Crazy About AdvocacyNov 01, 2022 08:22AM ● By Sara Locke
Photo by Bill Sitzmann
Angee Stevens isn’t afraid to put mental health where her mouth is. The warm, ombre-haired public speaker, social worker, licensed mental health practitioner, and mother is as disarming as she is charming, and is an outspoken advocate for taking the mystery out of psychiatric services.
Stevens uses a delicate balance of humor and honesty to cultivate frank and emotional conversations with people no matter where she is, whether in public bathrooms, checkout lines, or at a nearby cocktail hour where she unwinds after work. In a recent episode of “The Shrink Show,” a podcast she co-hosts with friend, and fellow clinical social worker and therapist, Jaime Weatherholt, Stevens openly discusses her childhood and the path to healing her own trauma.
Stevens’s biggest hero and teacher is her mother, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective and bipolar disorder. “When you’re a child and your parent is experiencing audio hallucinations and extreme highs and lows, you learn to see your parent how the world sees them,” she said. “The world saw my mom in a very judgmental way, which made me feel like something was wrong with her. That created a divide between us, which created a divide in me. She’s also funny and kind, but when I saw anything of her in me, I would be terrified. What would it mean if I was… like her?”
Stevens speaks of some of her darkest experiences with a nonchalance that, to the untrained ear, might come across as chilly or uninvested. To the trauma-informed, however, the tone indicates that she simply can’t be fazed. She isn’t trying to draw listeners in with salacious details or garner pity. She’s telling them that she knows what it means to love someone through a mental illness; and that there is more to her mother, to her, and to mental health than labels.
“We are fearful of what we don’t understand. We need to embrace all of our own crazy and the crazy in others. That way, when we encounter someone who is ‘crazy’ like my mom, we see them as a human first,” Stevens said. “I want to deconstruct what these mental health diagnoses mean, to take the stigma out of some of these scandalized terms and labels. Sharing stories shows people that they aren’t alone, and they don’t have to hide.”
Stevens has seen the best and worst of what people with complicated mental health can accomplish. Through her work with Child Saving Institute, Project Harmony, Alpha Schools, and Children’s Hospital, she has seen how hard families, providers, and friends are willing to work to provide safe and independent lives for their loved ones.
“Unfortunately, most of our fight isn’t happening in the room with the patient. We are fighting a lot of bureaucracy and lack of funding.” So Stevens shifts her focus, not off of the patient, but toward the support system. “It’s important to me to teach the helpers to be effective, to give them support and resources so they aren’t burning out.”
Stevens now serves as her mother’s caregiver, and her support system includes husband Joel, friends, coworkers, and Weatherholt—her former classmate, close collaborator, and co-host, who said people naturally gravitate toward the pair. Even when they’re out just grabbing drinks, people who don’t even know what the duo does approach and initiate conversations.
“People with completely different perspectives and opinions will find themselves opening up to us, and before they know it we’re commenting, ‘I’m curious why you used that phrasing,’” said Weatherholt. “And it’s not because we’re dying to analyze every word everyone says; we’re just genuinely interested in where they’re coming from. When you come to people without judgment and truly hold space, it gives them permission to be vulnerable and honest.”
The friends bring that same energy to their unscripted podcast. Stevens serves up a bold and no-holds-barred confessional, while Weatherholt, witty and quick, acts the straight man during conversations that wander as easily as coffeehouse gab—although, it’s gin and tonics the hosts hold in their mugs.
In what they call a “therapeutic happy hour,” the pair don’t simply break the fourth wall, they draw their audience into the conversation as a silent third member. They casually craft an atmosphere that has their listeners feeling seen and heard, creating a seat at the table for everyone in the conversation about mental health.