By Imani Agbionu
Jor-El Caraballo is a licensed therapist and co-founder of Viva Mental Health and Wellness alongside business partner, Rachel Gersten. Having grown up in the south, Jor-El found his passion for mental health awareness in high school. With a degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina Wilmington he ventured into traveling within the United States to speak about and promote sexual assault prevention. Eventually earning his masters in Psychological Counseling, Caraballo is not only an entrepreneur and therapist, he’s also an author who recently penned his first novel The Shadow Work Workbook: Self-Care Exercises for Healing Your Trauma and Exploring Your Hidden Self.
Recently, we sat down with Jor-El who spoke about his journey to co-founding Viva. With an agenda for speaking up for people without a voice, he also discussed the current state of awareness of mental health in connection to people of color, workers, students, and more.
Have you always wanted to be in the field of counseling/therapy, or have you ever wanted to delve into another industry at one point with your connection to psychology?
Good question! Unfortunately, I have a bit of a boring answer.
No, I really came into psychology initially because I took a college-level psychology intertype course, and I just had a really great experience with the teacher there. I believe she was a social worker, and it was my first experience in psychology. She was fun, had a personality, and was doing things to help people. I felt like the path to becoming a counselor or a therapist was really the right thing for me. So, I went into college knowing that and it was always the plan for me, fortunately.
Early in your journey, you traveled in the US and wanted to support and spread the word about sexual assault and empower men to stand against it in support of women. How has such an experience influenced your connection with supporting people?
In that experience I was working as a presenter and as an educator. One of the most wonderful things about that experience was not only were we talking to people at colleges, and military bases, but a lot of times we’d have conversations after our presentations and workshops. Sometimes we’d speak to survivors who had experienced sexual assault and it really did solidify my desire to be in a helping profession.
I had this direct experience of speaking with people. We’re talking about people who were experiencing trauma and we’re talking about their journey of healing. It was just a powerful example of when people have the right support, they can do great things and they can move on from horrible experiences in their lives. So, it gave me more motivation to figure out how I could best support people professionally for sure, and personally as well.
As a man, how have you used your experiences in life to connect with your clients and understand the ways mental health can affect someone’s life?
There is so much of my work that involves connecting with my clients and it’s something that we encourage in our company amongst our team members. It is being able to show up as a human first and using your experience to benefit someone; and obviously there are limits. Certain things are appropriate or inappropriate, but I think for me as a man, specifically a black man, it has been critical towards establishing really good working relationships with my clients because that’s something I can’t necessarily hide.
I walk in the world as a black man and it has been useful, especially in my work with other black men to talk about what that’s like. To talk about the challenges of the ways in which we protect ourselves out in the world. What are the ways in which we’re sometimes so focused on protecting that we become defensive in interpersonal relationships? How do we talk about feelings and emotions when we’ve never been given that education? So, I think that my focus and hopefully one of my legacies will be to empower people of color, black men specifically, thinking about their mental health in fuller ways. Realizing that there’s no shame in going to therapy, in journaling, whatever it is, that there’s a lot of value in getting to know yourself in this way, and it helps every area of your life.
You co-own Viva Mental Health and Wellness alongside your partner Rachel. What influenced you both to embark on a business focusing on mental health? How did you come up with the name Viva for your business?
That’s a good question!
So, Rachel knew before I did. It’s kind of a funny story, because we both were working in social services in New York City. We had worked together in a company before, but then we sort of moved into our own areas and I was doing a little bit of private practice on the side. She was working at a men’s mental health homeless shelter in the city, which was quite intense. There was a lot of stuff going on there in general. There are so many problems within social services in New York. There’s a lot of bureaucracy. Rachel and I talked about the idea that if we could use our degrees to build something, what would it be like? But we never really acted on it.
There was a point in 2017, Rachel came to me and said, “Hey, I’ve had it. I’m done. I’m done with the system. It’s time.”
I was like, “Okay!” So, we started to get things in motion and that’s how it was born. It was just sort of out of our own minds to offer services that were more responsive culturally and
were flexible for people in terms of scheduling. We really wanted to address some of the problems that people had with accessing mental health and other therapy practices. We wanted to be visible in all the things that we do. I would say I’m a little boring, but Rachel would not say she is. So, we wanted to show people that you can be in this field and have a personality as well as perspective, and you can share that. We used our blog, podcast, and our social media to humanize things and have a different kind of conversation about mental health.
We landed on the name Viva for our business because in Spanish it equates to ‘This is life’ and it also communicated strength. So, we wanted to really empower people to live strong lives, and to feel powerful and hopeful. Also, to be equipped with the tools whether they were our direct therapy clients or not. So, that is why we share the information that we do. That’s why we try to contribute to different articles and stuff because we want to give people access to the kind of information that’s helpful, even if they are not our clients.
There is a large stigma around mental health. When you and Rachel started Viva, were you both hesitant at first due to the stigma of therapy and mental health in general and the topic surrounding it?
No, part of the reason why we decided to do it was because we felt like we had something to say about that. We felt like we could be a voice to not only address the general stigma of mental health but also the idea of the stigma that is attached to the traditional therapist, which is responsible for some of the distance, especially for communities of color and other people who have been historically marginalized. People think a therapist is one thing because that is what they see in the media, which was also part of our motivation and challenge. We needed to figure out how can we show up and talk how we talk, look how we look, talk about psychology and these deep issues in ways that feel accessible to people.
Viva has branched out into many different outlets to connect with people in need. You have a blog, podcast, social media presence, and more. In the future, how are you and Rachel looking to expand Viva with such a large outreach already?
I think one of the ways in which we are expanding now is we’re also setting up satellite locations for actual therapy and other areas. We started with offices in New York and in the past few months we’ve also opened offices in Philadelphia and in San Diego. So, part of that is just getting more people access to our team and people with our philosophy around mental health and therapy.
I think there’s always room for growth and creativity and that’s one of the cool things about running your own business. Rachel and I are always thinking about what is the next thing? How can we refine the message? Is there another outlet that needs to hear us? Are we reaching the people that we want to? We’re always iterating ideas in that way, and we’re flexible in that.
I don’t have a great answer in terms of where it’s going to go next. But we are continuing to grow in different locations and are finding ways to communicate about mental health and psychology. I just published a book last month so all that sort of fits into the ecosystem of making things accessible for people and trying to reach people wherever they are.
You’ve talked a lot about people being “burnt out” specifically in relation to workers and students. Can you explain what a person is expressing when they are telling someone they are “burnt out” due to the term being equated to someone being tired?
At its core, burnout is really speaking to exhaustion, which can be both psychological and physical. It’s sort of like the feeling of having nothing left to give. It can be a bad experience, but when we’re talking about it from the psychology lens, it’s also feeling disempowered, right in the spaces that you’re occupying.
So, for most people, it’s the workplace; feeling like you have no agency, like you can’t possibly impact things or make the changes that are necessary to be successful, feeling like you don’t have the support in your role, that you’re not being challenged in your work.
You are also experiencing a lack of support, not having a culturally responsive workplace, maybe even being in a hostile workplace. It’s like the combination of all those things, we lead people to this sort of experience of being completely tapped out. It can even lead to things like a depressive episode where you’re really having a hard time showing up to work doing your project. You may or may not feel low, but you might feel empty and unmotivated.
That is why it’s important for people to talk about burnout. It is temporary, but it can also lead to other things, if unaddressed. So, if those problems that led to the burnout are unaddressed, it can very easily blend into a depressive episode, where a person can experience a great deal anxiety and panic attacks.
It’s been expressed that a lot of schools have started to notice that students are often sharing they feel burnt out. How do you think those students can be better supported in school and at home?
There’s a lot that can be done to really help people in school. I think the problem is that it often becomes bureaucratic and political, but the solutions are there. The solutions must be systemic. For instance, we have to reduce the workload on students and kids. They have way too much homework and there’s way too much pressure to achieve in certain ways. So, reducing the amount of work that happens outside of school or needs to happen outside of school would help a great deal.
There’s been studies on pushing back the start time of school, which is also helpful for students because they’re not getting enough rest, which makes them more susceptible to burnout. Another issue is there is not enough mental health staff in schools. There’s one guidance counselor for one high school and they are also burnt out and can’t give any more to the kids that need them. Adjusting the budget so that there’s mental health staff and support in schools should students need it will ensure they have that place where they can talk through anxiety, worries, issues and get the real support to work through issues.
On the home front, I think it’s about the parents educating themselves that mental health is a real thing. Not everyone has mental illness, however, we all have mental health, therefore, we need to be talking about it. Some parents say things like, “Oh, they’re just a teenager. This is teenager angst,” and blah, blah, blah. We’ve sort of used that type of language for far too long. The teen years are some of the most transformative years of a person’s life. If we chunk up everything to “teenage angst,” then think about all the things we’re missing. For that teenager, think about all the opportunities that we must teach them skills and how to manage themselves. Think about all the times you must really listen to them and take what they say seriously. It is about parental and community support on those spots. We’re talking about outside of school too.
There is a stigma within the black community about mental health. Why do you think that is? Does history play a factor in it?
I am so glad you put that in there because it’s a really big factor.
There’s so much that black folks have experienced throughout the generations that contribute and manifest in ways now. I think that anything about mental health is considered weak or a weakness because of ancestral history, where we’ve over emphasized strengths. We’ve internalized messages to mean that if you have any problem, it’s not actually a problem, or it can be easily solved, and usually on your own, because you should be strong enough to be able to do that. Obviously, that negatively contributes to stigma because if everyone feels like they’re supposed to be strong enough to deal with everything on their own, then they have no need for a therapist. What happens is people are really suffering by themselves, and they’re stuck in these patterns, and they don’t know why. They don’t know how to get out.
Another thing, and rightfully so, is mistrust of the medical and health field. There are countless examples to point to, from the ways in which black folks were experimented on, used and abused, so there’s a lot of mistrust in providers, even if they’re black. It’s the system of healthcare and medicine that still has ways in which it negatively impacts the lives of black people who seek help. Think about black maternity, for one, it’s a very clear example. There’s a lot of mistrust there as well. You have to be vulnerable, you have to ask questions, and you have to do all the things which maybe you’ve never had experience doing before. So, it’s really a lot and I think we got a long way to go to continue to chip away at all those historical intergenerational traumas and barriers, for sure.
Do you think the media has been biased on their coverage of Caucasian people’s mental health compared to how they cover people of color?
Yeah, there’s a great disparity in how we talk about mental health as it relates to race. We see whenever there’s a high-profile incident of a white person enacting violence, we often get to hear about the ways in which they are struggling including the challenges that they may have, and the emotions they might have been feeling. We see that in all examples, I’m talking from Dylann Roof to the police and Derek Chauvin. “He was scared.” “He was frightened.” “They didn’t know what to do.” We’re often looking at the emotional experiences of white folks and ways in which we’re not looking at it for black folks.
When it comes to the coverage of high-profile black incidents or black crimes, let’s be real, there aren’t that many. And then we see the media collectively focusing on all the problems, right? “Oh, he should not have been doing this.” “He should not have been there.” “She should have just complied.” “She shouldn’t have been talking that way to an officer.” We look at black people with the automatic assumption of fault. Obviously, those two things have dramatic and dire consequences for all of us.
In the justice system mental health is a defense that is used often. However, onlookers’ question is, are those being prosecuted really suffering from mental health struggles? Do you think due to the regular use of the mental health defense it creates stigma around mental illness? Why or why not?
You know, it’s ironic that this is something that happens a lot. What they’re really using or attempting to use is “no fault due to reason of insanity,” which is not a medical term.
It is a legal term and a legal concept that was developed by lawyers, by people in the justice system. So, you have a faulty definition of what this means, it’s open for interpretation and is a mess. But, on top of that, you obviously have people using that as a defense and it’s some people’s rights in the law.
Unfortunately, the media is very quick to pick up on that and report, mental illness is something that’s salacious. That will be the headline. I live in New York City and there are certain papers and media outlets that are better than others, but there’s a lot of sensationalism around these issues. They’ll say something like, someone claimed insanity, or this person has a history of schizophrenia and that’s why they murdered that person, which really does reinforce stigma because then the media runs with that. Then it’s not just a person with schizophrenia instead it’s a schizophrenic that murdered someone. They start dehumanizing language for the sake of a good headline and then organizations, or collectives, and communities will run with that, reinforcing the stigma.
It ignores the idea that most people with mental illness do not commit crimes. But most people with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violent crimes. That has been proven repeatedly in social science research, but we never say that in these sorts of mainstream ways.
You are outspoken about mental health influencers. As an expert on mental health, how do you feel about people who say this: money buys happiness?
It’s so interesting because I have so many different thoughts about it. So, I’ll try to be quick about it. So, top line is that it is in part, true.
I’ll explain. There is research that having more money generally leads to better mental health. However, it’s not about mental health. It’s about quality of life. It’s about you have more money, you have access to adequate health care, you get to live in an area which is not riddled with pollution, you have access to fresh food, and you have all these things. Those are largely the benefits. It’s not actually about money itself, having more money making you happier. It’s really about what having what money affords you, which you know, those are all social justice issues, right? And access issues.
There’s also a curve in that happiness. I can’t remember the exact numbers, but there’s kind of a line. There’s a bottom floor in which you need to make X amount of money to have a decent quality of life, then happiness increases throughout middle income, but it also starts to decrease at a high salary income. They see it drop precipitously. So, this idea that if you have more money, you’ll be happier is not necessarily true. It’s kind of true, but mostly because you’ll have access to all those benefits of having money. I think the research points of this have nothing to do with the material stuff. It’s not about you having the designer clothes that you want. It’s about living in a pollution free zone, the ability to access the quality food and nutrients that you need, having adequate health care, working in jobs that give time off. All those benefits are what produce happiness, not the actual income.
As for the broader influencer part, there’s a lot of money to be made out there. The reason why influencers get to make money saying things like that, or sharing ideas like that, is because they say it in a way that most people want to hear. They tell people the messages that they want to hear and that’s for the sake of enriching themselves. That can be dangerous. There are influencers who say they’re quote unquote a “mental health influencer.” This is incredibly problematic. Usually, what these people are doing is sharing information that they may have learned from other sources in psychology but sharing it in a way that doesn’t consider the important nuance and background that is most helpful. What they do is create a dynamic, and I’ve even had this with clients of mine where they say, “Oh, I saw this thing.” And I’m thinking, yeah, like that makes sense to me. And then I have to say, “Well, this is why that’s not true and this is where that really comes from.” This is like a better and fuller way to be thinking about it. Obviously, psychology, mental health is all very complex. Even in my posts on social media, it’s like there’s still some information missing. I try and do my best about how I talk about it because I understand the complexity, because I have all that background.
It creates a real problem when people rely on influencers for mental health support. One, those people aren’t qualified, and it tends to keep people out of therapy spaces. They’re like, “I already have what I need. I just need to make more money. I just need to motivate myself. I need to boss up.” So, they try and do all that and it’s not until years later that sometimes people end up in my office saying, “I’ve been trying everything to live the life that I want, and I can’t do it.” In response I’ll say, “Well, it’s probably because you’re dealing with this mental health issue, so any quick fix isn’t going to get you there.” Then suddenly, they’ll ask, “Oh, you mean I’m not a horrible person?” I’ll respond, “No you’re not. You’ve been really struggling for the past eight years. And no one told you that.”
Based on statistics, men have the highest suicide rate, more so in black men, which is increasing. How do you think society has been a catalyst in the growing rate of suicide of men due to societal norms?
I’ll even walk it back a little bit and say that it’s not just men, it’s also black boys. The rates are increasing of suicide for black boys and in disturbing ways over the past 5-10 years. What we’re really seeing is a crisis for black masculinity and it’s in large part because of how our social structure has it set up and how it exists. As you said there’s a dynamic in which we’ve reinforced strength for instance, for black men.
Obviously, in some very important and helpful ways, so I don’t want people to misunderstand. As black men in this world you need to have a certain amount of strength to walk outside, to deal with racism, to deal with injustice, to deal with the fear of safety. All these things require a deep amount of strength.
But we’ve also not taught black men that all of that is not just what strength is; that strength is also in vulnerability, and in connection and community. So, what we have is a lot of black men existing around each other but not existing in community and in relationships with other black men and with other people. So, you experienced that disconnection with other people, but you also experienced that internally. One of the things I’ve seen in my work is really helping black men connect to their own internal experience and feelings. So, they don’t even know what it feels like to be anxious and like what that means. They just know they don’t feel right.
So, a lot of the work I’ve done is helping people name and identify like, “Oh, this is what you’re experiencing, and this is what that is.” We have that and so if you can’t really connect with yourself and what you’re feeling, how do you express that? How do you share that? Then that’s also reinforced sometimes with we don’t share when people do take the risk and open up. Let’s just say someone talks to their mother, wife or partner and says something that’s a bit more vulnerable and in turn experiences some sort of rejection like, “Oh, but you’re good,” or “Don’t worry about it,” which they are trying to be helpful, but it’s invalidating. Then the person responds, “Oh, well, I guess this is what’s going to happen if I say something, so I probably won’t even bother next time.”
There are a lot of ways in which we reinforce that same system, and it increases mental health problems. People are suffering in silence so, they’re thinking that what they’re experiencing is quote unquote, “normal.” The stress level they’re experiencing, the pressures that they’re feeling. They think it’s normal, so they just internalize it. I have to say that I think that’s why in part, along with the societal issues of access to health care and food, the rates of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, are elevated in black communities. What we do know is that all those things are often the result of inflammation in the body and stress is inflammation in the body.
What advice do you give to people in toxic relationships with family members, friends, or lovers who feel like they should keep those relationships due to fear of being alone?
The thing about relationships and their roles in our lives is that they are just so impactful. In terms of mental health, they can be things that really save us and bolster us. On the other side, they can also be the things that contribute to our greatest pain. Because we are social beings by nature, we exist in community to be healthy. I guess what I would say that it’s important for every person to decide for themselves what their relationships need to look like. There can be a lot of pressure to have a romantic partner or have a certain kind of relationship, or to maintain certain kinds of dynamics with family. There’s a lot of influence and pressure around all those things.
But one of the best things that we can do for ourselves is give ourselves the permission to examine what feels best for us. Try and create more of that in our lives when it comes to relationships so if something’s not working, you can change it.
What do you say to a person who is feeling hopeless right now that chooses to struggle silently due to the stigma of mental health deeming someone “crazy?”
First and foremost, I’d say that no one deserves to suffer in silence. Every person on this earth, in this world, deserves the right to have care and support. While it can be difficult depending on where you come from and what you’ve heard, you don’t have to navigate your challenges alone.
The whole point of therapy is that it is specifically confidential, which means that what happens in that in that session, does not leave that room. So, it really is a safe space to say whatever and to explore whatever you need to without consequence. There are rare limits, but in large part, that’s what that that space is there for. It’s unlike any other space for that reason. There’s a lot of freedom in the space of therapy. I would also say that if it still feels too difficult right now, there are a lot of other options that you can utilize. There are self-help resources. There are groups and forums that people can access and the one word of advice I would say is just make sure they are vetted or ran by a licensed therapist. If there’s a self-help book that a therapist wrote, go for it. If there is a forum, in-person or online that’s moderated by a therapist, go for it, if there’s a chat group or a support group that meets once a month give it a shot. There are a lot of options that don’t have to work like individual therapy. You don’t deserve to sit there in your pain alone. That can’t be the way.