It’s an understatement to say that we are living through some tough times. Children are being ripped away from their families. The people of Puerto Rico have not received the aid they need. Mass shootings have become normalized. And the suicide rate has risen 30 percent in nearly two decades. During these turbulent moments, it’s evident that the United States has a mental health crisis and needs to take strides to properly address it.
Healing and spirituality can be a hell of a medicine for some folks. And for Emilia Ortiz, a spiritual guide and mental health advocate, empathy is one thing that can help save us.
Ortiz, or @Ethereal.1 as she’s known on Instagram, uses the social media platform to raise awareness of mental health concerns in the ‘hood and offer understanding, love and guidance to those suffering. Raised in Flatbush, Brooklyn, a predominantly working-class and people of color neighborhood in the New York borough, she understands from personal experience why her work is essential.
“Growing up in Brooklyn in the ‘90s was weird. There was a lot of smoke in the air, that type of shit. It was a very different time,” the Boricua bruja told FIERCE.
She remembers snippets of her childhood, from going to the bodega with her father to get 40s, to hearing Caribbean music blast in the streets, to the pressed juices she’d get on the corner before the hipsters gentrified it. For Ortiz, a child of the Caribbean diaspora, she always had a little of la isla down the block.
Her mother was a social worker, but the topic of mental health wasn’t up for family discussion, particularly because it wasn’t considered a reality that applied to them.
“My father grew up in the projects, and it’s one of those things that with mental health, we don’t have time for that shit. It’s white people problems. We don’t got time for it. As time went on, I didn’t understand that my father had alcoholism,” said Ortiz of her late father, who also struggled with a heart condition as a child.
Although Ortiz said that everyone in her family had a spiritual gift, she didn’t understand why these capabilities weren’t used for mental health issues. As she grew up, later even developing her own gifts, she gained a strong sense of cultural knowledge and now attributes her elders’ disconnection to how emotions in this society are perceived.
“It’s easier looking at your body being afflicted than your mind. Culturally, we are supposed to be strong, and it’s seen as not strong. People don’t want to acknowledge mental health because they see it as a sign of weakness. I think people feel that if you do [acknowledge] that, you are implying that you have a spiritual disconnect, which isn’t true,” she said.
For low-income families, Ortiz says mental health issues come off as more of a burden.
“Working-class folks don’t have time for that. We don’t have time for physical illness, either. But when it comes to your job, they’re more likely to understand a physical disability or issue than a mental health issue. We all have shame associated with it. It trickles into our spirituality,” she said.
So when Ortiz struggled with her own mental health in high school, she innately knew she needed to talk with someone. Although she tried addressing these issues with her peers, her concerns weren’t well received. “It was hard for me to have friends who were understanding and open to having a conversation about this stuff, because when I would, people would be like ‘Ayo, man, ain’t nobody trying to talk about that right now, that’s mad depressing,’” she remembers. “It needs to be OK to have these conversations. It needs to be normalized.”
Mental Health awareness month challenge! Please share & RP! I’m trying to make this go viral. I’m challenging everyone to do this, in an effort to raise awareness about mental health. Let’s get the conversation started! With ourselves, & those we love! It ain’t a cure all, but it’s how we can get the ball rolling. You can start by asking “how are you feeling today?” & following up with questions like “why?”, “how can I help?”, “what can we do to change this?”. Instead of just moving onto a new subject. Let’s take the stigma & taboo/awkwardness from this, by normalizing the conversation. #mentalhealthawareness #mentalhealth #depression #anxiety #bpd #ptsd #ocd #psychosis #schizophrenia #mania #mentalhealthawarenessmonth #challenge #mentalhealthawarenesschallenge #mentalhealthadvocate
Although she did reach out for help from her high school counselor, the wealth of her knowledge was given to her by her abuela.
“She really taught me to be this multifaceted bruja. I come at things from all angles,” Ortiz said.
Even though her grandmother’s lessons didn’t directly address mental health, it was spirituality and learning to combat matters on the day to day that helped her gain passion in her work. From learning about essential oils to candles, Ortiz feels the need to spread the knowledge that she has gained to help people, especially in these trying times. She hopes to be that voice she wish she had when she came up.
“It’s about helping as many people as I can, even if it’s through a video. That’s what makes people not feel so helpless, to feel not so hopeless. When we are educated, we tend to feel more empowered and like we have more options,” said Ortiz.
NYC in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, this Thursday May 17th I’ll be part of a panel at @urbanoutfitters @spaceninety8 to talk about mental health. From 7-9pm. Alongside other poppin’ mental health advocates. I’ve posted an image in my story, with a link to swipe up to reserve your spot. You just have to rsvp, as space is limited *update* RSVP is full. Come thru! It’s gonna be educational, informative & empowering. 📷 by @jasperegan . #mentalhealth #mentalhealthadvocate #mentalhealthawareness #mentalhealthawarenessmonth #eortiz #spaceninety8 #urbanoutfitters
That’s why she uses Instagram as her main platform to empower folks. Technology has made these kinds of services accessible for people who may not have other mental health resources present. While she acknowledges social media can be a dangerous place for people living with mental health concerns, it can also be a site for education and affirmation. She hopes that if someone watches her videos or comes across her work, it will inspire them to seek help, regardless if it’s with her or someone else.
And with 122 thousand followers, including people from Africa and Europe, her work is definitely resonating with many.
“Sometimes I be like, my little Brooklyn ass, why do all these people know who I am? But I fuck with it,” Ortiz laughs.
With her strong demeanor coupled with her powerful sense of empathy, Ortiz always lets her clients know that it takes a lot of effort to work on yourself. “Be prepared! It’s gonna be hard work. We will get into the nitty gritty and get it addressed. Be prepared to do the work.”
And that goes with anything worth having in life, right?