Editor’s note: This story discusses suicide. If you need help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting HELLO to 741741.
The hour before Wini King takes her seat behind a tall, black microphone at a recording studio on Shamrock Avenue, she pauses. Checks her pulse. Breathes.
She considers the conversation before her — more often than not, a tough one. She visualizes the studio, the guest, sometimes a medical expert or advocate or, lately, a parent whose child died by suicide.
King’s meditation hour prepares her for what is to come: The recording of another episode for the podcast Raising Joy, the brainchild of the public relations team at Cook Children’s Health Care System. The mental health podcast, which aired its first episode on Feb. 24, doesn’t recoil from difficult topics: In the first five episodes alone, King and her co-host, Dr. Kristen Pyrc, discussed divorce, abuse and losing a child to fentanyl.
King is the chief of communications, diversity, equity and inclusion at Cook Children’s, and Pyrc is the hospital’s co-medical director of psychiatry. They approach the conversations through different lenses. Still, they hold grief and joy tightly in both hands.
“Whenever I tell people about the podcast,” Pyrc said, “I say, ‘Look, it’s called Raising Joy. It’s somewhat of a misnomer.’ Because while we are trying to bring joy through truthful conversations, a lot of times what we talk about is not joyful. It is sad.”
The Joy Campaign
In early 2021, Dr. Kathleen Powderly, a pediatrician with Cook Children’s, emailed hospital leadership with a disturbing trend: an uptick in young patients with suicidal thoughts. Some were as young as 7.
The data echoed her observations. 2020 marked the first year that suicide was the leading cause of traumatic death — above car wrecks and child abuse — at Cook Children’s. That year, the hospital treated nearly 300 children who attempted suicide.
Powderly’s worries bore fruit: The April 2021 development of the hospital’s Joy Campaign, a suicide prevention initiative meant to educate people about child mental health.
In those early months, when hospital colleagues brainstormed the path of the campaign, Pyrc remembers suggesting a podcast. She’s a podcast person: Her favorites include Crime Junkie and WDW Prep to Go, a project based out of Tarrant County that reviews trips to Disney World.
Nearly a year later, in February, the Raising Joy podcast launched, with Pyrc and King at the helm.
Pyrc hopes “parents, teachers, coaches, nurses, dance teachers, mentors, anybody who has a relationship with a kid” can listen and learn. The podcast is meant to provide education — how to help those kids navigate their mental health — and support for the people already doing so.
‘Sorry I keep saying ‘joy’‘
Pyrc and King spotlit Powderly’s own journey with mental health in episode two. Almost 10 episodes later, that specific conversation still resonates with Pyrc.
“(Powderly’s) vulnerability and willingness to talk openly about it was honestly mind-blowing,” she said. “Because, physicians don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about our own mental health. And so for her just to lay it all out there — I just was so inspired by her courage.”
Sifting thoughts and feelings beneath the surface is, Pyrc thinks, a precursor to cultivating joy — which she calls her favorite emotion. (“Sorry I keep saying ‘joy,’” she said in her interview with the Report.) Her own practice involves presence of mind, a wrenching away from tomorrow’s mental checklist and returning to the here and now.
“I think when you’re (in the moment), you’re just more likely to catch those moments of joy,” she said. “Like, whenever your 3-year-old does something totally ridiculous and you’re just full belly laughing.”
Every night at dinner, Pyrc, her husband and two daughters set aside cell phones and eat together. They ask each other questions: What did you enjoy? Who did you play with? Was there something you didn’t like? She and her husband model sharing joys and sorrows, because “life isn’t always sunshine and rainbows.” She’s also committed to speaking positively about her body in front of her daughters; she wants to foster self-love, rather than loathing.
Pyrc more deeply understood her own need for self-care in October, when she and her husband celebrated their 10th anniversary with a trip to Mexico. She scheduled a massage and, when it came, she couldn’t stop crying.
“I just cried and cried,” she said. “I hadn’t let myself feel. I wasn’t aware that I was feeling as overwhelmed as I was. Something like that makes you stand up. It certainly got my attention.”
Pyrc became a child psychiatrist because she loves listening to kids, and she loves exploring their stories. These days, the podcast serves as another avenue to do so, albeit through the lens of families, experts and advocates. She’s overjoyed, she said, that it’s enabled more and more people to talk about mental health.
“For so long, it’s been something that people have felt ashamed of, and they keep to themselves,” she said.
‘That deep, burrowed thing’
King’s role in the partnership is, she said, to create that space for guests to share. She’s naturally curious, a consequence of — or explanation for — her years spent as a reporter. She joined the public relations team at Cook Children’s in 2006.
She wants to know how people navigate what she calls the “cesspool of grief” with grace and dignity. Mostly, though, she wants to know about a guest’s children. She asks parents to tell her about their kids who’ve died.
“I want people to understand that there is joy in some of this,” she said. “They want to talk about those children, they want to talk about their child and still remember them and still remember their life and still feel the joy of having that child and having had that child and what joy was brought to them.”
Sometimes, she said, tears fall in the studio. But that’s OK — she chooses vulnerability because that’s what she’s asking of the podcast’s guests.
“We’re meeting people in some of the deepest pain,” she said. “I don’t want their issue to be wasted. I want to be able to get a nugget of wisdom, a nugget of triumph, something that’s going to give me a little bit to go into my life. And hopefully, the same is happening with the people who are listening.”
To close the most recent episodes, King and Pyrc share the meaning of joy — the word is an acronym at Cook Children’s. It stands for Just breathe, Open up, You matter. It’s a mantra that King said weaves through her own experience of Raising Joy.
Also, her middle name is Joy.
“Joy is not about happiness,” she said. “Joy to me is that deep, burrowed thing that keeps you above it slightly — that buoys you slightly.”
Alexis Allison is the health reporter at the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from Texas Health Resources. Contact her by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.