By John Wm. Dunn, NAMI Washtenaw Reporter
Renee R. Randall, Ph.D., came to NAMI Washtenaw County (WC) with a deep personal interest in mental health issues which she has contributed to through her academic and professional careers. Renee has earned a Ph.D. in literature from Duke University and a B.A. in History and Literature with honors from Harvard University. Currently, she is employed as an Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan where she teaches several students struggling with various mental health issues; she has also had personal experiences with mental health issues throughout her life. She has chosen to use her education in literature to serve individuals with mental health conditions because she feels that literature–including that from Latin America and the Middle East–is an effective medium for expressing the experiences of people who struggle with their mental health. In addition to her empathy for those suffering from mental health conditions as expressed in literature, she also has a deep concern for humanity. This empathy is expressed in her love for literature as a medium of communication expresses the most basic and universal conditions of human existence–suffering and trauma–with which she has had considerable professional experience.
Not only does Renee understand communication mediums through literature and various outreach experiences; she also communicates fluently with various populations through written and spoken proficiencies in other languages. Renee first learned Spanish and French then proceeded to develop a proficiency in Arabic. In a more general sense, Renee also understands that members of society who suffer from mental health conditions often communicate in much broader and richer spectrums of expression. As we proceeded to discuss this range, we came to a common understanding that it is ultimately the “language” of suffering which she addresses through her professional experience.
Renee’s primary concern towards society, as addressed in our discussion, is the reluctance of human beings to actively listen to each other. She feels that the individual human life would be much richer and deeper if individuals could learn to understand the expressions of those who experience any form of suffering, including mental suffering. She believes that this act of listening and understanding draws us into a deeper understanding of others’ worldviews, which leads to a deeper understanding of human existence and even into a deeper understanding of the unique individual – thus creating a common “language” of love that can overcome suffering. This concept was brought out as Renee and I discussed the avenues of communication and language as related to those suffering from mental health issues. Renee’s concern about a general lack of active listening has inspired her love for literature, because she feels that readers are forced to “listen” to a book as they are reading it. In her own words Renee says, “you can’t talk back to a book.”
Renee is the most recent member of the NAMI WC Board of Directors. For this reason, she currently spends most of her time and effort as a board member getting to know and understand other members through listening to their stories and learning more about them. She is currently working on a strategic plan for NAMI WC to get a clear sense of direction for its future. Additionally, she has a deep passion for reaching out to Black and Brown communities as well as those who live in outlying regions of Washtenaw County such as Whitmore Lake. Her most passionate concern is that of reaching minoritized populations in colleges and universities who struggle with mental health issues. She feels that this growing population is grossly underserved, and she would like to see sustained peer support services in university systems provide social justice on this level.
Renee presents herself as a very empathetic listener who embraces the precepts of “active bystandership” as presented by our lead advocate Mark Creekmore, whom I interviewed last month, “if you see something, you can do something.” Renee would like to encourage the community to seek out their feelings about mental health issues and demonstrate a greater level of empathy for this population through active listening and understanding of these issues. She concluded our conversation by stating that NAMI WC is currently working on an extremely user-friendly book oriented towards the community to raise awareness of mental health issues and offer suggestions for intervention as well.