Therapists Target Mental Health Stigma With 'Sidewalk Talks'

Tony Koo, right, talks with therapist Abby Thompson on Market Street in San Francisco.  (April Dembosky/KQED)

Along Market Street in San Francisco Thursday, down the block from the people handing out brochures about Jesus and a man protesting the local bank, a bunch of therapists set some chairs on the sidewalk.

“Free listening!” therapist Traci Ruble called out to passersby. “Do you wanna be listened to?”

Most people rushed by, either saying a quick “No thank you,” flashing a bemused smile, or ignoring the offer altogether.

“I feel like a canvasser,” Ruble said, admitting she felt a bit rejected.

It was a tough and unusual sell: asking people to take 15 minutes out of their lunch break to sit on the street and talk with a therapist. But Ruble and her collaborator, therapist Lily Sloane, say they have a noble objective.

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“The goal is really about de-stigmatizing mental health,” Ruble says, adding that they also want to combat the technology culture that has people walking down the street with their eyes glued to their cellphones. She says she misses random urban interactions.

The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence also set up some chairs in the Castro to host Sidewalk Talks.
The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence also set up some chairs in the Castro to host Sidewalk Talks. (April Dembosky/KQED)

“I love seeing someone dancing in the street, or when an old lady calls me sweetheart,” she says. “I want everyone to feel like we belong. I feel like that has a huge impact on mental health itself.”

She organized more than two dozen therapists -- and a couple nuns from the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence -- to station themselves at spots throughout San Francisco for a day of “Sidewalk Talks.”

Before long, Ruble’s calls outside the Embarcadero BART station -- and bright yellow “Free Listening” fliers taped on the sidewalk --managed to snag the first customer of the day, Tony Koo.

“I recently came out of the closet with my bi-polar disorder,” he said.

He tells Ruble that when he was younger, he was taught to be ashamed of his condition, and to hide his medication. Sometimes he'd stop taking it altogether.

“Every time I wound up in the hospital,” he said.

“Which isn’t great for you,” Ruble responded.

“Which is not good for me at all,” Koo said.

“It’s like a person with really high blood pressure not taking their blood pressure medicine,” Ruble said. “You could die.”

“Yeah, exactly,” Koo said. “So this idea of me accepting my condition has always been difficult and challenging, because of my own self-stigma, because of stigma I feel from others around me.”

Koo says the attitude around mental illness today is similar to the gay rights movement in the 1980s. He says more people need to go public with their depression or anxiety so it becomes more broadly accepted throughout the culture.

“We have to have the courage to look people eye to eye,” he said.

Ruble says she’s gotten calls from several other cities in the country that want to replicate the idea of Sidewalk Talks. In San Francisco, they plan to repeat the event at least once a year.

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