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By Yen Duong

The storefront windows of The Evening Muse, an intimate Charlotte music venue, are completely covered in flyers for upcoming events. Among the open mics, comedians and music groups, a bright yellow speech bubble with neon letters reading “R U OK” stands out.

R U OK, CLT? is a monthly event consisting of performances by a poet, a comedian and a musician followed by a discussion with all three on a topic related to mental health. Proceeds from the events benefit nonprofit advocacy group Mental Health America.

R U OK, CLT? takes place every third Tuesday of the month. Next show: May 21
“Instead of asking people ‘What’s wrong with you?’ we need to be asking ‘Are you okay?’ and ‘How can I help?’” said Kathy Rogers, director of MHA Central Carolinas, who watched the show from the back of the room near a table covered in mental health resource pamphlets. “It’s a way to break that stigma and start the conversation about mental health.”

MHA volunteers stood by during the March 19 show and discussion, which focused on discrimination. The Evening Muse owner Joe Kuhlmann said he wants people to feel intimate and comfortable with discussing mental health, not “like an interrogation.”

“Let’s take some of the shame and stigma and shadows of mental health and shine a bright warm light on it,” Kuhlmann said. His goal is to create an environment “where people as a community can feel like we can tackle this together.”

From left: poet Jah Smalls, musician LeAnna Eden, comedian Carlos Valencia discussing mental health and discrimination. Photo credit: Yen Duong

Allowing for vulnerability

A few dozen people each paid a $10 cover fee, filled up folding chairs, and spilled over to the bar or stood in the back to watch the local performers: poet Jah Smalls, comedian Carlos Valencia and musician LeAnna Eden.

First-time audience member Kelly Greene, who was meeting a friend to watch the free jazz show after R U OK?, was intrigued by the premise of linking performances with mental health discussions.

“To have the arts involvement with it is beautiful,” Greene said. “[The arts] make us vulnerable enough to approach some topics in a way we might not be able to otherwise.”

That openness was apparent as the audience was kept rapt by Smalls’ poems, some of which shared his experiences with PTSD and depression after getting shot and mugged when he was 19 years old. Valencia’s set included jokes about curing his hypochondria by not having health insurance. Eden wrapped up the first half of the night with indie-folk-rock songs, one of which was about her birth mother, she said.

Co-organizer Kelli Raulerson, who works for Bank of America and has volunteered with Mental Health America for years, said that the event also encourages openness about mental health within the artist community. She and Kuhlmann had decided to put together a fundraiser for MHA, which eventually turned into the monthly events with different themes: upcoming months will be dedicated to PTSD, high school, suicide prevention and substance abuse.

Interested Charlotte-area residents can sign up for Mental Health America of Central Carolinas’ free eight-hour Mental Health First Aid Training courses.

MHA of Central Carolinas holds a monthly Charlotte Coffee and Conversation.

MHA also has affiliates in Eastern Carolina, Forsyth County, Wayne County and Wilson County.

They take the performers out for dinner after each event to check on each other after the emotionally intense discussions.

“Artists are always sharing of themselves and sharing how they’re feeling, and we as a society, we take that for granted,” Raulerson said. “We take the entertainment value from that and we forget to ask how the artist is doing.

“At the dinner last month, what surprised [the artists] about the show was the exchange and support they felt from the audience. They’re used to sharing their story but they aren’t used to getting anything back.”

Discrimination and microaggression create trauma

Two years ago, Tonya Jameson was in the middle of attaching her license plate to a car she’d just bought outside of Knoxville when she heard a man on the phone behind her, talking about how he had a gun trained on her. Jameson opened the second half of the show by standing on stage with her hands up while audio piped in from a recording of that 911 call, made by an overzealous off-duty police officer.

Jameson, now a political campaign manager, de-escalated the situation and made it back to Charlotte, where she filed a complaint against the police officer. Months after getting an apology from the Knoxville chief of police, who kept the officer on duty, she found herself agonizing over the incident.

“I kept going over it in my head every day,” Jameson recalled. “[A friend] was like, ‘You know, you can see a therapist?[…] I hadn’t ever thought about how trauma, discrimination [and] implicit bias really impacts me.”

Jameson, a former reporter, asked each artist to describe an instance of discrimination they’d faced in their lives and how it affected their mental health. She talked about the microaggressions, or subtle everyday hostilities, which can pile up and make it “really difficult to be your authentic self.”

“I could go on for days about the slights that happen on a daily basis,” Eden said. “I try to just not think about much of anything when I walk into a room. […] I’m really good at compartmentalizing things; I just try to keep it moving.”

‘Part of the ripple’

Volunteers from MHA carried microphones through the audience for questions and comments.

“It’s not just for the audience to be over here and listen,” rallied one audience member. “The most important part of what the audience has to do is be part of the ripple, to carry this [conversation] and bring that lens that breaks down colors and cultures and allows the humanity to come through.”

Resource cards handed out by volunteers at R U OK, CLT? event. They asked that audience members give these cards out if they see someone who could use help. Photo credit: Yen Duong

Kuhlmann closed the show by asking audience members to start talking with their friends and neighbors about mental health. Volunteers gave out resource cards with numbers of local and national mental health organizations to share with others. The table by the door held flyers for a substance abuse center, Safe Alliance, MHA, Monarch, eating disorder treatment center, and sold R U OK? t-shirts.

R U OK, CLT? is unique in North Carolina. The only similar event that a spokesperson for the National Alliance on Mental Illness North Carolina could find was a Charlotte storytelling show last fall licensed from the national anti-stigma organization This is My Brave, sponsored by Promise Resource Network. Kuhlmann and Raulerson mentioned that other cities and universities had shown interest in copying the R U OK? format for their own venues.

“What we’re really asking people to do is go to friends and family and have a conversation and ask ‘Are you okay?’ You have to be willing to hear what they have to say and not try to solve it for them, just listen,” Raulerson said. “ [Mental health] is the basis, from my point of view, for a lot of broader social issues we deal with, like drug and alcohol addiction, homelessness, mass shootings.

”It’s all really grounded in mental health and making sure that we are understanding what’s going on with people before they get to those extremes.”

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Yen Duong

Yen Duong covers health care in Charlotte and the southern Piedmont for North Carolina Health News.