Note: July is Minority Mental Health Awareness Month.
Mary Kirkendoll is all about starting meaningful conversations.
This is how she got involved in the Minority Mental Health Awareness Picnic in the park. The event will take place from 6-8 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27 at South Park. The event is free and open to the public.
“It’s about elevating and celebrating the talents and voices of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) in the community,” Kirkendoll said.
Kirkendoll is the Douglas County Community Navigator. She is also a flautist and yoga teacher. Her husband, Michael, is an associate professor of piano at the University of Kansas School of Music.
Kirkendoll grew up in Long Beach, California. His mother, who was white, was an inner-city schoolteacher. Kirkendoll’s father, who is Japanese, has not been involved in her life since she was a baby.
Kirkendoll’s mother had a long history of mental illness, but it wasn’t until later in her life that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
“My interest in mental health really comes from taking care of my mom growing up. It was a lot for a kid,” Kirkendoll said. “We dealt with so many mental health issues. how debilitating his illness was.
When Kirkendoll was working on her doctorate at KU, her mother, who was back in California, was admitted to a mental institution, but Kirkendoll did not know what happened.
“I didn’t know where she was for three weeks; I thought she was dead,” Kirkendoll said. “From that moment, I decided to take care of her.”
Kirkendoll brought her mother, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, to Kansas and became her caregiver. Her mother, known as “Sweet Mama Marie”, continues to be her inspiration.
“Caring for my mother has opened a window to do this work, which is truly beautiful,” Kirkendoll said.
Randy Vidales was around 8 or 9 when he remembers first experiencing social anxiety. The condition continued throughout her school years. To cope, he withdrew into himself.
“I was very calm and withdrawn,” he said. “Family members would chastise me for it. I couldn’t tell them that I was uncomfortable in social settings.
Vidales, who grew up as a first-generation Latino, grew up in Kansas and Mexico.
“Mental health is still a huge stigma in the Latin American community,” Vidales said. “Because of that and because of cultural traditions, growing up, I didn’t feel like I had a lot of voice.”
Mental health was not something his family talked about.
“It feels like it was all in my head or in my imagination,” Vidales said.
During his second year as a student at the University of Kansas, Vidales decided to ask for help. He contacted a classmate who was studying psychology. She was also Hispanic-American.
“It made it much more comfortable to know that she came from the same background,” Vidales said. “She could relate and understand where I was coming from.”
The friend referred him to KU Health Services, where he received a formal diagnosis. Besides social anxiety, he was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
Since 2018, Vidales has been a member of the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center Supportive Housing Team. He shares his own experiences working with clients and continues to work on his own mental health.
“It’s been a long journey, a journey that I firmly believe has no end to,” he said. “But at the same time, I realize it’s more about the journey, the progress I’ve made.”
For someone dedicated to helping others, it took someone like him to pull him out of the darkest time in his life.
Demetrius (Dee) Kemp
Demetrius (Dee) Kemp lost his two favorite people in the space of about two months. Her mother died on November 30, 2020. About two months later, her closest sister passed away.
“Man, that almost killed me,” Kemp said. “I’ve lost people before, but I lost the two most important women in my life, back to back. My mom and my sister were like my best friends.
Kemp, who lives in Lawrence, had returned to Alabama for his sister’s funeral and was so depressed he didn’t think he could return to Kansas. A friend of Kemp told him about his niece, Eden, who was 5 at the time. Eden didn’t want a party or presents for her birthday; she wanted to do a food drive for homeless families in Emporia where she lives.
“I thought if that little girl could do that, I had to come back; I have to go help him,” Kemp said. “I got my friends together and said I know it’s not in Lawrence, but this girl needs our help, so let’s help her. We collected enough food for about 30 families.
Kemp, who is black, said growing up emotions and mental health were not something people talked about.
“People were saying black people don’t go crazy,” Kemp said. “I knew people who must have had mental illness, but it was just never talked about.”
When Dee went to Emporia to help Eden, he told his parents, “I never met your daughter, but she leaned over and pulled me back. I had finished, I had given up. This little girl, man, she took me out.
Family and community are very important in Native tribes.
At the University of Kansas, Melissa Peterson, in her role as director of tribal relations, serves as something of an extended family for Native students. She works closely with Lori Hasselman, Native American Student Success Coordinator.
“Our Indigenous students are used to family and community, so when they come to college, we become that extended family,” Peterson said. “Lori calls her Auntie Love. You hear that a lot in Native communities.
Last year was Peterson’s first as director of tribal relations — a new position at KU. She actually came to Lawrence Kansas to coach volleyball at Haskell Indian Nations University.
Peterson described his role at KU as “really a kind of holistic support system, and that includes being good partners with our tribes and building student development by learning about our local tribes.”
Peterson was part of a panel for Mental Health Month in May that was a collaboration between Haskell and the Bert Nash Center.
“There’s so much to unpack about Indigenous peoples and the history we’ve endured, and we’re still dealing with these issues. Here at Lawrence, we like to think we’re more open-minded, and we are, but not too long ago aboriginals couldn’t make it past 19.e Street,” Peterson said.
Peterson was born and raised in Arizona in the Navajo Nation. She said mental health was not something we discussed. But she sees things changing. The younger Aboriginal generation is more open about their mental health, she says.
“My first year in this new position was dedicated to educating others about Aboriginal people. We may not specifically talk about mental health,” Peterson said. “But I try to create events where people can come together as a community. Because mental health is best supported when we understand and build community with each other.
Jeff Burkhead is Director of Communications at the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center.