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Mental health awareness month: one recipe at a time

Dayna Altman is an AmeriCorps member experience (ACME) manager with City Year Providence, where she works to support corps learning and development programming. In addition to her work with City Year Providence, Dayna is an author, entrepreneur and the founder of Bake it Till You Make It (BITYMI), a community-based organization dedicated to destigmatizing mental illness, normalizing mental health conversation, and promoting authentic healing and recovery. Through BITYMI, Dayna seeks to connect people through baking, making “difficult conversation” more palatable, natural and commonplace.

A group of AmeriCorps members in the city cross the street in the crosswalk.

Normalizing the mental health conversation

Because of Dayna fantastic work through BITYMI, Dayna was recently selected as one of 30 incredibly young leaders and content creators to participate in the first-ever Youth Mental Health Forum. The Biden-Harris administration sponsors the forum, and MTV is set to take place at the White House in May.

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Learn how City Year is providing additional mental health supports for its corps and staff.

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, Dayna sat down with us to talk about her journey, BITYMI, aspirations for the forum, and working to support AmeriCorps members during their year of service in schools.

Brittany White (BW): Tell us the story behind Bake It Till You Make It and how you became a passionate mental health awareness advocate.

Dayna Altman (DA): As someone who has struggled with an eating disorder and depression for most of my life, I’ve always had to work at finding healthy ways to manage my mental health. It has become my life’s work. I hold my undergraduate degree from Northeastern University in Human Services, specializing in counseling psychology. I also have a master’s in public health from the same university.

I’ve worked in social and human services for some organizations where I have served as a counselor, clinical educator, and advocate for domestic violence and sexual assault survivors.

But I’ve found that entrepreneurship is a healthy outlet in my life because I’ve always loved being a leader and creating something from nothing. It’s always been important in my journey. Over the years, I’ve also founded several organizations myself. The nonprofit organizations I’ve established have addressed issues that matter most to me, including supporting people struggling with eating disorders and survivors of sexual assault.

So, there was a point a few years ago when I was having a depressive episode that felt particularly difficult to manage. One of the things that helped me cope was baking, which was surprising to me because I have also always struggled with food. Before this, I never really thought there was an avenue to feel and express joy through baking and sharing the meaning and stories behind my recipes.

“Breaking bread” and sharing stories is how we—human beings—have always connected and communicated. I just started to use this as an opportunity to talk about mental health. And because I love writing, I had the idea to create a “mental health cookbook” where people can share their stories and a recipe that means something to them. And that’s how Bake It Till You Make It happened!

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Check out the Bake It Till You Make It website.

BW: What are some of your favorite recipes and stories from the book?

DA: One person shares a recipe for her aunt’s cupcakes. Their aunt had recently passed away, and sharing her cupcakes was a way for them to talk about grief, loss and what their aunt meant to them.

I share a recipe for graham cracker brownies, an old family recipe. It’s like the ultimate comfort baked good for me—and because it brings me comfort, I love sharing it with other folks who might feel the same way about it. It’s also super easy, and anyone can make it!

BW: You’ve been invited to the first-ever Mental Health Youth Action Forum that MTV will host with the Biden-Harris Administration. Tell us about the forum and what you hope to learn by participating.

DA: MTV invited a cohort of 30 mental health activists and content creators to participate in a summit this May. Before the event, we participate in a six-week program. We identify a mental health problem in our community during our workshops and develop a campaign to address the issue that will inspire others to take action. After the six weeks, we’ll all present our ideas at the White House.

I’m really excited about it because I’ve never been able to collaborate with such a big group of people who are just as passionate about mental health advocacy as I am. I’m also looking forward to learning how to encourage people to feel comfortable sharing their stories in a medium that works for them. Not everyone is going to bake and write a cookbook! But there is something powerful and healing about being able to talk about challenges with mental health and our joy.

Also, I’m a white cis woman, and I recognize the privilege that comes with that identity. I know that having the opportunity to learn from such a diverse group of young people is essential. I’m looking forward to learning more about mental healthcare access and how it systemically affects different communities. And I’m also interested in learning more about approaches to mental health through other cultural lenses. I think it’s going to be such a productive and fruitful summit!

BW: What advice do you have for prospective and currently serving AmeriCorps members regarding mental health and wellness?

DA: First, I say this: you know yourself best. So, that means you know what kind of support you need. This could mean seeing a therapist weekly and carving time out of your busy schedule to hang out with friends or family. It could mean working out at the gym or treating yourself to a nice meal every week.

But if you don’t know what kind of support you need, that is okay. Just remember that you can always ask a trusted person in your life to help you find the best support for your needs.

Second, I’d say, don’t be afraid to use your time off! Serving as a City Year corps member is fulfilling and amazing, but it’s also challenging and exhausting. These days are for you. You don’t need to have a special appointment or prior commitment to justify using your time off. If you feel that you could really use a break—listen to yourself—don’t try to push through it. Take the day—you’ll feel better for it!

Finally, use the resources available to you through City Year. I run a mental health and wellness affinity group here at City Year Providence, but resources are available to all corps members like TalkSpace and SupportLinc. Do not take these resources for granted. Use them! You should not have to sacrifice your wellbeing to serve, and these resources are there to help support you through service!

Interested in learning more about City Year service? Connect with us or start your application today!

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