(Oct. 6, 2021) Melissa Ferrer, an artist and poet, sits in Gillham Park in Kansas City, Missouri. Ferrer will be a speaker at the Rite of Joy conference later this week, which focuses on Black mental health. (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

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Melissa Ferrer, 29, has been writing poetry since she was 10. 

The Kansas City, Missouri, poet, musician and author sees her artistic expression as an avenue into mental and spiritual wellness. 

“Ever since I was a young girl, art — specifically writing — has been the venue for me to get out the things that I couldn’t say to other people,” she said. “You have these emotions you feel bad about having, or you can’t share with anyone because they’re not positive. But the page was always there, not judging. I could say whatever I wanted to say on the page.”

This week, Ferrer will be speaking on the art of surrender — particularly how it relates to her personal battle with mental health issues and spirituality — as a facilitator at the Rite of Joy conference in Unity Village, Missouri. The two-day event starts Oct. 14 and will focus on the mental health crisis in the Black community.

Put together by Poetry for Personal Power, a Kansas City-area nonprofit organization that connects people with innovative ways to overcome adversity in mental health care, Rite of Joy will feature collective learning, research examination, artistic expression and community building.  

How Poetry for Personal Power advocates for healing

Sheri Hall, executive director of Poetry for Personal Power, says its mission is to show that “emotional distress is temporary and transformative.”

“We ask the question: What helps you to overcome adversity?” Hall said.

P3 offers various programs to meet the needs of the community, from research conducted on the concerns of behavioral health system users, to advocacy on behalf of those users, to nonclinical and behavioral health services.

Started in 2009 by Corinna West and headquartered in Wyandotte County, Kansas, P3 is the largest peer-run and behavioral health patient-advocacy organization in the Midwest.

Peer support specialists are nonclinical behavioral health practitioners who advocate for individuals struggling with mental health, psychological trauma or substance use.

Specialists work as a buffer and connection between the person receiving treatment and the health care system. 

“A lot of times within the health system, everything operates separately,” Hall said. “You have your therapist over here, your psychiatrist over here, maybe even a social worker over here, and they do not talk to each other about you to be able to provide the best care possible to the one person they’re dealing with.

“It’s very disjointed, and it leaves people on the outside of their own care.”

(Oct 8, 2021) Sheri Hall, executive director of Poetry for Personal Power, says the organization’s mission is to show that “emotional distress is temporary and transformative.” (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

It is a peer support specialist’s job to ensure everyone’s voice is heard.

If a peer were to be prescribed a medication they did not want to take, for example, a peer support specialist would reach out to both their psychiatrist and therapist to discuss different options, Hall said. 

Everyone involved with P3 has some form of experience with resilience, trauma, the mental health system or a diagnosis, Hall said. So specialists also serve as mentors, teachers and tutors. 

“As an advocate, I’m here for my peers in whatever capacity that we need to be.”

In addition to her work with P3, Hall is also an artist. The award-winning poet began writing poems when she was 7 years old, eventually pursuing spoken word in 2003.

“I used to write to be OK and to express myself without actually having the baseline and education regarding mental wellness,” said the Kansas City, Missouri, native. 

The organization boasts an accomplished team of sponsored artists of all kinds — from visual artists, to dancers, to musicians and producers — who deliver resilience messaging to heal their community. 

“When you hear a person get up there and share their story of resilience, it makes people feel not alone,” Hall said. “It makes them see that there is healing possible. And then when you come into the organization, we try to give you those resources and tools to follow that up.”

Learning to live outside of trauma 

The theme of community support will be central at the conference. 

While P3 is an inclusive organization open to anyone and people of all kinds and cultures are invited to the conference, the focus of the event will be on Black culture and community, Hall said. 

“There hasn’t been a conference where we focused on where we are, on mental health, on our communities building up around it,” Hall said. “But ask anyone who has melanin in their skin. It’s hard to find a therapist or a treatment program to identify with and feel safe in.”

Issues such as a staggering lack of Black mental health professionals in comparison to white mental health professionals, racial biases among clinicians and a cultural stigma against vulnerability result in a low percentage of Black people seeking wellness counseling. 

In 2019, just 9.8% of African American adults received mental health services, compared to 19.8% of non-Hispanic white adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Yet in 2018, 16% of Black people ages 18 or older reported dealing with a mental illness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health

“We are a culturally competent organization,” Hall said. “Recognizing and embracing culture for Black and African American people is important.”

Focusing on the realities of the Black experience is especially important, as Black, Indegenous and people of color “are overrepresented in populations that are particularly at risk for mental health disorders,” according to the American Psychological Association

This prevalence is due to the race-based traumatic stress prevalent among these communities from exposure to individual and systemic racism, according to Mental Health America

Conference attendees will hear an array of presentations from artists, performers and mental wellness advocates who will speak to the realities of living through trauma. 

“I came out talking about my trauma and releasing my pain on stages long before I sat down with a therapist,” said Goddess Warrior the Poet, 35, an award-winning slam poet and producer who has been writing poetry since she was 8 and performing since 2012.

Born and raised in Chicago, Goddess Warrior is a survivor of domestic violence. In 2009, her father shot and killed her mother before committing suicide. 

As a facilitator for Rite of Joy, she intends to speak out against violence of all kinds, from domestic to the internal violence many face. 

We’re numb from the pain, and we need to feel again. Using the art form of spoken word as a mechanism for healing has been very effective.

Goddess Warrior the Poet, slam poet and producer

Tonier Cain, the former team leader for the National Center for Trauma Informed Care and the current CEO and founder of Tonier Cain International, is one of the scheduled keynote speakers Thursday. 

Cain plans to discuss trauma-informed care, a practice that centers the impacts of trauma on an individual’s life and wellness.

“We no longer look at what’s wrong with the person, but what happened to the individual, and we get to the core issue of what happened.”

A resident of Bowie, Maryland, Cain, 53, is a trauma survivor.

“Seventeen years ago, I was in prison finishing up my 83rd arrest and my 66th conviction,” she said. She had been homeless and living on the streets for nearly 20 years, having children as a result of rapes and prostitution.  

“I had all this trauma because of domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape,” she said. “So much horrific violence, not only by just community members or people in the streets but by the systems of care.”

Cain had endured many substance abuse programs, mental health programs and homeless shelters that would leave little to no effect on her. “I would always go back to what I knew best, and it was to numb myself so I could not think about the things that happened to me.” 

That all changed 17 years ago, when Cain received trauma-informed treatment. 

“It made all the difference in the world,” she said. “Once I realized I wasn’t a crackhead and the other names they called me, that that was the result of trauma and the lifestyle I lived, I was able to heal and live a totally different life.”

Now a seasoned film producer and an educator at the forefront of the movement, Cain trains various systems of care, from justice and corrections, to mental health, to substance abuse, in addressing the generational trauma that impacts everyone but especially the groups predisposed to it.

“The big picture of trauma-informed care is breaking generational cycles,” she said. “That’s why I do the work that I do.”

Speakers and organizers are hoping to give and be given the gift of community and a path toward healing.

“I’m looking forward to establishing new relationships and building other people who understand the mission and goal to heal,” Goddess Warrior said. “That’s what I’m looking to get out of this conference along with a little more healing myself, because we all still got more healing to do.” 

Rite of Joy conference information

Oct. 14-16. Unity Village, 1901 NW Blue Parkway, Unity Village, Missouri. 

More info: riteofjoy.com/registration

More about Poetry for Personal Power: poetryforpersonalpower.org

The JoyUs Gala will be held Oct. 15 to conclude the event.

COVID-19 precautions: Attendees are required to wear face masks and will be asked to sign a COVID-19 safety acknowledgment. 

Pricing:

  • Cost for mental health professionals seeking CEU/CEE credits starts at $225 for a one-day pass, $450 for a two-day pass. Gala admission is $75. Two-day pass including the gala is $400. 
  • Cost for peers and other individuals not seeking education credit is $100 for a one-day pass, $150 for a two day-pass, and $225 including the gala and activities. 

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Mili Mansaray

Mili Mansaray is a freelance reporter for The Beacon and was a summer 2020 intern. Follow Mili on Twitter @MansarayMili.