Recovery is Real: Florette Willis and the future of Mental Health Advocacy

On February 2, the mental health advocacy coalition Bringing Back Boston held a ceremony to honor Florette Willis at the Museum of Science. Willis serves as the first  Director of Diversity and Inclusivity for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Massachusetts.

Willis’ goal  is to to expand the accessibility of mental health services in Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury and the rest of  Greater Boston.

“NAMI now reaches communities where they’ve never had a presence before,” said Ruthie M., the friend that introduced Willis.

Willis explained that her vision of inclusive mental health services aligns with community centered advocacy.

“Since all human beings need real human connections to survive, I truly believe that recovery oriented programs such as peer mentoring, peer support and community integration in the healthcare system improves the quality of lives. Those programs meet folks where they’re at, while gently guiding them toward recovery. This shifts the paradigm to ensure full equity, across the board, for all people, while helping to lower health disparities.”

The approaches that Willis outlined represent nationwide innovations in public mental health services. Massachusetts is unique in training Certified Peer Specialists (CPS), people that have healed from mental health struggles and work in hospitals to counsel others through struggle.

“As a trauma survivor and a CPS, in recovery from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, I know it’s my job to open doors to new possibilities, new understandings and new visions to provide folks with the most opportunity to heal grow, and recover in communities of choice. Because recovery is real.”

While Willis carries the message that recovery is real to wider communities within Boston, many people in Boston’s inner core still lack access to mental health treatment. CJ Ghanny, a CPS at Massachusetts General Hospital, observes this dynamic at work.

“My department gets referrals of patients that had a severe psychotic break or episode. These people often struggled by themselves before reaching a crisis. They were people that either don’t know how to reach out to other people, would never call a hotline, would never reach out to a professional– or didn’t because those options are not in their community or in their greater network of people. And those people suffer a great deal.”

He put his observation into context by noting a study at Harvard that found 10 years to be the  average time  between the onset and treatment of mental illness in the United States.

Bringing Back Boston intends to create programs that bridge the gap between a person’s struggle with mental health and the support of the person’s community.

“I wanted to shape the network of mental health activism so that people can get creative,” said the coalition’s founder, Shamara Rhodes.

“This isn’t about talking to doctors. If you’re comfortable with a friend, bring a friend to our events. The point is to make people feel comfortable.”

She noted that social shame worsens many people’s mental health struggles, and makes reaching out for help seem even harder.

“I want people to leave any event hosted by Bringing Back Boston inspired to be themselves.”

Willis helps Rhodes create these events, which Bringing Back Boston publicizes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Willis observes that efforts like Rhodes’ represent the future of mental health services.

“As a change agent, I stand on the shoulders of so many people before me. And also the people that will come after me– people like Shamara. I enjoy working with you so much. You’re young, you’re vibrant and you’re just what the city needs to change make treatment more accessible.”

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