By Joshua Berry, Ibrahim Mushtaq, Grace Leppert, Lewi Hagos, UW Bothell School of Business
Unable to go to class due to the lingering effects of the Omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, we gathered around our computer screens to attend class. As we sat there, waiting, a slight rain began to fall outside. After some quick online discussion and a coin toss to determine the order of questions we wanted to ask our interviewee, we headed into our online classroom. Everyone piled in, including Condiotty, but all our cameras were off, and all that was there to remind us of our existence were the little black boxes over our profiles. Our teacher asked us a question: “Is your group ready?” We opened up our google doc with questions abound and answered in the affirmative.
Allegra’s black box disappeared and suddenly there she was smiling with bright red lipstick on. She had her blurred background on, which we later found out is because she recently moved. She is originally from Seattle and attended Western Washington University, but moved to Philadelphia for graduate school, where she got a job as a case manager supporting individuals with intellectual differences. After moving back to Seattle in 2020, she took a job at the Washington State Department of Health. She is currently a health educator for Watch Me Grow Washington, and has since joined NAMI as a volunteer board member in December 2021. We discussed how COVID-19 had impacted he, to which she admitted that her break from her work was watching movies and TV. Our group quickly came to realize that all of us had watched so much during the pandemic that we had forgotten the names of what we watched, and to our disappointment, no amount of description or cast-listing could dredge the names of those shows from our memories. With that connection of our shared experiences, we continued on to discuss mental health education.
Please note this interview was edited for clarity
Why do you think mental health education is important?
AC: I think it’s definitely to make sure people are aware and to make sure that no one is alone. And express the fact that there are resources that are accessible and to reach out to people. You can do that by providing educational language that is accessible, that can be translated to multiple languages for language access and build tools to make sure that community members are aware of programs that are out there so that they can be helped, even if it’s just by talking to someone or professional counseling.
There’s often a stigma attached to mental health. What do you think is the best way we can eliminate or at least reduce the stigma associated with mental health?
AC: It’s definitely through education and access and acknowledging that mental illness is prevalent. Being cognizant of the fact that everyone is coming from a different place in mental health and giving the ability to support those with mental illness through education of the wider community, we’ll make people more aware. I think awareness lends its hand to preventing or reducing stigma regarding mental illness. I hope that our community and society emphasize more public health education regarding mental health and reducing stigma, because it’s more common than we think. People are not alone and it’s a hard time for people. Acknowledging that we can get through this and making sure that people know that there are resources out there if they do need support, helps them. I hope that more people who come out and ask for help, support developing better processes to help people and work for better terminology and better education to support more programming towards different approaches to mental health and mental illness support.
What inspired you to go into the field of mental health, or health education in general?
AC: So I would say I’m adjacent to mental health. Through my path to getting into my master’s program, learning through being a part of community-based organizations, and just seeing different perspectives, I’ve always wanted to be in the field of public health. Public health is such an umbrella term so it was important for me to seek out specifics that I would like to witness and observe. I feel very fortunate that I chose to go to a school in Philadelphia, where I volunteered with a well-informed community-based organization called Prevention Point. They provide services through the lens of trauma-informed care for individuals living in and around the Kensington neighborhood, which is the center of the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia. It provides needle exchanges and that is still not necessarily supported in the city. I know Seattle is dealing with a similar situation but has not seen implementation of an intervention program based on that. I do think public health education is important and should always be ongoing. It should strive to make progress with communication and language use to be more inclusive and increase health literacy. My work today is providing, reviewing and editing information in support of the health and safety of children newborn to 6 years old and ongoing language use and inclusive language to make sure our message is being spread. Not everyone agrees with it, and everyone is going to do their own thing, but it’s there. It’s in plain talk and it goes to a lot of people.
You mentioned that this is the first board that you joined, what made you decide to join NAMI Seattle?
AC: It’s another perspective that I don’t have specific experience with. I believe in what NAMI is providing to the community. They want to fill the gaps of the local mental health system and that’s through referrals, support and policy, as well as education. To understand more, a lot of board members share their personal experiences. Some board members do have very difficult experiences dealing with mental health or mental illness, and are also there to give first-hand accounts of their experience. I think that’s really important because another mission of NAMI is definitely to reduce stigma. I’m joining to learn more as a health educator, to understand the language being used around mental health and mental illness, to make myself more aware of how language affects the community, and then also learn about policy and what’s currently going on in legislation sessions.
You had mentioned to us that you started working for the Washington Department of Health in a Covid-19 response role. What do you think are the biggest changes from the pandemic that will shape the mental health field going forward?
AC: That’s a loaded question. Honestly, I hope that it will be more community voices driving the mission. We have social media and like seeing more people bring it up and be more open about discussing it. There are some generational differences which may be a barrier, but if someone needs help, I hope they’re able to open up and discuss their mental health or just in general, begin to say, “I can’t take a phone call” or “call me back later. I need this time for myself”. I don’t think I could have said no to certain get togethers or like family time because of the way I was feeling at the moment, but now I think I definitely have the ability and the know-how to say that “I’m not feeling great right now” and “I don’t think I can contribute positively” to whatever the event is, because I really appreciate quality time. Also, I know I should take time to make myself feel better. Like, go for a walk, or do a workout, or dance party.
What is the value of a support group?
AC: Support groups are incredibly valuable and they don’t have to be people who you’ve known for a long time now that people are online. I do think it’s valuable that we talk to each other, not just provide a place where people can be supportive. I think that people are being very creative with finding a space that they feel comfortable in. I hope you will do that.
What do you hope to achieve by the time you eventually leave NAMI?
AC: Oh my gosh, that is a great question. I’m not sure at this point. I just want to be present with it so right now I’m not really thinking long term. I’m definitely looking to contribute to the knowledge and know-how of building up quality health education materials, and to be able to expand into a more standardized approach that others could possibly implement, and if they would like to utilize that approach, it would be really cool!
With her passion for gaining new perspectives while creating accessible resources and her experience working in the department of health, Allegra Condiotty is motivated and ready to participate on committees to support NAMI Seattle. She works to promote health literacy as a health educator at Watch Me Grow Washington.
This article is a collaborative piece written by a group of Business students from Professor Laura Umetsu’s Business Writing Course at the University of Washington Bothell School of Business. Special appreciation to Jasmine Bager for her assistance in coaching students in effective storytelling.