Prostell Thomas uses mental health fair to push for better ecosystem of support in Detroit

Prostell Thomas is smiling from ear to ear as he pulls up a video on his phone. The 45-minute-long clip features students from The James and Grace Lee Boggs School declaring how much they appreciate their classmates, faculty, and friends. Thomas is a teacher's aide at the school, where he primarily assists special education classes and students with behavioral challenges.

“This is part of the programming we did at the Boggs School," he says. "The impact of not only having this conversation with the boys, but then showing the final project to the whole school was quite powerful. We know that children start to experience some sort of self-value even before they have words for it."

Thomas is a self-made activist and educator. He's a passionate advocate who has committed himself to bringing awareness and solutions to outstanding issues within the Detroit community. His latest mission has been a crusade to increase the number of mental health resources and awareness available to the Detroit community. It's a calling born out of mental health struggles within his own family. 

“I come from a family with a history of mental illness, a history of mental illness that predates me. And we didn’t start addressing that illness until about 2018 [...] One night my cousin, who I had custody of, burst down my bedroom door, he was sobbing. I started talking to him and the more I talked to him, the more he sounded like my sister, who I know to be bipolar schizophrenic,” Thomas says.

Out of confusion and panic, Thomas decided to take his cousin to an emergency room at a local hospital. That wasn’t the action he wanted to take but he felt he had no other recourse.

“It was emotional because I’m at the hospital and I didn’t know what to expect. I raised him from a baby, so I had never been in that space where he needed help and I couldn't help him,” Thomas says.

His cousin was prescribed medication, and sent home, but had another mental illness episode four months later. 

“We started going through the process, we started going to the hospitals and ended up in a maze, just completely lost [...] Up until earlier this year it had been our sixth or seventh time going to the ER, our sixth or seventh place to address the mental illness. We couldn’t get a consistent doctor, we couldn’t get a diagnosis,” he adds.

As Thomas continued to search for answers he met other people who were in the same predicament as him. He met adults looking for ways to treat family members, others caught up in the same ER maze, and he came into contact with people who knew they had a mental illness but were too defiant or reluctant to seek help. He credits some of the problems to the closure of Michigan’s psychiatric facilities, access to doctors, and therapists, and a lack of information on mental health. 

“There are intersectional challenges such as cultural (the unspoken rules of the 'hood), education (lack of code-switching), language (we simply have different definitions for common phrases), and gender differences (there are not enough Black male therapists) that have to be considered before a person even walks in the door,” says Drew Nelson-Brent, a licensed therapist.

Thomas started to seek out more and more professionals within the sphere of mental health. He asked them to come together for one event, and HEAL: A Community Mental Health Fair evolved. The fair was held at Avalon Village in Highland Park on Sunday, April 24 this year. The fair featured onsite therapists, grief counselors, a men’s healing circle, mental illness discussion panels, and most importantly; plenty of take-home guides and pamphlets full of other mental health resources. 

Avalon Village in Highland Park.

“I decided to do an event where we bring together the people that have the answers and that's how it started, he says. "If I don’t know how to do nothing else, I know how to organize. The great part is there are so many people that are addressing mental health in Detroit by doing yoga, reiki massage, and other modalities that help lower the levels of stress because one of the true things I found out is one of the predictors of mental issues are things we just live with."

Michigan Liberation's Ash Spears led a community conversation about Mental Health, Healing by Choice offered free reiki sessions, Teasso Bey of Moor Herbs did a presentation on the positive effects of a healthy diet, and Kevlar Afrika and Sheezy Bo Beezy led the Men's Healing Circle. The fair also received support from Sasha Center, Patrece Lucas, Indigo Transitions, Lady Speech Sankofa, Mindful Men Henry Ford Behavioral Health, Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, and Authority Health.

“We decided to offer support to his program because the SASHA Center, we have seen the impact on our communities as it relates to the unmet needs of our members dealing with unresolved issues related to mental health. While we are a peer support, education, and prevention organization we have witnessed first-hand the impact of silence in our community and the taboos associated with our collective mental health status and states of being,” says Kalimah Johnson, executive director of the SASHA Center.

Avalon Village has promised to host the fair monthly, a website is currently under construction, and Thomas sees HEAL developing into a functional ecosystem of mental health resources that will be available to the community 24/7. He also plans to incorporate mental health professionals to address crisis management. “When someone is having an episode, how do we handle that crisis?” he asks.  “Too many people don’t know.”

He also wants to bring in more professionals to address mental illness prevention and how to counter the precursors.  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of care."

Thomas says his cousin is getting better but he’s still taking it day by day. He admits this might be the biggest community challenge he’s taken on but he’s confident it will be worth the effort. 

“I know that I’m a part of this community, I know some people that do this work, and I know that we need some answers. Our biggest thing is to connect people to those who are doing the work.”

All photos by Kahn Santori Davison.
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