“I Run This” is a weekly interview series that highlights Black women and femmes who do dope shit in entertainment and culture while creating visibility, access and empowerment for those who look like them.
Nina Westbroook is on a mission.
Some may know her as Russell Westbrook’s wife and college sweetheart, but Westbrook has been doing some serious work helping others as a licensed marriage and family therapist. For years, the Chino Hills, California, native has been working to destigmatize therapy and mental health services, and she’s continuing to spread her message this Mental Health Awareness Month.
Just before the pandemic, which brought on a mental health crisis, Westbrook wanted to reach beyond her immediate clientele to help others cope with the ugly reality of a changing and more challenging world. She created Bene, a digital wellness platform for those seeking help to get mental health and wellness information. And with the psychological implications of the pandemic carrying on into present day, Westbrook recently released Do Tell!, a card game meant to ask yourself and others questions that lead to reflection and vulnerability.
Westbrook is working to make her mental health services and tools more accessible to others, especially in communities where mental health is stigmatized and help is inaccessible.
“I think especially in communities of color, we’ve been a little bit slower to come along to,” she said. “There’s still a lot of stigma attached to it, and so I hope that with my work with Bene by Nina and with Do-Tell!, to be able to create this understanding that mental health is happening every single day in our lives and helping people to identify what it looks like and how to improve upon what they already have and whatever coping skills that they have already to make it more impactful and intentional.”
For I Run This, Westbrook talked about the work she’s doing around mental health, how her own mental health journey informs her work, and the ups and downs of being the wife of an NBA all-star.
I want to get into your own mental health journey. Where did your mental health journey start and how did that lead you into wanting to become a practicing therapist?
Honestly, my journey with mental health, it’s always been this linear thing. When I was young, like most children, I didn’t quite understand and have the language to describe how I was feeling. But as I grew up, I started to really get a grasp on my own mental health and wellness and challenges because they started to appear. I did have a lot of challenges with identity when I was younger. I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood, went to a predominantly white or Hispanic elementary school and junior high school. It wasn’t until I got to high school where I felt like there were more people that looked like me, and I felt a lot more at home and a lot less insecure about being the Black girl ― the tall Black girl ― the only one in the school in most cases.
So I didn’t recognize those feelings until I got older and I was able to think back how I was feeling in certain situations. I was well liked and received in many aspects, but there were certain things that always made me feel different and always made me stand out that I didn’t necessarily appreciate or like, and that made things a little bit more challenging for me growing up. Once I got to college and the real struggles and the real challenges started taking place, I was noticing how I responded to situations where I was under a lot of pressure or where there weren’t people who liked me or I was having to work a little bit harder for my relationships. That took me back to just learning that I come from a really, really good place where I was sheltered and very well protected.
Also, I had to start shifting my perspective in the way that I was thinking, which really helped me. I felt a lot when I was younger, everything needed to be fair and everything needed to be just, and if it wasn’t, I had a hard time coping with it. So I had to learn how to shift my perspective and see things for what they were and see people as imperfect and not always fair and not always just. That was a huge part of my growth. Fast-forward to today, everything that I’ve been through in my personal life, having a family, growing up semi in the public eye. My husband’s very in the public eye and everything that comes along with that, the social aspects and the media, it’s been quite the journey, so to speak.
In dealing with all of this and in living your everyday life and doing your practice, you’re also very much in the public eye via your husband’s career. Russell Westbrook, especially within recent years, has gotten a lot of criticism and nasty comments from sports pundits and folks on social media. That’s spilled over into your own family being attacked. How do you deal with that? How does that impact not only you as an individual, but also the dynamic at home and how do you repair that?
Well, fortunately for my husband and I, we’ve been doing this for a long time, he’s going to be in his 15th season. When you’re in certain situations or when you are in the public eye or in any case, outside opinions and thoughts don’t matter. You can’t let other people project their expectations onto you by any means because automatically, they’re going to get disappointed because we’re not living up to anyone else’s expectations. I had an understanding early on, as did my husband, that we can only set out to achieve the things that we want to achieve, and we can prioritize our goals and our expectations and hopes for ourselves.
Outside noise doesn’t really impact or change that for us, but then when we have children now involved and they’re school-aged kids, the information that’s out there is getting back to them. So that’s when it has become a little bit more of an issue. I feel like it just takes a lot of security and self-confidence and support. We have a lot of family support; we have a lot of friends that we are able to lean on and talk through things.
As far as me, people are going to say anything. I feel like it’s a really, really complex thing. You are in media, you’re in news. So I feel like it’s a really complex thing, but there’s always going to be some type of narrative or expectations placed on you and you just have to navigate it, and for me, as gracefully and as peacefully as possible. Typically, the only things that get under my skin is if something comes back to my kids, and then I have to explain to them how the world works in this way and why, which they’re too young to have to be subjected to it.
In your position being not only a mother, but also the wife of an NBA star, it just doesn’t seem easy at all. I know that you’ve talked about in previous interviews how much you’ve sacrificed and how you essentially had to adapt in order to get to this place where you are able to practice professionally, especially with the traveling that you all had to do early on. What was that journey like of you learning to adapt to make sure that you were still getting your professional needs met despite having to live a life that a lot of us don’t have to live?
Well, just to make it a little bit more relatable, I feel like we all have to be open to adapt. Whether you are in a relationship, in a career or raising children, I think that we open ourselves up for success when we understand that in order to reach that success that we are striving for, we have to be open to change and open to transitions. And so I think that anytime you can get a goal and you want to work towards your goal, if you stay open-minded and know that there’s more than one way to get there, you just have to zigzag sometimes or go up and over a hill before you can get down to the beach on the other side or whatever the circumstances are in front of you. I found that being adaptable and being able to pivot is a saving grace for you to have. That’s what I’ve been able to always fall back on.
Absolutely. What made you start Bene?
I started Bene right during the pandemic. Like a lot of people, I was transitioning out of my prior business, which was a boutique with a community aspect. I felt like I wanted to get more information out. I had been practicing in-patient. I had been practicing in transitional schools and in hospitals, and I wasn’t able to do that anymore ― so speaking of pivots, I decided that I wanted to try to reach more people and still figure out how I can stay connected to my passion, which is mental health, in a way that was more sustainable for me and my life at the time. I came up with the idea of starting a digital platform where I could offer wellness courses and get experts to come on and share their stories and knowledge about anything in the wellness field that they were exceptional at. I felt like an online platform would be the best way for me to do that because I could do it from anywhere.
In this journey since founding Bene, have you learned something different in being able to extend to a wider community that you may have not known prior?
I’ve learned to embrace that I like one-on-one interactions. I feel like that’s my bread and butter, but being able to reach more people and share more information, whether it be through our Why Not? Foundation, collaborating with Bene and having more access to people, or giving more people that might not have access to mental health care and therapy the ability to get information that they might not be getting elsewhere, I feel like has been a blessing.
It’s shaped my mission and why I do the things that I do, because I want people to be able to see people like me out there: people from our communities, people from communities of color. And for them to be able to see me out there co-signing mental health and wellness, and why it’s important and why they should practice building their mental health and stamina is so important. There’s definitely some upsides to expanding the community of people that I’m able to reach and be in contact with.
To that last point, though there have been a lot of gains, there’s still so much left as far as work toward accessibility and making sure that more Black folks specifically do have access to mental health services. I’m wondering specifically with Black women, what is the biggest issue that you see us face when it comes to mental health?
There are so many things that we can speak to. I feel like just as a Black woman in general, we tend to take on a whole lot. We tend to wear many hats, and we tend to lack support in doing so in a lot of instances. When it comes to being able to practice self-care and when it comes to being able to be vulnerable enough to reach out and seek support and help when needed, I feel like because there’s this idea that Black women are so strong that people don’t tend to focus their support efforts toward us as Black women. I think that the need for support is greater than what we put the amount of energy into.
For example, we are so busy wearing our other hats and doing all of these other things, we tend to sacrifice or put our needs down, whereas it should be the opposite. The more output that we have, the more we should be refilling our cups, and it’s just something that we are not accustomed to. I think we’ve got to give ourselves more permission to be able to do that and be more vulnerable without feeling weak when it comes to reaching out for support and asking for help.
I love your social media affirmations and reminders. A recent prompt was to “take up space.” When’s the last time you gave yourself permission to take up space and that’s in a way that may have not automatically come to you?
I’m an introvert. I prefer to be at home doing nothing by myself and hanging out with the kids. So stepping outside of my box, I’m now entering into this new venture, and I don’t even think I can talk about it yet, but it requires me to be very vulnerable. It requires a lot of outreach and stepping outside of my comfort zone. I feel like I am now in a place I feel secure enough to where I have so much confidence in what I’m doing, who I am and what I know to where I don’t care who I have to talk to in order to get to where I want to be, [and] I know the right people that are meant to be with me along this journey are going to come forward.
I think that it’s just been such a transformative experience for me being like, “I’m ready to be here and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there, and anyone else that wants to join me on my journey, welcome. Anyone who doesn’t, this is just not the space for us right now.”
“I think that Black women, but women in general also, we have a tendency to sell ourselves short, whereas our male counterparts, they will oversell.”
What is an affirmation that you feel Black women don’t tell ourselves enough of that we need to hear more?
We belong here. I think that Black women, but women in general also, we have a tendency to sell ourselves short, whereas our male counterparts, they will oversell. They will step into things with confidence and not even knowing half of the things that need to be known in order to do or go the places they want to go, whereas we can be so overqualified and so knowledgeable and still have all of these self-doubts about taking next steps or making decisions that support us along our journeys. I feel like what we need to tell ourselves more is, if not you, then who?
What do affirmations look like in your own home?
With my girls, I make them repeat affirmations, and it’s so interesting. If you have small children, I suggest you have them repeat things about themselves and see how they respond. I have one daughter who’s super proud and excited to say it, and my other daughter, she’s a whisperer, “Oh, I’m beautiful.” You can see what people’s personalities are through it. We just repeat affirmations. I do it. My kids do it. I’ll tell them, “Say I am beautiful, I am smart,” and have them repeat those things in the mirror and to me or to my husband. If we don’t get to it daily. It’s definitely a few times a week type of thing.
They’re so important because I feel like in today’s society specifically, having the security and the self-confidence to be your authentic self is going to change the trajectory of your entire life. Being able to be the person that goes left when everyone else is going right is so key, especially when it comes to what we want our kids to know and what we want to teach them. So that’s what that looks like for us.
I also want to talk about Do-Tell! I feel like card games have become such a popular and just useful tool for starting really vulnerable conversations with others, with ourselves, etc. How did Do-Tell! come about and what do you hope people gain from it?
Going back to my relationship back in college, I used to play this game called The Question Game with my husband where we would just ask each other questions and you had to answer. There’s no out. In Do-Tell!, there’s an out. It was just literally my way of getting my husband to be more open and to share and have deeper conversations because he grew up in a different background than me. In my family, we had lots of open discussions and we’ll call them spirited debates about things, and we were always encouraged to be vocal. Whereas he grew up in a family where it was a lot of love and connection, but it wasn’t a lot of communication. So I had to figure out ways and get creative in how to bring that communication out of him to peel back those layers.
I feel like that’s exactly what Do-Tell! is doing. Basically, it’s a fun game where you’re going to get to learn more about yourself. It’s very self-reflective. You’ll get to learn about your partner, your friends, your family, and have conversations and talk about things that we don’t discuss on a regular basis. Everyone is so busy with life and doing all of these different things. Coming together for a card game is fun. And vulnerability is contagious, so when other people around you are being open and honest and sharing their thoughts and feelings about anything, important things, it just creates this space where magical things can happen. I feel like that’s what’s been happening and that’s been my experience playing Do-Tell!, and so I love talking about it and I think it’s great. It’s a fun game.
Is there anything within your line of work that you haven’t done yet that you’re dreaming of doing in the future?
Yes. I’m working on some stuff. I feel like there’s no ceiling. I think that any natural progression into just sharing my mission with other people is a goal. I like my steady growth. I like how quickly or how slowly I’m growing or learning. As long as I feel like things are moving forward for me, I feel like that’s success.
What impact do you hope to have on the world of mental health specifically?
I just want to be an advocate for mental health and wellness and just trying to get people to approach their mental health the same way that they approach their physical health. I’ve seen both ends of the spectrum and how much someone can devote to their physical wellness, and I want it to become equally as valuable to put the effort into our mental fitness as well.
What would you tell someone who is struggling with their mental health who may not know where exactly that entry point is in order to be able to get help, resources and tools?
I feel like that’s a lot of us, and I do think that social media and electronic telehealth has become the preferred method of mental health treatments or therapy. So I would say Google, research where you can seek help. You can also visit benebynina.com and we have a full list of resources on our website that you can pinpoint what direction with little descriptions of where you might want to reach out and then get further instruction from there.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.