Kelechi Ubozoh and mental health care as a human right
Many Bay Area fans of The JV Show on Wild 94.9 have been through a roller coaster ride of emotions this spring. Many became concerned when JV (Jeffrey Vandergrift) started talking about his physical and mental health challenges while coping with Lyme disease last year. Concerns grew when Vandergrift detailed his challenges on air on Feb. 23, 2023 and went missing that same day. Listeners were eventually told that JV (Vandergrift) wouldn’t be coming back, as the station manager talked about him with a posthumous tone, telling listeners what JV would have wanted.
On March 23, 2023, Vandergrift’s body was discovered near Pier 39 in San Francisco, confirming what many suspected but didn’t want to believe—that he was in fact dead. Reports confirmed that no foul play was suspected, but stopped short of naming suicide as the cause of death. However, JV’s public discussion about his struggles with depression and his online account of his suicide ideation and a 2021 attempt that resulted in him being placed on a 5150, involuntary hold, make it seem possible that suicide may be what ultimately cut Vandergrift’s life short.
Kelechi Ubozoh, a co-editor of We’ve Been Too Patient: Voices from Radical Mental Health and a survivor of suicide attempt(s), says one of the best things people can do is talk about it. “When we witness famous people dying by suicide, especially people we perceive to have it all, it can feel unsettling and shocking,” Ubozoh says. “People think talking about suicide causes suicide, which is a myth and one of the reasons the topic remains taboo.”
Ubozoh recalls her own struggles with mental health, which piqued after she lost her grandmother when she was 13 and resurfaced again a decade later when she was assaulted. “When I was struggling the most, I looked great on the outside. People don’t ask people who are smiling what’s wrong or check on them. (Let’s) let (this latest loss) be an invitation to have a conversation with our loved ones,” says Ubozoh.
If one can get beyond getting caught up on the technicalities of a particular diagnosis, Ubozoh says it leaves room to focus on holistically caring for a patient and meeting him, her or them where they are in their journey. “What if we cared for mental health as much as we cared for physical health and showed up with dinner or a casserole to remind the person in crisis they’re not alone?” Ubozoh rhetorically suggests. “I know I wanted to share my pain, have someone sit with me, have someone ask what I needed or what support they could give me,” she recalls.
“When we’re worried, we may react in ways that unintentionally cause harm,” Ubozoh says. Sometimes the focus gets unintentionally shifted away from the person experiencing the mental health crisis and towards the people trying to help. “Meet people with connection, not reaction. Ask open ended questions (affirming) that you won’t try to fix or judge someone. (If you can, offer to) take one thing off (the person’s) plate,” she suggests.
Just as prisons aren’t necessarily long term solutions to crime, Ubozoh says hospitals aren’t necessarily the answer to mental health crisis situations. In fact, she argues that hospitalization against the will of a patient is a form of incarceration. “Hospitals sometimes use chemical restraints to sedate people and disconnect them. It’s not that people have healed; it’s that they’ve zonked out,” she says. “Hospitals might work for some people, but for me they were traumatizing. We need to have other alternatives and respites—places where people can heal and have a choice in what healing looks like for them.”
Reflecting back on her own suicide ideation, Ubozoh recalls the compound effects of racism, not feeling like she belonged and personal loss. “I was one of a few Black people in a white private school, and my Black community was in my neighborhood,” she says. “I felt rejected (in both spaces). When the one person who accepted me (unconditionally) died, I wanted to die too.” As Ubozoh expressed her inner turmoil, she felt shut down by the well-meaning but unprepared people around her who she leaned on. “People would say mental health is a white person thing, and I’m a Black woman. I learned (from these reactions) and my terrifying hospital stays to stuff it down. I pretended to be happy,” she says.
Ubozoh put on a happy face and pushed through. She went to journalism school and did her best to keep smiling until she was sexually assaulted at the age of 23. “I started feeling like I wanted to die, and I reached out for help,” she says. “The moment I said suicide, I was shut down. People think that if you’re feeling suicidal, you can just go to a therapist because maybe you’re too sick. A few days later (after unsuccessful attempts to get help), I tried (to take my life).”
Today, as a woman in her late 30s, Ubozoh is in a different place. She’s clear that suicide ideation isn’t something that she is forever cleared from or something that can be overcome. Rather, it’s something that she’s learned to cope with when or if those feelings arise. Ubozoh may have had multiple mental health diagnoses attached to her by varying mental health care professionals over the years, but she refuses to be defined by labels and chooses instead to focus on holistic mental health care that expands beyond the biomedical model. She imagines that one day there will be drop-in respite centers where people can go for support when they are approaching a crisis on their terms, an antidote to an involuntary 5150 hold. Until then, Ubozoh says, it’s about doing what is possible.
“(I’ve given up on the slogan that it gets better and embraced this.) Life is going to have ups and downs, twists and turns. It’s not that ‘oh now I’m married and happy and nothing will ever happen again,’” Ubozoh reflects. “Something is going to happen again as long as we’re on the Earth. (But I get to decide) how I’m going to deal with it. I’m going to include people. I’m going to have a community. I’m going to include people that help me. I’ve healed how I respond to life.”
A version of the holistic care that Ubozoh describes is starting to show up in schools across the state. The Lafayette School District is an example of a place that pivoted from a model of having shared counselors that traveled between the multiple school campuses to a place of having a counselor at each school. Rachel DeChristofaro is a counselor at Lafayette Elementary School, where she says she supports both students and parents.
On a given day, DeChristofaro may drop into a classroom to demonstrate calm down and de stressing techniques with children; hold a support group for students struggling to maintain friendships or cope with anxiety and have individual support in the form of play, coloring or making a navigation plan for a successful day; and make rounds during recess. For those who ask what this has to do with education, the answer is a lot. The children DeChristofaro supports range in age from 4 to 12, and they’re dealing with anxiety, worries and fears of not fitting in or feeling like they don’t belong.
“If a student isn’t able to regulate emotions, express how they are feeling or de-escalate (a tense situation), it can impact academics, the classroom and peer interactions,” she says. “The better we feel mentally, the more opportunities this can create for students to have a positive learning environment.”
Something that Ubozoh and DeChristofaro would likely agree on is this: People of all ages and stages in life need support and a safe place to land.
If you or someone you love needs to talk through a mental health crisis or is experiencing suicide ideation, you can call 988 for support.