Everything starts at the micro-level, so ultimately it’s going to take individuals committed to this cause to effect change. I’d be obtuse to believe or say that it’s not already happening. So, I really think individuals could focus on collaborating with each other more. When strong brands or influential people combine forces, the potential to reach others grows exponentially. So, I’d love to see more folks with mental health platforms teaming up. We talk a lot about services the government should provide these days, especially in terms of healthcare. I would love to see healthcare policy that elevates mental health assessments and procedures up to the same caliber of consideration for physical health visits. It’s pretty normal to go to the doctor if your stomach aches. There’s so much stigma around visiting a mental health professional if you feel emotionally unwell. If you have even the slightest uncertainty about it, or if it’s hard to find a therapist or pay for one, I feel that many people are even less likely to go. There are so many young people losing their lives and mental wellness is a part of the picture. As much federal support as possible for breaking down barriers to treatment and support is mission critical at this point.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview H.D. Hunter.
H.D. Hunter is an author, educator, and activist from Atlanta, GA. Among his work is the novella, Torment, a story focusing on the growth and maturation of people of color in disadvantaged communities, with a special focus on mental wellness. Follow him on social media at @hd_tsd.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me. I’ve always wanted to write stories that helped represent those of us who don’t always get a fair chance to represent ourselves. As I got older, I found a million things I loved to do, and I pursued many of them, but writing always held my heart, and I came back to it. I was working in Education when I released my first book. Between low literacy rates, barriers to classroom engagement, and schools lacking resources, I knew that getting my story directly in front of students, so that they could see and feel it, would be pivotal. So, I started reaching out, visiting and doing talks and workshops at schools for free. Between the first and second book, I lost the person closest to me. I struggled to be mentally well for a solid two years in the wake of that. But on the other side, I knew that it was an experience that needed to be shared in an effort to protect and prepare young people. So, I continued the tour. I’ve received an amazing response from teachers nationwide with interest in exposing their students to my work and my voice. It’s phenomenal because it isn’t easy reading; these aren’t easy conversations. But the teachers who can recognize the value in them are the real heroes, and I’ve found that everywhere I’ve gone, no matter the age, students are ready for the topic. They have experiences, thoughts, and feelings that relate. So, I’m very happy to be able to reach them and let them know they are seen and heard.
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?
I think mental illness evades the understanding of a lot of people. There’s a long history of misrepresentation, misdiagnosis, and mistreatment as it relates to people with various conditions. And those folk tales and myths sometimes spread farther and faster than truth. Awareness is key — it’s a bit easier to be accepting or empathetic toward something that you have some knowledge about. But, it’s like the elephant in the room. Ironically enough, there’s anxiety around even starting the conversation. It’s so important that the people who are ready to be brave enough to speak out and help educate others do just that. Addressing mental health as a nation is going to require a culture shift — a very complex phenomenon. But it starts small, like this article. Small, yet mighty. So thank you for what you’re doing.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
My second book focuses almost solely on issues of identity, inclusion, and personal development related to mental health, with a particular focus on people of color. For each pair of hands that it lands in, we all inch a little closer to a better understanding of ourselves and one another. There are a lot of teachers who use it in their classes, and I get to visit with those students and talk to them in person, which I hope is just as impactful as the book. As I build my brand as an author, mental health is absolutely at the forefront of my platform. I’m able to reach a lot of people outside of educational environments as well. I’m building trust and respect with people in different communities. The goal is to have them listen when I speak. And when I speak, mental health will be the topic.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Everybody has a different experience with mental health, but for me it was difficult because my story is so personal. Once my healing process was fully underway and I truly felt able to put my all into my work again, I worried about the narrative of my trauma taking over my persona. I didn’t want to be known as “the sad writer.” I didn’t want it to seem like I was trying to commodify my pain or anyone else’s pain in order to creep closer to success. Luckily, I have some great friends. They would just tell me that I have a way of speaking that is unique, and that my apprehension about being perceived a certain way isn’t worth stressing about. They helped me see that I speak very genuinely and with the best interest of others in mind, and that people can feel that from me. So, I pushed through the fear to bring people a story that I hope they can relate to and feel validated by.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Everything starts at the micro-level, so ultimately it’s going to take individuals committed to this cause to effect change. I’d be obtuse to believe or say that it’s not already happening. So, I really think individuals could focus on collaborating with each other more. When strong brands or influential people combine forces, the potential to reach others grows exponentially. So, I’d love to see more folks with mental health platforms teaming up.
We talk a lot about services the government should provide these days, especially in terms of healthcare. I would love to see healthcare policy that elevates mental health assessments and procedures up to the same caliber of consideration for physical health visits. It’s pretty normal to go to the doctor if your stomach aches. There’s so much stigma around visiting a mental health professional if you feel emotionally unwell. If you have even the slightest uncertainty about it, or if it’s hard to find a therapist or pay for one, I feel that many people are even less likely to go. There are so many young people losing their lives and mental wellness is a part of the picture. As much federal support as possible for breaking down barriers to treatment and support is mission critical at this point.
Individuals and government help to create societal change. So, as hard as it seems for those two entities to work together at times, I think one side has to do their thing while the other does theirs, and society ends up benefiting as a whole.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own well being and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Coming out of my lowest lows, I had to work really hard to change my mindset about what mental wellness meant and how important it was. Not trying to suppress feelings or “power through” everything was hard to let go. I ended up changing the way I listen, communicate, and act in certain situations because I believed that the changes would benefit my mental health.
- Eating Clean
- I’ve been vegan for almost three years, and believe me, I’m not one of those radical people that tries to force food on or off the plate of others. But I have truly noticed a difference in my overall health and wellness after changing my diet. Most of us have pretty poor eating habits in general. I would recommend just small, incremental changes focused on helping your body feel better. The impact on how your body and mind feel is so worth it.
- The way we feel about our bodies ends up playing a much bigger role in our mental and emotional wellness than we give it credit for. I have my gym days every week, and yeah, sometimes it sucks, but it pays to look in the mirror and be pleased with my appearance. I didn’t always have that luxury and I don’t take it for granted anymore.
- I had to learn so many self-care tactics. I wasn’t really exposed to stuff like this when I was younger. I do stuff like taking mineral baths, shutting my phone down, going on walks — all kinds of things. Whenever I feel overwhelmed or cluttered, I know it’s time to take a moment and just do one of the little things that makes me feel joy.
- This was another practice that I had no experience with before adulthood, but I love it! There are so many guided meditations on YouTube. Sometimes I listen to them, but sometimes I just do my own thing and focus on some breathing exercises. Most times I feel like I’m in motion. It’s always on to the next task. But taking even just 10 minutes to center and meditate can make a huge difference in my day.
- Habit Audit
- Whenever necessary, but typically annually, I’ll reflect on my behaviors, my internal dialogue, and how I interact with people. The reflection helps me understand myself and keep me out of a place of confusion. But it also helps me improve inter-personally in various areas. When I feel like I’m being a better person, I am a better person.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
My absolute favorite is “Don’t Die Afraid,” http://www.dontdieafraid.com/. The founder is one of the most resilient people I know, and she makes taking control of your mental health very empowering.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!