As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jessica (Tyner) Mehta, born and raised in Oregon and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, is the author of over one dozen books. She’s received several writer-in-residency posts around the world, including the Hosking Houses Trust with an appointment at The Shakespeare Birthplace (Stratford-Upon-Avon, UK), Paris Lit Up (Paris, France), the Women’s International Study Center (WISC) Acequia Madre House post (Santa Fe, NM), the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts (Nebraska City, NE), and a Writer in the Schools (WITS) residency at Literary Arts (Portland, OR).
Jessica received a Halcyon Art Labs fellowship in 2018–19 to curate an anthology of poetry by incarcerated and previously incarcerated indigenous women and is also a member of the Poetry Foundation’s Poetry Incubator co-hort in Chicago. She is the recipient of a 40 Under 40 Award from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development (NCAIED), received a Barbara Deming Award in Poetry, and was a Top 10 Pick from Portland Story Theatre for “Indian Burns.” She serves as the Associate Poetry Editor for Bending Genres literary journal and Exclamat!on peer-reviewed open access journal, and is the former President of the Board of Directors for VoiceCatcher journal and non-profit. Jessica has led writing workshops around the globe including at the International Women’s Writing Guild summer conference series and has taught poetry at various institutions including The Loft Literary Center.
Jessica founded MehtaFor (www.mehtafor.com), a writing services company, in 2012 which serves a variety of clients including Fortune 500 enterprises and major media outlets. MehtaFor received two national bronze awards for Startup of the Year in 2015. Jessica offers complimentary writing services to Native American students and non-profits based in the Pacific Northwest and/or serving Native communities.
She received her master’s degree in writing from Portland State University in 2007 and established The Jessica Tyner Scholarship Fund in 2013. It’s the only scholarship exclusively for Native Americans pursuing an advanced degree in writing or a related field. Jessica is the Visiting Poet at Chemeketa Community College for the 2018–19 academic year and is currently an editor and poet at Airlie Press, a non-profit poetry publisher based in Oregon.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Writing has been my best form of communication since I was a young child. Unfortunately, many university programs don’t teach English and writing majors how to make a living with their degree — it’s often considered not a “real” degree, or we’re asked if we’re going to teach. I stumbled into opening my own writing services company after being laid off from two non-profit jobs consecutively during the Great Recession. I began as a freelancer. When I realized there was money to be made creating content, I gave myself one year to make a livable wage as a writer. That’s how MehtaFor was born.
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?
Many mental illnesses are invisible. As someone recovering from anorexia, however, “my” mental disorder was highly visible. I think there’s an inherent compassion in physical disabilities. Those with physical disorders are (wrongly) seen as victims, whereas there’s this persistent idea that mental illnesses are (no pun intended) “in our head.” Since they’re often invisible, they are easier to dismiss. In some cases, like eating disorders, the research is also well behind that compared to physical disorders. There’s a lack of information, a lack of knowledge, and a lack of ability to empathize.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I’m currently pursuing my PhD with a dissertation on the intersection between poetry and eating disorders. My hope is to have the first book published specifically on this meeting point. However, I’m also working on de-stigmatizing eating disorders by being open and transparent when it comes to my own story. I cannot discuss my creative work without also touching on the disorder which has played such a large role in my life and writing. Talking about mental disorders is the first step in knowledge sharing.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
In addition to my writing, business, and academic work, I also founded the Get it Ohm! karma yoga movement which offers free yoga classes to those who don’t have access to traditional yoga studios and/or don’t feel comfortable in such environments. My own journey towards managing an eating disorder (as I don’t believe in “recovery”) was in savasana. The yoga teacher asked us to think of three things we loved about ourselves — I honestly could not think of one. That was the kickstart I needed to begin therapy. Eating disorders often overlap with body dysmorphic disorder and extensively low self-esteem. Cognitive reconditioning has been critical in my own management, but so is yoga. The focus on holistic wellness has helped me become reacquainted with my whole self.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals can help by educating themselves. There’s a lot of mis-information about eating disorders still highly prevalent in society as well as stereotypes — not all anorectics are young, white, privileged women. Society can help by persistently shaping an environment that steers away from not only body shaming all types of bodies, but also focusing on wellness instead of slenderness. What we see reflected in our language (i.e. “I’m so fat” and diet talk during the holidays) and in the media feeds eating disorders. The government can help by offering help to those suffering from eating disorders in terms of medical-based aid. Private insurance is an entirely different monster, but for eating disorders it mimics Medicare and Medicaid. It’s very difficult for many people to get an eating disorder diagnosis, and mental health is just as important as physical health when it comes to receiving help. Plus, many in-patient eating disorder clinics have a maximum stay of four weeks. Dismissing someone with an eating disorder at four weeks has shown to be even more damaging than if they’d never entered treatment at all. Eating disorder patients require several more weeks of in-patient therapy before they are equipped to re-enter the “real world.”
What are your 5strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
Cognitive reconditioning is my mainstay for nourishing my own wellbeing and mental wellness. This includes being aware of self-talk, which we’re taught to encompass as negative. It’s considered arrogant or narcissistic to support ourselves. For example, it’s not accepted by society for someone to say, “I’m good at XYZ” or “I think I’m attractive.” Instead, self-deprecation and sarcasm is expected and encouraged. However, if we don’t treat ourselves kindly, our brains will do a fantastic job of making what we say and believe become reality. Five strategies I utilize include:
- Be aware of self-talk at all times. We all have an inner voice. When you catch negative self-talk, don’t beat yourself up — but do correct it. Be nice to yourself.
- Talk to yourself as you would a child or friend you love. Most of us would never say the terrible things we say to ourselves to a child or someone we love.
- Choose a pet name for yourself. If you “talk” to yourself in second person (i.e. “you”), try using a pet name. It might sound silly, but it can be very helpful. It’s a cue to remind yourself to be nice.
- Talk aloud if it helps. Self-talk can be audible or internal. Every now and then, try encouraging yourself aloud. It can pack a bigger punch.
- Steer clear of talking about others bodies, whether it’s good or bad. We are more than our bodies. We have no right to weigh in on anyone’s looks. It feeds competition and eating disorders.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
A book that nearly saved my life was Marya Hornbacher’s Wasted. I listen to a lot of podcasts, and NPR’s “The Hidden Brain” provides some great insight into how we think the way we do.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!