Blog from Miriam Pearsall, MPH, Executive Fellow, Well Being Trust
This Black History Month, I asked a few Black leaders in mental health, public policy, and social justice how they practice self-care in the context of their important work. I was particularly interested in how these leaders are able to bring their “whole selves” to work while being reminded virtually every day of the impact of social injustice on mental health and other outcomes in the Black community. As a Black woman and aspiring leader in mental health policy, I personally benefitted from their vulnerable, thoughtful contributions. So, I consider it an honor for me to share with you what they shared with me…
For me, my mental health and wellness routine starts at the beginning of each day. I use a calendar and notebook to schedule my day to make sure my priorities and to-do lists are accomplished. I block personal time, even if it’s just 30 minutes every day. I ensure that I surround myself with a great group of supporters in both work and personal life. Most importantly, I make a list of wellness tools, and have it ready to use at any moment should I start feeling “off,” start having a bad day, or begin experiencing a difficult situation. I care for my mental health and wellness by focusing, with intentionality, on the small things.
Here are a few things I do to promote mental wellness and self-preservation while working in social justice and police accountability.
1) I log out of my social media account when I feel my newsfeed is too heavy, particularly when there is a police violence death with video footage. Don’t get me wrong. Evidence should be shared publicly (after the family approves). However, it shouldn’t be shared non-stop.
2) I listen to a lot of audiobooks. Some are educational, while others are simply an escape from reality. With my busy schedule, I can get more reading time in with audiobooks instead of physical books.
3) I’m from the South, so I enjoy a good “sit bath.” I truly enjoy soaking in the bathtub and listening to R&B with a candle lit. In the tub, the world drifts away, and I’m able to reflect and relax.
4) The most important thing I do for myself is go to therapy twice a month. My therapist helps me process my experiences in justice work. Talking with her is like a deep, clearing breath for my mind. Everyone should find a therapist, even if it takes a few tries to find the right match. Here are some resources:
5) I also take walks outside. Fresh air and moving in nature work wonders on how I feel.
6) Lastly, I care for my mental health by considering others’. I ask “How are you feeling?,” especially to Black women. Instead of asking “How are you doing?” which allows them to say, “I’m good/alright,” asking someone how they are feeling gives them space to pause and respond with their actual feeling in that moment. You would be surprised by how different the response is. It’s powerful.
I focus on my mental health by accepting that my respite, my peace, is in the struggle to usher in a just and fair society where all can participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. I’m also practical, and I accept the fact that I will not heal in this lifetime, especially since the color of my skin still threatens white America. Practicing Bikram Yoga, hiking, and kayaking provide sanctuary and recharges my spirit. Lastly, I know the strength of my ancestors runs through my veins and that my people are unconquerable. These beliefs allow me to remain strong and encouraged.
Since March 2020, I have not had face-to-face interactions with co-workers which has made me feel socially isolated. To help combat this, I have managed to stick with three routines: reading daily Bible devotions, exercising, and enjoying nature.
Before jumping into the throes of family responsibilities and work, I spend time reading the Bible which gets me off to a positive start. Also, my husband and I usually work out together, and we’ve added several new exercises to our routine including yoga, tactical Tabata, and strength training. Exercise reduces my stress levels, and I sleep better after a vigorous workout.
Additionally, I found that taking a 10-minute break to walk outside works wonders on reducing my anxiety. Last year, I also took advantage of a workplace benefit that provides resources supporting mental health and well-being. I used this resource to meet with a coach who helped me deal with stress and develop a sense of “community” outside of my immediate family.
As a Black leader, I routinely use a few different strategies to maintain my mental health. One of those is compartmentalizing, which means that I am conscious about the fact that I don’t have to solve all of the problems of the Black community. Instead, I make a commitment to one or two issues that I see as really important for me to be engaged in and allow myself to be okay with not having to solve or fix every challenge that exists. This helps me to not feel overwhelmed and to not take on unnecessary guilt. As part of this compartmentalization, I also make conscious decisions to limit my exposure to certain movies and other media about discrimination that I know will be upsetting to me. There is a time and place for engaging in those things, and a time and place for distancing yourself from them.
Another strategy that I rely on is the social support of my family and friends. Since ‘down time’ isn’t always easy to come by, I’m intentional about carving out space to connect with people I care about.
bell hooks wrote: “rarely, if ever, are any of us healed in isolation. Healing is an act of communion.”
For me that means two things:
1) Being in community with others who are like me:
- lived experience of a mental health condition-
- any of the above
Many times as a leader, I find that I’m navigating spaces as “the only one.” Being “the only” can leave folks like me feeling exhausted! Reaching out to my peers, people who are like me who have been there, done that and speak the same language, helps me especially when I question my self-worth. That questioning of one’s self worth is one of the most insidious mental health offenders. Best way for me to beat that offender is to be with my peers, my peeps as a restorative outlet for healing.
2) Being in communion with nature. Just me and a stretch of sand, waves crashing on the shore, sunset on the horizon, birds dotting the skyline and the smell of beach.
Breathe in: listen, look, rest, relax, renew, and…
If I can’t get to the beach, I look at pictures or videos of my trips to the beach – close my eyes – I’m there, not here, until I’m ready to open my eyes to return.
* Keris shared a photo she took recently on the beach in Oceanside, California.
As Black leaders, we often ask ourselves: How do I not get emotionally exhausted, or depressed, by the needs in my community? Can I, or should I, take ownership of solving these issues?
You’ve got to have faith and take it a step at a time. And you’ve got to be disciplined about caring for your mental health while doing the work. Here are a few specific things that have helped me:
1) Exercising several days a week. The physical challenge of exercise relaxes my mental state.
2) Spending time playing golf with guys that I consider both friends and mentors. They’ve all been successful in their careers and given me counsel when I needed it.
3) Allowing space for fellowship and authentic human interaction by checking in on other people. Taking a moment to call someone and ask, “How are you really?” is good for my self-care too.
4) Recognizing when I need to step away from technology. At work, we just instituted a mandate that from 12-1 pm no meetings are to be scheduled. I’m doing my best to take this time to unplug and think.
The single most important thing I do to care for my mental health is remind myself often to prioritize my joy as much as I prioritize my work. I try to give myself the love, care, and grace that I so readily give to others. This pandemic and associated weight of holding unprocessed, societal grief has made clear that how I’ve historically treated my mental health would no longer cut it–I had to get serious about listening to my mind and body and accepting when I’ve simply had enough.
I owe a lot to my mood-based playlists. If I’m hitting a wall at work, I start my joy playlist and take an impromptu dance break. One of my closest friends sent me a bubble machine and accompanying playlist, and it can legitimately transform even the worst moments into joyous, laughter-filled ones. I tell jokes in meetings, send gifs in work emails, and don’t take myself too seriously because I’m privileged to be surrounded, both at work and in my personal life, with people who I don’t have to prove myself to. Many don’t have this privilege, so I honor my work and life with the care and gratitude they deserve.
Miriam Pearsall is an Executive Fellow at Well-Being Trust. From a combination of personal and professional experiences, Miriam is passionate about mental health and addiction policy, especially its intersection in the justice system, among veterans, and in communities of color.