(Trigger warnings: violence, shootings, trauma, touch/affection, racism, and institutional harm.)
Dorian A. Ortega is a licensed therapist who provides mental health services and grounds intentional conversations with community members. Ortega cofounded Healing Jodonas, which supports group therapy through poetry sessions for individuals to connect about healing. Additionally, she founded FLY Radical Therapy and is a member of the Honeycomb Network and Healthy Hood’s Get Yo Mind Right Initiative. Her mission is to expand traditional therapy by rooting it in social justice values, and addressing issues that undermine collective healing, such as gentrification and racism.
Ortega recently discussed mental health with the Weekly. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is the relationship between mental health and trauma?
There’s different types of trauma. There’s a physical trauma. When we think about mental health, people have experienced trauma. That is a lot more common than physical health trauma. Fewer people have experienced a broken bone versus hearing something tragic on the news or going through something traumatic firsthand.
A neighborhood shooting is a collective traumatic experience; dealing with a national [COVID-19] crisis is a traumatic experience. People have to deal with trauma on different levels, and on a spectrum, but how we deal with trauma is more complex when it’s a collective trauma or consistent trauma that has targeted a particular community.
Trauma is something many folks deal with at different stages of life, and mental health is impacted in a variety of ways by traumatic experiences. Folks might develop certain behaviors based from that experience.
We have flight-or-fight responses: our body will respond by either preparing us to run away or to fight off whatever’s happening. Some people freeze and don’t move at all and stay quiet, as their way of surviving a situation. They might not be able to react, or feel that that they care.
A lot of us are carrying intergenerational trauma from previous generations. We have to think about our fears and how we have been taught those fears, and how we learn to react when we get scared. Returning to the roots is how we heal. This is how we go back and how we evolve the world.
How do systemic inequalities connect with realities of trauma?
It is important to connect trauma to systemic inequality because at this point trauma is chronic due to powers and privileges that continue to exist in our system.
I don’t say it lightly: this trauma is terrorism. Terrorism is happening, and it feels very defeating to see this happen over and over again. I allow myself to have these tears because, if I don’t, I’m going to be numb. And if I don’t feel, I won’t do anything about it. I don’t want to see continuous shootings against Black, Indigenous, and people of color. It’s hard to have pride living in this country because of what continues to happen. It’s very hard to build trust.
How could people continue to recover when they continue to be targeted? How can people heal? How can people heal when they’re constantly being wounded? I don’t have an answer for that. This is something that I struggle with. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t exist, and I’m going to validate that it’s fucked up. We should be sad and angry that these things are happening.
We can see very plainly, and in our faces, that we are not being protected and that we better protect ourselves. Now, we’ve got to keep ourselves safe. We have to keep ourselves healthy, and that includes our physical health, mental health, and all our states of safety of our community. We should all remember how powerful we are as people and how resilient we are.
What is a specific way Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities care for one another?
Communities care for each other without money. Money is not as important as those exchanges or bartering. There are capitalistic fears if that happens [on larger scales], what would happen to capital? There are people pushing for the notion of greed, but we got people here who are saying naw.
Could you describe some of emotions living within systemic inequalities, and COVID-19?
Folks who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color have to deal with many, many issues related to oppression and for just existing. We’re seeing some of that evidence happen. As we live in this pandemic, there are very evident social inequalities for some folks, and for Black, Indigenous, and people of color [communities], specifically Black males who are targeted for nothing. Knowing that you’re a person of color gives you this different way that you have to see the world and how you have to behave in order to survive. And some folks’ feelings and thoughts are changed and challenged day to day.
Being able to say that “I am sad” is a privilege in this country. Having feelings is a privilege. As a person of color to say that or say “I feel angry” is a privilege. When are we allowed to have feelings or sit with our feelings? So many Black, Indigenous, and people of color people are so used to having to survive that they can’t afford to sit down and think about their feelings. This pandemic is an interesting time; we’re almost forced to do that. It can be very hard for some, especially without the support or in a hostile environment. I’m looking at many worlds happening all at once, and it’s too much. It’s a lot and nothing at the same time.
How can we support difficult emotions during COVID-19?
It’s important to validate your feelings. I have a lot of people who are fighting anxiety right now. Anxiety means that you think something terrible is gonna happen. There are ways to minimize anxiety by validating it, saying, “I need to feel this and acknowledge that this is a real feeling.” Try not to judge yourself for feeling human feelings. Find some support systems that you can connect to.
What connection does healing have in this conversation?
Certain folks find ways of healing and strategizing at the same time. Healing happens often up and down, and it’s very conceptual. Healing through traumas is really how you heal. It’s how you cope. I truly don’t know if anyone could choose to be fully healed. I think we heal all of the time.
Mental health is maintenance as a healing person. It’s because we’re maintaining our well-being. We’re taking care of our health. And that means, you’re having support, having food on your table, having a job, having someone to talk to, having something to do, or having a creative hobby. It is having access to the things that you need and being connected to people who know your resiliency when we continue to be challenged.
How do we balance staying connected in our communities and staying safe during COVID-19?
A lot of people are struggling with not having affection. This is such an untypical time; we have to work on being safe. I know there are expectations of hugging, kissing, and handshakes that are often part of our cultural values. It can be disrespectful to not hug grandma. My grandma looked at me like I was crazy when I told her I wasn’t going to hug her.
Put boundaries and respect your space, like not allowing people to come up in your house, if that makes you uncomfortable. It does something to a relationship when a boundary is respected or not respected. Everyone is in their right to check their boundaries and be able to respect others.
How can we honor our mental health needs and capacity when we’re supporting one another?
We can work through emotions in a safe way that can help your growth. We need to reach out by talking to somebody. And again, some folks get really caught up about not wanting to burden people and that is okay, ask permission.
When you’re asking somebody to listen, say: “I’m not asking for advice. I just literally need somebody to talk to, and I just got to unload something. Is it okay if I do that with you?”
I know a lot of people are struggling with receiving emotional responses, but I think that if you’re ready to hear somebody, then hear them: don’t judge them, don’t tell them what to do, or don’t give advice [if they didn’t ask. Just be the ear, if that’s what the people are requesting.
Honor people’s boundaries. With our physical boundaries and our emotional boundaries, ask for consent before venting to somebody or giving advice.
When we’re having conversations with others, you can politely say, “I may not be able to talk about this. Can we another day?”
People can get really turned off when asking, when they have never asked, and then don’t get that support. Remember that there will be time where that will happen for you. Allow people to work with you but just remember everybody is going through it.
What are some examples of how we can care for ourselves?
There’s tangible things we can do to take care of physical and mental health, like moving, breathing, trying to eat something refreshing, calming teas, and cherishing your home, journal, spiritually cleanse, crystal work, using body salts, THC, and anything that feels good for you.
Recognize what it is that you like and what you don’t like, need and don’t need. It’s just an interesting time to figure out by listening to your body and being in tune with emotions. Give yourself and recognize the feelings to just understand yourself better.
What are some barriers to mental health that are unique to Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities?
Trust is hard to build, and mental health isn’t always welcomed in Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities due to the stigma from the whole medical system. In general, for people of color, it’s hard to get to the doctor and take care of your physical health. There’s the stigma of not only access, but even thinking about mental health.
But, let’s say, you go into the healthcare system, and then you’re dismissed with misunderstanding, misdiagnosis, or misrepresentation. When I think about mental health services and trauma, it is an experience with how people access this type of health.
Some folks who have a history of witnessing violent behavior or violence in their community can develop what’s called chronic PTSD or chronic anxiety. But when they go for mental health services, what we’re seeing is the way that the mental health service systems are set up [to not support their experiences]. [For example] if you present as aggressive or impulsive, some providers might think you’re presenting with bipolar when it’s really a traumatic response, like anxiety or depression.
I say that because when we look at trauma, as a person of color who has witnessed trauma and has experienced trauma, and has treated trauma and talked about trauma, I’m hopeful that there’s intentional, cultural understanding of how mental health presents itself for this particular community.
It’s really powerful that more people are able to change the way that the system is set up to access care with very different variety. There are so many different types of therapy that work for people that I don’t think that just one thing works for everybody.
Learn how you can see yourself. How can you work on your healing? I want folks to know that they are not alone in this. If you are feeling a certain type of discomfort, you’re not alone. There is community that exists to make sure that you’re doing okay. Folks want to be engaged and just don’t know where to find it. All people need to know they’re not alone. Engage and get your wellness on! Get your healing on, go for it—you deserve it.
[Get the Weekly in your mailbox. Subscribe to the print edition today.]
Jocelyn Vega is a contributing editor to the Weekly. She last wrote about the 2020 Census and undocumented and immigrant communities.