May Is Mental Health Awareness Month. TNS Staff Members Talk Virtual Therapy, Quarantining With Family and the New Normal During COVID-19

The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and this year, it’s safe to say that every American needs to check their own mental health, daily, to stay sane during one of the most chaotic times in human history. Our staff at The North Star talk about their mental health, during the coronavirus pandemic, and how it’s a struggle to navigate the emptiness of quarantine.

Maria Perez, Associate Editor

Branden Janese: Is there anything you’ve discovered or re-discovered that’s helping you get through lockdown?

Maria Perez: I’ve never been confident in drawing, but my partner nudged me a little to get my hand in drawing. I’ve been learning how to draw and how to color. I’ve always wanted to learn but I was too scared to. I’ve also been exploring my city more. I live in Jersey City right now, I moved in October. So, commuting back and forth to work, I never had the time to explore the city. I always thought I’d move back to Brooklyn but I’ve grown to really like the area. There's a very pretty view of the Statue of Liberty.

BJ: Can you talk more about imposter syndrome? It’s so important, especially for women, to explore our creative sides. It’s so important to fail. But if you’re too afraid to be bad at something you bind yourself into a space of constant staleness.

MP: I’ve been writing news stories since high school. I always thought that that was my form of creativity. But writing the news every day is not a form of creativity. And I did put myself in this little box and told myself I'm not creative or artsy enough. Which isn't true at all, I love poetry, I love music.

BJ: Is there anything you wish you had right now that would make quarantine better.

MP: I want somebody to wash my dishes. I want somebody to wash my dishes so bad.

BJ: You don’t have a dishwasher?

MP: We do, and thank God for it, but I feel like I'm loading and unloading that dishwasher all day fam!

BJ: How do you notice yourself changing?

MP: I feel like my brain has been turned off in a weird way. I can still do work. I'm still capable of doing things but being in an apt everyday doesn't work for me. I want to do different things everyday. So I’ve been learning Spanish one day and drawing another day or watching a work out class or doing yoga or exploring a different part of the city. But this is stale. It doesn't work for me. I don't have anything to look forward to . I need to put some things here and there to make myself feel more sane dealing with all of this.

BJ: Like what?

MP: Getting out there and doing something new. My friend told me that when all of this is over they are going to start up roller blading. I said, honestly, I may take you up on that. Finding things to look forward to, that’s what helps me.

BJ: One thing that has helped my mental health is not having to commute.

MP: Oh, 100 percent.


Nikki Rojas, Senior Writer

Branden: Can you walk me through a typical day for you before quarantine and a typical day now that we are in full lockdown?

Nikki: My life before the quarantine was pretty crazy because I was traveling full time. If I was in Europe, in the morning, I’d be exploring the city I was in, getting groceries, then buckling down to work. I’d always have to coordinate my travel with work to make sure I'm not on a plane when I really need to be writing a story. It took a lot of planning knowing where I was and time differences.

BJ: So a typical day now must be drastically different.

NR: I'm doing quarantine at my childhood home. I get up and I work all day. We try to eat as a family. We have game night. I spent most of the quarantine mostly sick. A lot of that time I was concerned I had coronavirus. I got tested twice, and that was stressful.

BJ: What is keeping you sane from going to such a drastic change? How are you dealing with the transition emotionally?

NR: Before I was travelling, I was working remotely in Boston. So the norm of working from home isn’t different to me. I'm a homebody. I'm used to routine. I travelled constantly for two years and if anything, that has taught me to be more flexible. That’s helped me with being stuck at home with this quarantine. I've had to learn to go with the flow. I’ve tried to pick up new hobbies. As silly as it sounds, I've looked into subscription boxes to keep me entertained. I’m watching a lot more t.v. I’m saving up for an apartment. I think travel helped me learn how to switch gears really quickly.

I think I’m going to look back at this in five years and say, ‘Okay, that was a very stressful time but i came out of it alright.’

BJ: Let me ask you this. I hear you say you’re watching more t.v and getting into subscription boxes. Is that enough?

NR: I don’t know if it’s enough. It’s barely enough to keep me sane.

I find that a lot of people are putting pressure on themselves to do the most during this quarantine. They are going to pick up this hobby, learn a new language, fix up their house, and get in shape. They fill up their time with all of these projects and don't let themselves feel those emotions that they are supposed to be feeling. You’re doing enough to survive, that’s okay. I think that people are struggling to come out of this quarantine better than before, when really all you need to do for yourself and for other people is to just make it through.

BJ: Absolutely. Do you have anything that is shareable? You go to therapy?

NR: Yes I go to therapy.

BJ: Virtually!

NR: Yes, and I’ve been doing that for a long time because I’m never in the same place. But I think it’s important to step back and say, ‘Hey I need some help, and I’m going to go get it.’ I’ve had anxiety, I’ve suffered from depression, I’ve had PTSD. You name it, I’ve probably had it. I think therapy is so important. Everyone needs to be able to talk things out, and not hold in all these issues and stressors in their life.

Also, I live with my dad, my brother, my sister and an exchange student. Sometimes I need some me time, just to be alone, and that’s okay. It serves as a time to recharge myself.


Amal Ahmed, Operations Assistant

Branden: Is there anything you’ve discovered or re-discovered that’s helping you get through lockdown?

Amal: I bought two books: “All About Love,” by Bell Hooks and “Sacred Woman,” by Queen Afua. They both were fascinating. Also doing yoga in the backyard. The backyard is such a special, precious commodity that we take for granted. I live in a suburban part of Queens, so the backyard has been a piece of tranquility and serenity.

BJ: I’m a part of the Literary Freedom Project and we are reading Bell Hook’s “All About Love.” You should come tonight! It’s on Zoom, such a special place for Black women.

AA: I’ll come through!

BJ: Is there anything positive that had come out of this quarantine for you?

AA: I had been using going outside as a means of an escape. I’m a singer and a songwriter, and lately I’ve been really in my bag with writing everyday. I’m putting myself first more often than not. Pouring into myself more has been a major plus.

BJ: Has quarantine affected your songwriting?

AA: I think so. I have no choice, I’m in depth with my emotions. I’ve done a lot of inner work [with quarantine] and now things that I couldn't explain before, or memories from childhood are centering my songwriting now. I feel like it’s more in depth, deeper, more layered.

BJ: That’s what we need right now. The world doesn't need another love song. We need a call to action!

AA: Yes!

BJ: Is there anything you’d like to have right now?

AA: I’d like a pet.

BJ: I’d like a turtle. I’d walk my turtle in the South Bronx. That’d be so cool.

AA: That’d be a sight.

BJ: What do you think you’ll keep from quarantine?

AA: I enjoy not having an excuse to spend my money recklessly. I enjoy having home cooked food, being in my own company and the company of my family. I feel like I’ve slacked on writing and reading. I think it’s going to be a new world, so much is going to shift and change. I do want to carry these good habits into the new world we are going to have.


Lyssandra Golledge, Director of Podcasting and Executive Assistant to CEO

Branden: How have you been dealing with lockdown emotionally?

Lyssandra: There’s active pain, and grief, and trauma that we are all living in right now. One day, I cracked it, I got it. Then the next day you wake up sad or anxious. I think it changes day to day.

BJ: What do you think the hardest part is?

LG: The first three weeks, we had it in my house. We were sick. So being inside felt like a matter of life and death. Since we've been well, sometimes [I feel] restless or have things come up internally that [usually] get buried in my business.

BJ: Do you tackle those things?

LG: I don’t have a choice! When they are there, they are there! So, yeah.

BJ: What are you going to take out of this as a win?

LG: Since I've been able to sit with all these things that are coming up I've been able to set boundaries for myself. I have ADHD, so transitions are really hard. It’s really hard for me to stop working. I used to walk to work and then come home. Now it’s all in one place and it’s become harder for me to do those transitions.

BJ: How are you making that space for your physical person and your brain?

LG: I have to plan everything. Meal planning really helps me. Creating a lot of structure really helps.

BJ: Is there anything you can imagine having that you don’t have that would be alright?

LG: If I had physical space. I just need a room.

BJ: What would you put in it?

LG: A spin bike. I’ve never done a spin class in my life.

BJ: Hunny, let me tell you about those spin classes. They are horrible. They are so hard.

LG: But Branden, that’s how bad my lack of being able to move is. I want that tourture! That’s how far we have come.

BJ: Are you doing anything new that helps with the stress of quarantine?

LG: I've become obsessed with audio books. I’ve never given them a try, ever, and suddenly they are my life.

BJ: Do you have any recommendations?

LG: Robert Galbraith's “Cormoran Strike” series.

For the past two years I've been wanting to go to therapy. Yesterday I made an appointment and I’m going next week.

BJ: It’ll be a virtual appointment, obviously.

LG: Which is another thing, I've always balked against virtual therapy for no reason.

BJ: That’s inspired me. Now I'm going to see if I can find one.

LG: We’re not helping anyone by not going and we have health insurance!


Willis Polk, Senior Producer

Branden: Is there anything you’ve discovered or re-discovered that’s helping you get through lockdown?

Willis: My wife and I started planting a garden. That was something we've talked about for a while. When it becomes this difficult to get groceries, it puts on your mind the importance of being able to sustain yourself without being so dependent on everything outside your home. We cook better. We cook cleaner. That’s occupied our time a lot. Let's just try to make our space better.

BJ: In doing that project together, getting in the dirt and planting and gardening, do you see any changes in yourself?

WP: Yes, [I’ve been] feeling like we needed to keep our immune system strong and be in the sun, that drove us outside. We aren't getting enough sunlight. We were not connecting with nature and noticing since everyone is inside of their homes more, how nature is flourishing. We’ve become a lot more aware of nature.

BJ: I make candles, and I infuse them with New York City medicinal herbs. My hunny took me harvesting in Van Cortlandt Park, it was so peaceful. There was something special about it. It was a desire to be in nature. I wonder if there’s a collective consciousness surrounding that thought.

WP: I think it is. The guy we found to build our planter boxes said his business is super booming right now. He’s a Black guy from Southwest Atlanta, and the majority of his customers are Black. He’s working sixteen hours a day building planter boxes. He talked to me about how much of a blessing it is that people are choosing to do this in the midst of the madness.

BJ: How important do you think that connection to nature is to and Black people?

WP: I definitely think that Black folk have lost that connection to nature. I’m a country boy, I’m from Kentucky, my first job was picking tobacco. Now, I'm at a computer all day. In my studio, the windows are blocked off. I’m literally disconnected from nature all day everyday. And I feel it. In times like this, it makes you realize how important it is for your own sanity to go and touch the dirt.

BJ: When my hands are in the dirt or when i'm walking in the dirt...I can’t really describe it.

WP: The magnetic properties in the earth alters your vibrations.

BJ: What are your thoughts on the stigma of Black American men and mental health?

WP: From my perspective, the stigma comes from two places. One, historically, most psychologists were white. Black people trusting these white ears with their Black pain was a large ask. Two, our reliance on Jesus. You're almost taught that you're stabbing Jesus in the back if you go and talk to someone else about your problems. So when those two powers combine, Black people can slowly lose grip on our minds. I think the stigma is ending now of Black people talking about mental health. There’s plenty of Black psychologists flattening that curve. I’m the son of a preacher. My family didn't leave but one mile from the plantation we were freed from. So I have both sides in my blood. When my wife was working for Marriot, she had excellent benefits. We saw that we could get thirty visits a year to therapy. We went to hella sessions, as a couple and individually. It definitely helped us. Till’ this day, there are things from those sessions that unlocked things in me that I'm still figuring out.

BJ: Do you think the shrinkage of the Black church has anything to do with Black people getting into therapy today?

WP: Yea, I can see a connection there. We need guidance of some sort. I'm a firm believer in church, but I’m also a firm believer that not all churches are good. So people are finding their own churches elsewhere, different types of small groups that are connected on the different levels.

Historically, Black people would go to their pastor for counsel more than they would go to a therapist. I think pastoral counsel can be great, and is needed, but it doesn’t cover all the bases. It’s incredibly biased. Sometimes you need to hear from someone without any slant. Even the preacher man needs to talk to a therapist.

BJ: Do you think there is anything positive happening out of this lock down?

WP: My job is still going. It’s made me realize the blessing of life.


Rai King, COO

Branden: You are so many things to so many people. You play so many roles. Can you talk about how the roles you play have been impacted during this pandemic?

Rai: I would say my friendships. It was relatively easy to keep in touch with my friends because our kids went to school together, so we were in the same meetings, and at the same pickups. I realized early on that we were gonna have to be super intentional about keeping those relationships intact. Now those things I used to rely on aren't there anymore. We can't meet up and go for a jog together. That board meeting where we would all go to dinner afterward isn’t happening. I find that we are being a lot more honest, and raw in our feelings and in our emotions. We are sharing the things that we are dealing with. I want people to know that I love them, I care about them, and I’m thinking about them. If nothing else, this pandemic has put our mortality right there in our faces. We've seen people our age die of COVID-19. I’m not generally an emotional or expressive person. I’m not mushy with my words. When my girlfriends say “I love you,” it takes me back a little. It’s not generally how I express my love and care. But during this time, I find myself saying, “I love you. I’m thinking about you. Hey, how are you? What do you need? Want to hop on the phone? I miss you.”

These things [are not] natural for me to say. I am saying them a lot more because I want the people I care about to know that I care about them. Even with my mom. Before the pandemic, it wasn't unusual for us to go two weeks without talking to one another. Now, I call and text her everyday.

BJ: Is there anything you're doing now for your mental health that you would have never done before?

RK: Honestly, no. I haven't discovered anything new, but I’ve re-discovered cooking. When I was a stay at home mom and homeschooler, I cooked everyday. I made dough from scratch. I made stews from scratch that had to be cooked all day, not in a crock-pot. Once I went back to work, and the kids were at school, and living in New York where take out is the norm, I almost never cooked. Now, I'm having to cook every single day and I'm rediscovering that love. To plan and execute a meal, put it on the table, and have the whole family enjoy it and knowing that they are nourished by it, I love that.

BJ: How sick of Zoom calls are you?

RK: Oh my gosh. It’s unbearable. Last week, I had a day where I wanted to throw the computer at the wall. I miss more calls than I get. For sure.

BJ: That sounds exhausting. Maybe we need to shorten these Zoom calls for everyone's mental health.

RK: I want them to shorten the school year. These teachers are working really hard, they are phenomenal. But at the same time, why can't we admit that something catastrophic has happened and because of that, we need to take a pause and think about what we are going to do. Take a minute to plan and think about what’s going on. Parents are stressed. Teachers are stressed. School systems are running around like they are on fire. We could save ourselves a lot of headache by making the decision to be done.

BJ: Is there anything that you wish you had that would make lockdown a little easier? I want one of those foot baths that you plug in.

RK: Oh my gosh I just ordered one of those! I’ve let go - out of necessity - all of my beauty routines. I hate getting my nails done. I like being on the go. But during this time, I actually miss just sitting there and relaxing with my feet in a hot bath of water with the jets going. When this quarantine is over, in the immediate after time of it, there are definitely things that I am going to appreciate and look at differently. So my manicures and pedicures are going to be one of those.


Shaun King, CEO

Branden: When was the first time you heard the term mental health?

Shaun: In 1995, I was assaulted, very badly. I ended up having three spinal surgeries, fractures in my face and ribs. I missed two years of high school. I didn’t know it, clinically, but I was deeply depressed. I wasn't suicidal but whatever a step above that is. I didn't want to live. I was in horrible physical pain and emotionally I was a wreck. Back then I didn't have the language for it. There [wasn’t] any Mental Health Awareness month. I was a huge hip hop fan and rappers didn't talk about that, but my doctor recommended that I go see a [therapist]. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I didn't understand it. I was still in recovery. But for me it was tied to that moment. I didn't consider seeing another counselor until fifteen or twenty years later. And that was when my wife and I needed marital counseling. That was even hard for me, thinking I need someone to talk us through the problems we are having. I've had mentors and people I would talk to but the idea of having a professional, someone who was trained to guide people through their struggles, didn’t occur to me. I've carried that for twenty five years after I was assaulted, a lifetime ago. I still struggle with it. I talk with my wife about my problems, but the more known I've become, the more apprehensive I've become. Even though I know it’s helpful, it gives me trepidation for sure.

BJ: You were a preacher for a while weren't you?

SK: Most of my adult life.

BJ: So, you’re used to people coming to you for therapy.

SK: In the Black church, in the Black community, it’s problematic. Even if you have somebody with severe schizophrenia, people would bring them to the church. Back in the 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s and the 1980’s people would lay hands and pray on people. Even if you had clinical depression. Every blue moon, a pastor may be trained to deal with that. In the Black community, people did not necessarily have the insurance for counseling. The assumption was you’d have to speak with someone white about your problems, all of that ends up being a part of the struggle.

BJ: With the shrinking of the Black church it seems that more Black people have been into getting therapy. What are your thoughts?

SK: It’s a lot of factors. It’s way more mainstream. There are organizations that advocate for Black mental health. There are full months that bring awareness. I think all that normalizes the culture of seeking help. I think for a long time it was looked at as an admission of guilt. I think the stigma that was the standard is starting to decline, but that’s not enough. Now, people have to be willing to embrace the services. I think Black men are going to be some of the slowest folk to do that.

BJ: Why?

SK: In my generation, men use fewer words in general.

In 1994, I was at an event where someone started shooting at my friend and I. After we barely escaped, we never talked about it again. Not even that night. There is a habit of enduring something painful, tucking it in, and compartmentalizing it. It’s not just machismo, or toxic masculinity. It’s a feeling that I have to keep living, I have to keep working, and it’s not time for everyone to hear all my personal problems. Even when I went to Morehouse, people talked about their problems here and there but it wasn't the standard. I think things are better today, but I think black men are going to be slow to embrace regular therapy. It’s not okay, but there's a lot to unpack there for sure.

BJ: What’s the significance in there not being a lot of Black male therapists? Who is trying to be politically correct and mad!

SK: It's deeply personal to share some problems that they may not understand. It’s supply and demand. There's a long list of reasons why Black men are not quick to open up to these conversations. It’s time, it’s having the health benefits, it’s knowing how to use the system. We struggle systemically to get Black men to get check ups. I struggle with it. People have to drag me to the doctor. Of all the things I have to do, I place seeing a therapist low on the list of needs.

BJ: Have you noticed anything about yourself during these few months of lockdown that have changed for the better?

SK: I'm an old dog in a lot of ways. I was already a homebody and super private. I don't like being home this much. This is too much even for me. I miss the simple ease of walking down the block and not worrying about a terminal super virus.

BJ: Is there anything that would make things easier?

SK: I don't need a lot of creature comforts. [Right now] I don’t have a space that I can privately record. I’m regularly in a space where someone needs to be. I’m always asking the whole house to be quiet or get off of the internet. I really value having more private space. I feel on most days people are having to do more accommodating for me. So on most days, I think I could use some more space. I’m super basic when it comes to items. We ordered a cherry pie from GoldBelly, and it was the best damn cherry pie I've ever had. It made the day, and made things easier in the moment.