Building Community: Mental Health and Organizing

By Lynn Buske

“The difference between mobilizing and organizing is relationship.” WISDOM’s Freddie Wilson said that in a training session recently (originator of the statement is unknown). I love that, because what JONAH is trying to build – a beloved community – really requires real relationships. And organizing really works most effectively when we are operating from relationships and are invested in those relationships. When we are not doing that, in essence we are just mobilizing. And is that truly effective to our goals? Can we be honest about what the actual consequences are of not building relationships?

I talk about relationships a lot, on purpose. There’s a reason – because getting real, honest, personal and vulnerable with people is not something humans thrive at. Something about the way our society has approached relationships has generated social anxiety and lack of trust. Fear comes up when I ask people to “build relationships.” So, there is a correlation to a healthy community, relationships, and our mental health. Community is, in essence, a group of people connected to each other.

For the five years I’ve been a Community Organizer for JONAH, I have had two constant internal tugs:

  1. Relationships are the most powerful tool we have and I feel like it’s the hardest one to really believe is enough. Building relationships is the hardest one to get people to do consistently.
  2. Mental Health is part of all our issues and for some people, good mental health and/or good relationships could have prevented someone’s mental health crisis from becoming chronic. 

A couple weeks ago, five members of the Mental Health task force attended a 12-hour training to become certified practitioners of Emotional CPR. This training felt similar to our 1-to-1 training in that the training was designed to encourage CONNECTION, CLARITY, and EQUALITY between two people. The difference is that Emotional CPR solely focuses on the emotional health and current emotions (of both people), and its main two goals are: 1. Connection (whereas in a 1-to-1 training, relationship is the main goal) and 2. Empowering the other person, knowing they have their own solutions.

Afterwards, initially, I was a bit depressed – because I felt like I had this great tool, but I wasn’t sure anyone was wanting to use it. A lot of my 1-to-1s are often not very personable and are business-focused. Which just isn’t the kind of relationship we’re going for. This happens, I think, partly because we all have things we just want to get done, but also because people struggle to find a place for personal emotional things in their daily life, especially public relationships, and even more people struggle to connect or identify with emotions. We have a historic lack of emotional education and creating safe spaces for those emotions in our culture. 

How many of you put on a figurative mask when you engage in your relationships? What would it feel like to have that mask removed? Scary, but good. That’s really what is required to build the community we want – to connect with those who look different, or we disagree with, and those who do agree but we just don’t know yet. We don’t have to be in a perfect place ourselves in order to connect or support someone else. True equality is accepting where I am and accepting where you are, and being able to be in our presence in whatever that is and still lift each other up.

COVID removed a mask for me. Several of them, in fact. Ones I didn’t realize I was wearing. Often times, instances of new trauma can trigger old trauma, and a year into COVID several of my past traumas were triggered. As I began to slowly unpack those with professional help, I uncovered that many of those childhood, and adult, traumas would not have been so traumatic had I had connections with understanding adults or peers available to me. 

I will share a story with you. I had my first serious panic attack when I was 24. I had lived with anxiety and panic much of my childhood, but this one at 24 was a new level of anxiety. I went to the hospital because I seriously believed I was dying, though I couldn’t say why. I was very young, still a child really, and had no one in my life who had ever talked to me about anxiety (even though I lived with it). I had never heard of the phrase ‘panic attack’. I spent hours in the emergency room because it took a long time to get checked in and they ran many tests. The entire time I was alone; terrifyingly alone. At any point, if someone had encouraged me to breathe with them, or ask more details about how I felt, or if a peer been there to say “it sounds like you’re panicking, let’s breathe together while they run some tests,” or “I’ve felt like this before, you’re going to be okay,” that would have changed the whole experience for me. It wasn’t until the next day that I saw on my paperwork the words “anxiety attack.” I didn’t have any trusted, safe peers in my life at 24 to talk me through what happened. I didn’t know how to have trusted relationships, as this wasn’t demonstrated to me as a child. What eventually allowed me to build trust in others and have them in my life were people demonstrating being present and supportive and authentic with me. JONAH and WISDOM are two places where I learned this, plus some good counselors and coaches. Another is my spouse. I’m familiar with panic attacks now, and hardly have them, but when I do, I not only have language to get me through them, I’m not alone.

I share this because THIS is what the mental health task force is trying to create in our tri-county community through our green bandana project. A community of people connected to each other, more peers there for peers, building trust through authentic presence. Most often, people in crisis do not need someone to diagnose, or give advice, or even know what to say. What people in crisis need is someone to sit by them, without judgment, and just connect. That connection plugs them back into reality and can de-escalate a crisis and reduce trauma.

This isn’t something that will happen overnight. We all have a lot of training to do. We think Emotional CPR is one training that will help. Just as with 1-to-1s, the training doesn’t provide the real learning – the practice does. So, we hope to get these trainings (in 1-to-1s ones and ECPR) into the community, but it’s on all of us to have the courage to practice them. This is how we build community, reduce trauma, and really bring people into this work. 

As for me, the Emotional CPR training, as well as my learnings from all the amazing people in our community connected to mental health and community building, through JONAH, is showing me how I can turn my past into a healthy future – for myself and others. I’m going to practice what I’ve learned, listening and empowering through one relationship at a time. 

This is organizing.