Deandria Wood battled depression and drug abuse on and off for years, even while she was pregnant with her first son.
Then in the mid-1990s, she turned her life around. She spent a decade as an advocate and support figure for others who had struggled with substance abuse.
But in 2010, while her son Fabian was still in college, she took her own life. He had no idea she was still struggling with mental illness.
Fabian Wood blames his mother’s death primarily on her feelings of isolation, a consequence of dealing with her depression and having no one in her community to talk about it.
Even though conversations about mental health have become more common in recent years, studies and reports from the U.S. Surgeon General gathered by the National Alliance on Mental Illness have found minority communities talk less about mental health and have much less access to mental health care than their white counterparts, an issue that has not changed much in the last two decades. According to census data and records from the Travis County medical examiner’s office, minority groups make up 25% of Austin residents and accounted for 20% of suicides from 2008 to 2018.
So seven years after his mother died, Fabian Wood made improving mental health in minority communities and encouraging conversations about it his top priority. He left his job at Apple in 2017 to start a nonprofit named after his mom, the D. Wood Foundation, to work toward those goals.
“The lack of awareness of what’s affecting us is what is the problem,” Wood said. “If you sneeze or cough and you’re unaware that you could have a cold or are unaware that you might have a flu or don’t know what the flu even is, then you’re not going to want to seek treatment.”
Wood started by establishing a student group called the You’re Not Alone Fellowship at Huston-Tillotson University, his alma mater. The group hosts regular meetings about how to get support and access mental health care.
The group’s name stems from Wood’s belief that loneliness and silence are major factors in aggravating mental health problems within minority communities. Mental health counselors say people with depression often don’t talk about it because of a misconception that mental health is not a real health concern. And considering the growing need for colleges across the nation to offer mental health resources such as psychiatric care, one-on-one counseling and group therapy, Wood said it made sense to start the nonprofit’s work at a university.
The group “acts as a bridge in getting people motivated and aware of what’s going on in their mind and their environments and bridging them to the help they need as well as kind of creating a culture of support,” Wood said.
Malachi Peterson, an accounting junior at Huston-Tillotson and current president of the You’re Not Alone Fellowship, said a large part of what the group does is provide resources to students. During the group’s biweekly meetings, the group hosts speakers to talk about mental health issues and how to have conversations with others about mental health.
“A lot of people in the minority community feel like they can’t speak on the issue or they feel like they should be ashamed about how they feel,” Peterson said. “But it’s just important to let the minority community know that people want to understand how you’re feeling.”
Wood said he also wanted to begin the foundation at Huston-Tillotson because, like many other historically black colleges, it has a smaller student population than a major state university and doesn’t have a lot of money to spend on mental health support for students.
Huston-Tillotson has a little over 1,100 students and just one full-time licensed mental health counselor, according to its website. Wiley College, a historically black college in East Texas with 1,400 students, also has just one licensed counselor, according to a spokeswoman for the college. UT-Austin, with a student population of nearly 50,000, has almost 40 licensed counselors, social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists that served almost 7,000 students in the 2017-2018 school year.More Headlines
Until her recent departure, Dawn Leisch served as Huston-Tillotson’s mental health counselor and the school sponsor for You’re Not Alone. She said she loved working with the group because as a therapist, they shared the same goal.
“Just their whole name, ‘You’re Not Alone,’ that’s perfect,” Leisch said. “Students would often say, ‘Oh my mom would say: No, you’re crazy. No, there’s something wrong with you.’ … But it’s just part of human to human experience. We all go through things, and it’s OK to reach out for help. It doesn’t make you crazy.”