“We really want people to understand how we are vulnerable with each other, because that is one of the most important places to be with a partner.”
Managing individual mental illness and traumatic experience is a challenge in and of itself. But what does it look like to take care of yourself and support your partner in a long-term relationship?
Cambridge-based couple Roxann and Keith Mascoll explore this question on “Living a Triggered Life,” a podcast that examines mental health, trauma, and interpersonal relationships in Black and brown communities.
The couple introduce their motivations and background in the podcast’s first two episodes. Keith is an actor, producer, and mental health advocate, and Roxann is a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker. In delving into their own stories as a Black West Indian man and a Black Puerto Rican woman, the Mascolls hope to provide insight and support to their communities, as well as anyone else with whom their experiences resonate.
The Mascolls begin telling the story of how they met in their third episode. In discussing their relationship on air, they hope to give listeners a sense of how they’ve grown with each other as well as within themselves.
“We want people to feel like they’re sitting in a room with us having a conversation,” Keith said in an interview. “Coming up, we’ll process live, actually, something that was going on between us.”
That processing takes the form of a conversation about which version of their meeting and getting together they should share. Both Keith and Roxann were coping with the aftermath of trauma when they met, and they explained that the person who introduced them went on to encroach upon their boundaries. In the episode, Roxann expresses her intent to tell the real, messy story, while Keith negotiates how to do that in a way he feels is tactful and respectful to the other people involved.
Authenticity and openness ground “Living a Triggered Life,” as Roxann and Keith tell stories about who they are, how they met, and how they’ve grown.
“We really want people to understand how we are vulnerable with each other, because that is one of the most important places to be with a partner,” Roxann said. “We’d love for couples to take a step back and get to know themselves better, and do their own work,” Keith added.
Mental health is not always openly discussed among Black and brown communities, and there can be significant stigma around discussing personal trauma or seeking therapy. As a survivor of sexual abuse, Keith seeks to support Black and brown men by sharing his mental health journey through artistic expression.
“Roxann and I are always looking for ways to combine art with social work, or how to use art as a learning tool for social workers,” he said.
The podcast is just one part of the Triggered Project, a mental health initiative founded in part by Keith Mascoll, while Roxann is the Triggered Project’s lead clinician. The project aims to uplift the voices of Black and brown men who have experienced sexual trauma and provide resources and support for their healing and mental health. It also serves to educate clinicians in the experiences of Black and brown men who are trauma survivors. The initiative currently consists of the one-man show “Triggered Life,” and the Inner Monologue and Sneaker Art Project monologue curriculum for young men, as well as the podcast.
“Living a Triggered Life” emerged from the Mascolls’ drive to share the emotional work they put into themselves and their partnership. Keith explained that the topic of mental health within relationships feels particularly timely during the pandemic, as people are socially isolated with their partners.
“That’s what’s been so important for us to think about now: mental health, taking care of yourself, and taking care of your partner. And that that takes work,” he said. “We wanted to be able to show that through the podcast.”
In addition to discussing their own relationship, the Mascolls plan to touch on how trauma impacts daily life, from body image to self-destructive coping behaviors.
“As we continue to explore these different topics, we expect sharing things that are more about being a Black man in America right now, being a Puerto Rican woman in America right now, my body image—how that impacts my day,” Roxann said. “There’s a little bit of something for a lot of different people, even if it’s not what we originally intended.”
During the first two episodes of the podcast, Keith and Roxann introduce and return to the concept of trauma kids—the traumatized selves that take control when either of them are triggered. Keith stresses the importance of taking care of this younger, hurt self to be more present in his life and relationship. This little person, Roxann said, is always present. It’s up to the adult individual to stay aware of how that trauma child holds them back from their goals. Roxann notes that the United States’ mental health infrastructure can be destructive towards people of color by design, often pathologizing what is a natural response to generations of trauma.
“It makes a lot of sense why people in Black and brown communities don’t subscribe to the system, to diagnoses,” she added. “It’s definitely an appropriate response when there’s a system that was led to pathologize you to the point that they think you’re crazy, when it’s really just an issue with the system and environment.”
According to Roxann, this stigma around mental health and therapy in Black and brown communities is a consequence of the history of these communities in the United States. After living with and through years of traumatic events, she said, “it makes sense that people would be not well [and] are feeling unwell in their bodies and their minds.”
Because so many people around them often carry the effects of ongoing community trauma, Black and brown people may not necessarily see mental illness as a real issue. Roxann sees this effect firsthand in her work, with clients who are reluctant to come to therapy.
“I normalize their experience,” she said. “I’m like, This is not about being crazy. This is about the stuff that you’re dealing with in the world, so we need to figure out how to help you deal with it better.”
Roxann hopes the podcast will encourage Black and brown men to find therapists that fit their needs.
“I also want white therapists and practitioners to learn how to welcome people of color, and Black and brown people, to therapy,” she said. “In order to do that, we have to stop criminalizing Black and brown men.”
For Keith, creating trust and maximizing access to mental healthcare for Black and brown men who have experienced trauma is especially important. This kind of access, he said, isn’t just about having a physical clinic or a program to attend. “We actually create access in our mind, too,” Keith said. “The reason that we’re talking about mental health or sexual abuse and things like that is to hopefully to help people, in their minds, open up to therapy.”