West End Social Worker Uses Pain Of Friend’s Suicide As A Catalyst For Change

Aug 21, 2018

In an effort to eliminate barriers to accessing mental health care, West End social worker Julius Boatwright engages people in street conversations about mental health wellness in the communities in and around Pittsburgh.  Boatwright is the founder of the Pittsburgh nonprofit Steel Smiling, a mental health resource provider.

Below are excerpts from his conversation with 90.5 WESA’s Elaine Effort for our series 90.5 WESA Celebrates: 90 Neighborhoods, 90 Good Stories.

Portions of this conversation have been edited for length and clarity. 

On why increasing mental health awareness is a personal mission for himself:

"One of the biggest catalysts for me came out of tragedy. My best friend lost his life by way of suicide. After it happened, I was asking myself. 'What could you have done differently? How could you have provided a listening ear to maybe provide some support for him leading up to that moment?'"

On turning tragedy into a vehicle for helping others:

“… I found that the bigger question that I should be asking myself now is not from a shame or a guilt perspective, but one that's asking how can you take that pain or take that misfortune and utilize it to be vessel to other people within the black community who look like you, sound like you ... who may be struggling with this same challenge. How can you use the things that may have been bestowed upon you to help people get the support that they need? To maybe change someone's life or -- more importantly -- to maybe save someone's life."

On human-centered mental health care and revolutionizing care:

"I think that mental health and mental wellness ... it should be of the utmost importance to every single human being. As I sit here in my office looking at some of these photos [on the wall] from some of our first street conversations ... I think the biggest thing that we're focusing on is honoring peoples' humanity. So, no matter what it is that you're going through--you're struggling with depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder--whatever mental illness or mental health challenges you may have, we are focusing on being non-judgmental, honoring your humanity, and accepting you into this space.

I think it's such a simple concept, but we want that to be the focus of everything that we do ... and I think that as we focus on the path of doing that, we're going to revolutionize the mental health field because of it.”