“Sometimes, it sounds like they’re not even talking about this century.”
That’s Britt Lewis, LCSW, remarking on the stories of racism she hears from clients of color in therapeutic sessions. Sometimes, those stories are so disturbing, she can’t believe they’re happening today.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” she continued, slowly shaking her head, “but I still find myself in shock at what is happening and what continues to happen.”
As the leader of the Community Support Program at Connecticut Mental Health Center, Lewis fills her days working with people who face some of life’s most serious problems—trauma, serious mental illness, substance use disorders. Yet somehow, she manages to maintain her sense of humor.
Humor is her special gift, one that can light up rooms, change the course of a conversation, or mitigate an impending crisis. Her ability to laugh and make others laugh also provides a source of strength, even if sometimes through tears, as it helps power her deep personal commitment to the difficult work of anti-racism.
A biracial Black woman and native New Havener, Lewis grew up in a family where race and racism were always talked about.
“So much so,” she added, “that I thought everyone’s mom was white and dad was Black, and that everyone talked about race at home.” Being biracial, she said, has enabled her to see certain things “that, if I were one or the other, I probably wouldn’t be a witness to.”
She recalled a childhood where her mother intentionally made sure she and her sister had equal numbers of dolls of every color, and where her father told stories with life lessons—about race, but not only about race—over the dinner table.
“He’s the original feminist,” she said fondly of her dad, “the cheerleader of anything we want to do, who always says that race and gender should never be the reason why we can’t.”
A Social Work Calling
Lewis’s perspective as a biracial young person made her want to speak out and advocate for others who might not have a voice. Personal experiences she had as a young woman led her to want to work with women, especially domestic violence survivors. Inspired by those two things, she chose social work and has never looked back.
Today, in addition to her role at Connecticut Mental Health Center--a longstanding collaboration between the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Yale--she serves as Clinical Instructor of Social Work in the Yale Department of Psychiatry, where she supervises predoctoral fellows in the Yale Doctoral Internship in Clinical & Community Psychology.
Lewis completed her master’s degree in social work at Fordham University in 2007 and became licensed in 2011. During the formative years of her career, she worked at a variety of non-profit agencies with both children and adults, helping people navigate extraordinarily challenging moments. At Boy’s and Girl’s Village in Milford, she alternated between the sub-acute house, for young people recently discharged from inpatient hospitals, and the safe home, where children had been removed from their homes for 96 hours due to an immediate danger. She did FFT (Functional Family Therapy) home visits in New Haven for an agency based in Essex, and community triage in the emergency mobile crisis service at Bridges, Inc.
Her master’s internship at Connecticut’s Whiting Forensic Hospital in Middletown made the most profound impression. “I learned more there than in any book,” she said of her year at Whiting, where she worked with psychiatric patients involved with the criminal justice system, including in maximum security settings.
With all these experiences under her belt, in 2012 Lewis arrived at Connecticut Mental Health Center to work as a clinical social worker with the ACT (Assertive Community Treatment) Team. After accepting a promotion to work with the ACT Team at Western CT Mental Health Network in Waterbury, she returned to CMHC in 2019—this time as the Community Support Program (CSP) team leader.
The CSP Team and Clients
CSP’s treatment model focuses on skill-building and is designed to help people in mental health recovery live as independently as possible. Clinicians provide most services in the community, often at people’s homes or wherever clients wish to meet. One hundred percent of CSP clients, Lewis said, have histories of trauma.
“We see the manifestations of people’s trauma,” she explained of her team’s ongoing work. “We see a lot of people with poor interpersonal relationships, strained relations with family, or family members who were their abusers. They don’t have others to turn to, and because of that, they tend to look to their mental health team for all their needs—housing, food, meds, friendship, support.”
“No two days are ever the same,” she added. “We never know what we’re going to walk into.”
Growing up in New Haven and practicing mental health care inside the community have given her a kind of a practical, on-the-ground, social justice perspective.
“I feel like you get to see the real picture of someone when you see their home,” she observed.
“Somebody could say, ‘It’s wintertime in Connecticut, and my house is cold.’ But if you go into someone’s home,” she continued, “and there’s snow outside, and you are sitting in that cold to do a session—because the landlord won’t fix the furnace—that’s very different from someone coming to your office and saying, ‘I’m a little irritable today because I was cold all night.’”
Macro-society stressors such as racism are always in the picture, she said of her clients. Those problems impact all people of color, including CMHC staff, and sometimes Lewis herself.
“There have been groups of people who have conversations in my presence that, if I were all Black or all white, I wouldn’t be privy to,” she noted. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘You’re not like them...you sound so educated...’ I guess it’s a gift and a curse to be able to plant some seeds about why certain things shouldn’t be said, but it’s also hard to sit and internalize that, and explain to people that certain comments about race aren’t acceptable, no matter what.”
Reason for Hope
Still, she finds reasons to be hopeful. Having been employed at CMHC twice with a three-year break in between, she sees a positive difference in the workplace culture of today.
“The credit goes to Maria Oliva, with support from Kyle Pedersen,” she said.
Dr. Oliva, Director of Social Work, has been leading Dialogues on Difference, CMHC’s core anti-racism initiative, with assistance from Pedersen since 2018. Pedersen serves as director of the CMHC Foundation, the Center’s independent philanthropic arm. “Dialogues,” as the program is known, offers monthly gatherings designed to strengthen staff members’ capacity to have difficult conversations about race, including to address issues that arise in clinical care. Lewis said it is helping.
“We have a safe place to bring problems and questions,” she observed, adding that when she visits other clinical settings, she’s reminded that “not everyone is as advanced as we are” at CMHC, where staff are developing a shared language and where the CEO, Michael J. Sernyak, MD, supports change.
Along with Dr. Sernyak and others, Lewis serves on the Community Subcommittee of the Anti-Racism Task Force of the Department of Psychiatry. Their committee has been working to better understand the community’s mental health needs and its view of the department.
With her community-focused eye, Lewis sees segregation, the lack of affordable housing, and jobs that pay less than a living wage as major local issues harming residents’ health. “New Haven,” she stated bluntly, “needs more equity.”
Across the country, “We still have Black men being murdered by police,” she said, and in some ways, “things are worse today, because somehow, people are empowered to act out of fear and racism”—as in centuries past.
Lewis believes anti-racism is necessary to solving these and other problems.
“I’m sure there are people who would love if we said, ‘let’s just do things the way we’ve always done them.’ But that’s how we got here,” she said, speaking of the present day. “Although it feels slow, anti-racism is the work that’s needed to try to make things different.”
A Social Worker's Vision
While Britt Lewis’s plan for a better world includes anti-racism, it also includes anti-stigma. "We need more education about mental health," she said, to help reduce stigma and stereotypes and welcome more people into mental health care.
Which, by the way, “absolutely helps – one hundred percent,” Lewis said, noting how many CSP clients are able to live independently in their communities while taking care of their mental health.
“It helps for anyone to have a place to go to talk about what’s going on, whether they have a diagnosis or not,” she added.
And we can all improve our own and others' mental health just by becoming “more conscious of our actions and our words.”
“Give it more thought,” she said, offering some advice for herself as well as others. “All of us. Just take a second, don't always be rushing. Give things more thought before you say or do them."
“Try and think: what if that were me?”