yourself, you are no good to anyone else. That really aligns with our project. Our overall goal is to get Asian women to take care of themselves.
We would love to reiterate that people of color don’t usually go to the mainstream way to seek psychiatric support. We think the peer movement definitely holds great promise for us to break the silence and silos around seeking and receiving mental health care when it comes to Asian-Americans, particularly women with a mental health condition. It’s why we’re hoping to use the media campaign to change people’s perceptions of mental health, to give them more information and normalize the behavior to seek help. We hope that through personal stories, we can encourage more people in the Asian-American community to step forward, and to let people dealing with mental health condition to know they are not alone. It is like treating any physical ailment; you should find experts who have the expertise to treat you. We have peers who can support them, who have recovered, who can help them on the way to recovery. Just a message of hope: you are not alone, and we are working diligently to help you.”