CHICAGO (WLS) -- The new year is often a time of reflection, and that's especially true considering the last 22 months. Experts say the pandemic has taken a toll on America's mental health. Now one local organization is making Chicago proud by bridging the gap between therapy and communities.
"There's no blueprint. That's my favorite line, there's no blueprint to this!" Faith Overall said as she walked the halls of Benito Juarez High School, a vivid reminder that there is beauty in transformation.
Overall teaches her students the importance of identifying, processing and expressing their feelings in a healthy manner - a journey she's personally on herself.
"It definitely was something that I shied away from at first," she said.
According to Mental Health America, more than 16% of America's Black population - more than 7 million people - reported having a mental illness in the past year.
"We're taught to survive every day, push things to the side, go pray about it but you can't talk about it," said Christopher LeMark, founder of Chicago's Coffee, Hip Hop and Mental Health.
MHA says 50% of Black adults ages 26-49 with serious mental illness did not receive treatment in 2018. And experts say that number rose significantly when the pandemic began.
"In my community, we wasn't talking about our feelings, our emotions," LeMark said. "You were called weak or soft if you were emotional."
But, there's a new message emerging. "In choosing therapy, you're choosing yourself," Overall said.
Chicago's Coffee, Hip Hop and Mental Health is on a mission to help people gain access to the care they need and deserve, no matter the circumstance.
"We just wanted to remove the financial barrier," LeMark said.
CHM uses money from coffee and merchandise sales, donations, and grants to help pay for people to see therapists through Normalize Therapy University.
"The issue with the South and West Side or any broken community is not having enough finances of the resources," LeMark added.
The comfort of coffee and the healing power of hip hop combine to create a recipe for hope.
"Hip hop gave us confidence, gave us a way to speak up for ourselves," LeMark said, adding that hip hop saved him from suicide in 2014. "I realized something was wrong, because I spent a great deal of my life trying to just feel better and pretend that things were ok when they wasn't."
History paints a vivid picture of the barriers the Black community faces across multiple layers of existence.
"I think that as a Black person, as a Black queer person, as a Black queer woman, right? All of those different tiers, um, the odds are stacked against us," Overall said.
Race-based exclusion from health, educational, social, and economic resources and have all contributed to socioeconomic disparities.
"I can't tell you about therapy if you don't have food in your house," LeMark said. "When you go to the website and you fill out the intake form, we ask you do you have food, do you have shelter, do you have clothing."
Normalize Therapy University has dozens of members right now- and even more on the wait waitlist. Overall is one of the program's benefactors.
"It's not enough for you to affirm yourself, you do have to have people," Overall said. "You have to also find people who will affirm you and say hey, the things that you are experiencing are real. The questions that you have are real. The love that you deserve is real."
Overall says starting the journey was not easy, but she pushed through.
"I think that I hit a wall and it was either sit down beside it or climb over it," she said. "I chose to climb."
And says she hopes her steps encourage others to move toward their healing.
"I'm not gonna keep all of this progress for me, I'm at the end of the finish looking around like, 'where everybody at?" she laughed.