By Rob Waters
Kelechi Ubozoh spent her childhood straddling two different worlds. She spent summers with her Nigerian father in New York, where she was born, and the rest of the year in suburban Atlanta, where her African American mother worked as a doctor. In Georgia, “I just didn’t fit in,” she says. “I was a Black Goth in Stone Mountain, Georgia.” (Which also happens to be a birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.)
Feeling split and out of place became a regular feeling. By 13, she was contemplating suicide, and for the next decade, she struggled on and off with depression. What helped her most was the support of peers – people who’d been through similar experiences and were willing to help. In the end, it was so healing she decided to learn the skills of peer support so she could both give and get support.
Today, she’s a mental health advocate, a convener and a storyteller. Here’s how she describes herself in the introduction of “We’ve Been Too Patient: Voices from Radical Mental Health,” a collection of writings she co-edited: “I am an advocate, a mental health consumer with mad pride, and a suicide attempt survivor shattering the silence because if my Black community doesn’t start talking about it, we’ll lose more people to the tenth-leading cause of death.”
As we honor her work as a Mental Health Champion, we sat down with Ubozoh (via Zoom, of course) for an interview. It has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your childhood like?
The South was really difficult. I spent a lot of time alone. We lived in this all-Black neighborhood, but I’d get bussed to private school, which was predominantly White. I lived in two worlds and didn’t fit in either. My grandmother moved down when I was 11 or 12 to help raise me, because my mom was gone a lot. She was incredible, an anchor. But when she got cancer and passed away, everything plummeted. I didn’t want to be alive. I was like, ‘Why do I want to be here?’ I was 13 when I was first having suicidal ideation. I told a friend, my friend told the teacher, and the teacher called my mom. I went to a psychiatric hospital, which was terrifying — scarier than the thoughts in my head. I was on suicide watch — fluorescent light bulbs, you’re on a cot, they took away my teddy bear in case it had contraband. I was punished for telling the truth – that I missed my grandmother and was suffering.
Her loss must have been really hard
It wasn’t just that. I was also one of the few black people in this white school and feeling rejected for being Goth. I didn’t fit in. I felt alone. I got labeled Crazy K. I started pretending I was happy, showed them a glittery, happy unicorn to make others comfortable. In the hospital, I was told I had a chemical brain imbalance, I would never get better, I would always be sick. I was 13. My takeaway was don’t tell anyone what I’m really feeling. I was in the South, and we got serious church up in there, so there was also conversation like: ‘Don’t talk about that, you’ll go to hell.’
What was the hospital like?
Like purgatory. Everyone’s scared. Instead of: ‘You lost someone who was basically your parent, let’s explore and give you coping mechanisms,’ it was: ‘We have to stop you from thinking about this. Let’s shame you into feeling really bad.’ I remember being foggy — people call it chemical restraint. I can’t remember a lot. I felt like a zombie. Nothing was healing or helpful. The only helpful thing was the experience of other patients: ‘I experienced this’ or ‘I feel sad.’ But those were side conversations, not group therapy.
Those conversations — was that the start of your connecting with peers?
I wouldn’t hear about the peer movement for 11 years but that taught me I wasn’t the only person thinking that way. Before that I thought I must be the only person — okay, me and Hamlet; I was obsessed with Shakespeare. I stuffed everything down, to keep everyone happy and comfortable. I went off to Purchase College in Westchester, New York, and had this amazing experience. I was a journalism major. I loved stories and talking to people and feeling connected to them, but not having them actually know me, because I’m asking all the questions. I got to write about everything, got published in the New York Times as a student. Then I graduated in 2007 and was going to be a print journalist.
Make the big money…
Hah! Then, 2008 hits. I’m working three jobs to support my reporter gig, struggling to pay bills, struggling with my health. Then a sexual assault happened — and I was done pretending to be okay. I attempted suicide. Before I attempted, I reached out for help, actually went to a hospital and they turned me away. They were like, ‘You’re fine.’ And I was like, ‘I’m struggling.’ That night I ended up in that very place. So many failed-system experiences. I believe it was because I am a Black woman. I’m not taken seriously or believed when I’m in pain. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re so high functioning.’
After the assault, then a suicide attempt, I’m in the hospital, and — you can’t make this up. They were watching Silence of the Lambs in the psych ward. I was like: “Is this appropriate?’ My mom came and said, ‘Let’s get you some real care. Come back to Georgia, we’ll do this together.’ I went to a progressive day program and got actual support. I met people in the peer movement and learned about recovery instead of ‘Your brain chemistry is off.’ People who were former patients came back to tell their stories and support one another. I learned that people can heal and do better, and should be part of their treatment. That was the first time I saw another Black woman who had a mental health issue and had survived a suicide attempt. I learned about the recovery movement and peer support. I felt the self-stigma melting away. I was like, ‘I’m not this lost cause. I have a purpose.’ I started researching and found out about Prop. 63 in California. I’m like, ‘They have funding for this! I’m gonna move to California and work in the consumer movement.’
So Proposition 63 (the 2004 ballot initiative that created the Mental Health Services Act) is the reason you came to California?
Yep. I learned there was funding. They’re hiring people with lived experience, which I have. I could get trained. I landed in Oakland. I applied for three jobs at PEERS (Peers Envisioning and Engaging in Recovery Services), and the third time, got hired. I launched into this cool stigma-reduction storytelling project. I traveled across 41 counties from Humboldt to San Bernardino to interview and learn about evidence-based projects that use storytelling to reduce stigma and promote healing. I loved it.
I used to think healing happened individually. This showed me we can heal in community and support each other mutually. I’m not higher than you, not lower than you. Sometimes it’s your day, sometimes it’s mine, sometimes we’re supporting each other. I didn’t need to put on a face because I’m around people who aren’t going to judge me. They’d say, ‘I’m not telling you what to do, but here are some things that worked for me.’ Or ‘How can I support you? Do you want to take a walk around the lake?’
I thought mental health was really complicated but there was this humaneness of listening, supporting, and being available. What I took away from that experience was: I am not alone; I have a network. I can call on them, and they can call on me. I don’t need to go fix myself in the corner.
In one of your hats, you do suicide prevention work. How do you use your own story?
I talk from my experience as a black woman. I tell them how painful it is to wear a mask. I’m really transparent about what’s worked, what hasn’t worked, and what people can do better. In a lot of communities, we don’t talk about suicide, it’s taboo. I tell youth I was a Black Goth kid struggling and I would have been a cute one-season Netflix show. I bring humor in. I talk about my experience attempting suicide — what I was thinking and feeling. I’m safe, I never talk about methods, but try to make it accessible. Isolation is painful but connectivity is healing. I let myself be my silly, awkward self.
What was the idea behind your book, We’ve Been Too Patient?
My co-editor, LD Green, came to me with this idea of a book with stories and poems. We hear about folks who are mentally ill in movies, films, etc. but no one talks to people in a real way that’s not tokenizing. We often feel we have to tell the good survivor story — I struggled, I got better, everything’s great — but not the nuanced picture. LD and I both had unhelpful hospitalizations. A lot of us had traumatizing experiences in these systems. We wanted to tell what healing looks like, what these systems did, and how we navigate. We don’t all agree, which is great. Some talk about mental illness, some use the term mad. The recovery movement has folks who are more radical and folks who are not as radical. Hearing the perspectives of everyone is important. We especially focused on having more people of color and from the queer community. We say, ‘Here are the stories you don’t hear.’
Now you’re doing research on how people of color fit into mental health history and the Mad Movement.
It started off as a look at the disconnect between the Mad Movement and the Black Lives Matter movement and progressed into something more nuanced. I’ve been down an interesting rabbit hole with scientific racism, psychiatry, and the experience of Black folks — like enslaved folks diagnosed with a mental illness for trying to be free. It centers the voices of Black psychiatric survivors. I was starting to see where people of color in different movements were left out. The Mad Movement is focused on mental health and BLM is focused on the justice system – each not understanding the nuance of how we can work together. I looked at Jonathan Metzl’s work on the ways the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia were changed to include aggression, hostility and anger so Black liberation fighters would be diagnosed, given Haldol and locked away. I gotta tell you, it was hard.
This last year has been extraordinary. How have you coped, and what’s giving you hope?
COVID ain’t no joke, and is no gift, but it opened a dialogue that I don’t think would have happened. I don’t think the conversation around racial reckoning would have been talked about as long as it has been if we were not all sitting at home, looking at the same thing.
I learned a lot about myself, and community and what it means to be in service. I was given an amazing opportunity to facilitate healing spaces for black employees, and it has been life-changing to hold space for people who are my people. We’re not using words like mental illness but we’re talking about our experiences: What does it mean to navigate COVID and also police brutality and violence? What does it mean to connect with things that give us energy and bring us joy? One thing I’ll say about COVID — it has been so challenging — but it made it easier for people to talk about mental health. People are like, ‘You know what? I’m finally ready to have that conversation about mental health that you’ve been asking me for 10 years. I think it’s time.’