Mental Health Awareness and Suicide Prevention: Advocate Cliff Bakehorn (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is Cliff Bakehorn.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

Joining us today is Cliff Bakehorn, an advocate for mental health care and suicide prevention. Thanks for joining us, Cliff.

Thanks for having me, Kyle. I appreciate it.

So, Cliff, we’ve known each other for quite a while. We used to be colleagues on a video game website. But let’s just start us off by saying that mental health can be a tricky subject to tackle. It’s still taboo in American culture, but it’s also a really important topic for us to talk about.

Before I ask you a little about yourself, Cliff, I wanted to read off a few statistics that would put this whole conversation into context. 18 percent of Americans have some sort of mental illness, which is defined as a mental, behavioral, or an emotional disorder. And these numbers are from the National Institute of Mental Health. And they exclude developmental and substance use disorders — I’m sorry, substance abuse disorders.

Now, one thing that you should note is that this 18 percent represents people who have been diagnosed within the past year or who are currently suffering from a mental illness. So chronic mental illness is included but also short-term depression within the past year. Not included are people who might have had short-term depression more than a year ago — so 1 in 5 Americans are suffering from some kind of mental illness every single year.

Really, that just shows you how widespread the issue is. It also shows you that there’s a tremendous need for mental health care services.

Absolutely. As you mentioned yourself in just describing how we define, and diagnose, and track mental illness as it’s officially stated — personally, I think in my experience and looking at things the way I see them, that’s a lot more of — I don’t know. That’s a lot lower of a number than I think that there actually is in the country.

I think that we’re seeing that as mental illness becomes more — people are more aware of it as an epidemic, as a problem, as something that we’re talking about but not necessarily understanding how to tackle it in their daily lives and really realizing how common and how close to home it can be for them.

And I have to wonder if those numbers — I’m not actually sure off the top of my head — but I have to wonder if this numbers are from self-reported mental illness cases, such as depression, and anxiety, and so forth, rather than actually having data that comes from hospitals.

Well, even just data from hospitals — go ahead.

Because people are — I would suspect people would be less likely to self-report having a mental illness, just because of the negative connotations around it.

Absolutely. That was actually kind of what I was going to say as well is I think that part of the number being low idea is that it’s really hard to include all of the cases of people that are really good at hiding it that don’t want to self-report. They don’t want to seek therapy. They don’t want to seek treatment, cases where–

One of the big crises from my hometown is the homeless and how mental health affects that situation, and nor are they being reported. There’s a lot of factors at play here where I think that the — any official number of them is even hard to still completely trust, because I think it’s something — based on this stigma, based on the way people seem to treat this for themselves and for others — it’s really hard to say exactly what the number would be. But I think 18 percent puts it pretty low.

Yeah. So before we go into the coping, and treatment, and stuff like that, I wanted to talk a little bit about our personal experiences — both with our friends and family but with ourselves as well. And I’m willing to share with listeners that I’ve, myself, suffered from depression for really the majority of my life but also I have a fair amount of social anxiety. And it takes a fair amount of — see, there’s my social anxiety catching up.

How do I tell people what it does for what I have to do on a day to day?

Yeah. Okay, I myself have suffered from depression a majority of my life. I’ve been medicated for it for a majority of my life. But I also have social anxiety. And it’s been pretty moderate to severe to the point that when I was in high school I actually was homeschooled rather than going to a public high school. Tell us a little bit more about your experiences, Cliff.

Oh, absolutely. This is one thing that I am personally — one thing I want to talk about in the subject in general as it pertains to my experiences is that talking about it is really, really important. It needs to be in a setting with company that’s appropriate to actually have a positive effect. But talking about the situation is something that I think is one of the bigger problems for most people on both sides to deal with.

So for me, personally, I think my history with mental health started when I was relatively young. I never really was aware of anything. I did have a handicapped uncle who — just severe developmental issues. And basically just watching him as a kid and growing up gave me this at least basic understanding of the fact that unfortunately the brain develops differently for everybody.

And to a little bit of a lesser extent, I had family that I — I didn’t really understand why they were some of the ways — you know how and why they acted the way they did. It wasn’t normal. And I started to detect that stuff at a bit of an early age.

It really wasn’t until I was a little older that I realized that I, myself, unfortunately — whether it was genetic or I subjectively picked up some of those traits myself and began to embrace mental illness as a personal thing. I was diagnosed — I was officially diagnosed about three years after I started seeking treatment with a psychologist in 2008. I’m diagnosed bipolar II NOS, which is not otherwise specified. I like to think of it as an asterisk that says “I don’t really know exactly.”

I was later — about a year later diagnosed with Adult Attention Deficit Disorder, and not really diagnosed with but noted that I have obsessive compulsive tendencies, tendencies that exist in my daily life that aren’t the typical counting things or having to touch something on the way out the door. There’s just other parts that are a little bit more complicated that are based on that. So that’s what my diagnosis has been.

I’ve had friends, a lot of — countless friends over the years that just through my relationships with them I’ve realized, or learned, or talked about with them their struggles. And I’ve come to realize that almost a scary majority of people that I’ve encountered and surrounded myself with seem to struggle with something. And I don’t say that in a way that I think in my experience is meant to be negative. It’s comforting.

Because to go back to the statistic of 18 percent, at least in my life, that’s an extremely low number. And that has put me around mental health topics — a personal interest in reading about, learning about, taking classes about mental health, and mental illness, and development. So my interest really started there and where it’s really become something where I want to be a bit more involved,

Two years ago I lost a very close friend. And in the media, we continue to see people — famous people, normal people quote unquote “everyday people” that continue to make this mistake or struggle with these issues. And that’s something that I want to have a bit of an impact on myself, just through my experiences and hopefully others, that I learn.

I was going to say, too, the passion for mental illness didn’t start with my experiences. Actually, it was a struggle and it was a resistance, especially when I was first diagnosed. I was — let me think here, 16 years old, I believe. And I actually wasn’t diagnosed but I seek therapy and they were like, yeah, this kid has some issues. But it became that part pretty early on.

So my experience with and interest in mental health — personally and I guess just scholarly — basically, it started with a struggle, not with the full interest that I have now and understanding, especially I was diagnosed when I was younger, in 2005. So it wasn’t something where I liked to agree with it and I wanted to listen.

And I think that’s actually one of the things that over time, luckily as I got older, and I grew up, and I wasn’t a teenager, as you grow up and become an adult, you really either need to learn or do learn certain things about life. And a lot of those things crisscross into how you deal with your mental health, and taking it seriously, and not being a victim.

And I guess, so, my interest did not start with wanting to read about it. It started with learning how to cope with it.

Let me add the caveat that neither of us are medical professionals and any listeners should not take any of the content in this podcast as medical advice. But what are some of the coping mechanisms and treatments that you’ve found effective personally for you, Cliff?

Well, with a lot of trial and error — unfortunately with a lot more of the errors in the beginning — I really started off just trying to escape from dealing with issues. Distractions — your video games, obsessively being on the internet reading silly stuff, things like that where my coping mechanism was just to distract myself from what was going on. I don’t always think that that is something that’s been negative, but it’s led me to realize that you need to have other ones that are actually productive and constructive. Those can be tiny little things.

I recently saw a video of a Navy Seal that was speaking about the importance of making the bed when you wake up in the morning. And it’s because little things like that, when you set a small goal, you complete that goal, that’s a win at least right there for the day. It already put you ahead a little bit. So productive coping mechanisms like taking care of yourself very well, trying to exercise, socializing to a healthy extent. You can be around good and bad people for this for dealing with either your own or other people’s mental illness problems.

So coping can’t really be all of that, either. I think that there is the issue of having me time, you time, just personal time to actually gather thoughts, think, and allow yourself to do that. And then a lot of those things take steps, which are kind of coping mechanisms in themselves.

You mentioned having a lot of social anxiety. And I think social anxiety is — at least in my experience with a little bit of it — is kind of having to learn that that’s not going to stop you from having to do things every day. And you have to learn how to not let that define your actions and who you are.

Yeah, and I think one of the things that we do — all of us, really — is we overthink. And we actually — well, let me just give you an example. If you’re giving a speech in public or something, we tend to give ourselves more importance, I guess, than other people actually perceive us as having.

The coping mechanisms that you mentioned I found effective as well. I’ve taken up — exercise is a good way. It’s a good way to relieve stress and anxiety. Yeah, so, I mean that’s one of the things that I have done personally. I started to take up an instrument. But, I mean, I think you also have to really be introspective and be honest with yourself.


And try to overcome whatever challenges and issues you have.

Absolutely. I think one of the — it’s one of the things that I try myself to put into perspective life and my place in that. And it’s both comforting and terrifying, but I like to say I am one of 7 plus billion people on the planet. How important is this really?

And not to say that in a way or trivializing issues that people need to actually take seriously, but sometimes when you’re in a panic, sometimes when I personally am anxious and feeling at my worst, it’s a lot of times because of this — like you said — expansion and grandiose thought of ourselves and the scope of that in our lives where–

I mean, a lot of times people don’t even realize what’s going on with us. And so, they’re just going to see how we respond, not what’s going on on the inside. And that’s up to us. Our feelings are up to us to respond to. And again, like you said, to admit that to yourself and put yourself in that role of control of that is definitely difficult, especially in times of great anxiety, of crisis.

I think one of the difficulties of talking about this topic is the fact that there’s still a lot of myths and there are a lot of negative connotations that are attached to it. But, as I pointed out in the introduction, it’s something that really touches close to home for pretty much everybody. And at some point in your life — in all of our lives — people become depressed, people have anxiety.

So, I mean, it has an impact on our daily lives for not just our friends, our family, our neighbors, but ourselves. Because whether we suffer from mental illness or not, undoubtedly we come into contact with people who are struggling from it. How do we overcome those social anxieties surrounding mental illness?

Well, I think it’s a really big challenge, a really big task, one that even just the idea of mental health awareness — I kind of struggle to just embrace that generalization of being aware of mental health. Because anybody can be aware after learning, or seeing, or hearing a YouTube video about it. But it’s really a different thing to be alert, and be realistic, and kind of — whether it’s being introspective about yourself or being aware of somebody else and what’s going on with them. I think that’s extremely important.

I think this probably should be emphasized a little more. The first step to actually getting better and living a more productive life is admitting that you have an issue.

Absolutely. I don’t think you can fix the issue until you’ve both admitted that it’s there and also that you actually want to in yourself change the issue at all — and not only just with coping but with treating on a day to day and on a long term basis. One of the most difficult challenges is to maintain that drive.

And really for everybody it can be different how to attain that drive. For me, personally, I have a daughter. And that has given me a purpose and a drive that I’m very fortunate to have and I’m very happy to have.

Aside from an event like that, which doesn’t always impact everybody the same way, there’s no shortcut. There’s no cheat code. You have to find that purpose yourself sometimes, and that can be really difficult to do as well.

And, again, to go back to what I was saying before about just the little things on a day to day basis, one of the other things that I really believe is that you have to do these things. But even if you have to just make yourself or tell yourself something, if that’s the motivation you need, just do a little better each day. It’s worth it.

I think equally important to being honest with yourself and seeking help when you need it is also having these discussions openly in society so that we can actually help people and have frank, open, and honest discussions about these topics. What can we do as a society so that we can remove the stigmas and make it easier for people to seek help?

So for the same reason that I think mental health is increasing and I guess in the problematic nature of it with social media, I do think also there are things that are being done to make the — to go back on mental health awareness, it has been effective, I do believe, in making people realize I guess the weight of the issue, the gravity of the situation.

And one of the things I think that’s been great about this is the acceptance of the idea that somebody is depressed, that somebody’s struggling, and I don’t think that it’s immediately something where when we grew up you’re a sissy — to use the masculinity situation and why a lot of men struggle with their emotions. That was the whole concept.

And nowadays, I don’t think you see that as much with the younger generation. I don’t have a lot of experience around them other than being around brothers and sisters and seeing how they interact and hearing how they treat different situations like this. And it’s a little better than I think how we did. And that gives me a lot of hope for the future and how people will respond to mental illness, and understand that it can be an everyday issue that we can cope with and live with, and not let it rule our lives.

Again, I think normalizing it in a constructive way is very important, understanding that depression has quite a spectrum that it works on. And being chronically depressed isn’t the same as having a bout of depression or a depressive episode. People can have a panic attack, a mental breakdown.

I think these are, to be honest with you, I think they’re natural parts of human life, especially at different age points in life, and to understand that sometimes people struggle with things a little bit more and some people don’t. I think that that’s something that we need to continue to understand is — again, 18 percent, I just don’t — I think it’s a little bigger than that. Even if you look at it as one out of four people you see every day that might be going through something, might have something underneath the surface that you don’t see, that would be something that we understand and respond to in every situation where we’re just a little bit more understanding and empathetic of people around us because of what they may be dealing with.

So mental health awareness is really significantly more common today than it was in the past, especially in this age of social media. I mean, for instance, I see friends post about suicide prevention on Facebook. What role do you think social media plays in mental health awareness?

Well, in mental health awareness I think that it plays a pretty consistently positive role, at least in the literal sense. In mental health in general, I actually think it plays both a good and a bad role, where I do think that a lot of our mental health epidemic and our issues that we’re seeing come up so much more commonly in people. I absolutely think they can be attributed to the way that we interact with each other on social media.

I think that the are even some mental illnesses, some disorders that have not maybe been created in the rise of social media but absolutely have taken a different form to where I think we see things like — we’re aware of the mental health awareness videos and things that our friends post, but also sometimes if you notice, a lot of them can be extremely narcissistic, which the entire concept of social media really exacerbates and rewards.

And on an emotional level, I think that does some pretty messed up things to people. So where I think a lot of people can be informed and educated through social media about these topics, I think they can also — it’s a double-edged sword to where, depending on your personal use and your mental health in general, I think that it can also be tricky and dangerous to where sometimes you’re not always in reality when you’re on social media. And it’s a representation of you, but it’s not you and the people you’re dealing with as well. And I think that presents interesting situations that maybe weren’t as common 20 years ago.

With the rise of social media — our generation grew up before Facebook and Twitter actually blossomed and became such a huge communication tool. I mean, we had stuff like AOL Instant Messenger and stuff like that, but cyber-bullying is really an issue that is talked about a lot today that wasn’t talked about when we were growing up.

Absolutely. I think that actually on the specific topic of cyber-bullying itself, I think that social media is a breeding ground for it. I’m not a teenager right now, but I would not trade my teenage life for a kid now who has Facebook, and Instagram, and Twitter. And everything they do, they’re posting.

And someone in their peer group is maybe not thinking positively about — and all the possibilities of what leads to depression and what breeds that, all of these problems. I think it’s really a lot more simplified just by how prevalent social media is in our lives.

You mentioned that we didn’t have all of the same, basically, tools at our disposal. And even if we did have similar ones — AIM and Myspace, for example — obviously not that long ago, but it was still a little bit different. And I think that the way that it has changed to where now everybody has a Facebook. That idea of your mom can see what you’re posting on Facebook. That’s a little bit different than what we did on Myspace. And I think to a degree, that brings out some good and some bad in people.

And, I mean, the anonymity of the internet I think brings out a lot of bad in people.

Absolutely. Actually, one of the things I read about a while back, apparently — is it South Korea has something where your IP is tied, or your IP address or your — you have a unified profile online. And the incidence of either cyber-bullying or people just doing crappy things online really has dropped. I can’t provide any actual statistics on this, but I think it’s very relevant, at least to the idea that — some people still say and do crappy things on their Facebook. But they’re really not as quick to do that if they think that their grandma is going to see it or if they’re going to be held accountable for it somehow.


And I think that’s what makes things — to use not social media but the internet in general — something like 4Chan, I’ve always been extremely opposed to people using this website. Similarly to I don’t think people should do heroin, I don’t think they should go on 4Chan. Because that I think that it not only brings out and allows the worst but encourages it in a way that really can cause some damage.

That’s a pretty extreme example. But as social media has gotten to be over the last couple years — especially politically and social issues — this echo chamber where we’re surrounding by what we present to ourselves. That can get really dangerous, say, if you’re a really depressed person that’s in the wrong Facebook group or the wrong message board, forum, anything to where you can really derail a person, I think, with the wrong kinds of things.

I think that that’s — it’s one of the things that’s very freeing and very scary about the internet is nowadays it seems very easy to get trapped in our own worlds that we’ve created for ourselves. And that doesn’t seem to be very conducive for mental health treatment or coping with it.

I don’t want to get too much into politics, but it can also lead to radicalization.

Absolutely, absolutely.

People become surrounded by people with like-minded views. And their Facebook feed or their Twitter is basically just something that confirms everything that they already believe. And it amplifies a lot of the biases that they have.

No, actually, kind of going back to where I think that that can be dangerous for someone with mental health, again, part of treatment is wanting to make yourself better and seeking that kind of reinforcement and support either with your actions or people in your life, if you have a completely anonymous or semi-anonymous group of people on Facebook that make you feel good and don’t know you in person, that really doesn’t help you. And those things are so shallow in comparison to your actual everyday life to where, again, I think it’s a lot of personal responsibility and how much you put into it.

But if you’re seeking certain things like — that kind of confirmation, that kind of support through Facebook or social media, sometimes it can definitely lead you the wrong way to where — when we were talking about different ways to cope or treatment methods, one in my personal life that actually helped quite a bit in a lot of ways — not always — was group therapy. But going to a group, talking to people, having to actually face the issues in person and develop a relationship with people who are going through similar things managed to be an extremely helpful coping mechanism, where at first I wasn’t thrilled about it. And before the end of both stints of group therapy, I was very pleased with the experience.

I would also say there is a positive side to the technology that we have today. I’ll just use myself as an example rather than someone else. So for someone with social anxiety, the internet gives you an opportunity to meet and connect with people that you really otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to do.

You and I, we go back a ways now. But we originally met — you know, where did we originally meet? It was through a website that you used to work for, I believe?

I believe so. I’ve never actually been entirely clear, to be honest with you. I just know that once we started talking and I started working with you, I was thrilled about it. And we became friends from there.

Yeah. And I’ve had so many positive experiences with you. You came up to South Bend and visited with me and my boyfriend. I met my boyfriend on Myspace. It’s about the only thing positive that’s come from Myspace.

But we have opportunities these days with the technology that we have that our parents didn’t have, that our grandparents didn’t have. It can be a negative. It can really magnify bullying, because you can basically go on a news website or any website, really, and just berate people and be a troll.

For that, I think of Gerald’s character in South Park in one of the more recent seasons where you find out he’s an internet troll. And as much as I dislike the idea of what he was doing, the portrayal of it was extremely amusing. And it almost ironically shows for people to do that, I think that’s really indicating something missing — maybe not depression. I don’t know what it is, but I think that’s a void they’re filling by being hateful and getting the dopamine rush of their own bile.

Yeah, yeah.

You were talking about the positives of some of the tools available to us and the way we can interact. And that’s something — one thing I’d like to respond to that is really just it lies in the user. The responsibility is up to you as a person on the internet to do things.

And one of the really large points that I have to make about mental health and how we respond to each other is sometimes we don’t largely know how to do that best. With Facebook, for example, I think it’s a pretty common thing for people to forget that they’re talking to the human being that is in the profile picture that they’re looking at and talking to or ranting at.


And I think that that is something that it comes down to the individual. It comes down to remembering that this is not face to face interaction. This is not real life. It’s just our avatar version of it.

And one belief I have is that nothing too important should ever be on Facebook, discussed on Facebook, argued on Facebook. Because there is real life for that. That’s how things get solved, not how things prolong and become bigger problems.

And I think that on a large scale that’s one of the bigger issues. It’s why we’re seeing more depression. People I don’t think are really communicating with each other in a constructive, real way to where, again, I think it just comes down to all of us really taking stock of how we behave and how we talk to people.

I, myself, am guilty of doing wrong with this. And I really had to correct this over the years to remember that it is a person — a friend, a family member — on the other side. It’s not just this representation of whatever they said that I didn’t like.

And I’ve never cyber-bullied. To my knowledge, I’ve never done anything where I feel like I was trying to hurt another person. But I’ve definitely gotten into arguments and things that wouldn’t happen normally. And, again, whether that’s on a small, incidental scale or a large scale, I think that changes how we respond to and cope with interpersonal problems that happen to us.

I also wanted to talk to you about suicide prevention, because I know that’s something that you’re really passionate about.


Suicide is actually the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24. And each year, 44,000 Americans commit suicide.

To add to the statistics as well, I can’t give you a number but one interesting thing that was pointed out to me recently when I was reading about gun-related deaths is that one of the biggest if not the biggest contributing factor to gun deaths is suicide. Which I’m not trying to make an argument about guns or gun rights, but it’s something that brings up one of the points about suicide prevention that I think is really important is timing, and opportunity, and prevention through really obvious methods to where if we have this many people committing suicide just through guns, we really need to think about the mentally ill having access to guns and preventing that from happening, or even in your daily life trying to — I’m not saying try to tell people how to live their lives but maybe coach them away from guns if they’re having suicidal problems.

And it’s not just hurting themselves but other people as well, as we’ve seen just countless times.


I’m looking at a New York Times article right now, and I’ll link to it in the video below. According to the National Center for Health Statistics — and this is from 2016 — the overall suicide rate rose by 24 percent from 1999 to 2014. In 1999, 29,000 Americans committed suicide. In 2014, that number rose to 42,000.

And there’s — I mean, the mind spins with reasons for why that might be. But aside from some let’s say national issues — disasters, things like Katrina and things like 9/11, the financial crisis in 2008 — I think that some of those factors may be increasing this. But I’d like to think with some optimism that times now aren’t really that bad. So I think there’s got to be another cause, as kind of we mentioned before where maybe social media might be something that’s affecting people at a deep level.

And on that point, researchers found an increase of three times the amount from 1999 of girls who were aged 10 to 24 who had committed suicide — and this was as of 2014. So that is a very large spike. The article also noted that white middle-aged women had an increase of 80 percent. So the trends are not good.

Well, and they’re also not exclusive to really anybody. I think, again, that brings around the importance of understanding the reality and the gravity of prevention of this either on a personal or a larger scale is — I don’t like to think of it this way, but I have to imagine on a daily basis I encounter at least one person that is near the end of their rung or their rung, you know what I mean?

I do have a lot of hope that the mental awareness efforts by people online and just in general will help to make people in the future a little bit more aware of this and a bit better in responding to it. But, unfortunately, as you just mentioned with the numbers there, that really supports the idea that this is a growing situation. And I think that we have to really look at all the factors.

I also do think — and to keep the topic to a minimum, because it’s in and of itself a really large one — but drug addiction and even just drug treatment for diseases and problems in America I think is really a huge deal that’s causing a lot more problems outside of just issues related to that, where it has a cascading effect on lives surrounding the individual.

It has an effect on the entire community.

Absolutely. And really no better evidence of that then my own community. Bloomington, Indiana was very recently had a huge spike in heroin overdoses in a two week period that killed — I don’t want to mess the numbers up here, but it was at least over 30 people in two weeks, or at least overdoses that required extreme hospitalization and treatment.

There’s been such a problem that police officers have had to restrict their use of Narcan — the overdose medication used to treat people going through a heroin overdose — to only officers that have inadvertently either stumbled across meth and had some kind of interaction or frequently they were putting Fentanyl in — not meth, sorry, heroin. Recently they were putting Fentanyl in the heroin. And this is such a powerful chemical that just a dust size speck of it when in contact with the officers could kill them, so just a problem like that to where on a large scale, people are having to respond. Why and where is this coming from?

And I think the issues feed into themselves. So, again, I think addiction and drug problems in this country are a huge topic of their own, so I don’t want to talk about it too much. But I definitely think that’s another problem we’re facing parallel to the mental health crisis that feeds into it. And they work off of each other.

I think it probably should go without saying that whether it is suicide or drug addiction, these things have manifested and they’ve grown during a time when the country went through a really significant economic recession.


So people in their everyday lives are struggling to make ends meet. The economic issues can have a ripple effect and create relationship issues. Losing your job itself can cause depression. So these issues really are interconnected, and they feed off of each other.

Absolutely. And I think that the grim reality is that when these things add up, unfortunately what we see — as we’ve discussed on a very large scale — nowadays seems to be people making the worst decision I think a person can make in ending their lives.

And just to kind of rewind a little bit on the topic in general, I think that suicide is unique in our social interactions with people in that nobody really wants to, knows how to talk about it. Whether or not they’ve personally dealt with the situation, personally themselves have been suicidal, it can be something that is so immediately polarizing while at the same time I think it’s more crucial than ever that we at least let the walls down enough and accept that it needs to be talked about.

To go back to the point of the different age groups and the suicide rates of different people, it’s something that can affect anybody. And you mentioned how the loss of a job, for example, could be something that contributes to the depression and suicide. One of the most interesting things that I learned about in school in one of my development classes was that different age groups some of the different crises that they go through — in general, men and women and people in general just naturally — and some of those in and of themselves can be fatal if not handled well.

I think that’s one of the things with all of these other factors contributing to what might be really hurting people or causing them to be depressed, again, it’s widespread. It’s something that we need to be more comfortable talking about, because it’s not going to happen to any target group. It’s not about angsty teenagers that are upset and want to end their life.

It can be an adult that’s had an established life and kids, and they are at some point where they don’t have a sense of purpose. And that’s just devastating to even think about. And that’s something that I think that on the individual level we need to work on a little bit better in some way — little or small, just in our interactions with each other and helping to provide an appropriate support and sense of purpose to the people in our lives.

What are some tangible warning signs that people can look for?

So I think that the really tricky part about dealing with a suicidal individual is that at all times, really, the ball has to be in their court until it can’t be. And one of the things I think that people often, even as a casual mistake, in trying to cheer someone up — let’s just put it lightly — sometimes they’ll try to make people do things that they think would make them feel better when really even if the person just needs to sit there and talk, you need to be able to do that. The person that is going through the crisis needs to be comfortable with the option of getting better, which in a truly suicidal moment is not really going to happen by someone coming along and taking them out of their comfort zone.

Unfortunately, I think it’s both necessary and really dangerous to explore and understand how the person got there, which let’s say that you’re having a one on one conversation with them. You never want the conversation to go too quickly towards enabling any of their thoughts. And one of the things that I think is really tricky is that most people aren’t going to come up to you and tell you they’re suicidal. And if they do, you absolutely should never take it lightly. It’s not a joke.

You really can’t just barge into it. And I think that the best option is really — to go back to the idea of just prevention — I think that a lot of times it builds up. Sometimes it doesn’t. Those situations are harder to predict.

But you have to spot patterns. I think it’s really important to pay attention to patterns if you’re around someone on a daily or weekly basis. Try to notice things, especially if they’re down. The obvious one is the dramatic changes in behaviors, and diet, and sleep patterns. And interests even can sometimes be something I think that should at least be noted, because those things generally tend to happen when a person’s spiraling a little bit — and especially if they are, oftentimes either they’re interested in nothing or change dramatically.

Another obvious one is if there’s any kind of cues, whether it’s through dialog or just something you notice. I think it’s important to interact. And a lot of people are very nervous about reaching out. Again, it’s very important to be delicate and to not over-step yourself, but it’s a lot easier to have an uncomfortable conversation than a tragic funeral.

And that’s unfortunately something that I’ve experienced myself. And kind of to spot things, you’ll always spot things in hindsight. And it is absolutely perfect vision, but it is important to notice things and to keep track, and when time comes to it actually bring it up. And don’t point fingers. Don’t try to say that you know too much. This person needs to feel comfortable responding. But even I think the idea of having that conversation generally should show somebody that they care and help to bring them out of the loneliness and the isolation of it all.

But, again, it’s kind of a real task. I think it takes a lot of paying attention. And it takes a lot of care, a lot of effort to notice these things. But if there’s no signs beforehand, it’s really hard to know you need to do that. So it’s not always easy to spot.

So one of the toughest struggles that I’ve had with the issue of suicide in my personal life was the loss of a very close friend a couple years ago. He committed suicide in his home. And what’s really tragic about the situation, other than the obvious, is just looking back.

What really made me so aware and trying to pay attention to warning signs is even before this happened, there were these bizarre red flags that knowing my friend the way I did really told me that something was extremely wrong, not in a way that it had been before. We had had ongoing situations and really a personal bonding over our mental health struggles together. It was something that really bonded us.

And so, I see all these signs happening, and some of them I want to be specifically talking about. For example, we were talking about social media earlier. One of the things that I’ve read is a real telltale sign of suicidal behavior is a surrendering of your things or your interests.

One of the things my friend did in the weeks leading up to his death was on an almost crazy basis just started posting music that he liked, and videos that he liked, and everything, almost as if he wanted the world to know everything about him. And I saw this very quickly and was alarmed. And I kind of made a comment to him, and he was a smart guy, and me and him were on the same level with some of this stuff. And I think that he shut down and he really blocked me out, because I think he could tell that I knew what was going on. And unfortunately, through still continued efforts, I was not able to use those signs to prevent this from happening.

And in the days leading up to it, the last time I saw him we were talking. And the idea, the thought was that he was telling people that he was really sick and he was in bad health and might not make it. So a couple friends had come into town from out of town. Another warning sign that I’ve read about is gathering people. And this I also took note of.

So in my last discussion with him — that I didn’t realize would be — I was just talking to him about my daughter, who again through our personal stuff, he knew how much of an impact she had made in my recovery and in my treatment of myself. And I tried to really instill in him something I truly believed, which was that he was a father figure to the T. Unfortunately, he had some quirks, but he would have been such a great dad.

And I remember trying to tell him just — not, hey, go have a kid. It’ll fix your life. That definitely was not the point, but just trying to make him understand the potential and value that he had in life that he couldn’t have even been effected by yet or could make him better. And I didn’t buy into that he was sick. I thought there was something else that was wrong. And unfortunately it was in every phone from then until the end there was me worrying until it finally happened.

I learned something very quickly, that as a survivor of a friend that did this that you can’t stop everything. You can’t know everything. You cannot do everything. There is only so much that you can really do short of hogtying a person or just having complete surveillance over them. And that’s one of the hardest things to deal with.

At the end of the day, it really [INAUDIBLE] my belief that dealing with this there is no one to blame. There should be no anger. There is only the person that made the decision. And it’s been a tough loss for me. It’s taught me a lot about life. It’s really made the value of individuals in my life on an everyday basis so much more apparent. But it’s really unfortunate that it took that loss of a person that really, truly impacted a lot of people.

He did display a lot of signs and a lot of people tried to stop him. And unfortunately, again, you can’t control people and you can’t force anything. And part of suicide I think is opportunity. And unfortunately, he managed to slip in an opportunity to do so.

To bring that back into spotting things and being aware — not just aware of suicide and of mental health but really alert is seeing these things, and doing whatever is in your power, and hoping, and having faith in the person to make a good decision. And unfortunately, at the end of the day, that power rests in them.

And I think that as people and as supporters of loved ones of people — friends — in their lives, it’s up to us to make sure — again, on an appropriate level — that we instill that value of each other in each other whenever we can, because it’s got a lot of value. And I think that — I really do believe that if my friend had understood that more, he may have made a different decision.

Thanks for sharing that, Cliff.

Absolutely. It’s really tough, you know? On a bit more of a personal level, I also have had an attempt. It’s something I’m not uncomfortable sharing. And I was in the hospital. And the craziest coincidence in the world happened. The same night that I was put into the hospital, guess who was there?

And it was the most bizarre thing, because we both were always aware of our struggles and everything. But I remember looking at him. We were in the cafeteria of the hospital. And I looked at him and I go, “we are way too good at something to be here. We’re better than this. We have to get better.”

And I remember him being so just absolutely in agreeance and motivating himself. He said — I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was all about this is not going to happen to us again. And it was just the most bizarre thing in the world, and it really bonded us. And it’s really unfortunate to have that connection and unfortunately be the one left over where we didn’t both get there, but it has absolutely been another very strong motivator for me to have pushed through that at the time itself, and then get through the loss of him, and learn that that’s just not the option that I think is right to take.

Even if it’s difficult every day, something — something in life will make it worth it. And even if you have to make compromises to feel what that something is, it’s a lot — it’s a lot better than the alternative.

A few years ago, I had a dark experience as well. I don’t really want to get into the intimate details about it, but I will say just from experience that it’s easy to get into a mindset where everything feels hopeless and to play this record that loops in your head telling yourself that you’re useless, or you’re a failure, or whatever. Because we put all of these expectations on ourselves. And society puts expectations on us. Our culture puts expectations on us.

And one of the things is when you get into a situation where it seems that all hope is lost, where you think that there’s no way that things can get better, and that it would be better to just end it all, it’s really important to take the time to step back and actually think about what you’re thinking about doing and to recognize — to recognize that once you act on your thought to end your life, there’s no taking it back. And — sorry, this is a pretty emotional topic.

No, you’re fine, by all means.

It hits close to home for me. Yeah, that’s all I’m going to say on that.

That’s completely fine. And kind of earlier we had mentioned in terms of dealing and coping with just mental illness generally and absolutely with suicide prevention on an individual, personal level, I think people — it’s very important for people to find their things. For me on a daily basis in coping with all of my different issues, I have a few things that make me happy.

They may not be exactly what I wanted them to be in some grandiose, teenage idea of how my life was going to be before I got out of high school and had any concept of what life actually was, but you just have to find those things. And, again, it’s not easy to do when you’re in the void — as I like to call it — or that pit where everything is awful.

That’s the really hard thing is sometimes at the deepest point — and I’ve been here myself multiple times — sometimes even those little things that you find enjoyment in don’t have that effect and you can’t even feel that. And at that point, I think that’s really important to where personally I would want to speak up, talking to friends that I am very comfortable with or family that I’m very comfortable with, and absolutely doctors when I have them or I’m seeing them. That’s something that really does help to sort out and put reason to or at least understanding to what’s going on and how that’s not the end of the world.

And one of my — one of the things about the way that my therapy was handled with my psychiatrist and my social worker was they really focused on self-assessment and prevention, identifying triggers that were happening, and how you were responding on an internal level and externally, and shaping your behavior around that. And that was really helpful in predicting and detecting I was feeling a certain way, but it really came down to making better decisions and being accountable for making wrong ones.

I think that’s one of the really difficult things about mental illness is you’re not defined by your disorder. You’re defined by your actions. And I tell people that on a supportive level but also kind of a challenging level, because a lot of times people get in this victim mode to where I’m bipolar, or I’m depressed, or I have this, I have that, and that just rules everything about my life. You’ve got to make that change, and that’s really difficult to do. And it’s really difficult to suggest on the outside, but it’s important to hear.

And I think that, again, finding the little things that make you — just a on day to day basis — just a little bit happier, I think that that has a snowball effect to good things. And that’s one of the best ways to cope is just finding your little things that you can enjoy, as long as they’re healthy.

I was going to jokingly say when we talked about coping mechanisms that drugs are not the answer. They might make you feel a certain way for a while, but they’ll destroy your life in other ways, and that can only be evidenced in how intertwined addiction and mental health are. I think that there has to be something else.

And one of the — I like to draw. I get really into music. I almost go into my own head space when I listen to music sometimes. And I realize that it’s this almost medicinal thing. And those are just some of my little things that help me cope, and you have to have those.


It’s tough stuff to talk about, and I realized this as I was gathering notes. Even to formulate general ideas about the subject can be so difficult, because the personal experience attached is so heavy.


It’s so hard. And that’s why it’s so important is because kind of as I had mentioned before — and I really want this to be on record as saying — I would do a lot to prevent others from dealing with the hurt of a loss that is the grand ending, so to speak, of somebody’s struggle with and inability to cope with their mental illness. And to prevent other people from feeling that kind of loss, that’s very important to me. And I think that most people could agree that it would be. And I think that just needs to be reflected in our actions a little bit better sometimes.

And you mentioned that — I guess I’m going to paraphrase you here — drugs aren’t the answer.

Yeah, it’s not. I think it’s the worst possible form of escapism. I don’t even think that drugs necessarily have to be the — fill in the blank here, just an addiction. It’s just you supplementing your brain with dopamine to cope with a lack of [INAUDIBLE] and from some other factor.

And not to reference South Park again, but nobody’s ever said it better than — this very struggle than the Satan character in the show talking about how brain chemistry works, about how the pleasure chemically, basically — dopamine — the reason why addicts struggle with the things they do and how in their lives. And it was very well put, but basically we’ve got to fill this void. We just can’t do it with things that chemically supplement dopamine in our brains, because that’s not how it works and then in your life, you’re worse off than when you started.

I don’t think anybody has ever been better off doing drugs. I think that marijuana is a medicinal thing, dealing with depression and suicide — not suicide but with mental illness — I definitely think can have its positives. I would also go on record to say that if I never personally had experienced any of the medicinal effects of marijuana myself and I could still have the coping, so to speak, of life that I did when I was a kid, I would take it any day, to where I could sit down and have a box of Goldfish crackers and watch James Bond movies. And that just took away — it took it all away.

It’s a little more difficult when you’re an adult. But as much as I think that drugs might be a temporary fix, it’s absolutely — even marijuana I don’t think is always the answer. I think it’s a coping thing, and it’s definitely not going to fix anything until you yourself do that.

One thing that we haven’t talked about, actually, is — and this is part of treatment, and it’s not true in all cases, but in some cases it’s necessary. And it is something a lot of people don’t like the idea of, and it’s medication. Some conditions require medication. Period.


And, in my case — I don’t mean to be self-centered by keep referring to myself. I’m doing it because it’s what I know personally. I think that my experiences on this topic are valuable.


Depression is a chemical imbalance in the brain, and — well, at least long-term depression is. And that’s only something that’s going to be corrected with proper medication. That should be combined with other therapies. That’s something that needs to be determined between you and your doctor. It’s not right for everyone.

And just because you have a bout of depression — you’re sad because of the death of a loved one, or you lossed a job, or you broke up with your girlfriend — and it doesn’t necessarily require medication. But, again, it is sometimes necessary. And as we were talking about with the stigmas that are involved, you just have to realize that sometimes we’re beyond the capability of helping ourselves and you have to actually seek out help. They’re out there to help people.

So on the topic of medicine, this is actually a topic I would love to explore, because I am usually a pretty firm supporter of medication as a component to therapy and to treatment. And that’s one of the things I learned in therapy and in treatment is there’s never one treatment option that’s going to fix everything. And in my belief, you can really fix everything anyway, but you can really address a lot of different things if you properly and effectively go by your regimen of medicine, your doctor visits, your psychiatrist or psychologist visits if you’re doing those, if you’re doing group therapy. Combining these things is extremely effective, I believe, in at least covering the major bases to be able to deal with it.

And, again, I think that it’s a misconception for people — especially early on, if they’re not familiar with mental illness — that you’re not going to get cured. It’s always going to be a factor of coping until they come up with some crazy brain therapy to fix the problems in the brain at some crazy level, that’s not going to happen. And we have to combine the resources that we have.

And it’s absolutely something that most therapists will say early on that this is not the only thing that you need. You might need medicine. You might need an exercise routine. You might need physical therapy. It could be all kinds of things.

But with medicine, I think there is both the problem of over-prescribing going on right now for a lot of different reasons, counter-balancing the relevance of medicine as an actual treatment option and really hurting — I’m sorry, adding to the stigma that it has. I think that it’s a pretty obvious misconception that there’s going to be some kind of miracle pill. Most medicines that you try are going to have some kind of effect that needs to be accounted for or balanced in some other way. Most anti-anxiety medications or antidepressants will have some kind of effect on your mood, or your energy levels, or your appetite. And these will cause other things to happen in your life.

And this isn’t something that I fault medicine for. It’s just kind of another thing that you’re trying to cope with the problem one way. Sometimes you might have to do other things to adjust, and that can be difficult. And also, sometimes it just doesn’t work. Not every medicine is for every person. I personally have been put on all kinds of different medications since I was originally seen in 2005, literally over a dozen.

And some of them had extremely negative effects, one of them that in one of my worst periods of time I was prescribed — I’m sure some of you may have heard of Risperdal. It’s a very powerful anti-psychotic used for basically dealing with somebody going through a major breakdown. And I was given that just in case.

I realized after taking one that it would put me to sleep for over 15, 16 hours at a time. And I couldn’t function that way, and when I woke up I felt dead to the world. I very quickly asked to be taken off of that, later come to found out that it caused the well-documented problems with male breast enlargement and other things.

So medicine gets a pretty reasonably bad rap sometimes for not working the way it should. I think that’s something that you have to explore with yourself and your doctor. Fortunately, we live in a country where the commercials for medicine literally tell you to talk to your doctor about it. Well, do it. If you think it can help you, maybe it will. And if you’re not trying to go and abuse drugs, maybe it will do the same. And I think that that’s–

Sometimes it takes — at least for me, to find the right medication, it took years.


Like you said, medications are going to have different effects on different people, because we’re all — we all have different chemistry. But it takes patience and it takes working with your doctor to find the right treatment that will work for you. Whether that–


Whether that includes medication or not.

Well, and I think that for a lot of people it doesn’t have to. Some of the things that — especially on a shorter term and a non-chronic level–


–in those situations, medication might not always be necessary. I’ve also met plenty of people that — in my head, I like to call them normal people that aren’t mentally ill, at least in the long term. Think what you want. That’s my definition of a normal person.

But anyway, I’ve met a few people that have on a short term taken antidepressants, stronger medicine than that. They’ve been on medication that’s usually for ADD — amphetamines, things like that — because they were unmotivated, had no energy. And it’s not something that becomes a recurring part of their lives for the long term.

So I don’t think that — part of the stigma, the problem is that people hear mental illness, or I’m depressed, or I’m having problems and I need to take medication. And they immediately go off the deep end of I — I’m crazy. I think that a lot of the stigmas here with mental illness, the really stereotypical ones that people are crazy or they have to go pop their happy pills, things like that, it doesn’t do us any good to keep doing those things and to keep having that attitude about it.

Because, again, I don’t think it’s something where it’s just for somebody with a lifelong problem. It could be somebody that’s going through a depressive phase after losing a job, or having a breakup, losing a pet. It could be a number of things.

And the medication itself is a chemical that scientists have engineered to do a specific effect in the brain, which to me is a pretty cut and dry way to try to solve the problem. It’s not always going to work, especially due to the delicate nature of the science involved. But it’s one where I think it’s a lot better answer than some of the things that we have otherwise, and absolutely a better answer than self-medicating with what you think makes you happy, because chances are it’s probably contributing to the problem.

So before we rap up, Cliff, do you have any final thoughts?

Well, my first thing I’d like to say is just to anybody listening, if you or anybody you know is struggling with mental illness, or with thoughts about suicide, or harming anybody, that’s something to be taken very seriously and acted upon, depending on the nature. And if you, for example, just in passing somebody says something to you, take it seriously, listen. If you need to do something about it, do it. I think it’s very important to show that you’re listening. And you might not make the person happy at the time, but it’s worth tackling for people in your life.

One of the things I really want to say as well in general about mental health awareness is I do think that we see a lot of positive things happening. Although I kind of have a negative impression of how the internet is affecting that, I think it’s absolutely wonderful what some people out there are doing for each other.

Something recently happened — not on the internet but at the VMAs the rapper Logic was talking about mental health awareness and suicide prevention and mentioned the hotline. And in the following week, the hotline reported having a volume of over 50 percent its usual calls as a result of this, of this exposure. And I think that on a day to day personal level, maybe we don’t have that kind of platform as non-celebrities, but we can make an impact. And that’s through really communicating with each other, really showing support, showing that we care, having a little bit more of a personal involvement in the people in our lives.

And I think that one of the negatives of our social media world is that it’s even made realistic — or I’m sorry, real life interactions a bit more superficial but less personal and personable themselves. And it’s not always easy, and maybe I’m just an awkward person, but sometimes I just try to occasionally tell people I care about them, and that they’re there, and that they make an impact or they have — always in an appropriate circumstance. But I just think it’s important for people to be there for each other, to listen, to pay attention, if they spot signs of things to be willing to speak up out of the care that they have and just looking out for each other.

And I also think it’s really important to say that if you have a mental illness, you’re not alone. It’s tough to hear, but your problems, they happen to other people. And that can sometimes be frustrating to know, but it also shows you that there are ways to deal. Other people have.

And it’s never — it’s never too late to fix things or at least get your life on track. And sometimes it just starts with the simplest little things. So I really encourage people that are struggling to just keep going. Count every day that you didn’t do worse as a win. Even if you just did a little bit better, it’s a win and mark it as such, and move on, and go day by day.

You set the pace of this recovery for yourself, but it’s really less of a race and more of a scenic detour to getting back to a normal life. And I think that we’re all capable of that.

Well, Cliff, I couldn’t have put it better myself. So I really sincerely want to say that I appreciate you coming on and I want to thank you for coming on. It’s a really — it’s a tough topic to talk about, especially when we’re talking about mental health on a personal level. But it’s something that we, as a society, need to do more often.

Absolutely, 100 percent agreed. And thank you as well for having me. It’s absolutely been an honor. Again, this is a topic — topics that are very near and dear to me, both through personal circumstance, and my life, and just the world around us right now. I love people. They do some bad things, but they do some really great ones too.

And it’s extremely devastating to think anybody is struggling in such a way that they either fall apart or they end their lives. And it’s a pleasure to be able to talk about it. It’s difficult. It definitely brings up a lot of things that are close to home, but sometimes that’s more important. And I really believe that, that we as a collective — as a country, as people, neighbors — become a little more comfortable with this, because I think it will save a lot of lives and at the very least do a lot of good.

Thanks again, Cliff.

Thank you, Kyle.

I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting and I’d love to hear from you.

Civil Rights and Segregation: Curator George Garner (Convo with Kyle Video and Transcript)

The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is George Garner.

Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.

As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.

The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.

Joining us is Curator George Garner. George works at the Civil Rights Heritage Center at Indiana University South Bend. He has previously worked at the Studebaker National Museum, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum. Thank you, George, for coming on the show.

It’s good to be here. Thanks for inviting me.

So, George, why don’t you start by telling us a little about the Civil Rights Heritage Center and your work there?

Sure. So the Civil Rights Heritage Center, through IU South Bend, is housed in a building that started its life as the Engman Public Natatorium. It was South Bend’s first indoor swimming pool. And yeah, when it was built in 1922, even though it was a city-owned site, even though it had that word “public” carved into the concrete out front, between 1922 and 1936, if you were a person of color, you were denied entry. And from 1936 to 1950, entry was only allowed on a segregated basis.

So in 2010, IU South Bend took over the site. At that point, it had been operating — it operated as an integrated swimming pool from 1950 until 1978. But it closed in 1978 and had been sitting vacant for about 30 years before then.

IU South Bend took that site and turned it into the home of the Civil Rights Heritage Center. So we use that story of segregation, we use that story of exclusion to really look at contemporary issues of race, civil rights, social justice, of course for African American communities but for all marginalized communities — for LGBTQ, for Latinx, for women, for anybody who’s been marginalized or otherwise oppressed.

There’s a place for the things that we’re talking about. There’s vibrancy. There’s a need for it. So it’s this really amazing space and this really unique space that can speak directly to that history and use that history to inform the present.

So when you say that the Natatorium was a public facility, was it owned by the city of South Bend?

Yeah, this was a South Bend Parks and Recreation pool, just like any other public, quote unquote, park today. So the fact that this was city-sponsored exclusion and segregation, it’s an important part of our story.

Yeah, I mean, when people think about segregation, it’s usually a place like Alabama that probably pops in their head.

I think that’s true, yeah. I think that story has been told as a Southern story. When most of us learn about it in elementary school or high school, we see those images of Martin Luther King, we see the lunch counters. And it tends to get taught as this thing that happened a long time ago, it happened pretty much south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and it was solved at that was it. Now there’s no more problems.

And that’s far from the case. And that’s something we really want to drive home. Segregation very much happened in the North, and I go to work every day in a place where that happened. And so, we really want to drive that point home of — not just this space. This was one space, but it was one space among so many — not just in South Bend but across the United States — in the quote unquote “North,” which is often supposed to be or talked about as somehow better than the South. And I just don’t think that’s true.

A few years ago, when I was the editor of the South Bend Voice, you wrote a series of articles that highlighted the work of civil rights trailblazers in South Bend. I’ll provide a link to those articles in the description below for anyone who is watching on YouTube.

But South Bend has a surprisingly rich activist history, actually, and you documented that history in these articles. One of those trailblazers was Odie Mae Johnson Streets. She graduated from Central High in 1931, which was one of the only integrated schools in South Bend.

I want to quote Odie Mae here from the article that you wrote, quote:

“Black girls were not allowed to take swimming classes, so one day I told my friend, ‘I’m going to sign up. They will have to tell me I can’t take swimming lessons.'”


Could you talk a little bit about Odie Mae’s background and–

Yeah, so again, she’s this fascinating character, right? Odie Mae was incredibly light skinned, so as they say, she could have easily passed if she chose to. But she didn’t, in the 1930s, when places like the Engman Public Natatorium were excluding people of color.

We’re talking about a decade after the 1910s, the 1920s, about 19% of the white men in St. Joseph County, Indiana were members of the Ku Klux Klan. In the midst of all this, here’s this light skinned woman who very much chose to embrace the fact that she was of African descent, that she was a woman who was born as an African American and born to African Americans.

She was born in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. So, again, it’s also this story of the Great Migration for millions of African Americans, escaping lynching, escaping Jim Crow racism, trying to escape the Klan but still being met with some of that same racism that they found down there.

And I think a lot of her activism was influenced by her being a member of the Baha’i faith. Baha’i believe not in a capital G, a Judeo-Christian god, but that there’s a god that is this figure that many different religions have bits and pieces of, but it’s a united god. It’s a god that unites all humanity and that may come in different forms to different people. But it’s a very uniting and united way of looking at people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

So I think that helped inform some of her activism. So she encountered racism in her own life, again, being told that she couldn’t join the swim team on Central High because she identified as an African American woman and really having that bravery to stand up and say what she said, that, no, I’m going to make them tell me no and then defend that position, defend the fact that they don’t think I’m as human or as good as any other person can be.

So she ended up marrying a gentleman by the name of Dr. Bernard Streets. And Dr. Streets became not the first but one of the first African American dentists. He was an early graduate of the Indiana University Dental School back in 1929, if my memory serves me correctly, but then came back to South Bend and opened a dental practice on the West Side, which at this time was and was increasingly becoming more African American but also Eastern European. So in addition to his African American clients, he had a lot of Polish American clients. So he ended up teaching himself Polish in order to serve all of them.

And so, the two became just this one of a couple power couples, and just constantly getting involved, and lending their own voices, and being brave and standing up to those who would discriminate, like people did at the Natatorium. They became some of the people who were advocates for integrating the Natatorium, among other places, like theaters, like restaurants.

I found it noteworthy because Odie Mae, as a woman of color, she actually ended up, it seems, taking her experiences and helping people who came from similarly difficult situations.


She taught English to women who stayed at the YWCA in South Bend, and also served on the board of — what was it, the El Centro Migrant Center?


So I kind of find that striking. She didn’t just focus solely on civil rights for African Americans.

Yeah. Yeah, and I think that’s part of her being a part of the Baha’i faith. It’s, in an early way, looking at what we now call intersectionality, recognizing that any group that has been marginalized that the issues are more binding than they are separating. So she ended up getting her degree in Spanish from Indiana University South Bend. She was an early graduate of the same program that employs me and that funds the Heritage Center.

And my alma mater.

Exactly, exactly. So she used that to work with the next wave of immigration that was coming into South Bend, the Latinx population that was coming in, particularly in the ’40s and ’50s — but yeah, again, looking at the issues that were affecting black people were also affecting brown people, and working hard to try to do that.

But the thing is, there are differences. And the language barrier was one of them for Latinx. And so, that informed some of her work and her using that degree, her using that training to be able to do that. It’s a special story.

I think it might be useful to mention to viewers that — or at least give a little background on South Bend as a city. Obviously, South Bend is in Indiana. It’s an industrial Midwest town in this time period we’re talking about. As George said, South Bend was a destination city during the Great Migration.

I mean, compared to I guess the typical Midwestern city / town, South Bend’s a pretty diverse place. It has a large African American population and it now has a growing Latino population. Would you add anything to that, George?

No, I think you’re absolutely right. I’ve described South Bend as the quintessential, prototypical Great Migration city. We have had an African American community in this city longer than there’s been a city. That’s one of the things that we touch on at the Civil Rights Heritage Center, too, making sure that African American history — making sure we share that African American history — has been with this city for an incredibly long time, that there have been people of color living in and contributing to South Bend throughout the course of its entire existence.

But it’s also true that there wasn’t significantly high numbers until the turn of the 20th century and until the Great Migration. Between about the 1910s and the 1930s, our African American population quintuples. It explodes.

And I think there is an analogy today between that and Latinx immigration into the United States, into the American South. There have been a significant increase in those populations. And just like now, those new populations aren’t being welcomed with open arms. There’s the thought of that person as the other and something else. And we saw the exact same thing with the African American populations in South Bend.

But this was a thriving, industrial town. If anybody has ever heard of Studebaker, of the wagon manufacturer and the car manufacturer, this was where they were all made for decades. But that provided ample employment opportunity for thousands of African Americans who were trying to escape sharecropping, who were trying to escape the Jim Crow down there. And this was a path forward. This was a job.

You also wrote about Helen Pope, who was a nurse. Can you share a little bit with us about her story?

Yeah, so Helen’s another one of those trailblazers. Among the many things in her life and career, she became a nurse at a time when patient care was segregated as well, when white patients wouldn’t accept the care of a person of color. So she helped integrate what was then known as the Northern Indiana Children’s Hospital.

And then, throughout the ’70s and the ’80s, one of the things in South Bend — like so many industrial cities — after the industry left and as we’re seeing so much change in mechanization, automization, those things that we hear brought to the forefront now — particularly with the recent election and particularly among white workers — this has been happening in communities of color for decades. And it happened here in South Bend around the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s.

Studebaker, for example, closed December 20, 1963. 7,000 people lost their job in a day. A huge portion of them were African American.

And at one point, it employed tens of thousands of people in the city.

Exactly. You’re exactly right. And Studebaker was the largest industrial employer of African Americans, too. So that story of industrialization really hits African American communities throughout the 20th century. Those two are inexorably linked.

But as that industry changes and as cities try to struggle to decide who and what they are in the latter half of the 20th century and into the 21st, and South Bend really struggled with that. And there’s a lot of things that they did to try to adapt and to try to change. And a lot of them didn’t work.

So one of the things that Helen Pope was involved in is this thing called the Model Cities program. It’s really looking at creating these model blocks where there would be hyper-local government that would be able to make decisions. And, I mean, we can look back on them — we can look back on some of those big urban planning ideas now and realize that maybe they weren’t the best ideas. But, at the time, I think they were struggling just to try to find something to do to stem the tide of tens of thousands of people who had been moving away from the city in the wake of all of this de-industrialization.

So I wanted to quote — and by the way, I’m going to mention again that I’m going to put the link to George’s articles below in the description so you can check those out. I’m going to go ahead and quote from you one of your articles. You said, quote:

“I became enthralled with history because, to me, history is so much more than closed companies or torn down buildings. It is about people, like you and me, who lived their lives facing trials and troubles, happiness and hardships.”

I think it’s important to document and have conversations about these topics that often get overlooked or they’re simply not understood, and to learn about those from people who lived through challenging periods in our country’s history. But, anyway, that’s a long version of me saying that I agree with your statement. You certainly put it more eloquently than I did. Could you reflect on that a little bit?

Well, thank you. I mean, I wrote that a while ago. And I was thinking that I don’t remember — I mean, I’m sure that — but that sounded great.


Past George did something good there. No, also, I’ve spent my professional life combating the idea of history being dead, that it’s that dry recitation of something that is no longer relevant. I just don’t think that’s true.

And, again, one thing that we do at Civil Rights Heritage Center is make sure that we very much are actively involved in present-day activism and activist issues, becoming directly involved with those organizations, those groups, providing a space, providing a voice. And it’s because we’re rooted in history that that work can happen. We can play a role of making sure that people are aware that these issues aren’t new, that there are systemic issues and systemic challenges at hand.

And that we have to dismantle them, and that we have to dismantle patriarchy. We have to dismantle white supremacy. We have to dismantle institutional racism. These are things that haven’t been invented in the past five to ten years, and they also haven’t been solved in the past five to ten years.

The election of Barack Obama, for example, did not — while it was this incredible watershed moment, it did not mark the end of any of those things that I just described. And as, again, we’ve seen in this most recent election cycle, it’s that I think it’s proven that. But all of those conversations have to be rooted in history and have to be rooted in what has happened for decades, generations before us — that has influenced us — before we can start to change that, before we can start to really pull those institutions apart and build something truly more humanistic and more collaborative.

I keep looking at our present-day and comparing it to the past. The decade that I really think about that I think mirrors the present is — maybe imperfectly — is the ’60s. There’s definitely a cultural shift that’s taking place right now that seems similar to the ’60s, a shift in values taking place, and also a demand for more rights, expanded rights.

And we’re seeing that in movements like the successful push for nationwide marriage equality and we’re seeing it in Black Lives Matter. It seems like social activism is more alive today and young people are more active today than at any point really since the ’60s. I don’t really have a question for you there. It’s more just an observation.


But perhaps you can comment on that?

No, I think you’re exactly right. And yeah, when I think of what decades, I tend to see maybe more alignment with the 1870s, maybe even the 1910s and 1920s. And I say that because every time there have been these major leaps forward, there’s always a regression backward.

So while the Civil War ended slavery, Reconstruction ensured that a new racial caste system went into place and that equality didn’t happen. When we saw — again, when African Americans were moving north, we saw this backlash here and segregation take — coming into places like South Bend in the 1910s and 1920s, and again, organizations like the KKK becoming national movements, a movie like “Birth of a Nation” in the 1910s.

So I kind of see that happening now, that the nation has responded to the first African American president with another backlash. And so, I think it’s important to galvanize and set up those firewalls and make sure that those people who need protecting in this era have those firewalls in place, and that we continue to move forward, that we don’t let this backlash slide us back too far — and we continue to be active, and get out there, and be brave about it.

Civil Rights Heritage Center, in connection with a number of community organizations, organized an event called The People’s Inauguration. It was very much meant to be a mark of resistance against the things that we knew were going to happen. And in addition to holding events at the Civil Rights Heritage Center, we held events at the local mosque here in town. And it was this wonderful event, all of these different community organizations from the mosque to Civil Rights Heritage Center to the LGBTQ Center to talking about reproductive justice and pro-choice issues. Hundreds of people came to this because they wanted to get involved somehow, wanting to take that action, take that stand.

In a way, it’s regrettable that didn’t happen before and that didn’t happen earlier. It’s important to remember that there are people who have been doing this work for years, who have been affected by this more so than many. And, in fact, there’s a lot more “woke” people now. Again, that’s a good thing, but it is important to recognize — recognizing that it might be new for some people, but it’s not new for a lot of people. I think we have to recognize that while also acknowledging and hoping that we can maintain this, that this pressure, that this galvanization that has happened continues and continues to have some positive results.

So for anyone that’s curious, George, what exactly is a curator?

Sure. I’ve had somebody describe it to me as being an editor. There’s about 150 different jobs and one word. And I think that’s true.

But, basically, the way I like to describe it — particularly with my work at Civil Rights Heritage Center — is that building has 90 years of history in it and this city has 150+ years of history in it. It’s my responsibility to know as much of that as I possibly can, to collect, preserve, and keep those tangible documents — the artifacts, the photographs, the papers, all of those things that help us share that history, and then share that with as many people as humanly possible.

So that’s anywhere from school groups coming in to tours off the street to undergraduate history classes and just anybody and everybody in between. But, essentially, the preservation and dissemination of the pieces of history is a good way of describing what many curators do.

So what did you study for undergrad?

Yeah, so, my undergrad was in history, and luckily did an internship at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and some staff there, who were graduates of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. It’s this amazing masters-level museum studies program in Upstate New York. You eat, sleep, drink, and breathe museum studies for two years straight, but you leave there with this incredible view of the role of museums, and the power of museums, and what these places can do and what they can mean to many different people.

Collecting and putting stuff on display is just a small part of what they do. And if they’re doing it wrong, then that’s all they’re doing. If they’re doing it right, though, they’re really looking at the stories. They’re really looking at creating these experiences for people to come in and be moved in some way, either by learning something, either by feeling something, by spending time there, by getting involved in some way, shape, or form.

And could you tell us how you ended up in South Bend?

Sure. So it was a different museum job than the one I have now, but I moved here after ricocheting around the East Coast for a while, between undergraduate, and grad school, and internships, and post-grad school jobs. I think I calculated, at one point I had moved about nine to ten times in about ten years. It was a lot.

That is a lot.

Yeah, so I moved out here, and having not been in the Midwest really at all, having not been aware that South Bend was a place that existed.


I was vaguely aware of Indiana, that that was a place that existed. But yeah, so I regret I was one of those East Coasters who thought of the Midwest as this kind of flyover country. And I readily admit that I was wrong, and that perception is a terrible perception, that there are an incredible amount of wonderful spaces in the Midwest, and that the perceptions of what it is politically and culturally are just that. They’re perceptions.

And it was coming here that helped me realize that. Again, this is a former industrial powerhouse that had been struggling with its identity. But in the 21st century, after decades of struggling, I have met more people here who care about this place than any other place I’ve lived previous. And I’ve met more people who are willing to experiment, who are willing to make change.

Those cities that I lived in on the East Coast, they were further ahead in the process. And so, they were fairly inflexible. They were places that I lived in and consumed, really, but I didn’t get involved with, because there wasn’t that space for it.

We’ve been working to make change for so long. And there’s this desperation, in a way, to just do something. That creates this really exciting space to be able to have ideas, and to run with them, and get to know people in the community who are very open and very willing to say yes to things. And I absolutely love that.

So I’ve been here for the past ten, so I’ve completely reversed that ricocheting that I was doing before, but doing what I wanted to do, which was actually be in a place for a while. Out of all the places to be, South Bend’s been a great place to be.

And you started off at the Studebaker National Museum, right?

I actually started off at The History Museum.

Oh, okay.

Yeah, and then I did a project or did some work at the Studebaker Museum, too, which is coincidentally right next door, and then Civil Rights Heritage Center is about two–


–to escape that little block around West Washington, which is totally great.

Yeah. So if people wanted to check out the Civil Rights Heritage Center, where can they find it online and where can they find it in person?

Sure, so online it’s There’s a number of digital assets, including a podcast that we’ve done ourselves where we share stories from our oral history collection. So it’s people who have lived the experiences here in South Bend either as people of color, or as LGBT, or as allies in the civil rights movement. We share those stories on that. And then in person, we’re at 1040 West Washington, so just a little bit west of downtown South Bend.

And are you open seven days a week?

We are open five days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday from 10:00 am to 2:00 pm and then Tuesday from — sorry, Tuesday and Thursday from 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. And those are just the regular public hours where we do tours and things like that. But there’s events that happen anywhere from at least one to often three to five times a week.

So right now, for example, we have a lecture series going on. So for those in South Bend, it’s this free lecture series by our director, who’s a University of Chicago historian, Dr. Darryl Heller, talking about race and social movements. So he’s done things on women and the foundation that they laid for the modern civil rights movement. We’re going to do another one on the Black Panther movement and yet another one on Black Lives Matter.

We’re also doing a film series. We recently just showed a film about a native Hawaiian transgender woman, where her native Hawaiian culture has been more celebrated than it has been in many Western cultures. And that’s true for a lot of different cultures, that there’s this celebration instead of discrimination. So it followed her experience as a transgender woman in relationship but also trying to coach students on traditional Hula dancing. So there’s just all sorts of different events and things that we do on a regular basis.

Awesome. Do you want to plug anything for social media or anything?

We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. So, yeah, everybody’s encouraged to follow us there for sure. We post regularly on each of those.

Well, I think that’s about it. Thank you so much for joining us, George.

It’s a pleasure. Thanks for the conversation.

I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting and I’d love to hear from you.