James Gallanos, Denver, CO.
Position/Job title: Colorado National Collaborative, Suicide Prevention Coordinator.
What prompted you to get involved with mental health causes and why do you continue to do this work?
I grew up in Los Angeles California in the 70’s and 80’s. My family was relatively poor but our neighborhood was a fun place to grow up. We used to play in construction lots, ride bikes, and scavenge for scrap wood to build our skateboard ramps. That was until we annoyed the neighbors and had to take them apart to find a new backyard or empty field to build a new one.
At the time, I hung around friends that appeared to have it rougher than me. My parents split up when I was about three years old and my mom struggled to raise me and my brother by herself. But right or wrong, I felt more sympathy for my friends than my own situation. At an early age, I not only felt anger and sadness for what I saw and experienced, but I also felt morally responsible for how people were treated in my neighborhood. I am not sure why. Maybe it was my sense of fairness or social justice and that was the early motivation for me to think of myself as a helper. Maybe it was for another reason. Whatever it was, it is was not until my mid to late 20’s that I decided to pursue community college to explore mental health as a possible career path. During my first year, found myself writing a lot about my lived experiences in my English and Psychology 101 courses. I understand that this was expected of early college coursework, but for me, it was therapy. And my community college professors were gracious in accepting me first and foremost as a person only second to seeing and treating me as a student as I had only been used to being seen and treated. That was the tipping point for me and looking back I feel a great deal of gratitude for their support and encouragement. Obviously I had a lot of work to do first on myself before I was able to cross the bridge to helping others.
What has doing this work taught you?
This is challenging work. Like in any job, sometimes we can become complacent, burned out or experience compassion fatigue or what we often refer to as “vicarious trauma”. As helpers, we have a responsibility to ourselves, our families and the community and clients we work with to recognize in ourselves when we need to reevaluate our purpose in doing this work. With purpose comes meaning and value in what we do. If we expect that those who we care for, treat, or serve are to be self-reflective and open to change, we also need to be vigilant in our own ability to do the same. With self-reflection comes growth and that benefits everyone we come in contact with including our colleagues and the field we choose to work in.
When it comes to the work you have done in the mental health field, what do you feel most proud of?
My work over the past 12 years has primarily been focused on suicide prevention. It’s a very challenging field to say the least. However, I have met the most incredible people and champions who teach me every day that hope is possible and that the work I do makes a difference in their lives and among their friends, family members and loved ones. Having champions and heroes in our work keeps me energized and is the most rewarding experience I can relate to.
What is the biggest misconception(s) people have about mental health and/or mental illness?
Most all of us agree that stigma is the most challenging aspect of our work in mental health. To change beliefs and attitudes about mental health sometimes takes years if not decades to overcome. The most significant belief I feel that prevents us from overcoming this stigma is shame, that somehow a mental illness or even a mental health problem is a product of weakness or a character flaw. Or that it’s a personal choice or shortcoming. It’s long overdue we bust these myths which require open and honest conversations at all levels but it starts with us.
What is your greatest hope when it comes to your professional mark/legacy?
Well that’s easy. Reducing and preventing suicide. Even if it’s just saving one life, it makes it all worth it.
What is your simplest joy?
Spanish guitar, ice cream, walking the dog, hanging with family and lastly, swimming in the ocean.