April 2010         

 Charleta B. Tavares

Member, Columbus City Council

Charleta Tavares

November 1994 “was the best of times, it was the worst of times” for Charleta Tavares.  She had just been elected to become the first African-American female to serve in the Ohio House of Representatives from Franklin County.  She had just touched down in Arizona for a much needed vacation after the strenuous campaign, when she received a phone call that turned everything upside down.  Charleta’s younger brother Jeff had just taken his life.  He was 37 years old.

Jeff was a typical teen from a solid middle class family—he was a good kid, he was popular, handsome, smart, artistic and a talented musician.  Then, when he was 17, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia.  Jeff, nor his family or friends understood what was going on.  But as more and more of the symptoms of his illness appeared, Jeff was confused about what was going on in his life and why many of his friends slowly began to drop away.  His family, including his loving mother, his sister Charleta and her husband stood by him and sought out help for him. His dad had passed away at a young age (48) right before Jeff’s illness struck.

It did not take long, though, before Jeff’s family became frustrated with the mental health system.  According to Charleta, no one would listen to their input about Jeff and about what was “normal” for him.   “Men of color often have symptoms and behaviors that are different from those of Caucasians.  Most of Jeff’s treatment providers were either Caucasian or foreign-born with little or no understanding of him. If you don’t know a person and are not 

familiar with what is ‘normal’ for that culture, it is very difficult to identify what symptoms are illness-related and what symptoms are cultural or unique to that individual.  Our family like many others at the time could not get providers to listen to us. We know our loved ones best; we know what ‘normal’ behavior is for them.  It took several years and several different treatment providers before Jeff was finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder,” Charleta said. 

Charleta feels strongly that families must be a part of the treatment team. “Jeff as a minor was initially covered by his mother’s private insurance. However, once he became of age he was dropped from that coverage and then went into a new public system.  It is very difficult for our loved ones who are often faced with a sudden change in doctors and systems. They have little or no say in who is providing their treatment, and they just get plain tired of having to re-tell their story time and time again.  At least if family members are involved and are listened to, some of this burden and frustration can be lifted,” she said.

We must all learn to speak with our loved ones and for our loved ones and we must do it in a way that resonates for all.  We have so much to gain, and even more to lose.

Mental health disorders cut across racial, ethnic and cultural groups equally.  Regardless of who we are, a person needs to “click with” or develop a rapport with their treatment providers.  Understanding a person’s culture is critical to the success of that process.  According to Charleta, who today is the Executive Director of the Multiethnic Advocates for Cultural Competence and serves on the Columbus City Council, “We know that ensuring cultural and linguistic competence in our service and care delivery systems is essential to recovery.  If treatment providers do not understand the culture and language of the individual patient or consumer, they are at a huge disadvantage in making a proper diagnosis and assisting in the person’s recovery.” 

“Mental health treatment is no different than any other business.  To be successful, business owners must understand and appeal to their customer base.  This is readily apparent in advertising.  I wish it were so apparent in the mental health system.  We know mental health disorders impact each racial, ethnic and cultural group equally.  If providers are not seeing this diversity of their respective community or region represented by those coming through their doors, then they are not reaching all of the people who are in need of their services.  Treatment providers have to do a better job of understanding and reaching out to their client base. Mental health treatment is not a ‘one size fits all’ business and, really, what business is?”

“The experience of my brother’s illness is weaved into everything I stand for and do,” said Charleta. “I know that mental illness impacts one in four people so I know that I stand beside people from every culture, every walk of life in what I have experienced.  My hope is that more and more people will step forward to share their loved one’s illnesses to improve the systems of care.  As we implement health care reform in Ohio, we need to integrate families and cultural competence among other systemic changes in our education, prevention and treatment modalities.  We cannot know who will be impacted next, but we do know it is very likely to be someone we know, someone we love, and someone we respect and admire.”

Charleta Tavares extends a challenge and an opportunity to all Stigma Buster readers, “We all need to learn more about mental illness and how we can advocate for better services and treatment to meet the needs of our collective families throughout our state. We must all learn to speak with our loved ones and for our loved ones and we must do it in a way that resonates for all.  We have so much to gain, and even more to lose.”


Case Western Reserve University: Personal Rcovery Stories Highlight Triumphs and Challenges

The Center for Evidence Based Practices (EBP) at Case Western Reserve University has added a new "Recovery Stories" section on their web site. This evolving collection of stories highlights the positive outcomes of EBPs and other services for people diagnosed with mental illness or co-occurring mental illness and substance use disorders. The stories are told by individuals living with a mental illness, family members, and other supporters of recovery, such as employers and direct-service providers. They discuss openly the challenges and triumphs of recovery, as well as insights and advocacy gained along the way. To view these stories on line, go to: www.centerforebp.case.edu/recoverystories.

FREE Mental Health Medication Hotline for Primary Care Physicians

NAMI Ohio appreciates the critical role primary care physicians play in recognizing the signs of mental health disorders in their patients.  With fewer and fewer resources available in our communities to meet the mental health needs of Ohioans, more and more patients are relying on their primary care physicians for mental health care.  NAMI Ohio, Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy (NEOUCOM) and the Best Practices in Schizophrenia Treatment (BeST) Center have teamed up to assist primary care physicians in meeting the mental health needs of their patients by providing a mental health medication hotline staffed by experts in psychiatric pharmaceuticals.  These experts are available to answer questions from primary care physicians or members of their staff Monday – Friday from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. The number to call is: 1-800-216-3125

Thank you for letting your primary care physician and others know about the hotline.   If you have any questions, feel free to call NAMI Ohio at 614-224-2700 or e-mail us at amiohio@amiohio.org. 


Stigma Busting Challenge: Help connect teens and young adults with a mental health disorder with their peers.  Here’s a couple of websites to share:  www.activeminds.org  and www.strengthofus.org.