Tillman Scholars: Revolutionizing Psychology with Bridgette Bell

Blog, Tillman Scholar Voices | 09/25/2020

“Everyone out there has that thing that they can speak to. Sometimes half the battle or half of the doing is listening. The other half is using your voice.”

Our Tillman Scholars’ Voices blog and video series amplifies the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Bridgette Bell and her work pushing for greater representation and humility in mental health services on the front lines and beyond. 

Bridgette Bell is a 2017 Tillman Scholar, fourth-generation soldier, and passionate advocate for providing military personnel and veterans with adequate mental health resources.

As a master’s student, Bridgette’s military experience and interest in psychology led her to research suicide prevention. Now a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Jackson State University, she studies grief and how culture relates to the grief process. Over the next year as an intern, she will put her research about suicide prevention, grief and psychology into practice.

Lessons in Acceptance

Having spent half of her formative years overseas in Germany due to her father’s service, Bridgette is no stranger to the military. This type of upbringing formed her appreciation for multiculturalism, and she continued to seek that sense of togetherness out when she joined the army herself. However, as a Black woman serving, she often found herself in situations where she noticed herself being treated differently than her peers.

“I won’t say it was worse or better, it just depends on the person, but there was a difference,” Bridgette said. “You can sum a lot of that up into microaggressions. I feel like those are the tiny paper cuts that turn into the wounds that we don’t even see at times.”

However, Bridgette viewed these situations not as a hindrance but rather as a way of simply recognizing how people treat each other differently and how we can grow from moments of acceptance.

“I think the beautiful thing about acceptance is you have to define it for yourself before you can really say, ‘Am I doing the same thing for other people?’” she said. “For me, I see both sides. I challenged my peers to recognize those moments when they’re not being accepting, or when I have to ask myself, ‘Why did you say that?’”

Bridgette has found it beneficial to take the opportunities and challenges with acceptance and turn them into growth moments—a level of understanding she carries with her into her work.

Suicide Prevention to Life Preservation

During her time as a company commander, Bridgette recognized the need for greater mental health support for her fellow soldiers after realizing suicide prevention had become a daily conversation. She quickly realized there were little to no resources to help with the number of soldiers expressing these thoughts, leading her to ask a vital question: “What can we do better to equip lower-level leaders to prepare for, if the worst case is, a thought in someone’s mind?”

Bridgette explains that where training programs falter in these situations is focusing too much on risk factors and the demographics of the people in the greatest risk population without focusing on how to approach asking someone if they are suicidal.

“Soldiers are very open with me about how suicide prevention can be such a negative feeling,” she said. “It’s a whole day devoted to how do you recognize suicide and what are the steps that you take, as opposed to just talking about being alive and what it means to preserve life and to encourage wellness.”

She offers that a simple change in mindset could be the beginning of steering these conversations in a different direction.

“If we spent more time within the mental health community saying life preservation instead of suicide prevention, just that change in phraseology and terminology could make a huge difference.”

Leading Positive Change

In this current moment, the impact COVID-19 and national unrest have had on people’s mental health is a main topic of conversation. This is especially true regarding BIPOC individuals who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and felt the mental toll of racial inequality.

“I think those of us who are finding ways to be heard, to use our voices, to explain, to empathize and to commiserate, as well as educate folks about what it’s like to be Black during this time, or anyone of color, anyone underrepresented, anyone marginalized—we have an opportunity, but it doesn’t come without a cost. It’s exhausting to be the one in the room,” she said.

To be a better ally to communities of color and stand with one another during this time, Bridgette touches on how we, as a society, can drive positive change.

  • Encouraging therapists to become more clinically competent when it comes to cultural humility so that BIPOC individuals feel more inclined to seek help and feel more supported.
  • Finding the solution space that fits your fingerprint, personality, and time. “There are some people who were born to be activists. There are some people who were born to run for office and to be lawyers, doctors, all those things. But we all have to find where we truly fit,” Bridgette said. “For me, I am one of the co-founders of Do More Together, West Point’s Black Alumni Organization. We have gone out of our way to build a network of Black grads and supporters.”
  • Use your voice. “Find an organization, find a blog, find a podcast to plug into and then talk to someone about it. Something as simple as that builds relationships,” Bridgette advised. “It breaks down barriers. It helps us identify our own biases, because we all have them. And it empowers you with the knowledge that you need to actually have a conversation around all of these issues we’re talking about.”