FINDING THE COURAGE TO BREAK FREE

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Phillip Williams-Cooke

When I was 18, I finally had that chance. I left Birmingham, Alabama and eventually found myself in Kentucky, Ohio, and New York City pursuing my education and career. But it wasn’t easy. My childhood, although there were good times, was clouded by traumatic events and abuse. I wasn’t diagnosed with Bipolar Type I Disorder until my mid-30s, but that’s where everything took root. It has been really hard on me but I’m constantly working through a lot of the emotional trauma still to this day.

As a black gay man growing up in the South, it was taboo even to talk about being gay, and it was especially taboo to talk about mental health. I endured a lot of mockery and bullying from family and some peers. But over time, I became comfortable in my own skin. When it comes to my story, I like to focus on resilience, and the fact that I’ve broken through. Because the truth is, that is what defines me. Not my trauma, not my childhood – but the fact that I made it through. And now, I find meaning in my life by helping others – especially those who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ – do the same. I have so much love and compassion for anyone who has gone through something similar.

When it comes to mental health, there’s a lot of fear and mistrust amongst the African American community. There’s also a lot more stigma. As a community, we still have in the back of our minds a lot of the historical and systemic racism that has happened in our country for over 4,000 years, and the stress and trauma of that has been passed down from generation to generation, which has led to many mental health challenges. There’s also, of course, socioeconomic barriers and a general lack of access to quality medical and mental health care. Historically, African Americans in general haven’t had an equal voice. People in my community still carry that fear with them when they seek mental health services and supports. They oftentimes wonder, will I be listened to? Will people understand me? Will I be misdiagnosed?

I feel that it’s so important for people of color to have support from someone they can relate to and trust. That’s a big part of why I decided to get involved in peer support work. In 2020, I became a Peer Specialist at Fountain House. I facilitate groups each week in the evening/weekend programs, along with special programming on holidays. Apart from that, I provide consultation for the in-house peer services, communications, and more at Fountain House. I’m a consultant for mental health agencies across New York State – including the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the NYS Office of Mental Health. I’m also proudly one of the first peers to serve as a board member with the NY Association of Black Psychologists.

I’m so grateful that as a peer support worker, and as an advocate, I can lead by example, and tell people, “You’re not alone.” So many people across the country are struggling with their mental health, and peer support can be the key to unlocking what’s stopping them from getting help. I don’t see a lot of people of color in the world of peer support, primarily because I don’t think they know it exists, or are turned off by it because of misinformation and a history of trauma in the mental health field. Having more people of color involved in peer support can really break down barriers and go a long way in helping to heal ourselves from within. There’s something so liberating about talking to someone who looks like me and has gone through what I have gone through.

I’m so grateful for the peer support movement. It’s a movement that started back in the 1970s, built around the idea that people with lived experiences can help each other heal. It brings humanity to everyone who is struggling and suffering. There are people out there who will understand you, who can walk with you in your pain and work out solutions with you. It’s a person-centered way of thinking – you have control of your future and I’m here to support, listen, and give you a comforting space to let out your frustration, anger, sadness, and sorrows. Peer work is about helping others get rid of all that weight of despair, so that they can fill the void with good things, and success. Nothing happens without a genuine mutual connection.

The peer support movement is always growing and moving. It reminds me of a saying by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you can’t run, then walk. If you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” I think that explains peer work in a nutshell. We may not always be running, but as long as someone is picking us up, as long as I’m on top of someone’s shoulders, I’m still moving.

As far as my future goes, I’m now a student at Southern New Hampshire University (online) as a Master of Arts degree candidate, majoring in Communication with a concentration in New Media and Marketing, and have been taking Ph.D. seminar classes in psychoanalysis through the Harlem Family Institute. Last October 2021, I became an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church and was granted an honorary degree in divinity from the same church a month later. My hope for the future is to become an author, a songwriter, and launch my very own peer-run nonprofit organization (Hope and Success For The People), geared toward training and empowering peers to live successful and self-directed lives.

This article was originally posted at fountainhouse.org

About the Author

Phillip Cooke

Education: Berea College (AAS Industrial Technology Management, 1995), Columbus State Community College (AA, 1998), Ohio State University (BA Geography, 2002), *Southern New Hampshire University (MA Communication) *10/2021-present

Peer Specialist, Bee Well LLC, Fountain House Member, Education Unit, Fountain House Certified Recovery Peer Advocate-Provisional (#CRPA-P-4290) Certified Peer Specialist-Provisional (#NYCPS-P-3522) Certified Tax Preparer, Community Tax Aid/Fountain House Academy of Peer Services Support Volunteer, Peer Academy, Fountain House Connecticut Center for Addiction Recovery-Designated Recovery Coach (CCAR-RC) Certified Opioid Overdose First Responder (as of August 1, 2018) safeTalk-Trained Suicide Prevention Counselor (as of July 20, 2017) Public Speaker, Writer, and Group Facilitator Founder, Hope and Success For The People Founding Board Member (Treasurer) and Volunteer, The Friendship Squad Member and Volunteer, Access To Recovery Coalition Volunteer Staff Writer, helpNYC Corporation Board Member At-Large and Co-Chair Professional Affairs and Development Committee, New York Association of Black Psychologists (as of September 14, 2021) Editorial Board Member, Mental Health Affairs Blog Master of Arts Degree Candidate, Communication-New Media and Marketing (Online), Southern New Hampshire University Ph.D. Seminar Student, Mental Health Psychoanalysis, Harlem Family Institute Honorary Doctorate of Divinity (Hon. D.D.), Ordained Minister, Universal Life Church

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