By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Providing a safe place for young people to share their experiences with mental illness is important to local counselor LaViola Ward. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

LaViola Ward helps local youth manage their mental health issues. The care she provides is informed by her own journey. 

Before moving to Sacramento in 2011, Ward gave birth to a son. She was a single mother, trying to graduate from college and “just trying to make things happen.” During her son’s three-month checkup, she expressed her emotional state to his pediatrician. “I blurted out, ’Oh my God, I’m depressed. I feel like I was gonna kill myself and I don’t think I’m a good mom. I don’t know what to do,’” she shared. “That’s how my diagnosis of postpartum depression came out.”

Ward’s road to wellness hasn’t been easy. When she was 12, she experienced a devastating trauma that it would take her decades to heal from. “I had a sexual assault that kind of sent me reeling,” she said. “I came from a very traditional, very strong, modern church background. We didn’t really have discussions about trauma, mental health and things like that.”

Ward kept the abuse a secret for many years, believing she was complicit. Growing up in a staunchly religious household, she thought she would go to hell because of it. For her own sanity, she learned to compartmentalize things. “Looking back, I certainly had some symptoms of depression and anxiety and maybe some PTSD that I was dealing with,” Ward said. “It was a frightening experience for me. I didn’t have the wherewithal to disclose that to my family at that time.”

She revealed the sexual assault to her mother just three years ago. “It was a lifetime of just holding it,” she said. “I really thought that I had brought it on myself and I was very terrified. The only way to combat that, I think, was for me to just try and be good. I just tried to be as good as possible. This is why a lot of the work that I do when I’m talking about mental health, especially within the Black community, is talking about transparency. Back in the day, you didn’t share what happened in your family outside the home.”

Ignoring things doesn’t make them go away.

Real Talk

After going two decades without a diagnosis, LaViola Ward says she sees her experiences in a new light and works to preserve her sanity personally and professionally. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Ward now shares her experience of living with mental illness as a member of the Stop Stigma Sacramento Speakers Bureau. The speakers bureau is part of a Sacramento County campaign, “Mental Illness: It’s Not Always What You Think,” which seeks to eliminate barriers for people with mental illness and provide deeper understanding of mental health issues.

Members such as Ward speak during awareness efforts, like Minority Mental Health Month in July and Mental Illness Awareness Week, which was observed Oct. 2-8.

After years of having no clear labels for what she was experiencing, Ward now has diagnoses of major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.

“Sometimes you hear ’depression’ and you think, ’I’m not depressed. That’s not me,’ because you automatically presume that depression often times can come out in anger or ambivalence and other things, but a person may hear my description of depression and for the first time understand, ’Oh, maybe that does apply to me,’ and is able to go to their doctor and disclose that,” Ward said.

According to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of people with a diagnosable mental illness never seek professional help. When Ward got involved with Stop Stigma in 2017, she didn’t initially disclose the sexual assault. “I talked about struggles and coming from a strong Black home and feeling depressed and being told to pray about it, but it took me two years to even disclose within the context of that work, that this was a huge trauma from early on in life,” she shared.

She tells her full story now, moving others.

“I’m at speeches and people are crying – people of all walks of life, male, female – they’re coming up to me at the end saying,Oh, my god, me too. That happened to me too.’”

Once she started telling strangers and it was received well, Ward found the strength to reveal the abuse to her mother. “When I had that conversation with her, I think it was cathartic for both of us,” she said. “She knew that something was off; she knew that I was angry and just something had changed, but she never had an understanding of what happened until I told her. She just cried, it was very emotional.”

Sharing personal trauma can be hard, but Ward has a deep-seated desire to help.

“I feel like I owe that to those little 12-year-old girls that look like me, or look otherwise, who come after me,” she said. “I speak at elementary schools and middle schools; sometimes I have this conversation and this girl, or boy, might hear my tale and think ’You know what? I have to go home and tell a family member that this happened to me also’ and save them 20 years of self-medicating and trauma. That’s what powers me now. I feel obligated, almost, to tell my truth.”

Falling Down And Standing Up

Being in a good headspace is important to LaViola Ward. She gets through with therapy, protecting family time and inspiration from the Obamas. Ward hopes to write a book about her own experiences. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Ward said she self-medicated for years. Coming from a “family full of addicts,” she’d seen alcohol and substance abuse all her life. “That’s how I numbed and dealt with all of the chaos that was kind of happening in my brain,” Ward said.

That, of course, only created more problems. She partied more than she studied her first semester of college and failed all of her classes. She eventually turned things around, earned a bachelor’s and started working towards a master’s in counseling. A traumatic relationship, however, turned her back around.

“I ended up running into a parked car, driving drunk,” she admitted. “I wasn’t applying those things (I learned in class) directly to my life that I needed to. I was back to my old habits of self-medicating in that damaging way. I was drinking every day. I was back in Merced. It just was a really bad experience that I’ve had to really put in a lot of work to recover from because I didn’t want my life, my addiction, all the work that I’ve done to be in vain and for me to not be able to work with people in the future.”

It’s been an uphill battle but, Ward said, “I’m definitely in a better place. I have a therapist now. As I’m working as a therapist, I have my own therapist.”

It’s important, Ward said, for mental health care providers to also have someone they can talk to.

“I think it should be legally mandatory,” she said. “I think that if we’re caring for others and being a place where others let out their trauma or disclose emotional content, I think we have to have a place, a safe place, an effective place to deal with that, or else it turns into other things.”

It’s difficult at times for Ward to “leave it at the office.”

“I’m not a superhero,” she said. “I have a role, but there are also boundaries that I have to adhere to for my sanity, but also so that I can be the best provider for my clients.”

Part of her self-care has been setting limits and preserving time for herself and her two children. She has written several children’s books. She attends her son’s football games and enjoys coloring with her daughter.

“There’s the world where I’m assisting and hearing the worst stories that kids have ever experienced and then conversely, the world where I’m at home. I have to keep these worlds very clearly separate.”

You can’t put your children in a bubble and protect them from all the bad things that can happen to them. But bad things aren’t abstract for Ward. She knows firsthand that dangers are real and can rob children of their innocence. “I can’t protect them from every single thing,” she said. “Sometimes I’m probably too transparent with my son, who’s a little bit older. He’s 11 now, but I try to talk to him about things and feelings and check in and make sure that I’m open and I’m not pushing him into a box. 

“I think what I experience in my work definitely influences the way that I parent sometimes because of the concerns that I have, but also because of some of the things maybe that I felt like I was missing in my childhood,” she said.

Ward speaks about the impact of trauma on child development, the importance of culturally competent care in the mental health space and interrupting dysfunctional patterns. She also addresses the stigma surrounding mental health in the Black community.

“It’s seen as a weakness in our community,” Ward said. “We have the weight of strength that’s been attached to us for generations. We are strong women, our men are strong; we are (expected to be) almost superhuman, in terms of physical strength. (During slavery) they talked about the ’hardy African’ and how Africans could withstand certain diseases. We have been burdened with this concept of this unbreakable strength. … Getting help is especially attributed to weakness and I think it couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s the bravest thing that I ever did.”