Real representation in mental health leadership: A conversation with Keris Jän Myrick 

Community & consumer engagement Behavioral health & addiction Workforce development

By Carter Wilson, Director of the National Center for Complex Health and Social Needs 

Keris Jän Myrick is a leading mental health advocate and executive, known for her innovative and inclusive approach to mental health reform and the public disclosure of her personal story. She has over 15 years of experience in mental health services innovations, transformation, and peer workforce development. Below are excerpts from a conversation with Keris where she reflects on her own journey and the value that lived expertise can bring to care delivery, governance, and policy development.  

We are thrilled to highlight Keris’s experience and perspective in a ‘fireside chat’ at Putting Care at the Center 2022, our annual conference for the complex care field, this year in Sacramento September 21-23. Join us in Sacramento or online to hear more from Keris and other leaders who are changing how we think about and deliver care. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start by outlining your professional journey? 

My professional journey is a little bit like going on a treasure hunt. Meaning, in search for the best fit for me, I went from one profession to another, eventually landing in the world of mental health. I think, along the trajectory, it was always about figuring out how to help people have the best lives they could possibly have or the best experience they could possibly have. 

Whether I was working in education or retail management, it was always about people and to help other people. When I got into mental health, it was purely by accident.  

My work in mental health has been at the local level from running a large peer run organization, to the national level of being the president of the board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), to working at the federal government at Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to working back at local government for LA County Department of Mental Health. 

Now that I’ve experienced these local, state, and federal levels, it’s like — oh, wow. Now, how can we help other types of fields and leaders — like philanthropy, or legislators and policymakers — think about how they can make improvements in mental health that actually work when put into practice on the ground?  

Given that your goal is service, your motivation is service, how have you found through the arc of your career how you can best be of service? What are the skills and the approach that you bring to service? 

As a person who is receiving services, I was always trying to think about what could be improved. Like, this [program or service] really is seriously not working for me. I don’t like this. I don’t want to be involved in this. I actually don’t want to go to that treatment. Nobody’s listening to me. Why aren’t they listening to why I’m saying “no”? My saying no is not a rejection of anything other than that this particular thing at this particular moment isn’t really working for me. Why won’t folks take time to discover what my “yes” is?  

So, I struggled with my mental health for many, many years, in and out of hospitals involuntarily, not wanting to have anything to do with the treatment and services. I have said that getting a diagnosis of schizophrenia was like having a thief come into my life and steal many years of my life. And I really want those years back. I can’t get them back, but can I help somebody else not have those experiences that so many of us have? Can we keep what is working and improve on what is not working for folks? 

I think that’s really where my service lens comes from: what can we do to improve the experiences, the treatment, the policies, the programs — all of it? How can we fix it all or make it better, so that it’s something that people will say “yes” to?  

Can you talk a little bit about representation and how that has been important in your journey? 

When I first started doing this work from the consumer peer angle, I noticed that in public mental health, where I was receiving services initially, there were far more people of color, particularly Black people, than there were in our population at large in Los Angeles County. And I couldn’t understand that. Why are we all sitting here in public mental health in just exorbitant numbers? 

There was and continues to be a lot of work in the “recovery movement” where people with lived experience of mental health conditions were speaking out more about their experiences, what they were doing, the work they were doing. When I first saw these consumer, peer, and recovery leaders, they were president of this, director of that, manager of that, leader of this. And I would look up at the stage, literally looking up at the stage and it would be like a parade of White folks, one after the other after the other, but I’d look in the audience and it would be primarily Black and Brown folks. And I thought, “Well, heck, recovery must not be for us. Not all.” I got really discouraged.  

And then read this article by a psychologist who also happens to have been given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He’s White and Jewish. His name is Dr. Ron Bassman. And he wrote an article about the next wave of the consumer movement and the importance of involving people of color and youth. And I was like, “Whoa, wow, who is this dude?” 

So, I found his contact information, contacted him, and I said, “Seriously, do you know anybody who is Black, who has a similar diagnosis or experience as I do?” And he said, “Yes, let me introduce you to Miss Jackie McKinney.” And I met Miss Jackie. She was a speaker, I think, the next year or two here in Los Angeles at a conference. So, there she was up on stage, this beautiful Black woman talking about her experiences. And I mean, it was like a mouth drop, mic drop moment, where I finally saw myself, literally saw myself.  

And from then on, that really spurred me forward to figuring out how to emulate much of what she did. She started back in the ’70s, [and created] the National People of Color Consumer/Survivor Network where she was bringing together people with lived experience who were people of color, because they were not represented, or not represented in leadership in any way, in a larger consumer movement.  

Having that experience really speaks to me about — well, who else isn’t represented? If I didn’t feel I was represented, who else isn’t represented and how do they have a voice? How do they take space?  

Can you talk about your podcast? What is it? What’s it called? What are you trying to accomplish with it? 

The name of the podcast is Unapologetically Black Unicorns. I call it that because I find that people who have to fight against the system or fight within the system are unapologetic about what they do. It has to get done. I’m going to sit here until it gets done, and I’m going to do the work and I’m going to bring other people along. So, that’s the Unapologetic part.  

The Black Unicorn part was a nod and a play on words. So, of course, I’m thinking about Black people. I’m Black. Why wouldn’t I think about Black people, right? Representation matters, and it’s also about this idea of there are different color unicorns. Black unicorns symbolize something just as white unicorns do, rainbow unicorns do, et cetera. Black unicorns symbolize a fierce passion and this determination to really do something big. 

I thought of unicorns because people have said to me, “Oh, my God. You’re a unicorn. I can’t find anybody else who does this work in this way or who talks about it this way. You’re a unicorn.” And I keep saying, “I’m not a unicorn. There are tons of us out there.” 

So, that was the start of the podcast: to capture these stories. And not just for people to talk about their lived experience story or their race story or their disability story or their LGBTQ+ story, but to talk about — what are you doing with that experience that informs the work you’re doing? What is that work and how does it make a difference? How can our stories be examples to others of the possibilities for their lives and future? 

The podcast has been going now for a year. I thought I would run out of people. I have not run out of people. So, we’re going into a year. We have over 60 episodes and it’s been a really, really just amazing, amazing experience. 

What’s next for you? 

Moving forward, I’m thinking a lot about the power of policy and politics. Sometimes for service improvement, I’m finding that I need to have and want to have a better understanding of policy, regulations, politics, and how you change things on a larger systemic scale. 

So, I’m hoping to do more work in the policy lane. I’m looking to bring people together to help create and pass common sense, effective policies that will really move the dial for healthcare and for the involvement of those people who are impacted by the policies that we’re changing.  

My new role at Inseparable as Vice President of Partnerships is about just that, bringing people together to look at policies, campaigns, and upcoming elections. What kind of questions should we be asking of candidates who are running for various elected offices, and what should we be asking of those who are elected? What I’m really, really, really, most importantly hoping to see is people at all levels engaging folks who are most impacted, those who are marginalized and who experience the highest levels of disparities and inequity, so they can be a part of the change that we all want to see. 

As you enter this new space where you’re really thinking of bringing together those that are most impacted by this work to inform policy and influence politics, what does that look like? Is it happening? And if not, what needs to be happening? 

Many times, many of us, even policy people — we’re poking at the top of the iceberg, but the issues are the thing that’s below the surface that we keep bumping into and crashing into like the Titanic. And it never gets fixed because we’re chipping away at the top of the iceberg. So, how do we dig deeper into what’s below the surface? And I think that’s where you’ll find structural and systemic things that just are not [seen as] exciting.  

I say, let’s make policy super exciting because that’s where you get to see — well, dang, that regulation, that policy was set in 1960 during the height of the civil rights movement. We hadn’t even passed the Civil Rights Bill. It’s 2022 and we’re still sitting on that policy or regulation or legislation from 1960 in 2022. No wonder people of color are getting the short end of the stick here. It doesn’t work for us because it’s sitting on policy that wasn’t meant to work for us. If you don’t understand that, then we’re chipping at the top of the iceberg.  

Who gets to represent people experiencing mental health needs and advocate for them? It’s the guilds, the professional and advocacy organizations, partnering with the peers and with other folks who are doing that work. So, I worry that there’s a specialized group of people who do policy work and that it’s not as inclusive as it can be, particularly of people who have lived through these experiences. People shouldn’t have to go get an MPH or go back to get a higher education degree in order to do policy work. But where can they get mentorship? Where can they learn the basics? Where can folks get an opportunity talk to legislators and see how the Hill works with other mentors to learn and bring that back to their communities?  

I will never forget the first time I did a visit to our state capitol and met with the then Assemblymember Judy Chu (now Congresswoman Judy Chu). After our visit was over, she spent time with our small group providing us with pointers and tips to improve our advocacy efforts when meeting with legislators. Not all legislators and policy folks will take the time to do that. What I hope to see now and in the future is the information, tools, and resources necessary in bringing folks together who want to pass policies that improve our mental health as a nation and make care easily accessible.