This article was originally published in the April 2018 Trenton Downtowner.
When Kimme Carlos was recovering from mental health issues and addiction some 15 years ago, she looked around and realized that there was no place to turn for emotional support. Asking “who can relate?” to a community with scarce awareness at that time, she sensed the stigma that so often tests urban residents.
So, she says, she took matters into her own hands, convened the Urban Mental Health Alliance (UMHA) in 2013, and has become the energy behind mental health awareness in the Trenton area.
This past January the organization’s impact on awareness was recognized when Carlos was honored by SEED (Servants Endeavoring to Empower and Develop) male mentoring program at its seventh annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast.
Next month, the UMHA will further raise awareness when it celebrates young artists during a free mental health arts expo at the Trenton Free Public Library Saturday, May 5. The event is titled “1-800-Who-Can-Relate?” and speaks to youth about the importance of mental health awareness.
The event takes its name from lyrics by Logic (stage name for rapper, singer, and songwriter Sir Robert Bryson Hall II) in the song “1-800-273-8255,” which is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. The expo is subtitled “Youth Mental Health Arts Expo,” and young performers will present visual art, spoken word, and songs on mental health themes.
“There is no organization like this in New Jersey, in the country,” says Carlos about the nonprofit. “No one talks about mental health in urban communities. When I was out of recovery I went online but was baffled. Couldn’t find anything. I needed to create something.”
Now with a Trenton address, Carlos grew up in Los Angeles County. Her father was Olympic bronze medal runner John Carlos who during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City became part of Civil Rights history when he and fellow Olympian Tommie Smith raised their black-gloved fists to protest racial injustice in the United States and became the subjects of FBI scrutiny. Her mother, Kim, killed herself when her daughter was 12.
Carlos is up front about the aftermath: tumultuous teenage years. The traumatic event, she says, “propelled me into more than 20 years of addiction, depression, and anxiety disorder.” She has been in recovery for 15 years.
“It’s a sensitive subject, especially in communities of color,” Carlos says. “In urban communities where there are so many stigmas, this is one more. If I can stand up about my journey it gives other people permission to say, ‘There is an African American woman discussing addiction, so it’s OK for me to get help.’”
The transparency, she says, “puts a face on mental illness” and drives her to help others from falling through the cracks.
Created with board members who join in advocating, supporting, and representing what Carlos calls “the most vulnerable of those affected among us,” UMHA is supported by contributors, grants, and fundraising events.
Carlos says UMHA is different from a clinical service — although it offers those services as resources — because its mission is for those in urban communities to advocate for addiction and mental health awareness and recovery for themselves and their loved ones without “stigma, fear, or humiliation.”
She likens it to the American Heart Association: while not medically treating heart disease, the heart association advocates for heart-healthy lifestyles. “I teach positive mental health — what does mental illness look like? We teach self-advocacy,” she says.
To help that self advocacy, the UMHA website has a full list of local resources and through events and speaking engagements brings addiction and mental health information, tools, and resources to the community. These include workshops, support groups, training programs, and resource materials, all of which “serve to bring a greater quality of life to those who live under the burden of addiction and mental health challenges,” says Carlos.
Carlos, who has been in New Jersey since about 1984 when she attended Essex County College (she earned a liberal arts degree there, and later earned a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Regent University), works a day job at a Princeton office.
Demonstrating a stamina for social involvement, she is also on the board of Children’s Futures; honorary chair of the healthy living committee for the African American Cultural Collaboration of Mercer County; author the book “The Window of Grace: Living in Recovery Through Christian Faith”; and — as a speaker, facilitator, and volunteer — involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Mercer County, Greater Trenton Behavioral Healthcare (now Oaks Integrated Care), and the Center for Family Community of Social Justice and the Healthy Minds Ministry at Galilee Baptist Church.
And as a member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral Vestry on West State Street, Carlos is launching a mental health ministry. Her plan is to produce one event a month and one coffee hour to provide fellowship to support those who live with mental health challenges.
A certified National Council for Behavioral Health mental health first aid instructor, she is also called on to show others how to recognize mental health crises. “It is like a first responder. It’s an excellent program. I’ve been with it for two years,” she says.
Looking at Trenton through her work and experience, Carlos say the community is trained by specific stresses that include “under and unemployment, poverty, inadequate educational systems, lack of nutrition, sub-par housing, homelessness, severe overcrowding, higher incidents of violence and abuse, gang-warfare, and broken family support systems.”
These adverse conditions, coupled with life’s day-to-day challenges, “are oppressive and burdensome and often result in serious mental health challenges,” she says, naming high levels of addiction, anxiety, chronic depression, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and possibly suicide.
Consequently, she estimates she personally handles about 10 to 15 calls each month. “There is a lot of communication and requests for information. I am proud that people trust UMHA. There is confidentiality. It is a safe place. No judgment. That culture of trust translates into a safe space.”
A mother and grandmother, Carlos says she isn’t slowing down and UMHA is developing its first strategic plan. That includes a goal to expand outreach throughout Mercer County and New Jersey. “We are assessing what is the best way to do that,” she says. The signature programs — the workshop series “Healthy Minds Matter,” the annual fall “Free Your Mind” conference, and an annual panel — will no doubt stay.
UMHA is also seeking donations and volunteers, especially for social media and operations.
Assessing UMHA’s work, Carlos says, “The black and brown are often impoverished, and mental health challenges may be a challenge to many. We want to empower the community to help its own. Knowledge is power.”
1-800-Who-Can-Relate? Saturday, May 5, Trenton Free Public Library, 120 Academy Street. UMHA is sponsoring its fourth annual Free Your Mind — Recognizing Urban Trauma conference in October. Details will be on the website, urbanmentalhealthalliance.org. UMHA services are free to the general public, and Carlos can be reached at 609-610-7603 or at UMHAHOME@gmail.com.