November 15, 2021

Hello, MindSite News Daily Readers. In today’s newsletter, you’ll read about how actor Will Smith used his buoyant “Fresh Prince” persona to keep his childhood trauma at bay. You’ll learn how a mother who lost her climate activist son to suicide is helping other advocates shed their despair and regain a sense of joy. You’ll also read about how the Minnesota Department of Agriculture is using a federal grant to help farmers struggling with depression, anxiety and economic loss. 

Actor Will Smith unveils past mental health struggles

Will Smith in 2012 after filming Men in Black 3. Photo: Shutterstock

Will Smith’s lighthearted “Fresh Prince” persona on television was an antidote to the searing pain and powerlessness he felt as a child witnessing his father beat his mother, the actor reveals in his new memoir, Will

“That buoyant, happy, joyful image was painted over a core of a real lack of self esteem and self-respect,” Smith wrote. Blaming himself for not stopping the abuse, he said that “I couldn’t shake the idea that I had failed my mother, and I was somehow unworthy of love and care because of my cowardice. And that (was) the beginnings of wanting to overachieve and wanting to create and wanting to win and wanting to build an external life that could somehow hopefully cover the pain.”

It was also traumatizing because Smith’s father was his hero. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air, Smith said that his father, although deeply troubled, was brilliant, wise and a tireless provider. As he worked on the book after his father’s death, he found reading it aloud to his family and laughing and crying about it with them “very cathartic.” (His mother also reassured him that she had never considered him a coward.) He went on to create a nuanced portrait of his father in the book. “As soon as people hear ‘abuse,’ they paint an ogre in their mind, and my father wasn’t an ogre,” he told NPR. “That dichotomy is part of what breaks the mind of a child in that way, because you can’t fit both of those things into one space.” 

That dichotomy, trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté said in a recent documentary, The Wisdom of Trauma, is what compels a child to blame themselves for a parent’s abuse, because a child can’t simultaneously see their parent as caregiver and abuser. In parenting his own children, Smith said he spent the last decade working to shed the military mindset his father ingrained in him and replace it with the notion of parent as gardener, “allowing (children) to blossom into what they naturally are, versus trying to force them into becoming what I think they should be.”

Beauty pageant winner and Army specialist advocates for better mental health care in military

Maura Spence-Carroll, who won the Miss Colorado title at age 21 in this summer’s competition, is a US Army Specialist stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado. She’s planning to go to law school, but she has a personal mission as Miss Colorado: to reduce stigma about mental health services among members of the military. 

Spence-Carroll knows firsthand what that struggle is like. After  she was diagnosed with ADHD in 2020, she said in an article in, she learned “the cultural and command barriers to service members receiving mental health care.” She is also well aware of the dangers that such barriers create for service members and veterans, who are far more likely to commit suicide than civilians. “We’ve found that access to care, social support, and a sense of belonging to a community – such as that found within the military – are the greatest tools in preventing suicide,” she said. Her message to fellow service members: “You are a valued person, friend, and member of the community, and options for treatment are out there.”

USDA awards $500K to Minnesota programs supporting farmers’ mental health 

Photo: Shutterstock

Think of farmers and their work, and it conjures up an image of self-reliance. But the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing climate disasters and shrinking farmland have upended many farmers’ livelihoods and put their mental health at risk, according to an article in the MinnPost, a nonprofit news organization

Farming, said Gary Wertish, a retired farmer and president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, “is a stressful occupation. Always has been. Always will be. Farmers are proud people. There are too many times that they think things that are actually out of their control are their fault. They put the blame on themselves, think they’ve done something wrong. The vast majority of the time they haven’t. They don’t want to ask for help.” 

Minnesota farmers will get some relief from a $500,000 grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture grant that aims to support mental health, some of which will be distributed to 11 existing projects in the state that work on farm stress and rural mental health through a program called “Bend, Don’t Break.” These grants are being offered to departments of agriculture across the country.

Meg Moynihan, a senior advisor at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, which is administering the grant, has seen the effects of stress in her own family. Her husband, with whom she runs a dairy farm, suffered from depression and anxiety, but has since recovered, she said. But too often, Moynihan told the MinnPost, mental health struggles among farmers result in suicide. Part of the funding for “Bend, Not Break” grants will go toward organizing a suicide prevention conference for faith leaders, since farmers typically turn to clergy in times of stress. Grants will also be distributed to the state’s Latino Economic Development Center to organize a retreat for Latino farmers and to educational institutions supporting Minnesota tribes and indigenous food producers. “We have to double down on supporting people in agriculture,” Moynihan said. 

Mother of fallen climate activist leads resilience group to lower mental toll on advocates

Sami Aaron’s son, Kevin Aaron, was a climate activist who became severely depressed after deciding his work was futile. His despair led him to commit suicide in 2003. After losing her son, Sami Aaron herself became a climate activist, while dealing with her grief and loss through yoga and meditation, according to an article about Aaron’s work in Health Shots, National Public Radio’s health news blog.

A few years ago, she met some young climate activists who told her about their feelings of hopelessness as climate disasters surfaced across the globe. That encounter was the springboard for creating The Resilient Activist, a community whose mission is to promote resilience, optimism and hope in response to the climate crisis and to ensure that “no more activists are lost to climate anxiety.” It also offers nature-oriented mental health resources, including links to “climate aware” therapists and mindfulness programs, according to the NPR story. “We need activists who have the resilience to see us through these difficult times,” Aaron said. “That’s what I wanted to give. It’s like, what would have helped him and others like him.”

A poll conducted in September 2000 by the American Psychiatric Association of more than 1,000 people lends support for Aaron’s concern. Some 55% of adults surveyed said that climate change was affecting their mental health. Recognizing these risks, national organizations such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club are encouraging volunteers in their organizations to periodically “unplug” to maintain their mental health, while some environmental studies programs are encouraging a sense of community so students don’t feel isolated.

To ease reentry, people need trusted peers, access to mental health care, and more 

Tommy Green’s office is often his car. Photo: Rob Waters

Tommy Green, a community health worker with the North Carolina Formerly Incarcerated Transition Program, helps people getting out of jail and prison get access to health care and help with social needs like food and transportation. At first, he explains, people just think of him as someone working in health, “but as soon as they know that I was incarcerated, I’m looked at as a friend (and) become the big brother or uncle or father figure,” he said in an article in North Carolina Health News. 

Peer support is “the only reason” the program works, says its founder, Evan Ashkin, professor of family medicine at the school of medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Employing community health workers with a history of incarceration to work with people going through reentry from prison has been proven to work in research, Ashkin says. Some 37% of people incarcerated in state or federal prisons have been diagnosed with a mental illness, according to research by the Prison Policy Initiative. Approximately 1 in 4 people detained in jails report “serious psychological distress.” An estimated 65% of the prison population has a substance use disorder.

“We incarcerate people for the crime of mental illness and the crime of substance use disorder,” Ashkin said in the article. In a recent brief for Health Affairs, he argued that incarcerated people addicted to opioids should have access to medications while they’re imprisoned and when they’re released, as well as health care, counseling and other resources. You can read a longer story about the work of Tommy Green and Evan Ashkin here.

If you or anyone you know is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. And if you’re a veteran, press 1.

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