Ken Walker fights for 'mental wealth' in city of Detroit

Ken Walker is not the first young professional to battle mental health issues while simultaneously excelling in their career. In fact, he says part of his entrepreneurial journey started because of his anxiety.

The 30-year-old Detroit native has worked in marketing and advertising for nearly a decade. Walker has served as a strategic planner, brand strategist, and digital content planner. He’s led teams, conducted research, and created initiatives for Travelocity, Harley-Davidson, and Cadillac. He’s also an award-winning diversity and inclusion coach.

Yet in September 2017, Walker found himself struggling with his purpose and felt he wasn’t using his talents to the best of his ability. He told his boss. Shocked, she listed all of his accomplishments.

“I interrupted her and said, ‘Well, you just named a lot of stuff that I did for the company, but not for myself,’ ” Walker says.

That started him on a path to advocate for what he calls “mental wealth” by creating a clothing line and nonprofit Detroit Mental Health. As part of the nonprofit, he’s launching a new website that will make resources more accessible.

Walker wants his organization to be Detroit’s hub for mental health and bring all of the available community resources into one accessible place. The website — which will launch May 1 to kick off Mental Health Month — will serve as a portal for events; existing local organizations such as Detroit Wayne Integrated Health Network, Henry Ford’s Behavioral Health Center, and the HUDA Clinic; and available therapists in the community.

Detroit Mental Health will address financial inaccessibility to mental health resources. In addition to hosting events and creating initiatives, Walker says the website will provide information on local health centers, free clinics, and other cost-friendly options for those with and without insurance.

“The same way you get a physical, see a dentist, or an ear doctor, go and get a mental health checkup. It should be normalized in that way. That's the activism I'm fighting for,” Walker says.

Walker also knows he has a responsibility as a Black man to create opportunities that are beneficial to the people of Detroit, a city that is nearly 80 percent Black.

“I want [Detroit Mental Health] to have reach because mental health is a universal topic. But I do know Detroit is still a Black city,” Walker said. “We need specific things that are tailored to our people because we are disenfranchised, disadvantaged, and marginalized when it comes to access.”

Walker’s ‘self-love journey’

A month after he had that conversation with his boss, Walker had his first therapy session and began what he calls his “self-love journey.” He learned he was experiencing burnout from his job and work became a way to distract himself from his high-functioning depression. His therapist helped him identify ways to suppress his anxiety. Walker fulfilled a childhood dream of owning a clothing company by creating his lifestyle brand, K. Walker Collective, in June 2018.

Walker’s goal was to unite his passions for apparel design and mental health activism. K. Walker Collective would set the groundwork for Detroit Mental Health. However, his initial idea to further his advocacy did not come in the form of a community organization.

In fact, Walker’s first plan in the summer of 2019 was to design a brand T-shirt to address mental health but realized that would never come across as intentional. After doing more research, he learned the theme for World Mental Health Day 2019 was suicide prevention, and that someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. This prompted him to create Detroit Mental Health Day, an event focused on breaking the stigmas around mental health in Metro Detroit.

The event was Nov. 10, 2019, at Detroit Artists’ Test Lab and had more than 150 attendees. Walker hand-selected his host, mental health advocate Que Morgan, and his five panelists: marriage and family therapist Silvia Leija; travel and lifestyle influencer Charlie G; Pastor Tim Holdridge of Woodside Church Detroit; relationship counselor and radio host Greg Dudzinski; and film director Miles Reuben. Walker plans to host this event in Detroit every year on Nov. 10, a nod to the annual World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10.

More work to be done

While planning Detroit Mental Health Day, Walker met other advocates in the city. He shared his event with Brenda Jones, president of Detroit City Council; Councilman Roy McCalister Jr., who leads the city’s Mental Health Task Force; and David McCullar, founder of Inception, a mental health gym in Farmington Hills. All showed support for Walker’s event.

Connecting with these individuals and seeing the work others were doing in his community motivated Walker to turn Detroit Mental Health Day into the nonprofit, Detroit Mental Health, just two weeks before the scheduled event day.

“It scared me at first. How am I going to do this?” Walker said. “But while planning, I was learning this can't be a one-time event. There can be more events, more initiatives, and more work done.”

Walker’s goal is for Detroit Mental Health to provide a comprehensive report titled “The State of Mental Health in Detroit,” and present data at the second Detroit Mental Health Day on Nov. 10, 2020. Walker has connected with the psychology department at the University of Detroit Mercy and drafted a proposal pending approval.

Walker has worked with McCalister as part of his Mental Health Task Force for the past two months. He plans to build a network of community centers, clinics, and potential sponsors. Detroit Mental Health will also have an advisory board. Walker has been onboarding local health professionals to assist in efforts for the spring and fall.

From a resource standpoint, he believes there are many available to the community, but the path to accessing them is unclear. During the Detroit Mental Health Day event, Walker showed attendees how to look up information online, and went over appropriate questions to ask a therapist.

He encourages people to research their employment benefits and insurance plans for treatment options. He wants people to understand that under the Affordable Care Act, employers must provide coverage for mental health services. When Walker decided to start therapy, he found assistance through his company’s employee assistance program.

As a promoter of “mental wealth,” Walker wants people to find the power within themselves. It is how he’s gotten through his most challenging battles.

“The root of your power is in your mind. What you tell yourself is what you will manifest. You have to find active ways to work things out,” Walker says. “You should never lose hope because this is a circumstance. You're a part of something so much bigger than you realize and go through.”

The next Detroit Mental Health initiatives will be announced in April and begin in May, in honor of Mental Health Month. Visit Walker’s Instagram, (@TheKennWalker), and Detroit Mental Health’s Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, (@detmentalhealth) for more information.

Rachael Thomas is a metro Detroit-based writer, web designer, and visual merchandiser. The Central Michigan University alumna recently became an editorial assistant for Hour Detroit magazine. She enjoys covering fashion, arts and entertainment, and stories of those positively impacting their communities. In her free time, Thomas loves watching scary movies, trying new food spots with friends, and hanging out with her mom.