The mental health aspect of a cancer diagnosis is always the last thing considered, until it’s right in front of your face.
“Cancer depletes people’s resources completely,” says Mathis Kennington, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. “They are spending money on so many treatments, medicines, and rehabilitation. So, just thinking about hierarchy of needs, the physical body is under threat. People are expending their mental resources to deal with their bodies and then they wake up one day and realize they’re having severe anxiety, severe depression, panic attacks and they don’t know how to deal with it — and even if they did, they don’t have the money to afford it.”
This is what makes the work of The Flatwater Foundation, which funds efforts to alleviate mental health costs associated with cancer, so impactful.
Run by Mark Garza and Chelsea Hardee, The Flatwater Foundation is a local nonprofit which brings this often overlooked but important care to Austin. To date, the foundation has been able to provide over 20,000 paid sessions of therapy for families in need.
For Garza, he sees the mission of Flatwater as a mission after having felt the impact of diagnosis and the benefits of therapy firsthand.
In 2009, Garza’s father was diagnosed with stage IV prostate cancer. Along with the diagnosis, his parents were separating after 47 years of marriage. As he began to navigate the trials and tribulations he was now facing, he found solace being out on the water, paddleboarding on Lady Bird Lake.
“I would go out most mornings, all alone,” Garza says. “There was about a 4-5 inch thick layer of fog on the water and it would curl onto the front of my board. I started meditating out there, and I was really seeing the benefits of being out in the beauty of nature.”
Garza recognized he needed more than just time in nature, but also therapy. He was able to find a therapist, but after his first session, hearing what the cost of long-term therapy would be was ultimately a hindrance.
“I found out it would be $140 a week and that blew mind my mind. And at the time I was making a decent living, but $140 a week for talk therapy was going to crush me,” Garza says. “About two weeks later the therapist called me and she told me, “I see something special in you, just pay me what you think you are able to pay.’”
The Flatwater Care Provider Network is a network of therapists who have agreed to provide care at a sliding scale rate, essentially what Garza’s original therapist did for him. The network hosts providers from Georgetown to New Braunfels and includes traditional talk therapy as well as equine assisted counseling.
“It’s not the providers they’ve created, that’s always been there,” Kennington says, who is a provider in the Flatwater network. “What Mark and Chelsea have done is come in and said, ‘here’s the work we need you to do and can you cut the cost in half.’ For most therapists, and myself, that’s an easy answer.”
The families in need are connected to Flatwater care through it’s network of referral agents at cancer institutions and organizations, like Texas Oncology, Breast Cancer Resource Center of Texas, Wonders and Worries and Austin Cancer Center. The social workers there are able to identify those who need support and place those in need into long-term counseling.
“Flatwater is essentially a referral network on steroids,” Kennington says. “Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re dealing with until someone trained says ‘no, you need help.’ Mark and Chelsea haven’t just answered the question, but they have helped people to know what question they are asking.”
Clarissa Alvarado, a breast cancer survivor and a participant of Flatwater Care, didn’t see the effects the diagnosis had on her mind until after her year-long treatment ended and she transitioned back into everyday life.
“I didn’t know exactly what it was at the time” Alvarado says. “I just wanted to be able to pick up where I left off, but I wasn’t the same as before cancer—I felt lost and numb. I couldn’t focus. I found myself not being able to make decisions. It was hard to talk to other people about it because I didn’t think they would get it. I started thinking I needed counseling.”
Alvarado knew she needed therapy, but wasn’t exactly sure how much and if she would be able to afford it. Knowing that therapy costs and insurance work differently, she reached out to a social worker at Texas Oncology who told her she qualified for Flatwater Care and that there would be no cap on the cost for therapy services.
“I was just in tears because that’s what I needed” Alvarado says. “It opened up this whole new life for me and was a whole new type of healing I needed.”
The therapy provided is not free, but paid. Meaning patients still receive the quality of care they deserve and the medical providers are still compensated all from the proceeds raised by Flatwater Foundation through its different sponsorships, donations and event fundraising.
Before Flatwater was its own organization, it was a PR stunt in June 2010 conceptualized by Garza. Going along with the mental health benefits he had with SUP, he partnered with LIVESTRONG and gathered several friends to paddle 21 miles across Lake Austin, Dam to Dam, on paddleboards to raise awareness and support for free mental health services for families coping with cancer diagnosis and treatment. He was able to raise over $32,000 through the event.
That event was the original Tyler’s Dam Cancer, the Flatwater Foundation’s premier fundraising event that takes place every June on Lake Austin. Over 180 paddlers raise money for the foundation, and then trek across the 21-miles in order to raise awareness for the cause. Flatwater will host its 10th DTC paddle in June 2019.
Hardee is the brains behind Flatwater’s events as the Director of Development; as well as overseeing sponsorships and donations.
Hardee is a retired world champion pole vaulter for team USA and connected with Garza through a mutual friend when she moved to Austin in 2011. Resonating with the mission of spreading mental health awareness, Hardee volunteered for Flatwater before she was hired full-time in 2012.
“Over time, I’ve just really seen how important is to focus on your mind—both as a retired athlete and a regular person,” she says.
Aside from DTC, the foundation has also found other creative ways to fundraise and connect with the community, including sending groups to the New York City Marathon, the Berlin Marathon, as well as SUP challenges in The Netherlands and circumnavigating Lake Tahoe in September 2017.
“I love the mission, where our money goes and the people involved,” says Hardee. “It’s really a tight-knit community of close friends.”
While donations may go to those coping with cancer, ultimately Flatwater is playing a large part in helping erase the stigma often associated with mental health. As the mission of The Flatwater Foundation continues to spread, so does the emphasis on positive mental health care.
“We stigmatize what we don’t understand,” Kennington says. “You’d go to the doctor if you got diabetes—no one considers when the mind is sick. Depression isn’t something you can see. Flatwater is normalizing treatment by allowing mental health challenges to have their own practices.”