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Dr. LaTonya Summers

JU professor tackles mental health in TEDx talk

On Saturday, October 23, the annual TEDxJacksonville conference of ideas will feature Jacksonville University’s own Dr. LaTonya Summers, assistant professor of clinical mental health counseling in the Jacksonville University Brooks Rehabilitation College of Healthcare Sciences. Dr. Summers’ TEDx talk, “Know Pain, Know Gain” will explore how humans have become adept at avoiding pain and will argue that acknowledging pain is not only necessary, but also the conduit to greatness. 

WAVE sat down with Dr. Summers as she prepared for TEDx to talk about her career experiences and what she’s seen as a member of the JU community. 

WAVE: Did you always want to go into counseling or mental health work? 

Dr. Summers: That’s a really good question. I actually did not go to school with the intention of being a counselor; I went to school with the dreams of being a TV journalist. But I made a D on my first exam after the professor told us that anything below a C meant you were a BS-er, not a star. So I decided to go work on myself, changed my major to psychology, and eventually I was recruited for the master’s in counseling program. 

I had never even heard of a master’s degree because I’m from a low-income, blue collar family. I  was the first one to go to school. I fell in love with counseling. It was humanistic, it was warm. It was about wellness and healing. I became good at providing counseling, but I also had to do therapy work too, because I realized I couldn’t study away my own pain and trauma.

WAVE: In your career, have you seen major changes in the way mental health is treated in our society? Or is it still fairly stigmatized? 

Dr. Summers: It’s still very stigmatized, especially when you compare it to the acceptability of physical health. However, barriers are starting to be broken down. For example, nowadays therapy is portrayed in TV and movies.  It makes me happy to see therapy being offered to people of color in the media. It increases the likelihood that they will access services for themselves, and it encourages people of color to enter the profession. 

My area of focus is to improve mental health interventions for people of color. Incorporating people’s background into the counseling process enhances their ability to recover. Sometimes people feel like therapy negates their faith, the thing they have known all their lives to stay well. So that’s one of the barriers I work to break down. I send the message that you can do both. You can have faith  and a therapist too; you can  burn sage and do therapy. 

WAVE: What impact have you seen from COVID? 

Dr. Summers: Here’s one thing I appreciate about COVID in spite of all of its nastiness and all of the loss that we’ve endured: It made it okay for all of us to say we’re not okay. All of our lives had been disrupted and we all lost a sense of normalcy and safety. For the first time, people were able to say that they weren’t okay and that they needed help.

WAVE: You were Faculty-in-Residence (FIR), living and working alongside students on the JU campus. What was that experience like? 

Dr. Summers: I loved being the FIR. I chose to be FIR because when I joined JU, there were three Black tenured faculty and we all taught at the graduate level. It didn’t sit right with me that undergraduate students could go their entire academic careers at JU without ever touching a Black professor. 

Our inherent nature is to align with people who are like us. But the more interactions we have with people who are culturally different from us, the more cognitively flexible we are, the less racist, the more tolerant–there are so many benefits. I absolutely loved having students coming to my office, coming to the monthly events I hosted, or inviting me to their on-campus events. I was super happy to be able to serve JU in that way.

WAVE: What do you wish JU students understood about their mental health, especially in the time of COVID? 

Dr. Summers: My response to this question is unorthodox, but we are 19 months into the pandemic and I would just encourage students to continue to extend grace toward themselves, and ask for it from others. I’d encourage them to kick up their self-care regimens, ensuring that they are getting enough sleep, regulating stress, eating properly, and keeping themselves hydrated. Self-care also means setting boundaries, saying no, speaking up, and being authentic. Lastly, I challenge students to ask for help. That may be easy for some and more difficult for others. But, asking for help might mean letting someone else know that you are not OK, or making an appointment at the student counseling center.  

Join the Jacksonville University campus community for a TEDx watch party on Saturday at the River House. Watch the entirety of TEDxJacksonville from 1:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m., or drop in to catch your favorite talk. Check out the full event agenda here

If you or someone you know is suffering or needs help, the Jacksonville University Student Counseling Center is available to you. Visit www.ju.edu/counseling to learn more about the counseling services and to book an online appointment. The appointment portal is secure and your personal information will not be known by anyone other than the counseling center staff.