Giving Back — traveling abroad to volunteer each year brings me happiness. My love for traveling and helping others has been rooted in me since I was a kid by my parents. Experience is something no one can take away from you. As much as I love my alone time, people give me energy and fills my cup. Being around positive, grateful and kind people who are also volunteers or local people from other countries while being immersed in a different culture is something that I will treasure forever.
Asa part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria Reyes, MS.
Maria is a Pre-Licensed Professional Counselor with a Masters of Science Degree in Community and Trauma Counseling. She owns Northern Liberties Counseling & Matchmaking in Philadelphia, where she processes your past so you can live in the present and plan a fulfilling future. As a matchmaker, she helps boost self-esteems for positive dating. She is also an adjunct professor at Jefferson University and teaches Zumba and yoga to kids.
Majet (or Maria to some) is the first American Franchise Owner of DivaGirl (Philly). She is an international volunteer (Philippines, Nepal, Ghana, Puerto Rico, Peru, and India) and a mom.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
After 9/11 happened, I thought I wanted to be the people who ran into the building to help people. I knew I didn’t want to be a cop or a firefighter, so I thought being a paramedic will be the right fit for me. I was in college at that time hoping to be nurse, just like most Filipino immigrants in the states. But I decided to take the road less traveled and became a paramedic instead.
I then went to EMT school first and then medic school, and after two years, I became a paramedic. I eat, breathe and bleed Emergency Medical Services (EMS). I thought it will be my life long career and that I will retire as a 911 paramedic. This job will help me reach my financial goals of buying my immigrant parents a house and feeling fulfilled in helping those who are in need.
But then during my time as a new medic in the city, I was assaulted by my co-workers. I was tied down to a stretcher and was hit with a belt. Before that, I was taunted, teased and was given a 14 gauge needle for an IV in my arm that I didn’t need for punishment for missing an IV on a patient.
Then my dream fell apart and I went into depression. I was harassed and I was scared because I reported the incident. I walked around anxious and afraid. I drank more and smoke pot so I can sleep at night. Although I found another job as a medic, I was insecure and angry all the time. I took sleeping pills so I can sleep at night.
One night, I decided to drink and finish a bottle of vodka, smoke all the pot I had and took all the sleeping pills I had to fall asleep, with the hopes of not waking up again the next day because I wanted it all to end.
But then the next morning, I woke up.
It took me almost ten years and a semester of grad school to realize that I need therapy to process my past. When I started my Master’s Program for Community & Trauma Counseling, I started seeing a therapist (I still see him now after 3 years). Since I am in school to become a counselor, I thought I should at least experience how it is like to be patient. And it had changed my life.
The focus on my work is trauma therapy and I am dedicated to eradicate the stigma on mental health in the EMS, fire department and police department fields. Most first responders enter the field with the hopes of helping others and making a difference, only to feel burnout and experience vicarious trauma due to self neglect and the lack of support and knowledge about mental health. The power of a support group can help our first responders know that they are not alone with the challenges they face personally, at home or at work. Counseling and support groups bring hope and builds resilience in the unique life of a first responder.
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?
- The culture that we have, especially in the field of EMS and first responders, believe that asking for help is a sign of weakness
- Helpers don’t need help
- Lack of knowledge about mental health
- Lack of advocates
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
- Speaking at libraries, town centers or community centers, schools and collaborating with EMS leaders.
- Social media also has a big impact
- I wish I have more outlet or support in spreading this to our first responders
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
- My experience working in EMS for 13 years and being aware now that first responders suffer from compassion fatigue, burnout and other mental health illnesses which cause suicide, depression, anxiety, anger, broken relationships and addiction are the reasons why I launched this initiative.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
- Education is key
- Talking about it in school, workplaces and everywhere else help mental health awareness become a “new normal”
- The more we talk about it, the more it become accepted.
- A regular assessment for mental health for everyone needs to be a routine check up and covered by insurance. This way, people will view mental health important just like their physical health.
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?
- My own therapist — I see my therapist on a regular basis. Talking about my relationship, career, businesses and struggles for one hour with someone who is objective or non judgmental help me process my issues and clears my mind.
- Yoga — a regular dose of breathing and exercising helps me feel grounded
- Reading & Listening to Podcasts — detaching myself from my reality by immersing myself in a book is taking care of myself. Getting motivation and inspiration from others energizes me.
- Prioritizing — prioritizing myself and the people who are important to me is key in my busy schedule. Knowing my priorities and scheduling those first and have everything else revolve around my priorities keep me happy.
- Boundaries — creating boundaries to protect myself and my loved ones. Time is something I cannot take back therefore I value my time. I make sure that I put the important things in my life first and limit my time on other things and not put any time on things and people who don’t bring me joy.
- Giving Back — traveling abroad to volunteer each year brings me happiness. My love for traveling and helping others has been rooted in me since I was a kid by my parents. Experience is something no one can take away from you. As much as I love my alone time, people give me energy and fills my cup. Being around positive, grateful and kind people who are also volunteers or local people from other countries while being immersed in a different culture is something that I will treasure forever.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
The Body Keeps A Score, Any Brene Brown books, The Gift of Therapy, Hidden Brain podcast, Therapy Chat podcast, PTSD Bunker Gear for The Brain, How I Built This podcast and more.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!