Soul Full Chicago is creating a space where people can go to better understand their mental health.
In the company of people who want to gather and learn together, a new book lounge offers a space to relax and unwind while engaging in conversation about mental health. Open to anyone, Soul Full Chicago has resources to make mental health understandable and information to it more accessible.
Mariah Fair, owner and founder, opened the doors to Soul Full in Pilsen on October 25 to provide a safe space for people to come and learn about mental health. At the lounge people can enjoy the company of others and find literature about a wide variety of mental health topics, including self-help books and books on spiritual healing. Soul Full also hosts a book club and pop-up events like open mic nights for the community to engage with one another in a space that centers wellness.
“I hope people can come in and unload, talk to other people that are going through the same things they’re going through,” Fair said. “I hope that the one-stop shop for having literature really helps people not feel like they run out of options.”
“I really enjoy healing and I want to be around people who want to heal,” she said. “That’s why I put mental health on the door, so you know before you come in what we’re doing in here.”
Fair got the idea to open a book lounge after using books to understand her own mental health.
“I was very depressed, and therapy was great, but it got very expensive,” Fair said. “I thought, I can’t afford this, but I still need healing, so I started reading books.”
During a point in her life when she was feeling lost and depressed, Fair said she was given a book titled The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself by Michael A. Singer as a gift.
“I read that book and I’ll say that I was just crying good tears because I finally found something that explained to me how my thoughts are not my thoughts,” Fair said. “It gave me a new pair of eyes. I took everything personal. Then I realized that things are personal to that person, not just to me. It doesn’t take accountability off of me, but it’s not solely on me.”
Literature is only one part of the experience. The shop also features other kinds of therapeutic experiences for guests to take in such as calming music and aromatherapy. It was essential for Fair to make the lounge an aesthetic space and calming environment for people. The colors of the flowers all over the space help with that.
Each vase around the shop contains blue flowers for calming, greens for tranquility, reds and pinks for passion and kindness and purple to inspire creativity. All around, the faint smell of essential oils helps customers feel relaxed and calm when they enter the space.
“It’s endless options,” Fair said. “There’s artists that want to do art therapy. Reading is therapy. Flower therapy — I don’t just have flowers because they look good. They do look good, but the different colors are [therapeutic] as well.”
Across the walls are displays of flowers and open books which Fair said takes inspiration from a bookstore she saw on TikTok.
“I felt like it needed to be one central location for us to heal, learn and be able to communicate,” Fair said. “I was fortunate enough to be in a very warm environment during quarantine. The views and the scenes were just beautiful. It helped me really be able to heal myself. If I could create a space where people could do the same thing, everywhere you look it is just beautiful, then it would be easier to heal.”
Chetanae Ellison, an artist native to St. Louis and now living in Orland Park, said Soul Full is pivotal for the community.
“I’ve never seen a place like this before,” Ellison said. “I’m really here for what [Fair’s] got going on here. If anything, just creating a place where you can talk to someone, just a random person who might be going through the same thing as you.”
Ellison initially found out about Soul Full through her art. She was going to design a countertop piece for the bookstore’s cafe, and although plans changed, Ellison found a home there.
“It’s crazy how the universe connects you with things that are perfect for you,” she said. “I came here just randomly to do an art piece, and then I was like, oh snap, this is perfect for me. Now I have a place where I can come and a place where I can serve as well.”
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Ellison is no stranger to education on mental health. She has a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Truman State University and worked as a behavioral health technician for two years. However, she said didn’t understand her own mental health until her junior year of college when her grades began to slip.
“I had never gone to therapy before,” Ellison said. “I had never considered that I could be depressed or anxious. When I noticed that was happening and it was all my fault, the negative self-talk was crazy. In my head I was being lazy, but I was really depressed.”
As someone who is known as a happy person to friends and family, Ellison said it was hard to acknowledge that she dealt with a lot on her own.
“I go through moments of laying down all day, getting up to eat every piece of food in the house and laying back down, for days,” Ellison said. “And no one ever told me that was an issue because, honestly, mental health isn’t talked about.”
When Ellison was growing up she had a lack of information around mental health and didn’t know how to have a discussion on it, either. This factor contributed to how she didn’t know how to understand what was going on in her own mind. Ellison said her mom never talked with her about feelings of depression or anxiety, so it was difficult to understand her feelings.
Fair said she had a similar experience to Ellison when dealing with her own mental health. She said it took her a while to put a name to the way she was feeling because of the lack of conversation around mental health.
“Growing up nobody talked about depression, so I didn’t know what it was,” Fair said. “Nobody knew how to address it. I didn’t understand my depression was ‘depression’, until my last year of college. That’s when I said, ‘I am depressed.’ It felt okay to say that. Nobody was around me to say, no, you’re not depressed.”
Ellison also said the stereotype of the “strong Black woman” makes her feel like she always has to keep it together in order to create the life she wants for herself and in her future.
“You always have to succeed eight times over and keep striving to make something of yourself because I gotta do it, ain’t nobody else gonna do it,” Ellison said. “I grew up poor and I don’t wanna keep doing that, so it doesn’t matter if I’m sad right now or how I feel. I gotta go to work and I gotta get it done. That has a lot to do with it.”
Chicago-based nonprofit organization Black Girls Break Bread works to provide a space for Black women and girls to come together and talk about their struggles with people who understand what they’re going through. Jessica Davenport-Williams, one of the founders, said it is important for them to have this community to feel supported in their own lives.
“We’re trying to balance this and juggle that, and it can become overwhelming,” Davenport-Williams said. “I think when you hear other people share their stories, that gives you some type of confidence and self-assurance of like, okay, this person has also experienced something similar and they’ve overcome, they’ve survived it. Being able to create that sense of community has been very rewarding for us.”
One reason why Ellison said places like Soul Full are so important for the community is that traditional mental health resources are scarce. For her, therapy took months to figure out.
“I knew that I wanted a Black woman therapist, but everybody’s telling me they don’t take my insurance, so that was a whole other layer,” Ellison said. “Luckily, I was persistent, but I can only imagine someone who’s at the lowest point in their life trying to figure out how insurance works and everyone’s telling them no.”
Davenport-Williams said access to quality resources in all areas is difficult for Black and Latinx communities in Chicago.
“For those trying to access it, you have to migrate out,” Davenport-Williams said. You have to leave your community to be able to access really just quality, affordable things whether it’s food, healthcare, pharmacy, education. It’s disheartening, but it’s been the reality for Chicago for many years.”
Access to these resources is something Fair wants to help the community with. Although Soul Full has only been open for a short time, she has connected with therapists who do pro bono work for people who may not be able to afford it.
People who come into the shop looking for a therapist can give Fair their email and she can put them in contact with these professionals who are willing to provide their services.
“We’re trying to find initiatives and grants to make sure those therapists get paid, but so that people who need therapy can get that,” she said.
Fair said her shop should be considered in addition to or in lieu of therapy. It is a source for people who don’t have therapy as an option, and a space for people to share their experiences.
“Say you come from a therapy session, and you’ve been in therapy for an hour,” Fair said. “They’ve opened up all these wounds and they’ve told you things you didn’t know about yourself, now you know words that you’ve never heard of. Now you can go and look for literature on the things you’ve learned.”
Although seeing a mental health professional is still people’s most preferred option for treatment, non-traditional methods such as self-help books or online communities are increasing in popularity as alternatives to therapy become more accessible. Davenport-Williams said having a community around you to guide and support you is something everyone needs.
“It’s like with any group that you attach to, it’s some type of relatable commonality in the identity,” she said. “Whether it’s your family or friends or just networks as you move along and navigate through life. I recommend that anyone, not just for someone who is Black or female identifying, find your tribe.”
Ellison said she had found other avenues of self-care in addition to therapy such as yoga and taking time to express gratitude in her life.
Honestly, I think my practices outside of just therapy have been even more essential to my overall mental health,” Ellison said. “I’ve also started journaling and aromatherapy as well, so using essential oils, and, you know, just taking care of my person and being able to put my person first. It also creates a mind and body connection when I’m like, okay, I’ve been too social, it’s time for me to take a self-care day. That makes the world of a difference.”
Fair said a big contributor to her success in open Soul Full was her faith.
“Looking back, it was beautiful,” Fair said. “Every time I’ve seen somebody do a business, it has been very stressful for them. I didn’t have that experience. I am a woman of great faith, and I believe that if I give God what he asks for, he’ll give me what I ask for. I just stay really close to him, I listen to him, he showed me what to do. He opened doors for me that I wouldn’t have been able to open alone.”
Although the lounge isn’t a religious space, Fair doesn’t shy away from her own religion when talking about her success and her journey.
“I know everybody doesn’t believe in God, but I hope that coming in here shows you that he is a healer, because he healed me,” Fair said. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. Even if you never talk to him yourself, know that he talked to me and this is a manifestation of how he guided me, healed and helped me get out of a stuck place that I was in.”
Fair’s outlook on Soul Full is one of positivity and connection. She wants to give people the space and community to come and learn together while also promoting wellness and healing.
“I hope that people come in and they feel safe to be themselves,” Fair said. “That is my ultimate goal, that they feel safe.”
If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “ITSOK” to 741741.
To learn more about counseling services at DePaul University visit the student affairs website. To make an appointment, you can call the Lincoln Park office at 773-325-7779 or the Loop Campus office at 312-362-6923.
You can also call the Illinois Warm Line at 866-359-7953 for peer and family mental health support from Monday through Friday during the work day. For more information about Chicago mental health resources, you can visit the NAMI Chicago’s website.
If you or someone you know is experiencing substance misuse, you can call the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Action Helpline at 1(800) 662-4357. You can also visit Drug-Free America’s website to learn more about drugs, treatment and online screenings.
If you are a DePaul student experiencing substance misuse, the University’s Office of Health Promotion and Wellness has a variety of educational programs and support groups.
If you’ve experienced sexual violence you can call the RAINN hotline at 1-800-656-4673 or the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233 for help.
If you are a DePaul student, the university’s Office of Health Promotion and Wellness has a variety of resources. You can also contact DePaul’s Survivor Support Advocates, who are confidential resources in that office, at firstname.lastname@example.org or (773)325-7129.
Header image by Bridget Killian