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Carissa's Path: Shaping Mental Health Conversations with the Healthy Minds Alliance

Updated: Oct 11, 2023

Carissa Peckrul

In today’s world, when mental health struggles challenge the nation, some individuals are motivated by a desire to create positive change in the minds of others. Among these people are the inspiring alumni of the Healthy Minds Alliance, a program under AmeriCorps that provides crucial mental health education to community members and professionals. For those who choose to join the Healthy Minds Alliance, the decision is one of unwavering commitment to impact the mental health landscape in America.

Every person who chooses a path of service has a humble way they came about the decision to offer their attention and care to others. In the case of Carissa, a standout Healthy Minds Alliance alumna, we see someone who found the path of service and, in turn, found their place in the world. Carissa’s story is a compelling narrative of a young woman who, without a meticulously planned roadmap, found herself on a path less traveled - a path illuminated by service to her community and a commitment to destigmatizing mental health.

I think my service term provided the understanding that you can share opportunities for people to heal and to recover through different initiatives and not just talk therapy.

Carissa’s remarkable journey with AmeriCorps began with a serendipitous encounter during her senior year of college. With graduation on the horizon, she faced a pivotal decision - to embrace a traditional path or chart a course less traveled. “I was looking into going to Law school,” Carissa admits. But it was during a conversation with a professor that her mind was changed. Her professor suggested service with AmeriCorps after college. Carissa laughs as she recalls responding, “What the heck is AmeriCorps?”

Despite her initial hesitation, Carissa found out about Health360, which hosted Healthy Minds Alliance members in Waterbury, Connecticut. When she discovered that the host site was in Connecticut, it seemed meant to be. “I am from Connecticut, and I knew I was moving back home after graduating,” she mentions. Time flew by, and just months later she was teaching Mental Health First Aid “across the state of Connecticut,” she shares.

Following the path of education with the Healthy Minds Alliance guarantees that public speaking is involved, which proved to be particularly challenging for Carissa. She mentions the training that the participants go through and how nervous she was. “I remember rehearsing the training in front of my hotel room mirror and thinking, I don't think I can do this.” After traveling across the nation to train for what would come next, she found herself wondering, “What did I get myself into?” But after she gave the training to an audience of people working for the National Council, her nerves subsided. “They were all so supportive and told me I nailed the training,” she beams.

Carissa also speaks candidly about her own complicated relationship with mental health. “I served as an ambassador for a suicide prevention agency after my AmeriCorps term.” There’s a pause, and she’s reminded that she doesn’t need to share anything she’s uncomfortable having in public. “It’s okay,” she assures. “One of the biggest parts of teaching Mental Health First Aid is being able to rely on personal experiences. That way, you’re providing a foundation for the audience to share their own experiences.” She shares that her family has a history of addiction, which is what drew her to helping others with mental health. She says most people don’t realize how the two are related. “Within my family's history, people would just see the addiction piece, and they wouldn't necessarily always see the mental health piece. But there's comorbidity in both of them.”

Carissa brings up an important point. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than one in four adults living with serious mental health problems also have a substance abuse problem, which comes out to around 9.2 million people nationwide. Carissa speaks about her own family and the connection between addiction and mental illness, including the stigma that connects them. “People would say my family members have an addiction and that’s all they are. There’s a lot more going on behind the scenes that I don't think people realize.”

During service, some moments are more challenging than others. Carissa shared one of the most crucial moments of training, one where they give people the opportunity to practice- as she calls it- “the question.” This is one of the most important parts of Mental Health First Aid training, as it builds muscle memory for asking something probing and uncomfortable, but necessary. Carissa explains: “You notice somebody's in distress, and you feel comfortable enough in a conversation to ask: Are you thinking about suicide?”

This exercise was optional, and it made a woman uncomfortable, who politely declined to participate in asking the question. But then, something surprising happened. The woman came back again for a different training. She approached Carissa and told her, “I didn't ask when we were practicing the question out loud. But a couple of weeks later, I asked it to a family member.” The woman paused and continued, “And I think asking that question saved their life.” This touching moment emphasizes how education acts like a butterfly effect. The people who serve with the Healthy Minds Alliance are the butterflies themselves, creating a healthy conversation around mental health that breaks barriers and shapes perspectives.

Carissa has a bright view of the future of mental health care. “I think my service term provided the understanding that you can share opportunities for people to heal and to recover through different initiatives and not just talk therapy.” There’s a vision here of a world where we cite more than talk therapy as a solution for mental health struggles. Like Carissa, we can all find ways to be inspired by the impact that education and community have on benefiting public mental health.

Looking ahead, the alumni of the Healthy Minds Alliance envision a future where the stigma surrounding mental health continues to diminish. A future where more people feel comfortable seeking help and conversations about mental health are commonplace. The path of service is a challenging but rewarding one that every AmeriCorps alumni has walked. Their journeys serve as a reminder that each one of us has the power to make a difference by fostering a more compassionate and understanding world.

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