Jose-Luis Mejia speaks on teaching young people about mental illness and stigma, and breaking cycle of trauma

May 1st, 2014 | By | Category: Articles, E Newsletters, News
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Jose-Luis Mejia, associate director at TAYSF, with daughter Iyari

Jose-Luis Mejia, associate director of TAYSF, is also as Peer Educator who shares personal experience of trauma with students

Spring 2014 Newsletter

Among the 60 or so kindergartners at San Francisco’s John Muir elementary school, 90 percent knew someone in jail, and more than 75 percent knew someone who had been shot or killed, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2007.

Growing up in a neighborhood of poverty or violence can traumatize any young person, and lead them to struggle with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder—like anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior.

San Franciscans who grapple with issues related to individual or systemic trauma (such as high-rates of poverty, incarceration or community violence), often delay seeking help because of stigma surrounding mental health. Too often these effects of trauma and other forms of mental illness are viewed as something foreign, something only other people have.

We spoke with TAYSF’s own Jose-Luis Mejia on his work as a Peer Educator teaching young people about mental illness and stigmas often attached to it through SOLVE. Jose-Luis graciously shares his personal story with trauma and its consequences to high school students and providers, and us!

Trauma in the Home

Once when he was five years old, Jose-Luis Mejia begged his mother for a piece of candy before dinner. After she refused, an irate Jose-Luis told her that he hopes dad will beat her, which he had seen happen before. Jose-Louis still remembers watching his mom move out the following morning.

Jose-Luis now shares this pivotal moment over twenty years later, along with other experiences of trauma and healing, with high school students as a Peer Educator for Sharing Our Lives Voices and Experiences (SOLVE), a mental health organization that raises awareness about mental health, trauma, and breaking down social stigma.

After Jose-Luis’ mom left, his father’s violence turned on him. “Its one thing to hit a child with the open hand,” Jose-Luis said, “but another with construction belt, or for things like needing to use the bathroom during dinner.”

Though later Jose-Luis realized this violence was child abuse, at the time and in his neighborhood, violence was common, and not talked about as abuse. “I was mad as hell, but couldn’t do anything but just look for the first excuse to let it out when someone disrespects you.”

Violence in the home lead Jose-Luis to fight constantly in school. He got kicked out of class, sent to the principal with referrels, and suspended. School was Jose-Luis’ first experience of the general lack of understanding or training around mental illness in adults, especially ones who work with youth.

“Instead of saying ‘this child might be dealing with mental health issues,’” Jose-Luis said, “they put me in a box as a troubled Latino. Instead of support that I needed, they reprimanded.”

Jose-Luis could fight over anything, someone bumping him or stepping on his shoe, and became someone easily triggered and unable to control emotions the way most people do. These triggers and uncontrolled emotions become part of his identify, as someone who doesn’t take disrespect, a fighter. He did not know at the time that he was experiencing the affects of trauma.

“I internalized that message that when there’s disagreement or you want something, the way to get it is the way my dad had handled it: through violence,” said Jose-Luis. “No one is naturally getting into fights all the time,” Jose-Luis said, “it was a symptom of post-traumatic stress.”

In middle school, Jose-Luis’ mom became disabled with a severe and suicidal depression, which compounded his previous trauma. Jose-Luis and his sister had to remind their mom to take her medicine, go to all her appointments, sleep on hospital floors, and show up to school exhausted from sleeping in the emergency room all night.

“My mom’s unable to help her kids because she can’t help herself,” Jose-Luis said. “When she became disabled, my sister and I had to mature fast, and step into care-giver roles.”

“I took on too much responsibility paying bills and stuff like that,” Jose-Luis recalled. All these things cause a type of trauma called Parentified Child, where adult responsibilities place an undue burden on an undeveloped brain.

Feeling the responsibility to provide money, help pay rent, utilities, mom’s credit card debt, he ended up involved in underground street economy.

Trauma on the Streets

By high school, Jose-Luis began “slanging” and stealing. He had friends that passed away others that went to jail. He got beat up, one time so bad that he ended up in the hospital. A couple of drive-bys, he and his friends were shot at.

In Oakland one night, his whole family was stuck up by three cars of young men accusing him and his brother of doing something to them. “My family was catching the heat of what my brother and I did,” Jose-Luis said.

“I had a part in swaying others to go steal this, go get back at people who steal from you, pushing kids to do worse things,” Jose-Luis said. “I got my brother to sell things at his school.”

“I was displaying negative leadership, first seeing violence, then internalizing violence as my regular behavior,” he said, “and then recreating the trauma and even teaching it. I literally taught my sister how to fight; I taught her to fight with a very harsh street code.”

Eventually, Jose-Luis’s two sisters and cousin ended up jumping another girl because she had snitched on her friend. As a consequence, his sister went to jail in San Mateo, and she had to go to continuation schools because she was expelled.

“Because I taught her to fight, and she followed that code and landed in jail,” Jose-Luis said, “I felt guilty, like it was my fault. This repetition of negative events got me questioning what the hell I was doing,” Jose-Luis said.

SOLVE Peer Educators Combat Stigma

Jose-Luis’ recovery from effects of trauma really started when he changed to a positive leader after his senior year at Balboa, after he met Sara Brant at SOLVE.

SOLVE trains adults, mostly young adults like Jose-Luis, to educate their peers about mental illness and social stigma. SOLVE teaches how to share personal stories and experiences safely, and how to be comfortable sharing very sensitive experiences dealing with mental illness and stigma to high school health classes and the San Francisco Police Department, as a free service to the community.

And research has shown that the most effective tactic to reduce stigma surrounding mental illness is personal connection, “more than some flyer, public service announcement, or any class,” Jose-Luis said. This research convinced SOLVE to make a large investment to create a ‘speakers’ bureau’ to share personal stories of mental illness and personal triumphs of healing.

Now as a Peer Educator for SOLVE, Jose-Luis lets students, at Galileo and other public high schools, know about the lack of support and lack of understanding he had for his symptoms—which some of them might have themselves, and need help to overcome stigma and learn how to heal.

“Stigma is another word for discrimination,” Jose-Luis said. “People are discriminated against from getting a job when someone was able to see on the surface that he or she has some kind of mental health illness.”

Jose-Luis says he relates to all of three types of stigmas SOLVE teaches—self, structural, and public or societal stigma—and that SOLVE’s training showed him that he has experienced and contributed to stigma in the past.

Public or societal stigma derives from prejudices about mental illness spread through family, groups of friends, or media. Structural stigma actually affects you on the job or at school, often due to a lack of understanding or competence to serve you when you have a mental illness, for example, a school placing youth in special-ed class when you don’t need to be there. And personal stigma is the after-effect of internalizing these societal messages.

“We let them know examples of stigma and how wrong it is, how it affects people,” Jose-Luis said, “and let them know that if they are experiencing trauma or mental illness, recovery is possible.”

SOLVE trains educators to use strength-based language that doesn’t demean others or yourself. “A lot of people say ‘I am schizophrenic, or I am bi-polar.’” Jose-Luis said. “But those three words actually say that you are that and that’s all you are.”

“The truth is no one is just bipolar, homeless, or foster youth,” Jose-Luis said. “No, I am a young person who happens to suffers PTS. You are a young person; the illness is not what defines you.”

Jose-Luis wants to share with other young people that mental illness affects all kind of folks, and that they even might know someone experiencing a mental health illness.

Flipping the Script

Jose-Luis first told Peer Resources ‘hell no’ when Sara asked him to teach young people about mental illness during his senior year of high school, but she eventually won him over.

“Sara told me I was a leader,” Jose-Luis said. “I realized that she was right. I was already leader, but unfortunately in a negative way, and that I could transform that into a positive.”

Obliging Sara and signing up with SOLVE at the Mental Health Association of San Francisco became a pivotal moment in Jose-Luis’ life. SOLVE trained Jose-Luis to mentor others. He first mentored a 9th grader.

He then branched out and became involved with Bay Area Video Coaliton, a video media youth program. BAVC had a big monetary and professional impact impact on his life, and also had a great healing effect as an art form, storytelling, and creative outlet as part of his recovery.

“This made me realize that I can do this and enjoy it,” he said. “All these skills I still use today that I learned in this class. That program helped begin my healing journey.”

When he graduated from High School, Jose-Luis made a personal commitment to the community: he would do the opposite of what he had been doing, and try to improve and not destruct it.

Recovery, Always an Option

Jose-Luis says he shares at the SOLVE presentation what he does currently to stay mentally healthy. Now he sees a therapist, plays basketball every Tuesday, gardens herbs, flowers, vegetables, rides a bike, hikes with family, listens to music, writes poetry and rhymes.

“In terms of healing,” Jose-Luis said, “the career that I dedicated myself to is completely tied to it. I recover more and more everyday by doing this work.”

Now at 26, a young professional with responsibilities, Jose-Luis will always be healing, and I still have moments with mental illness affects his work, he says. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a role to play in helping our community. “As someone who works on recovering from mental illness,” he said, “I have a role to play in helping my family and community heal.”

Recovery May Take A Lifetime

Jose-Luis concludes his presentation by sharing the transition into recovery. “Technically, I have PTS,” he said, “and experienced certain amount of depression, anxiety and panick attacks.”

Now a parent of two kids, one an infant the other a five-year old, Jose-Luis still gets triggered all the time. His five-year old daughter will say something a certain way, or not pay attention to her parents, and it snaps Jose-Luis back to when he was her age, and his Dad’s reaction was to hit.

“That’s when my mind quickly goes ‘hell no, you’re not supposed to talk to your parents like that,’” Jose-Luis said, “and my physical instinct becomes that I want to hit her, and do the same thing my Dad would do.”

“It’s a battle between two sides. I try to tell my brain to overpower my animalistic brain stem telling me to hit her,” Jose-Luis said, “the intelligent side rooting not to hit her, but to talk and love her, and provide other ways to discipline.”

SOLVE tells Jose-Luis this struggle with his daughter is something you never hear from other Peer Educators, and encourages him to share this in public. “It’s important for someone to step up and keep it real,” Jose-Luis said, “to be honest that this is a struggle for someone that has dealt with violence and trying to break the cycle of violence in the community.”

Breaking the Cycle of Trauma

Jose-Luis is never afraid to emphasize that this cycle of violence stems from colonization. “These are cycles of violence that have been passed down, generation after generation from oppressors that killed, raped, and forced values and religion on us,” Jose-Luis said. “For an indigenous person who survived the colonization, there was no therapist at the time. Same in the African slaves. You can’t expect this to go away easily for the survivors of violence and displacement.”

“I used to tell myself I was not going to pass these things on to my daughter,” he said, “but this illness is strong. As much as I promise, I know I’ve made mistakes. Maybe I won’t fully eliminate this in a generation, maybe eventually I can set her on a path so it will eventually be eliminated.”

What Funders Should Know

Jose-Luis choose to do peer education (and agreed to this interview) because he wants to put his money where his mouth is, and put it out there for colleagues and policymakers to hear.

“Who better to solve these problems than people who actually lived them,” he asked. “Who knows the problem better than the people closest to it? Then why not empower those people with the professional development, skill sets, and education in order to be a healer, educator, policy maker, strategist to resolve these problems?”

“Funders and departments need to not only say to their program’s employees ‘yes, take care of yourself.’ Its common knowledge,” he said. “They need to give them the resources in funding when you give a grant, a line-item for therapy for staff, massage, camping, etc.”

“We can’t just be about it for our youth, we need to be about it for ourselves, we need to walk the walk,” he said. “Everyone is dealing with this. Services providers are experiencing second-hand trauma as well.”

“I call out to all service providers, supervisors or directors that read this as well,” Jose-Luis said, “keep these things in mind, and take care of your staff. Self-care and mental health should be a part of the job.”

Not only service providers, but all the caring adults young people come in contact with in the education, youth development, and housing and workforce fields should be trauma-informed, Jose-Luis added.

This article appeared in TAYSF’s Spring 2014 newsletter. Sign up to receive our monthly e-newsletter today.

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