C4 Innovations

Mental Health and Identity

An episode of “Changing the Conversation” podcast

Drew Musa and host Ashley Stewart discuss mental health treatment and supports and why it is important to acknowledge and address racial and other intersectional identities.

June 27, 2022


Ashley Stewart, Host (00:05): Hello, and welcome to Changing the Conversation. I’m your host, Ashley Stewart. I am a curriculum and training specialist at C4 Innovations. And our topic today is Identity and Mental Health. Our guest is Drew Musa, calling from New York. He is a peer specialist and a co-host and producer of The Black Peer Perspective Podcast. Drew, thank you so much for joining us today.

Drew Musa, Guest (00:27): Thank you for having me.

Ashley (00:29): So today we’re super pumped up to really and get with changing the conversation. And in this conversation, we’re going to honor intersectionality in real time. So Drew, I was wondering if you could get us kicked off and tell us a little bit about what intersectionality means to you?

Drew (00:44): For me, intersectionality is talking about the different hats people wear in their lives. You walk into different rooms and you’re still you, but there are parts of you that shine more than others. So for me, I’m African American. So I think that culturally, I identify as an American, but my background is African. And I think a lot of people can relate to that. And there are more things like dealing with mental health. Sometimes I’m just Drew and other times, I’m this person who has schizophrenia and things like that. So I think that’s what intersectionality is talking about. Those hats that we wear, depending on what room we’re in.

Ashley (01:28): Yeah. And I think the conversation around intersectionality is such a critical one. I’ve noticed more and more people talking about intersectionality, people being interested in intersectionality and people beginning to grapple with and understand, what it means and what it looks like in real time. Thinking about the different hats people are wearing. What might that look like when someone’s going into a clinic and how that ties into mental health treatment?

Drew (01:55): I guess, what do they see in you when you first walk in? What parts of yourself are obvious to them and what parts of yourself do they not know about? Are they going to see me as a Black man or as a patient? You know what I mean? There are different perspectives on you. In the medical health field I feel like, depending on what parts of you they can relate to, you get treated differently, depending on what parts they can connect to you with.

Ashley (02:21): I’m glad that you bring this into the conversation Drew, because one of the things that I think about as a mental health provider, is also the way that we think about treatment and what treatment looks like and how important intersectionality is to consider. When I’m working with folks, I’m considering their experience in society, what does it systemic racism? What does differential treatment and navigating disparity and inequities in society, how does that influence the way that someone is seeking care? And more specifically, what are our different treatment modalities or ways that we’re even approaching, talking about mental health and is that culturally attuned or taking into consideration the multitude of different ways that people can navigate through life with their intersectional identities.

Ashley (03:07): And so one of the things that we noticed and something we were talking about a little earlier was, about people being treated differently based on their identities. How do you see that show up? Or what are some of the things that you consider around how people are being treated, based on identity?

Drew (03:23): I think for the most part, the medical field is a white space where people of color have to navigate. And it’s just hard to get a genuine connection from your providers, when they don’t know the way that you live or what’s important to you and things like that. So it can be tricky.

Ashley (03:42): Yeah. Definitely. Thinking about the ways people communicate, what resources folks have access to or what even feels like care. I think a lot about how care can look different for different people within different cultures and navigating through a white dominant space, can also come with additional challenges, when people are seeking or trying to seek mental healthcare or just general support.

Drew (04:07): I wasn’t surprised when I was having a discussion with the RN when I worked on the CSC team, Coordinated Specialty Care team. And he told me that he seen firsthand that some people definitely do get treated differently, the way they present themselves in these white spaces. I was lucky enough to grow up with a good education and able to articulate myself in these spaces. But what about people who didn’t have the same opportunities that I had? And they have to navigate these spaces where it sounds like medical professionals are speaking a different language. It can be tough. I think that’s why my job as a peer is so rewarding, because I’ve been in those shoes where I needed somebody to advocate for me and now I can do that for other people.

Ashley (04:54): Yeah. That relatability is huge and that’s so critically important. I think a lot of times we’re in these spaces and people are talking to us, but it really feels like they’re talking at us and they’re letting us know about what are the next steps in treatment, but it’s not really in a way that is relatable, digestible or even comforting to know what’s going on with our minds, with our bodies, with ourselves as we show up in these different spaces. So I definitely agree that that relatability, that connection and being able to be communicated with in a way that feels safe, feels like home, feels like something we can connect with, is so important and something that I think we missed the opportunity on a lot. Do you see that as well?

Drew (05:40): I agree. And that’s why I hated having therapists, because you meet these people and you establish connection with them. And at some point, you know it’s going to end. It’s so painful to do that, to just have to pack it up all again, and then try again with someone else later. You give so much of yourself and it’s just tough, in these fields. Especially when you’re in a clinic where you feel safe and you know at some point you’re going to have to transition.

Drew (06:07): OnTrack is the clinic that I found when I first got back to the States. It’s client centered, meaning you are in charge of your own recovery. You have a say about your treatment and about what type of care that you want in your life. And I loved the authenticity of it all, because for the most part before I went there, social workers were coming in, asking me the same questions like, “Are you a harm to others? Are you thinking about harming yourself?” And that was when I realized that nobody just had the magic answer until, well, nobody still had the magic answer, but it was just cool to go to OnTrack where people seemed like they actually cared about how you were treated and they really wanted to help you. It wasn’t just a place and people weren’t just doing their job.

Drew (06:57): And I was there for two years and I really enjoyed it, because I wasn’t going out much, and there was a music group that they were holding that I would go into the city for. And I would be able to talk to clients about the type of music that I like and the music that I like to make. And it was just cool to meet with people. Not necessarily just to talk to them, but just be around other people for that time. I enjoyed that. OnTrack was great. I loved OnTrack, but the fact that I had to leave and find another clinic for me to work with and establish these relationships all over again, it’s kind of tiring. It’s emotionally draining.

Ashley (07:40): Absolutely. Absolutely. And as a therapist, that’s something I think about all the time. What information are we asking or requesting of people and asking them to be vulnerable in a space before we do an assessment to see if we’re going to be able to be around or be able to serve in for the long term or for the appropriate amount of time. And when people are opening up and people are beginning to disclose and share so much, recognizing what a gift that is to be able to be present and to honor those truths and those realities in the most dynamic parts of people’s lives, that they’re willing to share with us in those spaces. And what does that look like to develop a plan to ensure that when the time for termination does come, which inevitably it does come, it is something that feels authentic and genuine?

Ashley (08:25): And more importantly than that, there is that level of continuation of the work and sustainability that allows that trust to be built. That says that what we worked on in here is sacred and is critical and it’s important, and that is honored. And I think that more time should be invested in all folks working around mental health and exploring and developing that unique skill set. And more importantly, developing our own comfort with being able to do that and create that type of a space. So I’m hoping people are hearing that, especially anyone who is providing services, because well, we are centering people and it’s about folks in their lives at the end of the day. That’s something that you brought up earlier in our conversation, that it’s important to center people. That it’s about their lives. What other thoughts do you have on that topic?

Drew (09:13): People think that recovery is just something that you have to go through and then you’ll get better. But when it comes to mental health, you’re dealing with this part of yourself for your entire life. Recovery is a lifestyle. You have to be in it to be kept to… You need to be part of your own recovery and take it seriously. Just because you go to the clinic and take your medication, doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily getting better. You need to put yourself out there and try to make a whole new lifestyle for yourself. I think that’s why it’s hard leaving clinics that are great, because when you do leave, you need to be able to make your own wellness again. You need to prepare a routine for yourself and follow it and not just take your medicine and lock yourself away from the rest of the world, because you’re not going to get better that way.

Ashley (10:05): One of the conversations that I’ve been having a lot lately, particularly around mental health and particularly around providing support, treatment and recovery, is about how intersectionality and trust come together. Particularly when it comes to folks of color, Black and African American folk in the context of what we’re talking about right now, experiencing major distrusts with medical and health providing institutions more broadly. Is this something that comes up a lot in the conversations you’re having or in the spaces that you’re occupying?

Drew (10:42): It does. Again, what we talked about before, these are white spaces, right? And you’re navigating this field to get better, but there’s some parts of you that you may not show right at the forefront because you don’t trust your white provider. And that mistrust isn’t just because it’s there, but it’s a history, there’s a systemic racism in this field. So it’s like pulling teeth sometimes with the medical system. I think that was the one thing that made me feel some type of way when I started to understand that, “Oh, they don’t have it all figured out.” I thought I was going to have just have to take medication and be better. But no, you have to really be involved in your own treatment and try to fight your way with these medical professionals that may not see things the way that you see things.

Ashley (11:32): Oh my goodness. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And can we even have this conversation without acknowledging or addressing the importance of talking about systemic racism? History does matter. And some of the things that I think people are putting in the context of historical, are actually one or two generations away, where people have observed these types of inequities directly as a result of systemic racism. And so to expect people to have this immediate trust without a critical examination of the perpetuation of oppression, is harmful to even ask of people. And so we need to address it dynamically and intentionally and thoughtfully and critically. So what is the importance of the value of peers in this conversation?

Drew (12:20): I tried to be the person that I wish was there when I was going through it. That’s the best way I can try to describe it. When we had a client that was in an inpatient and I went to go bring them food. Because I remember when I was in an inpatient, my sister brought me food and just being the person that’s on your side. Not necessarily having all the answers, but just somebody who’s related to what you’ve gone through or can say, “Me too.” Instead of, “Oh, I’m so sorry that happened to you.” That’s why peers is so important because we can navigate this field and we’re on your side. We’re not just trying to fix you. We don’t have all answers all the time, but we’re there for you.

Ashley (13:02): Yeah. And it’s important. That’s undervalued how critical the importance of that human relationship is. The importance of having someone who can connect with you at a level that is completely different than others. And I think that that’s something we want to continue to uplift and I’m so glad and grateful that you’re doing this work and that you continue to take all the opportunities possible to let folks know how important this is. So just building on that a little bit more, how are peers valued in this space and what more can we do to continue to emphasize that peers are occupying a very unique, delicate, and critical space within recovery work?

Drew (13:46): I think it’s hard because the peer role is fairly new. I mean, it’s blowing up now, but before, I remember going through my internship, and this older lady who was in my class at Howie the Harp, was telling me how she didn’t have access to files and they were asking her to cook. That’s all she was doing, just cooking and not meeting with clients. She didn’t have a caseload. She was just treated like cheap labor. And I think it’s cool that we operate in these spaces, but the way that we get treated is crazy sometimes.

Drew (14:17): It’s a question that I’m struggling with myself, because now this job is looking more freelance than anything else, because I don’t have a regular nine to five. And it’s just these places that they ask me to speak in, what should be my rate be? That’s what I’m struggling with and how do I put a stamp on the price that need in these spaces when they want me to do presentations and stuff and things like that. It’s a tough question to answer.

Ashley (14:46): Because there’s so much value behind it, right? And do people see that value? Do people see the impact that it has? We have these particular ways that we are so confident or helping, but the reality of it is, is that people are seeing folks who look like them, who sound like them, who connect with them. And that is having the most critical influence on their processes, creating that culture shift is creating that sense of security and safety that’s needed to go through the vulnerability of the process. And so how do we provide more emphasis on the importance of that? The value of that, so that it can be upheld and people can be recognized for the invaluable contribution that they’re making.

Drew (15:27): Right.

Ashley (15:29): You said a quote that really stuck out with me and as we bring it together today, I want to highlight it again. You said, “It’s hard to help people when you don’t know how they live.” What advice do you have for listeners or providers that maybe don’t know how people live, but really want to begin to address that systemic and structural oppression, bring in intersectionality and honor people’s truths, as they navigate recovery?

Drew (15:57): I think it’s about being humble, because you don’t know their walk of life. So being humble and actually listening to how they live and the things that they find important, rather than trying to say what’s important to them. What should be important to them? It’s more about sitting down and listening. That’s why it’s so good to be a peer, because I actually get to sit with these people, with clients and treat them as human beings. Not people that need to be fixed. So being humble, not using these medical terms that people can’t understand, really having conversations about what they think is important, important in their recovery, is the best way I think providers can really benefit from understanding their patient, their client.

Ashley (16:39): Yeah. Yeah. Drew, this has been such a dynamic conversation. I’m wondering if there’s any other topics or thoughts that you have that maybe we would want to provide for anyone listening today?

Drew (16:51): Well, back to intersectionality, I was having a talk with the barber the other day. We both somehow got on the conversation about where we’re from. And he was from Ghana and my family’s from Sierra Leone. And we had no idea that we were both African, but we started talking about how, for me, I relate more to the Black struggle myself, more than the African background that I have. So sometimes I get depressed because I have these feelings of they’re existential crisis where like, who am I as a person and things like that.

Drew (17:25): And now I started reading these books on Black activists and it’s hard to read, but it’s good to think that things have gotten better. A little better, a little better, because back then for what, we were fighting for back then, voting rights and things like that. Now we’ve had a Black president and we’re making some progress, but hearing how bad things were for the oppressed back then, is always good to think about how much, little better, things are now. But yeah, sometimes I can’t relate to other Africans, because I feel like the way that I grew up was so different.

Ashley (18:05): And you know this is a… First of all, magic happens in barber shops, right? [Laughter.] But this is something that I think is important to note too, because people’s experiences, first generation experience, look so differently for different people. And sometimes that lived experience is kind of grouped together. But the reality of it is that’s complex and beautiful as well. People are experiencing immigration differently. People are experiencing first generation differently. People are experiencing being Black and African and African American very differently. And so this one size fits all approach to inclusion, really needs to be critically reframed, thought about and the idea of intersectionality really needs to look at what have people’s experiences been in creating that platform for people to be listened to, to be heard, to be valued, to be seen. And so I think that’s something that we need to be talking about more as well. There’s so much, there’s so much that needs to be done, right?

Drew (19:08): Yeah. I was watching this one video and this lady was talking about how there’s a disparity of narratives. Because you see on media, it’s always the same stories being told over and over again. It’s always the slave movie that comes out every year and the world is bigger than that. Things have changed in some parts of the world. And America doesn’t seem to acknowledge that. They want the same things over and over again in terms of how we… Like the stories being told, they’re not different.

Ashley (19:39): Yeah. The stories being told are not changing. They’re not shift… We might dress them up differently, but it’s the same ideological struggle that’s being perpetuated over and over again. And the reality of it is, is that when we look at how people have been talking about redemption, how people are talking about resilience, how people are talking about strength, when we’re talking about courage, when people have been talking about the struggle that have been experienced by Black folk, historically. The information, the context has been there. People have been writing about this for so, so long. And why isn’t it being prioritized? Why are some, we have to go through these deep levels of depth to find that scholarship about what to do, when we know that people have been responding to and trying to address these issues for decades of upon decades.

Ashley (20:27): Yeah. So it is the same narrative, but it’s also a lot of the same solutions. What I write about in my research is literally being taken from and nourished from the scholarship that’s happening 50, 60, 70, 80 years ago. And it’s like, maybe they’ll listen to me this time, but it’s the same content. And to your point of things are changing a little bit and also there’s so much healing as well as productivity that could be happening, that has been reported and documented by Black folk, by folks of color, by indigenous folks across time, that’s just not getting the space or priority that it needs. So people really need to lean in and say, “What information do I have access to? And why is that? And what other information exists that I could easily tap into, but because of systemic and structural racism and oppression, I don’t readily have access to.”

Drew (21:22): Yeah. It’s like, why couldn’t I get… I think I got a good education, but how come I never got a Black one? How come I never read books about my people and things like that? All we learned about is the Civil War, Emmett Till. Why do I know all this stuff about what White people have done to Black people, but I don’t know what Black people have done for the world? And it’s a lot.

Ashley (21:46): For the world. Yeah, absolutely. And it’s so much. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about your podcast?

Drew (21:53): Sometimes we have guests on, but for the most part, it’s me and two other peer specialists that I met on call at OnTrack when I was still working there. And I was telling them that I was doing a podcast and they’re like, “Yeah, we’re on board.” So we meet on Zoom. We choose topics to talk about and we just go into it. And it’s really interesting because we’re Black peers and we all have different perspectives about the same topic. So I think that’s what people really enjoy about it, is that we’re all Black, but we have different perspectives.

Ashley (22:26): That’s so great. And we’ll be sure to link information to all of our listeners that you can get access to The Black Peer Perspective Podcast. And Drew, we are so thankful that you have joined us today.

Drew (22:38): Thank you for having me here. It’s definitely been a great conversation. I enjoyed it.

Ashley (22:41): And to our listeners, join us next time on Changing the Conversation.

Erika Simon, Producer (22:47): Visit c4innovates.com and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and YouTube for more resources to grow your impact. Thank you for joining us. This episode was produced by Erika Simon and Christina Murphy. Our theme song was written and performed by Peter Hanlon. Join us next time on Changing the Conversation.


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