See more of the story

Throughout a career with the St. Paul City Council, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners and now St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, Noel Nix has worked to connect communities with resources they need to thrive.

But what happens when the people who are tasked with helping others struggle to find help for themselves?

Nix, a newly named Bush Foundation Fellow, hopes to link people who serve the public in times of trauma with the mental health services they may need when facing their own crises.

Eye On St. Paul recently talked with Nix about his goal to use the Bush Fellowship to find ways to help the helpers when stress and depression hit them. This interview was edited for length.

Q: What made you propose this?

A: During the pandemic, I really just had a front row seat to how all of the different trauma that we were experiencing — because of the sudden shifts in the pandemic and because of all the fallout from George Floyd's murder — was impacting all of us personally, but also impacting folks who work in communities and the public sector, both professionally and personally.

So there's this dimension of sustainable community leadership that is tied to mental health, right? [Community leaders] who are feeling like, "Do we have the supports that we need from a mental health standpoint?"

Q: You can't support the community unless the supporters find some support as well?

A: Exactly. And so I did a lot of reflecting, as we all did, during the pandemic and said, "You know what? I think I might have some transferable skills to really kind of dig in and learn about mental health." And as I was sharing that with people, they encouraged me to apply for a Bush Fellowship.

Q: So tell me a little bit about what you're doing.

A: Last fall, I started my grad program at St. Thomas. I applied for that even before I applied for a Bush Fellowship. The program will take me another couple years to finish and it coincides well with the length of the fellowship.

Q: You're going to work while you're doing the fellowship?

A: I'm just going to keep going as I continue this leadership journey that I'm on. I'm going to take time to assess if I need to create space to leverage the fellowship, to dig into this intersection of leadership and mental health. It might require me to step away. But no, I'm not going anywhere anytime soon.

Q: What do you see happening as a result?

A: First and foremost, just really getting to connect with my professors and classmates at St. Thomas. There are just some really incredible people who are diving deep into mental health. And also, [I'm] really excited to study and work with Dr. Bryana French, who's part of this national movement of psychologists focused on radical healing, which is all about confronting the mental distress that's caused by systemic oppression. The hope is we can build a different system that can end cycles of systemic oppression.

There's a space in between where we can experience the healing ... and to create a better future where that pain might not exist.

Q: Are you talking about working with the people who work with the public to find the services they need or are you a coach?

A: I don't know exactly. But what I hope it looks like is that we are thinking about different ways of supporting our leaders and our workforce who we ask to do incredibly stressful work, and that we are finding different ways to work with community partners to create greater access to mental health resources.

The fellowship is to take a look nationally, and even internationally, at community-based models of mental health access. In New York City, they're training community members to be lay mental health practitioners.

Q: How did you get this idea?

A: When I first joined Melvin Carter's office on the council, when he invited me to be his legislative aide, my goal with this job is to push the limits of how government can partner with community to meet community development goals. And over the course of my career ... I've really been able to build some great government-community partnerships to get different projects done.

And then I had my own sort of mental health crisis when, within the span of a few years, my partner's mom died, my mom died and we both started new jobs. And that forced me to take a step back and say, "I can't do this by myself. I need to talk to someone."

Q: Did you find it was hard to make that connection?

A: I wasn't sure where to start. And so the best I knew how to do was to reach out to someone who I trusted to connect me with the resources that they thought might be good for me.

Q: And not everybody has that.

A: Exactly.

Q: When you close your eyes and see Noel Nix in 2026, what do you see?

A: I want to be a leader that helps sustain other leaders. Specifically, how do we nourish and sustain our leaders so that we can make the progress that we want to make?