An Interview with Marcella Norman: Author and Mental Health Leader

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Marcella Norman is a masters level clinical psychotherapist. She has an extensive background across various disciplines in the mental health field. While working for a community-based mental health program, Marcella realized that there was a need for more African American clinician representation. Because of that, she has dedicated herself to working with and for the African American community. Marcella also is currently working with children experiencing mental health disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Marcella’s children’s book, Mental Health, What’s That? transforms and increases children’s knowledge of mental health by helping them understand the importance of mental health and the connections between their mind, body, and world around them.

This interview transcription has been edited for length and clarity.

Joe: I’m super excited to be joined by Marcella Norman. I really admire the work you’re doing. As someone who really understands the value of mental health and has dealt with mental health struggles, I really admire you and everything you’re doing. So, I just wanted to say thank you for being here. It’s great to have you here!

Marcella: Thank you!

Joe: I’d like to start by giving you the floor to share the work you’re doing today. You can highlight what your priorities are and share a little bit of background about yourself and the work you’re doing today.

Marcella: Okay. So, I’m born and raised in Philadelphia. I currently work in the city as a psychotherapist. But my main employment right now is in substance abuse. So, I work as a drug and alcohol therapist at a methadone clinic. I’m also a psych tech at Penn. I do individual therapy for another mental health company, which is very large in Philadelphia. I treat children and adults there.

I’m pretty much spread out all over this discipline. I’ve been in the mental health field for about 10 years now. And really, it’s a passion for me. So, it’s not like work. People ask me all the time how I deal with such serious work. But it’s not like work for me because it truly is my passion.

Joe: So, what inspired you to take this path? What led you to follow your passion and how did all of this become your career?

Marcella: It actually started in my adolescence. I was a really troubled child. At that time, when I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of information or education on mental health. So, my parents really didn’t know what to do with me. I just had this big anger for the world, and it was very difficult to navigate my adolescent years. When I was in my early twenties, just starting adulthood, I finally sought out therapy for myself. When I first went, it was like, me and this older white lady. At the time, I felt like she could never understand what I was going through. I felt like she can never imagine or understand my life. But then she said something that was really profound to me, and it changed the entire trajectory of my life. She said, “I might not look like you, but pain is universal. I understand that you’re hurting”.

That opened the floodgates. I only had a few sessions with her. It was outpatient. But it really allowed me to release everything that I was holding, and it changed my life. Then, I knew I had to do this. I wanted to become a mental health therapist because it literally changed my life. So, that’s how it got started. I started undergrad and was a psychology major. It took off from there.

Joe: That’s such an amazing story. You know, I think that as we continue to normalize mental health, the world will continue getting better. One thing that I realized throughout my own life is that you can be physically health as possible, but if you’re mental health isn’t right, you’re not healthy. Looking at health in its entirety is something that we are still learning how to collectively do as a society. It’s awesome that you are doing this work.

What is it like today for our youth? I know the pandemic has been difficult. What do you think the world is like for kids growing up today? Do you think things are getting a little bit better? Have you seen progress in the community surrounding mental health care and awareness?

Marcella: Regarding progress post pandemic, I feel like the progress is that mental health awareness is more discussed than ever before. Athletes now are even prioritizing mental health in the media. That’s a big deal, especially for our youth to see that. So, I feel like we have made progress. It’s becoming far less stigmatized. However, despite the progress, our adolescents are still really struggling. Especially since the pandemic, things have been hard for them. Their generation too is unique because everything is so online, less in-person, and it’s isolating our youth. It’s harder for them to connect. And connection is a big part of keeping our mental health in a good place. We could do a better job offering support and resources.

Joe: Absolutely. And there are so many obstacles in place. One that comes to mind is accessibility. Even if someone has insurance, it’s almost impossible for insurance to cover therapy. For so many people, it’s difficult to even find therapy they can afford. That’s why having free resources available is so important, especially for those at younger ages. It’s frustrating to see how many obstacles there are for people of all ages, especially kids. It can be so expensive and difficult to get help.

Marcella: Yes. Finances can be a big barrier that prevent people from accessing mental health care. The whole insurance process is hard to navigate for most people. So, financially, it can be hard for people to get help. And if you go the private route, then you’re paying hundreds of dollars per session. So, it’s expensive and it’s unfortunate. Another barrier that I see is the lack of clinicians. Where I work, we have a wait list that is astronomical. There are people who are stuck waiting to get a clinician because there’s such a shortage of them.

That’s a big barrier to access as well. And then in my community and in similar communities, there are racial barriers that involve representation. We have a lack of representation. Most clients want to come into a space where they feel heard and supported. You remember my story. I wanted to feel seen, heard, and understood. A lot of people feel that way. They want someone who not only represents them but can culturally understand them.

So, people of color and African American clinicians are a very small percentage of clinicians in America. I don’t know the exact percentage right now but it’s so small compared to the representation of other races.

Joe: Absolutely. People just want to be heard. They want someone who they can relate to – and that’s what I really admire about you. You have done so much to work with African American youth in Philadelphia and with small steps and people like you, we’re making a lot of progress. It’s going to take time.

One of the many influential things that you’ve done is create a children’s book. So, what inspired you to make this book? What inspired you to become a children’s book author and write the meaningful book called Mental Health, What’s That?

Marcella: It really came out of nowhere during the pandemic. I was doing telehealth and I found that the children I was treating had families who weren’t really involved. They would kind of just put the kid on the screen, and then I would have an hour with them. And then that would be it until the next week.

I tell all my clients when we start therapy that healing really happens outside of the hour we spend together. So, it’s important to have family involvement and support systems – and people who understand your mental health experience.

Then I think about one of my favorite quotes from Toni Morrison: if there’s a book that hasn’t been written yet that you want to read, then you must write it.

So, I figured I should write a book that brings families together to talk about mental health. That was the inspiration that I had for the book.

Joe: Within the book you cover so much. When I read through it, I realized just how much people of all ages can learn from it – not just kids. So, as the author, what would you want parents, families, and children to know about the book – what its main message?

Marcella: Like you said, the book is for all ages – but my target audience is families and children. The book is not a book meant to be covered in one sitting. I set it up to be more like a textbook so families can go through different sections and then explore. It’s really like a conversation piece. I want families to sit down, read a section, and then talk about it. That was the whole idea of it – getting our communities to start talking about mental health and thinking about it. In communities like mine, it’s unheard of and oftentimes stigmatized.

I strategically created the book in a way that allows families to explore the idea of what mental health even is. And then, I want them to really start talking about it and opening up about it. I hope to offer an entirely new avenue to wellness.

Joe: Absolutely. One thing that I loved about the book is that it’s not just about mental health conditions. Rather, it covers mental health in its entirety. You remind us that everybody should be taking care of their mental health. Even if you have not been diagnosed with a type of mental health condition, you need to understand mental health to truly feel well. You need to understand how to process feelings and emotions. That is not always easy to do.

I love how you emphasize that this is something for everyone to understand – especially kids and families. Everyone needs to understand how they’re feeling. Even for me, I didn’t grow up talking about that and it took me until my adult life to really start doing that – and it’s made a huge difference.

What was your thought process behind making this book an all-encompassing reflection of what it means to be human and have both feelings and emotions.

Marcella: I thought about my adolescence and what I needed at that time. I needed education on what my therapist actually gave me. And as an adult, I wanted details on the language and lingo to identify my feelings and what I was feeling. I couldn’t always name it, but going to therapy helped me get the language that I needed for exploring feelings. I wanted to incorporate that into the book because it really was something that helped me open up. It changed the trajectory of my life.

So, thinking of the adolescents that I treat – I think about my adolescent self. It was something that I needed. They need to learn how to identify and deal with what they’re feeling. If we can’t put a name to it, then we don’t know what’s going on in our bodies. Without a name and identifying it, we can’t possibly find a solution. So, being able to name an emotion and then sit with it and understand how it feels, it’s so important.

Another thing is that emotions get a bad rep. Like, you have strong emotions like anger – which people assume are negative. But no emotion is negative. We have stronger emotions than some. But all emotions should be felt and expressed. And it’s okay. A lot of times in society, these emotions are shunned. This is what causes people to isolate and not really express their feelings which are perfectly normal. So, we want to normalize all the emotions, strong emotions. We all can express anger. It’s okay. It’s kind of just like, letting that elephant in the room out. So, I just want to allow people to explore those feelings. Let’s explore our emotions and the more you can identify and talk about what you’re feeling, the more you can communicate.

For children, we see that this helps behavior so much. Most behaviors happen out of frustration of not being able to communicate what’s going on with them.

Joe: Yes. It is okay to feel – whatever that feeling may be. It’s super comforting to learn how to feel feelings for what they are. One of the best feelings is knowing that you’re not going through something alone. You are special, but what you’re going through is not something that only you experience.

So, having that understanding – getting the big picture perspective of emotions and feelings, it’s something that has really helped me and has been helpful for so many others in the world today.

I love what you’re doing and it’s going to help so many kids. I hope that everyone watching or reading this purchases it and reads it.  You’re doing such great work.

So now I have some author questions if that’s okay with you. This was obviously your first time writing a book. So, what was the process like for you? Was it easier than you thought? Harder than you thought?

Marcella: So, I am an author now, but I was not an author at all before! I had no idea what to even do. So, Google was my best friend. I would just like google, “how to write a book”. And most of the answers were like – just start writing. So, I just started writing! I had no idea how I wanted the book to be structured, but I knew what I wanted the message to be. I just would write away in my laptop.

But I would research details about children’s books – how many pages, how to lay out the content, etc. You know, mental health is a heavy topic. So, just the process of trying to not make that overwhelming for children was a challenge. I had to make the subject matter relatable and appropriate for kids.

Anyway, I just started writing and I would Google my way through. It was so important for me to self-publish. I did research on different companies, pricing was a big thing. I found BookBaby and I took it from there!

Joe: Just getting the story out there is always the most important thing you can do as an author. Once the story is written, you just must put the pieces together. Part of that is illustrations. And I love the illustrations throughout your book. When I work with children’s book authors, I find that one challenging task can be finding an illustrator. So, what was the process like for you to find an illustrator? How did you go about it?

Marcella: So, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted in terms of the illustrations. I actually found my illustrator through task rabbit. I found one that had my same idea and really brought out what I wanted in the book. She’s awesome. She’s from Tennessee and her name is Kenady Kitchen. She does great work. I was so excited with the first proof she sent me. Immediately, I knew she could capture what I wanted to represent.

With the illustrations, I wanted people of color to be represented. When you can see yourself, you can envision yourself in different spaces – and it opens up your future. In media, books, etc., we should be represented.

So, that was such an important task for me. I will show you some of my favorite illustrations from the book here – you can see a very urban mother and her daughter. You also can see here a girl with vitiligo – I just thought that was so amazing and representative of people of color.

Joe: It’s so amazing. And one of the coolest things about being a children’s book author is that you can connect with kids and even read them the story. Have you had a chance to get out in the community and read your book? What have you done to get directly in front of kids with the story?

Marcella: Yes, I’ve had so many opportunities. I’ve been really blessed with a lot of them. I work for 3 major companies in Philadelphia that all have supported me and the book. So, I was able to do a lot within my own companies. But beyond that, July is BIPOC mental health awareness month. BIPOC is the acronym for black, indigenous, and people of color minority mental health awareness. Last year I partnered with Howard University and the American Psychological Association. I did a reading and a book giveaway at their fair. I’ve been to the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia and have done a Get Ready for School type of event. It’s free every Sunday and they always highlight a different topic. When they covered mental health, I was involved.

I also was awarded a grant from the city of Philadelphia last summer to do my own mental health program. So, I did an 8-week workshop course in inner city, Philadelphia. I really just created my own space. I talk to kids about trauma mindfulness. We explored my whole book and broke it all down. I also had activities and everything you can imagine. That was so cool and went on for 8 weeks last summer and I had about 20-25 kids.

I’ve just had so many opportunities. The book is going to be in a library soon, too.

Joe: When you work with kids, are they excited about the message? What is their response when you talk to them about mental health? Are they interested?

Marcella: The children are very curious! They start out like – okay, what is this? But I present my information in an engaging way, and I use visual displays that are colorful. Like, once I had a model brain. And this gets the kids really interested. We did a whole mindfulness session that had singing bowls and we practice meditation. The kids are always very curious. Even I’m surprised by it sometimes.

Before starting my mindfulness, I was a little nervous because concentrating can be really hard for younger kids. But they were interested. My Instagram account shares videos of them meditating, using singing bowls, and going through our practices.

Joe: Amazing. Now, it doesn’t have to be just one thing. But what are some of the most fulfilling parts of this journey for you? What has been the most meaningful?

Marcella: The most meaningful thing is that I’m able to educate my community on mental health. It’s something that is desperately needed and is something that I needed when I was a child. Seeing children just able to survive and be mentally and physically well is the most rewarding part for me.

Joe: I can imagine. It’s such amazing work. Where do you go from here? Do you have another book planned? Are you working on any projects that you can share?

Marcella: I am currently working on a workbook that is going to be very comprehensive. It will have some coloring pages and journey space on the back. We also will have some worksheets that will focus in on the skills that the book teaches.

Joe: Awesome. That’s all I have for you, my last thing is please just share where readers can find you on social media to stay up to date with you and your work!

Marcella: I’m on Instagram and Facebook at @mentalhealthletsexplore! I have a linktree there that connects you to all things mental health.

Joe: Amazing. Well, Marcella it’s been great to talk to you, learn about your work, your book, and everything else. I appreciate you coming here and speaking with me!

Marcella: Thank you as well!

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