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These 3 Women Are Changing How People Find Mental Health Support

Meet three visionaries who are breaking molds and taboos to help everyone get the mental health support they need.
By Ginny Graves
April 22, 2021

The Stereotype Smasher

Gloria Lucas is the founder of Nalgona Positivity Pride.

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Credit: Courtesy of Gloria Lucas

I was 10 years old when I started binge eating. It's the most common eating disorder, and it's prevalent in marginalized communities of color. But I didn't understand that bingeing was a disorder. I saw it as a character flaw, not a health issue. I felt so much shame—not only for the way I ate but also for my weight. American culture prioritizes being skinny at any cost. That mindset instills self-hatred in people with larger bodies. I learned to hate myself.

At 17, I developed bulimia. I knew that was an eating disorder because I saw it on TV. But it didn't occur to me to get treatment at first, because every show I'd seen featured white girls with family and medical support. Two years later, I worked up the courage to reach out to an eating-disorders recovery center. When they asked if I had private insurance and I said no, they said, "We can't help you." They didn't point me toward other resources. They didn't offer other solutions. They just turned me away.

My mom and sister were strong feminist role models, and they instilled in me the sense that women are powerful and the key to making change for the better. Their attitude, along with activists in my community, had widened my view of the world. So by the time I was 19, I'd already been organizing local feminist festivals and sexual-violence awareness events. When the eating-disorders center turned me away, I decided to extend my activism to eating disorders.

I started reading about historical trauma and how it's passed on both through your genes and your environment. I began to understand some of the cultural and familial factors that contributed to my eating disorder—things I'd never read in any mainstream article.

Based on what I learned, I started Nalgona Positivity Pride, a Xicana-indigenous body-positive organization that provides intersectional eating-disorders education and community-based support for people of color. I put together a talk on the link between colonialism, racism, culture, and eating disorders and started presenting it to different organizations. It wasn't long before I was getting more work than I could keep up with.

Today, the NPP website is a hub for webinars and classes on diet culture, fat phobia, historical trauma and eating disorders, and community-based eating-disorder-support models. We also have an online support group for people in the BIPOC community who have eating disorders.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement, there seems to be a shift in the eating-disorders treatment field. People want to find ways to help underserved communities get treatment and are interested in adapting the treatment model for the BIPOC community. But what speaks to me is action. My goal is to create visibility on an issue that's not recognized as a serious problem in our communities. I want others like me to know that they are not alone. I believe in the power and healing that exists in community.

The Caregiving Crusader

Liz O'Donnell is the founder of Working Daughter.

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Credit: Photography Joe St. Pierre / Hair and Makeup by Alicia Dane

If my life were a cartoon, my light-bulb-over-the-head moment happened when I was driving home at 11 p.m. one night in early 2014. I work in public relations and had taken a "vacation" day. That morning, I saw my two kids out the door, answered emails, then drove to my parents' house in Cape Cod, more than an hour away, to take my 84-year-old mother to a doctor's appointment. She was frail and no longer driving at that point.

I had had to push the appointment back because my mom was running behind, so we did some errands first. It was late by the time I got back on the road to head home, and then I had car trouble. I was exhausted. As I drove, I couldn't stop thinking about a comment my mom's doctor had made: "Why are you still working? You should be taking better care of your mother."

That's when the light bulb clicked on. Working daughters like me were carrying so much. We were overwhelmed. And no one really acknowledged it. Who was going to shine a light on this issue—and start helping us?

I knew the answer: I was. I wasn't sure how yet, but I knew that I had to do something.

The rest of 2014 was grueling. Both my parents were diagnosed with terminal illnesses on the same day in early July. I had just left an appointment with my father's medical team, where I learned he had Alzheimer's, when my phone rang. It was a doctor at a hospital 30 minutes away, where my mom was having her stomach pain evaluated. "Your mom," he told me, "has ovarian cancer."

My mom passed away three months later. I was able to be with her almost every day. And I got my dad settled into an assisted-living facility. Finally, in early 2015, I started an online membership community called Working Daughter. My mission: No one should have to go through caregiving alone.

I began writing posts for the site about everything from how to handle guilt and make the time for self-care, to qualities to look for in a home health care worker. I wanted to provide the type of practical, compassionate information that caregivers needed—and that I knew from experience was difficult to find.

I started a private Facebook group for caregivers, a space where women can be honest about how hard it is, where they can say, "I hate this today," or, "I resent having to run all these errands for my parents." Acknowledging the challenges and sharing your feelings with others helps caregivers get through it.

I also began offering monthly webinars on workingdaughter.com about topics like understanding cognitive changes in older adults, and dealing with your siblings during caregiving.

My dad passed away in 2017. The next year, my husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died in March 2019. His illness was devastating. It nearly brought me to my knees. But it showed me that what I had been creating worked—that all the advice about self-care and social support really helps, and that you can maintain a life while caregiving.

I've just launched a workshop called Life After Caregiving. It's about coping with grief and getting your groove back after you've lost someone you love—a seemingly inconceivable feat that I have learned is possible, too.

The Instagram Therapist

Nedra Glover Tawwab runs the @nedratawwab Instagram account.

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Credit: Courtesy of Nedra Glover Tawwab

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a judge because they talk to people about their lives. I didn't even know therapists existed. Even after I started working on my master's degree in social work policy—which was too dry and not for me—I didn't know any Black therapists. When I decided to shift my focus to working one-on-one with people, I felt like I was heading into new territory, personally and culturally, which was a little scary. But from the moment I started seeing clients, I knew I was doing what I was supposed to do. As I worked with people—giving them the time to really say what was on their minds, without rushing—it struck me how infrequently we get to do that in our everyday lives, and how important it is to our emotional well-being.

In 2011, I opened my own counseling center in Charlotte, North Carolina. I loved getting to know my clients and deepening that professional relationship—and still do. But I could only see so many patients in a day, and I wanted to do more. Back then, I didn't use social media. But I noticed patients scrolling through Instagram while they waited in the lobby of my office. And one day, it occurred to me that I could provide mental health information on this platform so many people were using.

In 2017, I started the Instagram account @nedratawwab. At first, I just posted reassuring or thought-provoking sayings. But as time went on, I began creating bullet-pointed lists that were targeted to specific problems, like how and why to set boundaries, factors that lead to burnout, and signs of emotional abuse or depression or unhealed trauma. I tend to think in lists—they get to the heart of the important information. I thought they might help others, too.

That's when my account really took off. Now I have 750,000 followers. They're a wonderful mix of races and sexual orientations. But I'm particularly glad to be reaching Black folks. There's so much healing that Black people need, and having a therapist who looks like them draws them in. I've received innumerable private messages saying things like, "I've never heard this information before. We don't talk about this stuff in my family." And people tell me they're putting the material in my posts to use—trying to set boundaries in their relationships or practice self-care.

When people experience trauma, particularly childhood trauma, they often think they don't have the power to change their behavior or make different choices. I'm trying to help my Instagram audience see that they do have that power—that they can take better care of themselves emotionally, get mental health support if they need it, and improve the quality of their relationships and their lives. 

This article originally appeared in the  May 2021 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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