An Advocate for Mental Health

Martina Gollin-Graves ’02 always knew that she wanted to help those who were most in need of mental health care.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from Alverno, Gollin-Graves began her career journey as a therapist. This would lead her on a path of discovery where she would become the president and chief executive of Mental Health America of Wisconsin. There, she has been an impactful force for the past 16 years and was recently named a Milwaukee Business Journal Woman of Influence.

“It was such a humbling honor. Because when you’re in the trenches, doing the work, you don’t think of yourself in that way. But I was really honored and humbled by it,” Gollin-Graves says.

While helping individuals as an in-home therapist at the start of her career, she saw a need for a greater change in the health care system.

“When I was working with individuals, I realized therapy has its place, but it’s the systems that often impact folks,” she says.

For Gollin-Graves, seeing people for one hour a week on a weekly basis was not making the impact she had hoped.

“People love to have someone to talk to and feel like they’re understood. But I was getting frustrated,” she recalls.

So she sought a way to speak up for those who lack the necessary resources and access to care in the urban Milwaukee community. It was at this moment that she developed a macro social work perspective.

Joining Mental Health America of Wisconsin gave her a seat at the table where her voice could be heard. This was the beginning of a chance to make a difference by providing input on how the health care policies and procedures are not in favor of men and women of color in urban Milwaukee.

Gollin-Graves urges those who desire to go into the fields of psychiatry, psychology, and social work to think about mental illness and suicide prevention, and how it greatly impacts the poor community more than any other here in Milwaukee.

“When I was doing direct service, the program I was in was very holistic. I’d see you for once-a-week therapy, but I also knew that you were involved in child welfare or some criminal justice or your kids were struggling at school. So I also helped you advocate because your mental health was sometimes a barrier to you communicating what you really wanted to say,” she explains. “So I would watch how poverty impacted mental health. Finance is so directly correlated to wellness. People will say things like, ‘well, people need to budget and manage their money.’ What money? I’ve really been doing a lot of advocacy for parents who live with mental illness. That’s our niche.”

Gollin-Graves says her Alverno education helped her acquire effective communication and advocacy skills. This has helped her, not only as a woman but as a woman of color, to find her voice when it comes to addressing these needs.

“I’m always aware of communication. But I’m also even more aware of how important my communication is, being a woman of color. I think sometimes culturally, we’re taught to be humble,” she says.

In fields like health care, where more men hold leadership roles than women, it can be difficult for women to make their voices heard. Gollin-Graves credits Alverno for helping her build the confidence to speak up.

“Alverno, being amongst all women, is a confidence booster. Because some men have different ways of thinking about it. And in some ways, we’re socialized to think that’s the better way,” she says. “Being in an all-female learning environment boosted my confidence.”

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