Equalized health care: a new beginning

Story by JUSTIN GALLETLY

Systemic racism is one of the more contentious topics of debate today.

While racism itself is well known, the matter of institutionalized racism entered the common lexicon following the tragic murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.

While the situation brought attention to the idea of police reform, one area without much publicity is its relation to health care.

Blacks generally receive worse treatment than the average white citizen regarding health care services in America. This can be attributed largely due to both implicit and explicit biases from both health care providers and staffers at hospitals and clinics.

In response to the issue reaching public awareness, many organizations are beginning to take a stand against the issue.

One of them is the University of Utah Health, which declared on Jan. 12, 2021, that “systemic racism is a public health crisis.

A way systemic racism impacts Blacks is discrimination based on insurance status, which itself disproportionately impacts non-white citizens.

Other issues include misunderstandings based on false information regarding biological differences in Black people.

Examples include beliefs that Blacks have less sensitive nerve endings, a higher pain tolerance, and even stronger immune systems than whites.

As much as 73% of white medical students believe at least one, if not more, false misconceptions of biological differences regarding Blacks.

The Office for Health Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion is helping U Health addresses the situation at large.

Dr. Jose Rodriguez is the associate vice president of the organization, and one of its leading voices pushing to see serious policy changes against systemic racism.

Rodriguez took his position in August 2018, and his immediate course of action was to get deans staffed in the individual colleges across campus to address equity and inclusion matters.

Rodriguez explained in a Zoom call that at the time, his boss was unable to meet his request, stating resources weren’t available to make it happen.

Following the murder of George Floyd, this all changed. The deans Rodriguez requested were finally filled and accommodated for.

“We understand the anti-racism war is an individual responsibility of every employee. Our diversity office has to serve as the resource and the guidepost for that kind of work,” Rodriguez said. “We’re helping each of these individual units develop plans to move more towards equity. We’re helping them to revise and review their hiring practices to favor equity instead of favoring the white demographic.”

Rodriguez added, “This injustice is not new, but the George Floyd execution put it on people’s consciousness, with people coming out to say, ‘This is not my America.’ When that happened, it brought Blacks and whites together.”

This turning point subsequently led to mandatory implicit bias training for all staff working across the different divisions across campus.

The training really focused in on making staff members address any unknown prejudices deep within them and learn to be more aware of it so it wouldn’t affect their judgement.

Dr. Jose Rodriguez

This way, all patients, regardless of their race, can receive the same treatment without fear of discrimination.

“Society has this deeply entrenched, so it’s not our job to go around blaming each other and feeling bad about it, it’s our job to end it,” Rodriguez said.

The pandemic also played a substantial role in revealing the racist prejudices in our health care system.

Early in the pandemic, it became apparent that Blacks were far more likely to die of the disease than whites, as much as 3.57 times more likely.

These statistics, combined with the ongoing struggles the coronavirus has brought to daily life and the outcry from the aftermath of George Floyd, set in motion a chance to change the U Health’s standards.

“What COVID did is it laid naked the intensely racist nature of our society,” Rodriguez said.

As a result, the U Health just hired a senior diversity leader, Mikel Whittier.

His position only exists thanks to the Office for Health Equity, Diversity and Inclusion insisting on a need for more diversity officers in the delivery line space at the clinic.

“The hiring of my position is the start of action in moving strong language and a strong foundation that has already been set both by the Health Sciences Department and the hospital into action,” Whittier said in a Zoom interview. “What we see across the country, especially over the summer, is there’s a lot of statements made about equity, diversity, and inclusion and how there’s zero tolerance, but we see more of the same across the institution. When there’s time for action, there’s inaction in which you become complicit in racist behavior, so this is a step in that direction.”

As a Black man himself, Whittier says he knows all too well the realities of systemic racism, given he’s been on the receiving end of it.

In 2018, he lost his stepfather to cancer largely due to the inequities in place related to cancer outcomes, with Blacks far more likely to die of the disease than whites tend to.

The consequences Whittier faced due to systemic racism even stretch back to when he was born.

“If you look at infant mortality rates amongst Black women dying of complications of birth, my mom had to stay in the hospital for six additional months after I was born, and that’s a critical time as a newborn to not have your mother there,” Whittier said.

These experiences helped shape his convictions and channel them into working to fix the system.

The different staff members at the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion are all working together in specific tasks to tackle the problem and put an end to it.

Mauricio Laguan, a manager for recruitment and retention, explains some of the ways the Health division staff have managed to make positive changes to staffing policies.

Mauricio Laguan

“We’re developing an on-boarding training for new employees to understand how the University of Utah will protect them from discrimination and microaggressions from patients and other co-workers,” he said during a phone interview.

Laguan believes one of the harder challenges, especially for a state with as little diversity as Utah, is getting more people of color hired on for medical work.

“Long term, the things that are going to need more time is diversifying the people that work here. Having more Black doctors, having more Latinx doctors, more Polynesian doctors, more Pacific Islander doctors,” Laguan said.

Despite these challenges, work is being done to hopefully make a positive change for not only Blacks but all people of color at the U’s Health services.

For everyone at the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, this challenge is only the beginning.

Indeed, for all involved, the fight to end systemic racism never ends.

Stigma of mental health creates challenges for Black community

Story by HARRISON FAUTH

Racism entails seeing people as the problem, not the practices that have created the circumstance. Facing racism, discrimination, and fear as a result of being Black in America can impact an individual’s mental health. Add the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community and it becomes more difficult to seek help. 

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults are more likely than white adults to report persistent symptoms of emotional distress, sadness and hopelessness. Those living below the poverty line are twice as likely to have psychological distress due to financial insecurity. 

The Black community also views mental health differently. One study by the National Alliance of Mental Illness reports that 63% of Black people feel it is a personal weakness and feel shame to admit they have a mental health issue. They feel additional discrimination may come from members of their own community. 

“There is absolutely a stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community,” said Kelli Washington, a licensed clinical therapist. In an email interview she said, “This stigma hinders people from access to resources.” She discussed that changing the narrative needs to happen. Black communities need to see that struggling with mental health is not a weakness. 

Washington lives in Los Angeles, but treats patients in Utah and California. She sees a need in both places and values the opportunity to support those who otherwise may not feel supported. “I’m passionate about breaking the stigma surrounding mental health and there are not a ton of Black therapists, especially in Utah, and I think that is partly attributed to the stigma surrounding mental health and lack of diversity in Utah as a whole.”

Melanie Davis, a licensed therapist and owner of Empath Healing and Wellness in Salt Lake City, is working to help change the narrative around mental health. She is also one of the founders of Black Clinicians, which was created to serve the mental health needs not being addressed in the Black community. Its purpose is to help bring Black providers to the Black community. “I see it as critical that people of color have access to therapists of color,” Davis said in an email interview.

The Black Clinicians group addresses the feelings of pain, fear, and trauma felt by those who have been victims of racism. Events on television such as the May 2020 murder of George Floyd  and Black Lives Matter protests have only made better access to mental health therapy more important.  The Black Clinicians group provides a safe space to address mental health issues and they can provide “a mirrored space to clients of color,” Davis said. 

Members of the Black community often reach out to spiritual leaders rather than licensed therapists. Washington and Davis said they believe there is value in partnering with Black church leaders. Trusted church leaders who encourage the use of licensed mental health providers could go a long way in reducing the stigma of mental health. Providing support and decreasing the feeling of isolation can change the narrative around mental health.

Today the need for mental health therapy is on the rise. Being Black and finding a Black therapist who understands your cultural experience is a challenge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020 race diversity was 59.7% white and 13.4% Black. In Utah the diversity is far less with 77.8% of the population white, and only 1.5% Black.

Compare the 2020 census on population diversity to the number of licensed Black therapists in America and diversity decreases. According to the American Psychological Association, 83.6% of licensed therapists are white and only 5.3% are Black. These numbers highlight the underrepresentation of professional  Black therapists in America. The limited number of Black therapists creates limited access to a trained professional who shares one’s cultural experience.   

Cost of therapy is another obstacle. The APA reports that only 11.5% of Black adults have health insurance, and mental health therapy is expensive.

Dr. Dio Turner II said in an email interview, “While cost is an issue it is more complicated, cost is a massive issue that is much deeper than therapy. There are too many people who must decide between food, housing, tuition, and their health. People are committing suicide and dying because they can’t afford psychotherapy.” He added, “I’m not sure what the precise solution is but it needs to be addressed immediately.”

Washington, the Los Angeles-based therapist, said she believes mental health is a community problem. Mental health therapy should be accessible through schools, workplaces, and community programs. Lowering cost is not the only solution and insurance companies bear some of the responsibility to make it more accessible. 

Davis, a founder of Black Clinicians, has created an innovative way of addressing the cost obstacle. Davis has offered counseling scholarships in her private practice Empath Healing and Wellness since it was founded. She has several families who have utilized this service. Black community members who know these options are available are more likely to reach out for mental health treatment. 

There are many issues facing the mental health of the Black community with no easy solution. Having conversations, breaking down barriers is happening slowly. The bigger issue may be what is at the core of the problem. As Dr. Dio Turner II said, the biggest health issue facing Black communities is “the insidious way that racism affects mental and physical health.”

Caribbean Nightingale: Utah’s first poetry salon connecting the community through the arts

Story by KENZIE WALDON

Poetry is a language that speaks to all different kinds of souls, connecting those who are in tune with the rhythm. A space to express this creative outlet can expand one’s own view to the variety of cultures that surround them in a community. 

Caribbean Nightingale is one such place. This Provo-based poetry café and boutique creates a space for artistic diversity in Utah. Michaëlle Martial, a Haitian-born poet and the creative force behind Caribbean Nightingale, is breaking barriers by spotlighting the mixture of talent that Utah has to offer. 

“Nightingale is a bird I always liked to read about as a teen, you know, from poetry,” Martial said during a Zoom interview. “Then I found out several years ago that the Nightingale was the only bird that sang both day and night.” 

The nightingale’s significance resonates deeply with Martial, both as a working mother and as a survivor of trauma and domestic violence. She decided to name her new business Caribbean Nightingale, the same moniker Martial uses for performing. “When it was time to register the business, I just thought it was a great idea to keep my stage name as the name of the business just because it has a lot of meaning,” Martial said. 

Michaëlle Marital performing her poetry as Caribbean Nightingale during a Relaxation Through Verse event. Courtesy of the Caribbean Nightingale website. Photographed by Tania Luiza Linson.

The business of Caribbean Nightingale began in 2018 with Relaxation Through Verse. This is the poetry salon’s main event that is held in various locations around Utah offering a safe space for multicultural artists to express themselves freely. “The poetry salon is there to uplift the community as a whole but also to help promote local and emerging artists,” Martial said. “We wanted to have an uplifting experience between the community and the artists.”

These intimate events have been stationed in art galleries to coffee shops and attract developing artists from all kinds of backgrounds. Gianfranco Fernandez-Ruiz, a Dominican Republic-born artist, is one of many to connect with Martial at one of the Relaxation Through Verse poetry readings. 

Gianfranco Fernandez-Ruiz performing his boom bap-inspired poetry at a Relaxation Through Verse event. Courtesy of the Caribbean Nightingale website. Photographed by Nicole Tyana Photography.

“Ever since, we’ve been homies,” Fernandez-Ruiz said in a Zoom interview. “I’m just on the other side of that island, she’s from Haiti and I’m from the Dominican Republic. So that Caribbean business, it goes a long way.”

Fernandez-Ruiz is both a poet and a multi-disciplined creative. “I mean, I graduated in English,” he said. “So, I’m all things in the arts, I do nonfiction, I do fiction. I’m a filmmaker. I’m a screenwriter, director, and I do poetry.” With the help of an ongoing Kickstarter, he is currently in the process of creating a tongue-and-cheek horror comedy movie called, “Saborrrr!”

Another performer at the Relaxation Through Verse is local musician Mel Soul. Soul attended one of Caribbean Nightingale’s events and was so touched by Martial’s poetry that she felt inspired to share her own writing and music.

“Michaëlle has kindly had myself and my drummer band mate Everett Spencer connect through her business as one of her featured musician artists for her live stream events,” Soul said in an email interview.

“Caribbean Nightingale offers poets, artists and businesswomen a safe haven for anyone (especially any person of color) to feel safe and connected through the expression of art in all forms,” Soul said.

Mel Soul (left) and Everett Spencer performing as Mel Soul & The Messenger at a Relaxation Through Verse event. Courtesy of the Caribbean Nightingale website. Photographed by Tania Luiza Linson.

Another addition to Caribbean Nightingale’s poetry salon is the TiGla Boutique, a shop and alternative outlet of highlighting the diverse talents that reside in Utah. It’s also a way to honor Martial’s mother, who was a fashion designer and seamstress. “That’s my way of amplifying Black voices, as I was trying to create some sort of legacy for my mother’s memory who passed less than a year and a half ago,” Martial said.

TiGla Boutique retails merchandise from the artists who perform at Relaxation Through Verse along with Martial’s own poetry books and other authors of African descent. Whether it be fashion, music or literature, TiGla Boutique markets the products created by these local artists, a concept Martial absorbed from her mother who was always trying to help women in her own community. 

“I thought I would do something similar to help me not only feel closer to her, but to also help other artists in my community and in the Black community, specifically,” Martial said. 

The most recent addition to Caribbean Nightingale’s business is the blog titled, “Black Joy Is…” This blog enlightens readers on Martial’s individual perceptions throughout her life. “It’s my personal insight as a woman, a Black woman, immigrant woman, and a poet,” Martial said. “And how travel and healing are intersected when it comes to self-care and self-love.”

While Caribbean Nightingale is connecting Utah’s diversity through art, being a one-of-a-kind business in this state still has its challenges. “Well, it’s been a journey,” Martial said, chuckling.

“There are a lot of obstacles that Black artists get into, you know, that is preventing them from succeeding within a business such as Caribbean Nightingale,” Martial said. “And sometimes Black artists don’t know that there’s so many opportunities available.”

But Caribbean Nightingale’s recent spark of exposure came in 2020 when Martial, along with five other Black-owned businesses in Utah, were selected to receive the Comcast RISE Prize. Caribbean Nightingale is the first of its kind to receive this award from Comcast, which generally supplies a business with the materials and technology it needs in order to succeed. 

Since Caribbean Nightingale is a business operated from home and restructured to hosting events virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions, Comcast needed to think outside of the box for how this award would be beneficial. The prize ultimately paid for a professionally produced commercial that will air from March to June on various Utah networks and be available on the Caribbean Nightingale website.

Martial is currently in the process of releasing a downloadable poetry album as well as organizing Relaxation Through Verse events through spring and summer 2021, both virtual and in person. Martial said donations collected at these events will be distributed among the performers and be given to local shelters for individuals experiencing homelessness. 

Martial’s dream of Caribbean Nightingale is almost 10 years in the making and has cracked open the artistic diversity that bubbles under Utah’s surface. Her advice to any aspirating entrepreneur who is wanting to invest in their passion is to always be mindful of the process. Or in Martial’s words, “You know, life is short, like our slogan with the coffee station, diverse life is short. Take it one sip, one rhyme and one note at a time.”

Black artists bringing #Blackjoy to Utah

Story by NINA TITA

Utah Black Artists Collective is a nonprofit of professional Black artists from across Utah who are building a community of acceptance and love for their art. The Collective includes graphic designers, poets and classical ballerinas.

Jayrod Garrett, co-founder of UBLAC, said the mission is to create Black space, a place where Black people are the majority.

“Things I learned as we went about putting this together, I found out that I was not alone in that idea that I felt isolated as a child. Many of the Black people I’ve spoken to who live here in Utah felt isolated because the state’s 2% black,” Garrett said in a Zoom interview.

Working as a teacher full-time, poet and storyteller, Garrett’s passion is about sharing stories of the lived human experience. His written collection of poems titled, “Being Black in White Space,” captures the essence of what Black artists have gone through. Garrett is aware of the difficulty his audience has relating to the Black experience.

“You can go up in front of an audience and share like one of these really vulnerable poems that talks about what it feels like to be Black in that space and then afterwards you get superficial clapping because they’re like ‘we don’t really know what you just said but this what we’re supposed to do right?’” Garrett said.

Garrett founded UBLAC in July 2020 at the start of the pandemic when organizations were forced to move to virtual platforms. Black artists are using the opportunity to share their work and collaborate on social media, such as Instagram. The current project Garrett is directing is titled #BLACKJOY, a means of breaking barriers.

UBLAC artists gather in front of art that inspires them to continue to showcase their talents and bring #BLACKJOY to the community. Photo courtesy of Jayrod Garrett.

“We started talking about the idea of what Black joy sounds like and what does that look like. Is that praise community the only place you see Black people in joy? And it’s not, but like that’s the only way people seem to think about Black people having joy, is in that faith-based community,” Garrett said.

Changing stereotypes has been a challenge other Black artists are passionate about. Daney Lin, an acrylic painter, recalls being the only Black American in his class growing up in Ogden, Utah.

“Being a Black American in Utah, I feel like we are bound to a certain stigma, let’s break down those barriers, let’s knock them down. Let’s be everything, let’s be bank owners, let’s be grocery owners,” Lin said in a Zoom interview.

As a teenager, Lin found art to be his comfort while he was trying to pursue an athletic career in basketball and track and field. He struggled with his mental health and said he was diagnosed with bipolar, ADHD and depression.

“[Art] helped me relieve my stress, it helped me relieve my depression and kind of just showed it in different ways I couldn’t speak it,” Lin said.

He also struggled with the fear of getting better and losing his artistic ability, he said. Utilizing therapy and medication, Lin discovered his talents were not dependent upon his mental health, but provided him relief from stress.

After submitting his artwork on a whim to UBLAC, Garrett immediately saw all of Lin’s potential. Inspired by colors, peace and love in Japanese and Chinese cultures, Lin’s paintings capture emotion.

“I find myself feeling colors,” Lin said.

One of Lin’s paintings in currently on display at the Hogle Zoo’s World of the Wild Art Show. He cried when he saw it in the gallery. “Growing up I didn’t know any Black artists,” Lin said. Now he is honored to have his art out for all to see and be inspired by.

“I want other Black artists to not be afraid and not feel like they have to live up to a certain stigma. You don’t have to be an athlete, you don’t have to be a rapper, you don’t have to be a singer,” Lin said. “If that’s what you do, hey hats off to you, do it, please do it, strive to be better.”

Schkyra Morning, known as Wynter the Poet, co-founder and executive manager of UBLAC, echoes Lin’s sentiments, acknowledging how racial stereotypes can be detrimental to artistry.  “Being an artist can already be challenging at times because you are asking someone to essentially love who you are and what you are creating. So that can already be a lot. You’re a Black woman and an artist and it kind of makes things a little harder,” Morning said in a Zoom interview. “It makes the road a little harder for you, and that’s OK, I’m not afraid of hard work.”

Morning said that many of the UBLAC artists are fueled in their work by racial injustice that is being seen across the country. Her recent poems are about her personal experience of having police guns drawn on her.

It fuels me. The things that I go through fuel me to write about them to share my experiences with other people who are probably going through, who may not even know how to even express it,” Morning said.

UBLAC artists have started to collaborate on projects regarding racial injustice and rewriting what #BLACKJOY looks like. Lin, Garrett, Morning and other artists created their first YouTube video dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, which will be posted to their YouTube Channel soon.  

Looking forward, UBLAC is expanding its community impact with youth mentorship programs. The goal is to provide Black youth of all ages with Black role models in the artistic industry to help cultivate talent.

“It’s being able to be in Black space on a regular basis,” Garrett said.

The UBLAC community is excited for the future of the organization. There are plans for in-person galleries, more social media artist collaborations and #BLACKJOY art pieces coming.

Message of hate empowers Black students to demand more from Salt Lake Community College administration

Story by HARRISON FAUTH

A thief hidden behind a computer screen disrupted an event meant to celebrate Black poetry. Few students saw the white supremacy message, but many felt the ripple of hatred within Salt Lake Community College and Utah. The aftermath left a Black student community determined and resilient to not let hate win.

After a Black Student Union Zoom event in February 2021 was hijacked with messages of hate intended to quiet the voice of Black students, the opposite occurred. It created action and a resolve to ask for more from their community and college administrators. The event continued live and provided inspiration for those in attendance. 

After the attack, SLCC’s president sent an email to each student and staff member expressing regret and disappointment about the Zoom “bombing.” No mention of concrete action steps from school administration was mentioned in the email. 

Joy Tlou, director of public relations at SLCC, said in a phone interview, “Diversity, equity and inclusion is something that SLCC is committed to. The administration shares the concerns of the Black students and they are fully aware of the trauma that was felt by those at the event and on Zoom.”  

To bring understanding to the school’s response, it is important to examine the student population. According to the website College Factual, college campuses in Utah share a similar degree of diversity. SLCC, University of Utah and Weber State all report a white student population of 69% and Black population of 2%. The largest diversity comes from the 17% Hispanic population that is enrolled at SLCC. This may matter when it comes to the school’s policies and priorities. 

SLCC responded quickly to the incident, but many students felt it was reactive and not proactive. In an email interview, BSU President Jaycee Glavin said that prior to the event most Black students felt a lack of support. But after the event, Black students felt an outpouring of support. Some of it was genuine, such as questions about “how can we do better?” While others were more halfhearted as a way to fulfill an obligation. Glavin said, it remains to be seen if support will continue.

In email interviews members of  BSU leadership expressed feeling worried, anxious, and fear, but the overwhelming feeling was anger. Anger that they were attacked. Angry, but resilient. Glavin said, “Haters did not stop us, but they did affect us.” He also expressed concern that the person who did the Zoom bombing is still unknown. This fact has created a heightened awareness of safety on the SLCC main campus.

Black students have requested that the SLCC administration show more interest in activities on campus that support diversity. One member of the BSU leadership who did not want their name publicized said in an email interview, “Come to our events and show you care. You attend birthday parties and retirement parties. Why not make some time to attend a Black sponsored event.” 

This was also discussed in relation to police presence on campus. BSU leadership wants law enforcement to normalize their presence at events so students feel less fear and more cooperation. Glavin said, “I just met the highway patrol force over SLCC, and I think we are working towards making a relationship without awkward encounters.”

For years Black students have asked the school administration for an updated Black history curriculum taught by Black professors. “I want to have Black history taught by someone who shares the experience of being Black,” one BSU member said in an email. 

Glavin said he felt the curriculum on campus was “whitewashed” like most school experiences in Utah. 

SLCC Globe reporter Heather Graham said in an email interview that she feels the “intent on campus is to be inclusive, but this is not often met.” Many Black students are the only person of color in their classroom and often do not see professors who are Black teaching at the school.

BSU members have asked the administration to actively recruit Black professors. Joy Tlou, the PR director, said, “SLCC is widening their search for professors outside of Utah to increase teacher diversity.”

Another request is to provide Black counselors to better address the needs of Black students. BSU leadership feels this need is invisible until something bad happens. Then it becomes part of the discussion.

Black students want Black counselors who understand their reality. Black students have different cultural experiences and want to speak to someone who shares their same experience. As one BSU member who did not want their name mentioned said, “We are missing strong allies on campus.”

BSU leadership also wants white students as allies, but this is often misunderstood. To be an ally means to “listen when you are in a Black space and not speak up to share an experience.” The same BSU member added in an email interview, “Until you walk in a Black person’s shoes you can never understand what we felt.”

BSU plans to reschedule the poetry slam that was hijacked. SLCC information technology security and law enforcement have begun the work to make future events more secure. They are also hoping to have more school administration in attendance at the event.

The SLCC administration, like society, has a serious challenge to address. As Joy Tlou said, “Campus needs to be safe, healthy and supportive; it is not a destination, it is a journey, and everyone needs to come along.”

Academic success and social happiness for student-athletes: mentorship and support is just as crucial off the field as on the field

Story by LEIF THULIN

Collegiate student-athletes aspire to reach the highest level in their sport. However, the reality is that only one NCAA sanctioned sport, baseball, has a percentage above 2 percent for college athletes becoming professional athletes. 

Many students who attend universities like the University of Utah travel far from home for the first time, naively entering college with expectations of becoming a professional athlete. They may have assumed that there would be no problems adjusting to the academic and social demands of their new situation.

Though the racial demographics of colleges are less skewed than that of the city within which the campus is located, many students experience culture shock. Salt Lake City is 87.2 percent white, University of Utah students are 70 percent white, yet an average of only six starters per collegiate football team is white. 

What this means is that many minority athletes attend the University of Utah for athletics and encounter entirely new racial demographics everywhere but the field of play. School alone is an adjustment for adolescents, but especially for minority athletes. There must be a liminal space or person to create a space for minority athletes to acclimate and grow academically and socially within the new environment. 

T.J. Burnett, who worked as the U’s football learning specialist, helped create comfort and prowess in the classroom. 

T.J. Burnett was the the University of Utah’s football learning specialist. Photo courtesy of T.J. Burnett.

Burnett, a former four-time Academic All-American, and a five-time All-American track athlete, proudly aided African American student-athletes at the U in their educational and social maturation on campus for two years. 

Burnett knew firsthand from his experience as a first-generation African American student the importance of prioritizing academics and social transitions. These can be overlooked, yet adjusting to these challenges may prove more difficult than the leap to collegiate athletics, which can form a shelter from the outside world. 

Burnett recalled in a Zoom interview, “Transitioning from high school to college, I honestly had no idea what it was going to be like to go to school, to go to college. When I got letters from schools, a lot of times it would be overwhelming. I didn’t really know what it would be like for me to go to college. I didn’t know if it was even affordable or accessible.” 

Nearly five years removed from his final days as a student, Burnett reminisced about his growth as an individual. He attributed much of it to the importance of education, and his gratitude for having African American role models to show him that people who look like him can thrive in the world of academics. 

“I truly believe education is the great equalizer in terms of getting people to have the opportunity for vertical mobility but it isn’t accessible to all students from all backgrounds,” he said. 

Burnett, who hails from Grand Rapids, Michigan, spoke of Dr. Damon Arnold, the special associate to the athletic director at Grand Valley State University.  Arnold inspired Burnett to take a job that remained within the realm of athletics while influencing students in a long-lasting way through academics. 

“He was somebody that young Black athletes could look at and be like, it doesn’t matter where you start it matters where you finish,” Burnett said. 

Burnett gratefully reflected that without the mentorship of Arnold and other mentors, many student-athletes including himself would have been worse off in their college experiences. 

“When I was graduating, trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I wanted to have this impact on student-athletes as well, paying it forward, and also it is meaningful work,” Burnett said.

U offensive lineman Braeden Daniels said in text message, “He [Burnett] helped relate the school material that was being taught in our classes to our lives as student athletes, men, and real life examples … He understood life from our perspective as he was a student athlete.”

Elijah Shelton, an African American Salt Lake City native and transfer from Utah State University to the U, did not struggle with culture shock, or making friends with either team. 

Elijah Shelton practices for the Utes. Photo courtesy of Elijah Shelton.

Though his transition from high school to college was not difficult, Shelton recognized that many of his former teammates who came from other states struggled mightily adjusting to the academic workload and the 82.4 percent white population of students at USU.

In a Zoom interview, Shelton noted that at Utah State, a class called Connectionsbecame important because it explained Utah’s culture and the importance of getting to know people and appreciating the cultures of everyone.   

“We kind of made our own culture within the Logan culture,” Shelton said. 

Josh Nkoy, a collegiate rugby player at Stanford University from Salt Lake City,  acknowledged several facets in his university experience that contributed to his academic and social acclimation and success. He listed campus organizations for African Americans and members of the African diaspora, including the Black Cultural Center, where Black people can congregate and study.  

People like Burnett provide a Black athlete an excellent academic role model, and can relate to issues of culture shock inherent in attending predominantly white institutions. He understands the balance of school and athletics, and can remind students to prioritize academics because there are worthwhile jobs beyond professional athletics. 

While sports fans focus on athletic feats, Daniels, Shelton, and Nkoy have found succeeding in college relies on a confluence of mentorship, university support, communities of peers, and cultivating a culture of prioritizing academic excellence. 

Nkoy put it best when he observed, “You’ll see a Black face doing good things at all times — I guess all of that really mitigates culture shock for everyone.”

Finding order in the chaos: how the pandemic has taken its toll on the mental health of athletes

Story by BRYNNA MAXWELL

The benefits of playing a sport at any level are endless. From cool gear, to free food, to notoriety and fame, who would not want to be in their shoes? Athletes have it all … or do they?

Looking back at the year 2020, everyone knows it was not easy. The pandemic impacted so many people and has been talked about so much, that it has become normalized, commonplace, mundane, even boring. 

However, one topic that seems to have been glossed over is the effect COVID-19 has had on athletes — whether high school, collegiate, or professional. 

The toll the pandemic has taken on the mental health of these competitors has been monumental and has affected every level of athletics.

Meghan Edwards is a senior at Gig Harbor High School in Washington state this year. She has played varsity basketball for three years and has played competitive basketball since middle school. 2021 is her final year of playing basketball. Or it would have been if not for the worldwide pandemic. 

Meghan Edwards shoots a jumper during a game against Eastlake High School in 2019. Photo courtesy of Meghan Edwards.

Her last year of playing the sport she loves has been stripped away and cut down to just a few short weeks beginning in May.

It has impacted her acutely and has robbed her of some of the joy she used to have for the game she loves.

“COVID-19 is slowly tearing away the love I have for basketball,” Edwards said in a phone interview. “Since I am forced to be away from the basketball atmosphere and self-isolate, it is making me feel unmotivated to train and practice.”

This emotional spiral resulting from isolation is very common for athletes who are being forced to shut down team activities and stay away from each other.

Edwards has endured quite a few changes because of this.

“I have noticed I would rather be at home by myself than hanging out with people, especially people I am not extremely close to,” Edwards said. “I have also been going through different phases where my mental health is great, and I am super motivated and productive. And then some days I am super hard on myself and then feel very unmotivated.”

Edwards has since developed new hobbies such as painting and listening to podcasts to give herself a mental break from the emotional chaos resulting from all of the ups and downs and unknowns of this year. 

Every sport has been affected in one way or another.

Utah sophomore and softball player A.J. Militello has had her first two collegiate seasons dramatically impacted because of COVID-19.

“It was really strange, really surreal,” Militello said in a FaceTime interview. “You got to this point of asking yourself what’s the point of even playing sports?”

Because Militello plays a spring sport, her team is just starting their 2021 season and so far, COVID-19 has still been a huge factor in everything they do. It has changed the way they conduct practices, travel, lift weights, and even room together on road trips. 

The fall softball season was canceled and so were all of the other activities over the last six months of the 2020 year, forcing the team to adapt and live day to day, never knowing what will happen.

Militello said, “We weren’t allowed to practice when we came back (from summer break). All we were allowed to do was individual groups.  And then we finally got cleared to do full team practice on a taped-off field wearing a mask the entire time. If your mask was below your nose, you got sent home. We weren’t allowed to break the rules.”

These strict guidelines carried over into the 2021 softball season where there are rules on how to eat, act, and even stand when doing team events and activities. The players have to make sure they are at least 6 feet apart at all times and when eating a group meal, they have to eat by themselves. In their own rooms. In total isolation. 

All this has taken quite the mental toll on Militello and her team. 

“Because of all the time we weren’t allowed to play, a lot of people were really struggling with figuring out who they were outside of being a Division I athlete,” she said. “A lot of people put all their worth into their sport and when it gets taken away, they don’t know what to do.”

Professional soccer player Stephanie Cox , an Olympian and a gold medalist, can relate to that and more when reflecting on the past year. 

Stephanie Cox with her daughter and husband after a soccer match. Photo courtesy of Stephanie Cox.

For her, she was one of the few who was allowed to play through the pandemonium of the pandemic. 

The National Women’s Soccer League played a short season in one location in Salt Lake City. Cox’s team, the Reign, was lucky enough to get through the short spurt of a season with no negative impact from COVID-19.

However, having to play through the heart of the pandemic caused her and her team to become emotionally exhausted. 

“The hardest part was that it was a shorter season and most players wanted to make the most of it, so they played super tight,” Cox said in a phone interview. “There was not a lot of time to warm up into the season.”

Normally, Reign FC plays around 25 games in a season before playoffs. However, the 2020 season was cut short because of the pandemic. 

Even though these athletes were beat up the past year emotionally and mentally, the players interviewed all had a common theme from their experiences: growth.

Cox said, “I have gotten a fresh appreciation for being able to play. Next time I get the chance to play, I am not going to feel any pressure and tension and just soak it all in.”

That “next time” is coming fast as the 2021 season is set to start April 9.

Softball player A.J. Militello learned a life lesson that some athletes never fully grasp. When reflecting, she said, “Sports are not what you are, it’s what you do. You should never put your identity into something like a sport that can be taken away just like that.”

Mindfulness and holistic wellness blossoms in Salt Lake City’s Latinx community

Story and photo by JASMINE BARLOW

Sacred Energy Empowerment Center (SEEC) and Latino Behavioral Health Services are creating dynamic, inclusive, and accessible spaces for Latinx individuals in the Salt Lake City area to explore holistic health options.

Jomar Hernandez, an accredited holistic coach from Venezuela, is leading Spanish-speaking group meditations and healing circles at SEEC. Additionally, Hernandez offers private coaching and organizes large-scale events. She says her events are amassing an impressive turnout, and she is excited for future projects.

Hernandez’s unwavering passion and commitment to holistic wellness stem from her bravery of battling an early phase of cancer, diagnosed in 2013. “I was very scared of what was going on and how it will affect my family,” Hernandez says. “I returned to my meditation practice and participated in healing circles for comfort, like I did back in Venezuela.”

Hernandez recalls an “empowering treatment experience” during her stay at the Sanoviv Holistic Institute in Mexico. A variety of holistic-based treatments were implemented, a type of medical experience unfamiliar to Western societies. “It was there I began to connect with health coaches, and I fell in love [with this path],” Hernandez says.

Jomar Hernandezsmall

When it comes to addressing individual client needs, she has a simple approach: “The biggest question I ask [my clients] is this: ‘How open are you?’ And that’s where the process of true healing begins.” In relation to her Latin American roots, she feels the overarching culture surrounding holistic healing in Latin America is an “ancient practice,” and says she is honored to bring this essence of sacredness to helping Latinx women, her target client demographic.

Her line of work is not exempt from challenges, with difficulties ranging from establishing a client network to tackling misconceptions surrounding coaching. “It has been a little bit complicated because the people really don’t know about how a coach can help,” Hernandez says. “They usually come to me if they want to lose weight. [However], when [the clients] start asking questions about their health problems and diet, they realize there is an emotional part that we need to go deeper into.”

Hernandez believes her “Before and After” photo approach is a highly-effective tool, where clients can see a physical manifestation of emotional progression and positive change in their demeanor following a session. “It brings me so much joy to see how much they are glowing and growing,” she says.

Healing takes many forms, and mental health therapy is a crucial aspect of the holistic equation. For Latinx communities, there is a dimension of unique importance. Latino Behavioral Health Services (LBHS) serves such a purpose in the heart of Salt Lake City. It is dedicated to helping vulnerable members of Utah’s Latinx community recover from mental illness and addiction.

Diana Aguilera, a Peer Programs coordinator at LBHS, describes the foundational incentive in creating the award-winning, nonprofit organization: “[LBHS] saw the need for mental health services in Spanish,” she says. “It is a peer-run organization, helping substance abuse and mental health issues for individuals and family members.” Deemed a “softer approach,” Aguilera finds that peer mentorship “makes it easier for people to open up, as if everyone in the room completely understands you.”

Aguilera says deep stigma and economic barriers are prominent factors that may discourage the local Latinx community from seeking help. “Mental health services are so unapproachable,” she says. “You are calling someone up, saying you need help. It’s hard for people to do. On top of that, it can be very expensive.”

Aguilera believes that Latinx cultures may view mental health as a “character weakness” or something that is chosen. “We have families come in, where parents feel they have failed as caretakers,” she says. Empathizing and addressing these commonly-held beliefs, LBHS offers a rich variety of mental health education and support classes to deconstruct stigma and strengthen connection with the self and others. Additionally, therapy services are offered by licensed professionals at a reduced cost to accommodate all economic levels.

Despite these challenges, Aguilera says she believes there is positive progress being made. “In the grand scheme, mental health is gradually becoming more accessible. At [LBHS], we are creating a wonderful community to heal. We don’t have the power to do it all, but we are creating a space where we are not ashamed to share our stories.”

Whether an individual’s healing journey aligns with mental health therapy, holistic health coaching, or both, Aguilera and Jomar Hernandez both emphasize the importance of spreading awareness and strengthening local outreach. These efforts cast a welcoming net to reach those who can benefit from their guidance and resources.

Mental health service access is limited in Salt Lake’s west side 

Story and photos by JACOB RUEDA

Residents in Salt Lake City’s west side face a lack of access to mental health and drug rehabilitation services. The area’s poverty level could affect residents’ access to care, although the immediate causal factor is undetermined. Other issues such as cost of treatment or zoning could explain why the area has an insufficient number of resources available. 

The Salt Lake County Health Department website says the county provides substance abuse prevention services through “community-based providers” by distributing information regarding drug abuse and prevention. However, the county itself does not provide treatment.

Child and Family Empowerment Services, at 1578 W. 1700 South, Suite 200, is one of the few mental health clinics in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Humberto Franco works at Social Model Recovery Systems, a nonprofit treatment facility in Los Angeles. Franco, a licensed professional in the healing arts, previously worked for a community-based health organization helping addicts in one of the poorest areas of the city. He says the cost of rehabilitation can impact access to it, especially in lower-income areas. But even with greater access, Franco says getting and maintaining qualified staff is a challenge facing treatment centers all around.

“People need to get that background in addiction and not only in psychology” in order for facilities to properly focus on treatment and rehabilitation, Franco says. Certifying and educating staff costs money, which raises the cost of services. With mental health and substance abuse issues becoming more prevalent, government has stepped in to help facilities in their treatment and rehabilitation efforts.

In September 2019, the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration awarded each state $932 million to combat the opioid crisis. It was part of a $2 billion grant from the Trump Administration. 

Aaron, who asked not to be identified because he’s in recovery, says politicians are more in tune with the needs of recovery and mental health than one might think.

“There’s a lot of people lobbying for recovery,” he says. “There’s a lot of representatives that donate their time and effort into working with the recovery community.” During the Rally for Recovery that took place Feb. 21, 2020, at the Utah State Capitol, Aaron heard politicians address the issue of access to mental health and substance abuse care.

Despite government efforts to help centers through funding and initiatives, other financial and socioeconomic factors can affect access to care in low-income areas like Salt Lake City’s west side. When government does not provide, the burden of responsibility falls on a nonprofit group or private organization. 

“A lot of these programs here in Salt Lake City in particular, most of them are privately funded,” Aaron says. Rehabilitation programs can cost $5,000 a month to start. At such prices, individuals in low-income areas may find it difficult to afford treatment. Certifying and maintaining staff aside, rents and property taxes affect the overall price as well. Since taxes are higher in commercial and industrial areas, finding where to establish a treatment facility becomes crucial.

The abandoned Raging Waters Park is a few blocks east of Child and Family Empowerment Services in Glendale. The area is one of the few residential spots in Salt Lake City’s west side.

Salt Lake City’s west side has more industrial and commercial areas than residential, particularly west of Redwood Road. Aaron says his recovery began in a wilderness rehabilitation program for substance abuse. Centers for recovery are usually established in areas that are conducive to well-being. Industrial areas do not serve that purpose. Factors that go beyond zoning can affect access to treatment on the city’s west side.

Leilani Taholo, a researcher and licensed clinical social worker with Child and Family Empowerment Services, says the problem is more complex. She has worked in the field for 37 years developing culturally sensitive programs. She initially designed a trauma intervention program called “Kaimani,” which means “divine power from the wave or the ocean.”

Child and Family Empowerment Services is located in Glendale and is one of the areas in Salt Lake City’s west side where mental health services are readily available.

Her office is located in Glendale and is one of the few centers located on the west side. It provides mental health services through the county’s OPTUM program, which accepts Medicaid and is funded at the state and federal levels.

A lack of overall funding combined with adverse socioeconomic conditions make it difficult for public or private centers to establish themselves in west-side neighborhoods like Rose Park and Glendale, Taholo says.

“I’ve spoken with many colleagues who have said, ‘I’m not sure if I want to put my clinic in Rose Park or in the Glendale area,’” she says. Taholo says her colleagues believe their clients feel safer getting treatment at their east side facilities.

Heads of families in west-side neighborhoods tend to work more than one job to make ends meet. Going to a center at night might leave them susceptible to harm or criminal activity.

Combined statistics from the Salt Lake Police Department for January 2020 show a slight increase in crime activity in District 2 compared with District 1. District 2 starts at Interstate 15 and ends at around 8000 West and goes from Interstate 80 to 2100 South. District 1 goes from I-80 to roughly 2700 North and 900 West to about 8500 West.

Taholo says that despite the perceptions of the west side as being crime ridden, the on-campus shooting deaths of two University of Utah students in 2017 and 2018 refute the idea that crime is strictly a west-side problem.

Regardless of the situation, people from around the west side come to Taholo’s center for help. She says she is amazed at the resilience not just of her clients but the people in the area. “They have taken the few resources that they have,” she says, “and they make it last in ways that you and I would never come up with.”

Suicide isn’t a “one-size-fits-all”

Story and gallery by KOTRYNA LIEPINYTE

“When I was 13 years old, I tried to commit suicide.”

Illiana Gonzalez Pagan, a member of the U.S. military, struggles to discuss her teen years. She thinks back on the time where she could have been one of the 628 people who commit suicide every year in Utah. Pagan was, however, a part of another scary statistic.

Pagan was part of the 3,280 kids who were taken to the hospital for self-inflicted injuries. “I found myself cutting skin to feel decent,” she says. “And now, I cover those scars with tattoos.” Pagan traces her red-lined tattoos on what used to be her scars. She smiles sadly.

Her red tattoos match the colors of her scars. Pagan’s story is a lucky one. In 2017, over the course of 12 months, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that 9.6% of Utah high school students attempted suicide one or more times. Unfortunately, 5 percent of these students were not so lucky and succeeded in their attempts.

Chelsea Manzanares, a graduate assistant working in the Center for Ethnic Student Affairs (CESA) at the University of Utah, analyzes the Utah struggle via a conversation through email. “Unfortunately, conversations surrounding mental health are still heavily influenced by the presence of stigmas,” she says. “Mental health was not previously understood the way it is now, and these stigmas are the remnants of a history of violence and discrimination. Many people choose not to talk openly about mental may still hold onto these beliefs, which can ultimately become a barrier in seeking care.”

Pagan agrees, reminiscing on a conversation with her mother. “I just remember, as a child, telling my mama that I was really sad. And I remember her saying I have nothing to be sad about and that was that,” Pagan states. The misunderstanding and lack of communication surrounding mental health is what builds the barrier Manzanares discusses.

Especially in West Valley City, where the Hispanic culture is strong. “Culturally,” Pagan begins, “it’s not really OK to be sad. My mama used to compare sadness to a mosquito and always told me that I can just swat it away and forget about it.” Pagan laughs before saying, “Well, that mosquito kept coming back, mama.”

Manzanares also touches on the rising rates of suicide in minority populations. “It’s important to have a conversation on intersectionality, and what that means in a mental health context,” Manzanares begins. “When we are studying these rates, we have to take into account these conditions and interactions that can impact one’s well-being. Grasping this concept helps us better understand what changes (systematically, individually, etc.) need to be made in order to help the mental health status of these communities.”

In an article for The Conversation by Kimya N. Dennis, she writes that African-American, Hispanic and American Indian suicides have historically been “more misclassified than white suicide.”  This means that when deaths are reported, often times, Hispanic deaths are rarely classified as suicides. This inaccurately represents data that shifts societal attitudes toward suicide.

The barrier between cultures also creates an obstacle difficult to overcome. Kim Valeika, a mother, sheds light on the situation. “I grew up hiding things like this from my mom,” she says. “And I am working super hard to make sure my daughters don’t feel the same way. I want them to be able to talk to me about it, openly.”

Manzanares agrees. “Peer support can be so much more than just providing communities with those tools for education and awareness,” she says. “The sense of comfort, acceptance and support that can be found within a community itself is huge in buffering against adverse mental health outcomes.”

All three women said one thing in common: depressive thoughts and suicidal tendencies must be taken seriously in order for there to be any change.

Although mental health is certainly a public health concern in Utah, it remains a taboo subject. The culture in the state is typically conservative, and upholds many stigmas. Relevant mental health resources also tend to be limited and inaccessible to those who are most in need, creating additional barriers. In order for mental health to be at the forefront, more resources need to be invested in educating the public and supporting the validity of this field.

Manzanares’ work in CESA tries hard to build upon this concept. It offers a free Stress Support Group for underrepresented students on campus. The environment is friendly, welcoming, and confidential, in hopes of offering students a safe space to go and open up about inner battles they might have.

Although Utah struggles with the scary suicide statistics, the discussion about mental health has increased. Resources are slowly becoming more and more available as well as tips for recognizing a struggling person. If a person needs help, health.utah.gov reports to listen without judgement and guide them to talk about their past.

Manzanares encourages students to visit CESA, or the University of Utah Health Center.

“Just talk to someone,” Pagan says. “Anyone is better than no one. Just getting it out there allows people to give advice that maybe you never thought of. Just get it out.”