Alumna Opens Non-profit to Improve Mental Health Resources for Minority Groups
When you think about mental health, you may think about depression surrounding the loss of a loved one, losing a job or feeling isolated — but there’s so much more. From being a caregiver, to facing the justice system or even struggling with finding resources to get financial support — mental health resources are needed in several aspects of life. But for some, access to those resources isn’t always easily accessible.
According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, Black adults in the U.S. are more likely to report emotional distress, but only one in three with mental illness receive treatment. They are also less likely to receive guideline-consistent care or be included in mental health research.
Additionally, Hispanic and Latinx adults are less likely to receive care due to language barriers, poverty and lack of cultural competence and health insurance coverage.
It’s that gap that sparked alumna Maria Brown-Spence ’15 to create an organization called Hearts 2 Heal. The organization, located in Austin, helps historically underrepresented groups connect to mental health resources in a safe space and champions people of color to lead the programs that the organization provides.
Brown-Spence left college to focus on taking care of her grandmother, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After her grandmother’s death, Brown-Spence was determined to go back to school and finish her degree.
Shortly after graduating from Texas Wesleyan University with a bachelor's degree in mass communication, Brown-Spence's significant other was diagnosed with diffuse large B cell non-Hodgkin lymphoma — an aggressive cancer of the immune system. She was once again put in a caregiver role.
“I went back to college because that was one of the promises I made to my grandmother — that I would graduate,” she said. “And so, when [my partner] was diagnosed, it threw me back into the ‘here we go again’ world of cancer caregiving, navigating grief and loss and going through the bereavement process.”
Brown-Spence found a lack of health equity at that time because her partner didn’t have health insurance, and she was balancing caring for him, the house and working a full-time job. She worked to find programs to get him in and funding to help support them through the difficult time.
“I didn’t have the luxury to take time off work and really go through the bereavement process,” she said. “I went to grief and loss groups, but I was the youngest person and the only person of color. That’s when my life started to change, because I truly found at the time, and still do, that my purpose is to help other people on their bereavement journey."
With little experience navigating a non-profit, no business plan and big dreams, Brown-Spence created Hearts 2 Heal with support from other local charities and grants. The grassroots nonprofit relies on grants, foundations and individual donors for financial support.
Hearts 2 Heal has several areas of focus, including pregnancy and infant loss, a mentorship and wellness program for Black teen girls in the justice system, mental health first aid certification and mental health workshops and seminars.
“It’s a form of grief no one really talks about — when your life circumstance has changed. Many people just think grief and loss is just for the physical, but you can grieve the loss of employment, income and identity,” she said.
Brown-Spence credits her time at Texas Wesleyan to laying the foundation for her success. She moved around a lot in high school and struggled to pass state tests, which led her to decide to get her GED. She worked for a while before going to community college and joining the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). That led her to studying nursing at Texas Christian University, where she struggled with the math and science courses.
She decided to join the Army, which helped her find her footing. But that’s when her grandmother started getting sick, so she took some time off to help care for her. After going back to community college, she applied to TXWES and was told to do just a few more classes to help get her into the University. She completed the classes and was accepted into Texas Wesleyan but still fought to keep up her grades.
“I struggled so bad. I wanted to quit so many times. And that’s why I say Dr. Tom Smith, Dr. Kay Colley and Dr. Carol are the individuals that had a distinct impact on my life,” she said. “I had destructive behaviors and couldn’t focus on school. That’s where Dr. Kay Colley and I had some pretty transparent conversations about what I was going through. I wouldn’t have graduated without her help.
“I definitely do feel Texas Wesleyan was the best place for me. They gave me a chance. I think that’s important for people to hear too.”
Brown-Spence uses the small community and personal touches that Texas Wesleyan gave to her to inspire how she forms her organization. Using the “gift of gab” she learned while getting her degree, she has propelled herself into not only starting and running Hearts 2 Heal but becoming the director of environmental, social and governance (ESG) at SThree, a global STEM-specialist recruitment company, as well as a guest speaker for mental health at conferences and community panels.
Her advice for students looking to start their own organizations: “You can do it. Exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point.”
She wants students to know that they can come from any background and do something great. She encourages them to utilize the resources they have and create projects they’re passionate about while in school.
“Sometimes we skim through our classes, but some of my communications classes helped me create my pitch deck and learn how to write an enticing sentence that would bring a funder in. Pick the brains of fellow students around you, because my volunteer photographer, Jermey Hunt, was made because of our Texas Wesleyan connection.”
She also recommends interning with businesses you want to get involved in or know a little more about, joining non-profit boards and using the knowledge from that to find what gaps are in the industry.
“Be curious, do a lot of research and understand that it’s okay to make mistakes,” she said. “You have the opportunity at Texas Wesleyan to get to know your faculty and staff because class sizes are smaller. Use that to your advantage.”
Brown-Spence hopes that Hearts 2 Heal continues to grow nationally. She also hopes to teach classes and create curriculum on grief and loss communication, become vice president of ESG or a social impact organization and use her skills to help mentor others.
“The sky’s the limit,” she laughed.
Learn more about Hearts 2 Heal at hearts2heal.org.