The conversation around mental health becomes more prevalent by the day — time to get on the bus!
We all know the caveat to be true — the struggle is real. 9 out of 10 people experience some degree or variation of mental illness. Oftentimes, these struggles stem from a lack of community or identity, feeling unseen or unheard, hence are common among marginalized communities.
Enter Melissa Elmira Yingst — a Deaf Queer Latina, who sports a few more particularly noble identities: teacher, counselor and self-declared “mental health warrior”. Melissa teaches Deaf Awareness and counsels students struggling with mental health. She also uses her MELMIRA platform to cultivate community, provoke discussion and build a support network.
Melissa’s mission to serve her community is a vocation that speaks to Ava. It makes sense to talk about mental health in order to perpetuate wellness among our fellow human beings.
Melissa spoke with us about the work she does to promote inclusion and equality, and emphasizes the importance in sharing our lived experiences with one another.
Weezie Melançon: Melissa, tell us about what you do and the motivation behind your work.
Melissa Yingst: Everything that I do is connected to the community—the Deaf community. I have many different roles. One of my first major roles was marketing. Until recently, I’m back to my roots counseling for mental health at a school.
A big part of my purpose to the Deaf community is to uplift each other through awareness, exposure and through discussion. I do that through my social media platform, MELMIRA, which is also a television show I started a few years ago. We have a long history with the media. We do the news for different companies, and we provide access by signing shows.
Source: National Center on Disability and Journalism
Through MELMIRA, I bring awareness to taboo topics and bring exposure to important awareness issues. For example, the other night, I had a live discussion about what's happening in Iran. One reason for that conversation is to make sure the Deaf community understands what is going on. Another reason for the conversation is to listen and learn through other people's lived experiences, which gets us to think about what we can do to support the movement.
l want to make sure we're connected as a community. We can have in-depth conversation and dialogue, and make sure we're doing better together as a community. The goal is to be more connected and to stay more connected.
WM: You call yourself a “Mental Health Warrior”. What inspired you to work in the field of mental health?
Melissa Yingst: I struggle with mental health issues, myself. I think that's another reason I'm so passionate about mental health. I can share what I’ve learned through my journey of anxiety and depression, and what I’ve learned from others. We're not talking about mental health struggles enough in the Deaf community.
Source: Facebook | MELMIRA
WM: What have you learned through your experience, and what practices do you share with your students that you have found to be useful?
Melissa Yingst: I think number one is discussing acceptance, and feeling it. You can't address the issues or heal if you don't feel your emotions. Many people are scared to feel emotions, and that can be traumatizing. When people aren’t comfortable, they resist and hide the feelings away. You can't truly heal unless you feel your feelings.
Oftentimes, when people talk about how they are feeling, they realize that they can get through whatever it is they are going through. That's a little bit of expertise I share with my clients or students or any person I have a dialogue with.
Feeling is the first step with breaking down that emotional barrier. Many people don't like being uncomfortable, which I understand, but being uncomfortable can be a good thing. For example, there's an opportunity for growth and self-awareness. For me, I experience that a lot.
“I realize that I'm not only Deaf — I’m many things. I'm a woman. I'm a lesbian. I'm Latina. And I have all these other identities, as well. All of these things put together make me who I am. I recognize that and I celebrate that.”
I've been posting about National Coming Out Day, and my experience with coming out. I ask myself what I need today, and I need to be direct with myself and honest with myself when it comes to my identity. Something I need in fighting the system for transgender folks, or different groups of people, is the ability to question the system. It’s a privilege to be able to question it.
Naturally, a part of me feels hesitation to open up and to engage in a more personal way. That’s something I want to change because it’s important that we represent. We need to be visual and be seen. It can be uncomfortable, and in a way may seem easier to push it aside, but I want to challenge myself. I want to recognize and stand up for other people and for the community. I make a point to be mindful of that.
WM: Divisiveness is a big narrative in the media these days. What do you think would inspire more unity, and help people see that diversity, not division, is beneficial and offers opportunity to learn from one another?
Melissa Yingst: I think what's so important is when people who have lived through experiences share their stories. That really is the best approach to make people see that connection. You never know if somebody out there struggling is having the same experience as you.
The media often spotlights people who are well-known and that's called privilege, right? The media can be very biased with the spotlight. I think we need to do more of the lived stories. Everyone has a story. With my platform, I try to highlight stories that are not typically told. I invite people to open up to the community. Everyone has the opportunity to share their story.
WM: Regarding your story, what are the biggest challenges that you’ve overcome, professionally and personally?
Melissa Yingst: So many things. Our community is small, and I love that most of the time. I'm very public and I love to lay it all out there, but still want to keep parts of my life private.
A big challenge has been figuring out my identity. I realize that I'm not only Deaf — I’m many things. I'm a woman. I'm a lesbian. I'm Latina. And I have all these other identities, as well. All of these things put together make me who I am. I recognize that and I celebrate that. With social media, I have a lot of access. With so many people exposed to all of my identities, sharing can be very empowering.
Source: Facebook | MELMIRA
WM: It feels like there is a lot of momentum right now and progress happening on the inclusion front, specifically for the LGBTQ community and the Deaf community. Do you feel the Latina community is sufficiently represented?
Melissa Yingst: There's always more work to be done. We are never done. There’s a lot of awareness and recognition, and I’m really grateful for that. But, it’s not over and we have to keep trudging on.
The kind of awareness needed is seeing people who have lived through different situations and how it impacts their community. For example, with the Latina community, the ICE situation and the immigration situation. All of those things are happening and wow, it affects us!
There are different ways that we can approach inequity, and we have to fight against it. Equality benefits everyone. That work will never be done.
WM: When you reference the fight against the inequalities of the system, what specifically do you feel needs to be corrected?
Melissa Yingst: Break down the label. Break down the stigmas. We deserve equality and equal opportunity. For example, equal pay. There's a pay gap that is still there between men and women, and even lower for Latina women. Yes, we earn more now than years ago, but it's still not enough because it’s still not equal.
Isabelle Garreaud: In my research, I have read that audiologists often discourage Deaf kids from learning sign language. And if you live in a bi-cultural home, where you speak Spanish as your first language, audiologists may suggest Deaf kids to only focus on one language. What is your opinion on that?
Melissa Yingst: My opinion is you can't limit us. We deserve to be signing and we deserve to learn any and every language. We deserve accessibility to different cultures. Limited thinking needs to stop. There is no one way to be Deaf. I saw a post asking if Deaf people can use CIs (Certified Interpreters). Of course we can. We can use CIs, and we can still sign, too. We don't have to pick and choose one over the other. We can know about Deaf culture, we can learn sign language and we can still learn about another culture.
I'm Latina and I took three years of Spanish in high school, and it was the best thing ever for me. My grandparents were so proud of me for learning Spanish, and for being able to write, so we could converse in the language. I don't speak, but learning to write in Spanish really encouraged my identity.
Kirsten Fargas: I think it's really important what you said about intersectionality and being able to feel empowered by recognizing all your identities and making sure you spotlight that.
People talk about the “Deaf elite” and how White privilege is dominant in Deaf culture. And when we talk about Deaf history and learn about Deaf culture in school, hearing people are learning a lot about the White Deaf perspective, but not a lot about different intersectional Deaf identities. I’m curious how you see the future for intersectionality in the Deaf community. What do you hope for in the future in Academia and in the media?
Melissa Yingst: My perspective is that I hope for more inclusion. The key is to have people, like teachers, who are willing to share all the different kinds of perspectives. I teach Deaf studies and my favorite part of the lesson is my own history—when I get to share my lived experience with the students. I also use a lot of visuals and expose my students to a variety of other Deaf identities.
Many programs have started to shift to tri-lingual, whether it’s English or Spanish or ASL. We live in a time where inclusion is a hot topic. It's really hot right now, right? People are trying to be more inclusive, and I think we're ready for that. It’s not just a check mark. We really have to have an honest thirst for inclusion.
Source: Instagram | AvaScribe & Melmira
Kirsten Fargas: When I was in undergrad taking a Deaf culture class, someone suggested that I read the book, “Many Ways to Be Deaf”. Then I got a chance to meet with Elena Ruiz and with her just being herself and being proud to be open, that changed a lot for me. Seeing that kind of representation was really awesome as a Queer person and Latina and Deaf and being very proud of that. What does this month being Latinx Heritage month and National Coming Out month mean for you?
Melissa Yingst: It means the opportunity to be seen and the opportunity to see, and recognize, and hear — to validate and to be validated. That approach is not only for this month. It has to become an everyday thing. It has to become internalized for us.
In today’s society riddled with conflict and polarization, identity can be a complicated discovery for many. Mental health advocates, like Melissa, who exemplify self-love and acceptance of others keep it simple: be yourself and embrace the challenge of feeling your emotions. Often easier said than done, so we're having the conversation.
Her contribution to the youth she counsels and to the community she represents has meaning and impact. She invites people to share their stories and to not suffer in silence. Ava seconds that motion. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, there are ways to get help.