Crisis counselor forms Mental Health Aware to fill gaps
By Marijke Fakasiieiki
The intersection of her son's mental illness, addiction and suicide with her medical career led Jolie Knight to start Mental Health Aware (MHA), Speakout, Speakup, a nonprofit that seeks to address the gaps in services, especially for youth and young adults.
As a crisis response counselor, Jolie saw gaps in the mental health industry, especially as her son was going in and out of psych wards. That did not prevent him from taking his life in November 2020.
She decided to form a nonprofit to empower people to build awareness of mental health and suicide, and to help people find appropriate therapy and resources.
Jolie started MHA in the midst of COVID with the support of several community partners.
It connects people with agencies that provide resources to address addiction, mental health, housing, food, clothing, education and employment.
Jolie could have let depression sink in from grief over losing her son, but now she is turning her pain into power by building and working with other organizations that share her mission and goals of helping people alleviate mental health struggles and suicidal thoughts.
"I'm allowing myself to grieve through the process and acknowledge my experience," Jolie said, noting that too often people try to act like the trauma did not happen.
"That's unhealthy and would not address mental health for anybody. Mental health is about keeping our minds healthy," said Jolie, who is also certified in behavioral health, suicide prevention, housing assistance and peer counseling.
Raised in a Christian household, she uses her faith background in this work. A copy of Daily Bread devotions sits on her desk. She doesn't push them but wants people to know about the Lord.
With her faith, she knows that there is hope.
"Seeing that the things we do can help us hold on reminds me that things are going to get better," she said.
The first thing Jolie does every morning is to watch a spiritual show to set her mind and soul right, so she stays strong for herself, her family and others.
"My faith leads me from losing my son to understanding that there has to be something better. There have to be ways we can do the programs better to help others," said Jolie.
"I'm transparent about it. If people ask, I share what happened. It keeps me strong. If I didn't keep my faith, I would be lost," she commented, aware that some who experience loss and grief try to deal with those feelings by turning to drugs or alcohol.
When she is unsure or stressed about what she is doing or what decision to make, she asks God, "What should I do?" Then she leaves it in God's hands and every time feels directed to do what she needs to do.
"When people walk through my door, I don't judge them. I'm going to serve all people and give them respect," she said. "That comes from my belief that I am to love my neighbor."
One of the first partners of Mental Health Aware was Sarah McNew of West Spokane Wellness. She offered Jolie connections and resources for youth related to prevention, housing, mental health and substance use.
Volunteers of America provided Jolie with training in housing and helped MHA find grants for homeless youth.
Other partners, like Catholic Charities and SNAP, have provided resources and trainings.
"I initially started MHA for mental health awareness and suicide prevention. Gradually I added programs related to direct needs, such as housing and overdose prevention," Jolie said.
Then the fentanyl epidemic was added to Spokane's drug epidemic.
She asks clients, staff and volunteers for ideas, evaluations and visions.
"It's not just about me and my vision. It's their input on how we can help people help others," Jolie said.
Some programs are merging through wraparound services, rather than placing someone in housing without addressing their mental struggles or teaching them about budgeting.
MHA has received a city contract for its new Host Homes program to place individuals in caring homes.
"Most clients find us through social media and word of mouth through our partners," Jolie said.
One woman came to her as Jolie was on her way to an appointment. Something told Jolie to go back. She did. There was a woman holding a little dog with an ear hematoma that had blown up like a balloon. As the dog was shaking, Jolie realized it was septic and very sick. The woman was crying.
Jolie asked the woman to walk with her to a nearby store, where she bought water for her and dog food for the dog. Still in tears, the woman said that usually people ignored her and kept walking. Because Jolie created a safe space and empathetically listened to her trauma, the woman said, "I've never felt at home, so never had the desire to get sober."
Subsequently, she responded to MHA's assistance.
"We are still working on some things, but it makes me happy that we were starting in a place where ultimately it was her choice," Jolie said. "When we see someone who is impacted, when we hear somebody verbalize their trauma, we need to believe them."
The orientation of MHA is to go the extra step of just sitting down and having a conversation on the front steps over water, coffee or tea, getting to know a person so they feel they are more than another number.
"We just listen to learn who they are and whatever they want to share at that point," Jolie said.
She finds it awkward to start with intake and paperwork, because the person may not even know if they want to participate in the programs.
Relationships become the motivation.
Jolie said that often when clients are on their feet they come back and volunteer to help and donate.
"People are flabbergasted that I don't charge for mental health services. They're surprised that some volunteer their time," Jolie said.
"At first people may not think they need regular counseling because they don't want to share the bad stuff. We encourage them to celebrate the good stuff, a new dog, new shirt or new friends. We build on that," she explained.
Mental Health Aware is launching its Host Homes Program for youth ages 12 to 17 and young adults ages 18 to 24 with a focus on people of color and LGBTQ+ people.
They are recruiting caring individuals to open their homes as safe short-term welcoming spaces to shield, shelter and nurture young people who are homeless and in need of support for up to six months. In that time the hope is for them to repair fractured relationships with family or decide on other housing options with a case manager.
MHA does a background check and a safety check on those who offer host homes. The youth connect with MHA's regular programs for support.
"Host homes ideally provide protection, ensure education, give inspiration, communicate effectively, commit to the process and length of the program and celebrate the young person's accomplishments," said Jolie.
For information, call 385-5286 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.