I heal myself through healing others. Doing this work is a very therapeutic and humbling experience. For example, in being a hospice therapist I am afforded the great opportunity to sit at the bedside of the dying. In listening to their stories, their hopes, their dreams, their regrets, and successes I am better equipped to live my own life as well as help others live their best life.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interviewAshley McGirt. She is a psychotherapist, international speaker, and author. Ashley has received a Masters of Social Work from the University of Washington. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. Ashley has over ten years of extensive experience working with vulnerable populations in prisons, medical and psychiatric hospitals, homeless shelters, schools, and long term care settings, where she served as the Director of Social Services. Ashley currently works as a full-time hospice therapist while owning and operating her own private practice. In her practice, she focuses primarily on racial trauma, depression, and anxiety. Ashley has been appointed a board director for the International women’s resource network where she focuses on global wellness. In an effort to advocate for mental health she has created a worldwide wellness tour focusing on the importance of self-care. Ashley actively works toward de-stigmatizing mental illness and reducing high rates of recidivism in American prisons. In an attempt to create a more socially just society for all, Ashley offers presentations, workshops, group facilitation, and consultation specializing in crisis response, racial trauma, social justice, and racial equity. Ashley strives to help others find happiness and healing within themselves through unpacking their baggage, resting, reflecting, and restoring themselves to be who they were intended to be on this earth.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
As a young child, I aspired to be an attorney. I was obsessed with the O.J. trial and I wanted to be just like Johnny Cochran. I still have a love for the law and often work with clients in the judicial system. During my youth, my grandmother passed away leaving me in a state of grief that turned into major depression with episodes of suicidal ideation. I visited with the school counselor who was present to aid in my grief process. While talking with her, I found that I had to explain several things to her regarding African American culture, including the role of a grandmother in Black families. It became difficult to work on healing from my grandmother’s death, while also educating my counselor on African American life. It became more of an educational session on race relations and Black culture than a session of healing for a grieving child. No child should have to take on that responsibility while working on their own healing. My mother searched for a Black therapist who could understand our culture, but there weren’t any available as we lived in a predominantly White community. I knew, at that moment, that I would become a therapist because there had to be other Black children suffering just like me who were also in need of someone who looked like them and could understand their culture, as well as, the symptomology behind their pain. It was then, that I knew I had to become the person I needed. From then on I began reading every book on psychology and race that I could find, and the rest is history.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Despite overwhelming numbers and evidence of individuals in our communities with mental illness, we often choose not to talk about mental health issues due, in part, to the extensive amount of shame and guilt associated with mental illness. Everyone must reprogram what they have been conditioned to think about mental illness and mental health, which requires work and education that not everyone has yet attained. There is a new wave, with social media, where individuals are speaking up about the importance of mental health while normalizing mental illness. However, a cultural shift in American society still needs to occur along with varying religious groups and ethnicities who view mental health through different lenses.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I am working towards destigmatizing mental illness by serving my community and providing group and individual psychotherapy. I have also created the Worldwide Wellness Tour: Treat Yourself Unapologetically. The Worldwide Wellness Tour is exclusive empowerment and healing experience for men and women looking to truly care for themselves. Worldwide Wellness seeks to destigmatize mental illness while promoting the importance of mental health with a special emphasis on minority mental health concerns. As we recognize that, after existing in survivor mode for so long, Black and Brown bodies, in this country, have been barred from learning the language of thriving, including, but not limited to: financial literacy, emotional health literacy, and mental health literacy. This global wellness experience aims to reverse these effects. The Worldwide Wellness Tour aims to provide a safe and empowering environment for men and women to have conversations with licensed mental health therapist in their communities, who can answer questions they have about mental health. Through having these open conversations, the Worldwide Wellness Tour hopes that individuals can begin to overcome the vicious cycle of intergenerational traumas that have caused mental, physical, spiritual, and financial stagnation.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Prior to starting my wellness tour, I found myself at a number of empowerment brunches. These brunches were all designed to motivate individuals to start businesses and take their lives to the next level. Soon I noticed that, at each of these events, the women and men would share their traumas, but the mental health aspect was missing. You can’t empower someone without healing them from their traumas. At each event, I wished they had a therapist available as a resource. I often found myself speaking up and providing resources and education around mental health services. At that point, I felt it necessary to create a brunch/empowerment event focused solely on mental health. Thus, the Worldwide Wellness Tour was created out of the desire to empower individuals from all walks of life, with an emphasis on people of color, through mental health education, radical self-care, and tools to accelerate positive manifestations. We believe that amazing things happen when we understand how to access the power we already have and optimize our mental, emotional, and physical health. The mission of the Worldwide Wellness Tour is to provide mental health awareness, support, skills, and tools to help empower individuals to become better through the healing of the mind.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals/Society- On both an individual and societal level we can start with changing our language. It’s something small, but so powerful because words have immense power. If on an individual level, we stop using shaming language, around mental health and illness, it would empower more people to speak up. For instance, labeling someone or even ourselves as “crazy” for experiencing something outside of our control is demeaning. We don’t label cancer patients, so we must recognize that, just like cancer, mental illness is a disease that occurs in the body… Another example is calling people, even ourselves, “weak” as it makes us box our own self (mindset) into a label. Change your language to change your life.
Government- Can change their policies around access to quality mental health services by creating access to preventive services. There is a large number of individuals who are high functioning and don’t necessarily meet the criteria for a mental illness, thus preventing insurance from covering them for treatment without an actual diagnosis. This will further help in changing the narrative that “you don’t need to have a mental illness to talk to someone.” Everyone has mental health, not everybody has a mental illness.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1. I heal myself through healing others. Doing this work is a very therapeutic and humbling experience. For example, in being a hospice therapist I am afforded the great opportunity to sit at the bedside of the dying. In listening to their stories, their hopes, their dreams, their regrets, and successes I am better equipped to live my own life as well as help others live their best life.
2. I write. As a person who has suffered from depression poetry and writing was a tool that saved my life and continuously helps me in navigating my own mental health.
3. I have seen a therapist and promote the importance of the therapist also having a therapist.
4. I travel. I am the author of “I tried to travel it away: Mental health tips for travelers”. I have been to over 30 countries which have all had an impact on my mental health and wellbeing.
5. I care for myself through devoting time intentionally to be solely about me and doing something that brings me joy. Through radical self-care, I can be clear and show up for others and better care for them. This was developed through learning to settle my body with deep breathing and humming along with the ability to unapologetically practice compassionate self-care.
6. I connect with like-minded individuals who provide support and accountability during my times of need. I am in a number of clinician support groups where other therapists come together and support one another. I also have family and friends who understand the work I do and aid in being a source of comfort during my times of stress.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Therapy for black girls- Podcast
The Balanced Black girl- Podcast
The four agreements
Tuesdays with Morrie
Post-traumatic slave syndrome by Dr. Joy Degruy
The gifts of imperfection — Brene Brown
The body keeps the score- Bessel Van der kolk
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!