A Familiar Face and a Champion for Helping Others
Ellen Leyva has been a familiar face in Southern California for over 25 years. The award-winning journalist joined ABC7 in 1995 and now co-anchors the station's Eyewitness News at 4 pm and 6 pm. As colleagues and others who know her will quickly report, her familiar face does not hide anything. The Ellen you see on TV is the same person you will meet in person.
A steadfast supporter of Pacific Clinics, Ellen was named the inaugural Champion for Mental Health at the 2018 annual gala. Over several years, she volunteered her time and raised her strong, unwavering voice to underscore the importance of mental health services, especially for underserved communities.
It is a topic she knows firsthand. The Ellen who speaks about the struggles of those needing behavioral health support is the same person who has experienced some of those very same challenges.
Ellen's thoughtfulness and commitment to the community is evident. We were honored she accepted the invitation to be interviewed by Pacific Clinics' VP of Public Affairs and Advocacy Myeisha Peguero Gamiño. Here's what the Mental Health Champion had to say.
Tell us about your upbringing. What was your childhood like?
My younger sister, Cindy, and I were raised in a lower-middle class family in Tucson, Arizona. My mother was born and raised in Mexico and my father was from Oklahoma. When I was about 3, my mother's son, Ricardo, came to live with us. With his arrival, our lives were forever changed and it would begin many challenging years of living with a man with severe schizophrenia. At the time, Cindy and I were unaware how living with Ricardo would shape who we would become and the challenges we would face. My parents did the best they could. However, it wouldn't be until years later that I learned how living in a stressful home could affect my emotional growth. But kids are resilient and Cindy and I made the best of it.
What were you like as a young girl and how did your upbringing influence who you are today?
I believe my upbringing made me a very adaptable person who can fit into just about any situation. Living with a sibling with schizophrenia, a mother with depression and a distant father, not knowing what to expect day to day became normal. But through this experience, I learned to anticipate others' actions. Early on, I adopted being a people pleaser, very much shaped by trying to lessen the household stress and ease my mother's anxiety. I was very much my mother's emotional caregiver. It wouldn't be until my own children were born that I began to understand more clearly that both of my parents were managing the best they could with challenging circumstances. They loved us very much, were always there for us when we needed them and were exceptional grandparents to my two daughters. It's sad that they couldn't afford or even consider therapy or medical intervention. That just was not a priority then.
How did Ricardo's mental illness impact you and your advocacy of mental health?
Ricardo's schizophrenia was severe and my mother tried her best to find resources for him. She even got a second job so we could afford his medication, which he often decided not to take. At a young age, I learned to be self-reliant so that my mom could spend more time with him. While Ricardo has since passed, I sometimes think what could have been possible for him had we known about a resource like Pacific Clinics.
Self-care has been a matter of importance during the pandemic. What do you do to practice self-care?
Self-care is critical! I watched my mother go through her life sacrificing her own self-care to take care of everyone else. For me, I have to consciously remind myself that I deserve to have a break at times because it is so easy to forget to take care of ourselves. There's a Zen teaching that I am reminded of: "If you don't have time to meditate for an hour every day, you should meditate for two hours." So, I take my vacation time to decompress from work and the all-consuming news business. I try to exercise to relieve stress - and work off the sweets! I have taken meditation courses and love how I feel when I do it. Part of my self-care is carving out quiet alone time. Some people get their energy from being out and socializing. I have to recharge my battery in solitude. My youngest daughter, Audrey, is like me in that way; Emma, on the other hand is very social. I am working to become better at self-care.
What do you wish people knew more about mental health?
Mental health care is so important and we need to end the stigma attached to mental illness.
It is just as important as physical health. If someone needs medication for their mental illness, it should be as accepted and natural as taking blood pressure medication. I hope that people will view mental health as a priority to living a content and full life.
When I was 18, I suffered from an eating disorder. I was bulimic and later found an expert who treated me and I recovered. Also, during various times of my life, I experienced depression and sought treatment. I was fortunate to be able to afford an incredible therapist in my 40s. I spent time with him each week and came out of it proud of the work I did to understand myself. I learned that my childhood left me with some feelings of unworthiness, lack of confidence and lack of self-awareness. My therapist would joke and say that I was "amazingly normal," which would always make me laugh. While I still have moments of feeling sadness and doubt, I have come to accept myself the way I am. I have flaws, but I no longer need to mask them. It's liberating to know you're doing the best you can, even if it's not perfect.
Pacific Clinics is doing a wonderful job of raising awareness and acceptance.
You were named Pacific Clinics' inaugural Champion of Mental Health. What does that mean to you and why do you feel it is important to give back?
Mental health services should not just be for the wealthy and Pacific Clinics has been a godsend for countless families and individuals who would not be able to afford services, just like my mother.
Being recognized by an organization that is making a positive difference was an honor. The event itself was even more special because my boss, President and General Manager Cheryl Fair, chaired the event, and many of our leaders and my collegues at ABC7 also attended.
Standing on stage during the celebration was surreal. It was great to be honored! However, I feel like I am the messenger and doing what I am called to do: supporting others. I hope that by volunteering and sharing my story, others will feel hopeful and know that there is no shame in seeking help.
If you or someone you know is suffering from an eating disorder, contact the National Eating Disorder Association's Helpline Monday - Thursday from 11am to 9pm ET, and Friday from 11am to 5pm ET. You can also chat with their Helpline here: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/help-support/contact-helpline
Ellen with her parents Thomas and Emma
With daughers, Emma and Audrey
The ABC7 Eyewitness News Family
Being honored by CEO Jim Balla and board member Zaven Kazazian