Nieisha Deed’s mission? More mental health care for Greater Boston’s Black community.
PureSpark an organization dedicated to addressing disparities in Greater Boston when it comes to mental health care. It’s the state’s first wellness directory for Black people, designed to remove the stigma around seeking mental health care and provide resources to those who may not be familiar with the mental wellness system. PureSpark’s founder, Nieisha Deed, draws on her lived experience with mental health care to promote mental wellness in the Black community and to help people develop coping skills and explore their emotions.
Nieisha Deed joined GBH’s All Things Considered host Judie Yuill for a conversation about PureSpark’s work. What follows is a lightly edited transcript.
Judie Yuill: Now, what inspired you to start PureSpark?
Nieisha Deed: I’m originally from Boston, born and raised in Roxbury, and my parents decided to put me in a school out in the suburbs, and that was an interesting experience for me. Later in life, I decided that I wanted to go to an HBCU, that stands for historically Black college and university, and I later graduated with a degree in accounting. So I went straight into corporate America. That was, again, a really interesting experience because eventually, after being in the field for 15 years, I burnt out. Unfortunately, that burnout turned into depression, which later turned into a medical term called catatonia, which eventually led to a suicide attempt in December of 2017. So at that point in time in my life, I was really stuck trying to figure out which way to turn. I spent so much time in this profession, but it’s not for me for a multitude of reasons, and what is for me?
So after going through a really rigorous healing journey, I landed on that I want to do something in the wellness space. Unfortunately, due to a tragic situation in my family, I lost four family members to suicide. So this had a really deep personal connection for me. Not only did I go through it myself, but a lot of my family members struggled with it, and it was something that I was able to get through. Going through that healing, going to therapy, taking medication, using holistic approaches to finally get to that healing space. Now I felt it was my duty to help bring others along.
Yuill: What can you tell us about disparities in the mental health care system for the Black community?
Deed: I knew my experience. I knew people in my community close to me, family members and friends, I knew their experience. But when I started to get into this work and started to hit the ground grassroots, I started to uncover a lot more that I didn’t really actually know about.
So one of the things that I realized through PureSpark was that, unfortunately, there’s not a lot of practitioners that look like us. Why that matters is there’s a cultural component sometimes attached to what we’re going through: macroaggressions, microaggressions, those are things specific to certain communities. So sometimes when you’re going to therapy, you don’t necessarily have somebody that looks like you across the chair. Sometimes you could be doing what’s called code-switching through a session, and you’re not bringing your true authentic self to a therapeutic session, which is pointless because therapy is all about being authentic. So, the first issue is this there’s not enough culturally-affirming wellness practitioners in the field.
The second thing is, unfortunately, that the people in my community that don’t have “the best insurance,” like, let’s say, Blue Cross Blue Shield. They’re in a really interesting situation because a lot of providers don’t accept MassHealth.
For those people that are in my community that have that insurance, when they go to a practitioner and say, “Hey, this is the insurance that I have,” they get turned away because these wellness practitioners and therapists don’t want to go through the hassle of dealing with certain insurance providers. So those are the two main things that we’re currently seeing and that we’re trying to figure out how do we resolve that.
Yuill: I noticed on your website you offer so many options for people. Some of it traditional, some of it nontraditional. Is that part of the reason why?
Deed: Yeah. So the reason why we decided to take an approach that’s not only clinical but clinical and holistic, or what I like to call ancient healing practices, is really because of my own personal, lived experience. So when I was going through the situation that I mentioned in December of 2017, I started off with being in a psych hospital in Maryland, and then later moving back up to Boston and going to therapy about once a week. I always joke that my therapist talked herself out of a job because she suggested yoga. And I said to myself, “Well, what does yoga and depression have to do with one another? I’m not seeing the connection.” And then she said, “Just go. You live pretty close to this really great yoga studio and I think you should check it out.” Apparently she knew what she was talking about, because after going to one or two classes, I started to feel better, and I started to be able to open up more in my therapy sessions. It was life changing.
So the reason why you see both the clinical and holistic wellness practitioners on our site is because that mirrors my own personal healing, but it also helps people who aren’t necessarily open to seeing and speaking to a therapist. So when I talk about the barriers and the things that we’re dealing with in our community, a lot of times we’re dealing with people who look at therapy as a stigma. They are not ready to talk to somebody, but they might be open to going to a yoga class or going to talk to a life coach because that has a different connotation to it.
Yuill: Talking about the stigma, what are some of the ways to eliminate the stigma around people seeking mental health care?
Deed: I know the stigma is huge, right? As soon as you say mental health, people in my community specifically are saying, “Well, I’m not crazy.” And I think for me, it’s a thing that I work on daily. The way that I work on it is by talking about it just the same way that I’m talking to you about it, normalizing the conversation. A big part of what I do in connection with PureSpark is to go to different organizations like churches, like community centers, and talk about my story so that they can see me and they can know that mental illness doesn’t care what you look like, doesn’t care where you came from. It doesn’t care about how much money you have in the bank. It can come for any of us.
Yuill: You’ve got an event with the Museum of Science next Tuesday, which I think looks like a great opportunity for people to share about this. Tell us more about that.
Deed: Yeah, I am so excited. So next week, PureSpark will be taking over the blue wing of the Museum of Science.We’re going to be turning that wing into a wellness haven. We’ll have massage therapists, life coaches and basically display people that we have on our website in person and in the museum, which is a really unique mashup. We’ll also be having a panel discussion. A lot of times when we think about Black people, we’re thinking about Black Americans, but the Black culture is so vast and has so many ethnicities that come into play. So we have representation all throughout the diaspora: Black American psychologists, a psychologist from McLean Hospital who’s from Africa and the executive director of NAMI, which is the National Association of Mental Illness, who is part Caribbean, who will also be on the panel. So we’re super excited about being able to talk about this from all angles, from different cultural aspects and in one space and allow people to ask questions of these experts. So it’s going to be great time.
Yuill: Thanks so much for joining us.
Deed: Thanks for having me.
PureSpark’s upcoming collaboration with the Museum of Science will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 21, from 6 to 9 p.m.