Wounded Healer

Clinical social worker shares personal battle with OCD, stigma. The story was co-published with the Sacramento Observer as part of the 2024 Ethnic Media Collaborative, Healing California.

Growing up on the south side of Richmond, Calif., it was so common for LaVontae Hill and his older brother Lamondo to hear gunshots ring out in the night that the boys made a game of it, trying to guess what caliber bullet was being fired and what type of gun it came from.

Hill saw and heard a lot of things that a young person shouldn’t be exposed to and while his childhood helped drive him to a career of service, not processing early experiences and traumas also contributed to a crippling mental illness.

Today, Hill, 28, is a clinical social worker who’s sharing his own mental health journey in hopes of inspiring others to ask for help and heal. He recently joined the speaker’s bureau for the organization Stop Stigma Sacramento, which is as part of the multi-media project, “Mental Illness: It’s Not Always What You Think.”

 Hill first decided to speak his truth last spring, posting weekly Instagram videos about the intrusive thoughts that overtook his life. 

 “This is my purpose-driven work. I've made it a mission for me to talk to people and hold workshops to educate youth, educate Black men and educate parents.” 

Turned Upside Down

It all came to a head on September 19, 2019.

“My world turned upside down,” Hill said. “That was the first time that my mental health ever declined and everything that I did not process in my life, it just came at me. I woke up and literally, it was as if my thoughts had just changed. It was like everything that I loved, everything that I thought was true, was gone. I was in a constant state of anxiety every single day.  I would get a barrage of different thoughts that were against my morals, against my values that were so negative and just came in a way that was so forceful, and I just, I believed everything. I would constantly ask myself, ‘Man, why does my brain seem so fragile?’”

Hill went from being self-confident to telling himself he was a horrible person and that nobody loved him.

“Everything got small and I isolated myself from everyone – family, friends. I stopped doing things I wanted to do. I didn't know what was going on.”

Hill began to feel like a fraud –  he was a therapist who was unable to diagnose himself and didn’t feel as though he could consult with colleagues.

“I’m still rooted with the same type of principles that I was embedded with as a kid. It’s that saying of ‘what happens in the house stays in the house.’”

Hill didn’t know how to explain what he was going through because he didn’t understand it himself. He also feared he’d lose his job and everything he’d worked for. He began calling his older brother. The two maintain a close bond.

“I would go to my brother every day, it was to a point where it was compulsive. I would call him at one, two in the morning,” Hill recalls.

“I’m crying every day, I would get up and the only thing I would think of is going to sleep because that’s the only time my mind was shut off. It was really difficult for me to even get through the process of anything. Because I just didn't know what was going on.”

Hill started calling his mom as well. While both assured him that it was OK, that they were glad he was reaching out to them, his mind wouldn’t let him believe it. He thought he was being a burden and they just were too nice to tell him so. His tearful calls began to make him think he was weak.

“One day I got up, and I'll never forget it, I got up one morning and the first thought on my mind was suicide. I went from this happy-go-lucky person who loved life and everything is positive to thinking what’s going on because I don’t know this person. “

Hill eventually opened up to his supervisor, who said what he was experiencing sounded like anxiety. While he was grateful for the support, his symptoms didn’t quite match what he knew anxiety to be, so he did what millions of other folks do when they want a low-key second opinion — he Googled it. He put in what he was experiencing and more and more searches came up as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

The National Institute of Mental Health defines OCD as a long-lasting disorder in which a person experiences uncontrollable and recurring thoughts, or obsessions; engages in repetitive behaviors or compulsions, or both. 

“I’m like, it can’t be OCD,” Hill said. “For me, growing up, what you know about OCD, you are a germaphobe. You just want to clean or things have to be in the right order. You need tidiness. I’m already tidy. I already do this stuff naturally. I don’t want to clean things. I'm not repetitive with anything. So at this point, I’m not even accepting the fact that it was OCD.”

Dr. Kevin Chapman, founder and director of the Kentucky Center For Anxiety and Related Disorders, broke down OCD and the prevalence of the disorder in the Black community in an informative virtual presentation with the Black Mental Health Alliance in March 2022. 

“People with OCD suffer in silence,” Dr. Chapman said. “Part of that is stigma. I’m so glad it’s declined significantly, but it’s still there.”

In his talk, Dr. Chapman dispelled common OCD myths and discussed what OCD is and isn’t.

“OCD is not something you turn on and off like a switch,” he said. “OCD is not an overreaction to stress, OCD involves intrusive thoughts, known as obsessions and compulsion, which I call rituals, and they lead to significant distress and impairment in functioning. In other words, it messes things up, whether it be with work, with relationships, with your ability to interact with the people you care about.” 

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the prevalence of OCD among African Americans mirrors that of others at 1.6 percent, but African Americans are less likely to receive effective care. The International OCD Foundation (IOCDF) calls OCD in ethnic minority groups “a neglected area of research.” Both the IOCDF and the NIH say while outreach is necessary, barriers to treatment exist. 

“Among our lower income participants, problems with the community mental health system were an obstacle, including a low priority for the diagnosis of anxiety disorders in these clinics, and a genuine lack of community mental health providers sufficiently trained to provide OCD treatment,” reads a summary of the IOCDF’s study, “African-Americans with OCD: Reducing Barriers to Diagnosis and Treatment & Facilitating Effective Treatment for Everyone.”

The study found that most participants did not realize they had a disorder or, if they did, they were unaware that treatment was available.

Other studies have found that while the Black population experiences OCD at similar rates as the general population, they are less likely to receive treatment. Even among those who are able to access mental health care, few African Americans with OCD receive specialized treatment. As the IOCDF study noted, this could be due to the fact that most participants did not realize they had a disorder, or, if they did, they were unaware that treatment was available, or accessible, amid fears of discrimination.

Dr. Monnica Williams, a licensed clinical psychologist who serves as the Canada Research Chair for Mental Health Disparities at the University of Ottawa, says culturally-informed care is vital and that more education is needed for those providing treatment.

“Therapists treating OCD in BIPOC should invest extra effort into building rapport and helping clients understand that in OCD, thoughts about violence, harm, sexual fears, and magical thinking are a normal part of OCD anxieties, and cleaning and checking are common compulsions,” Dr. Williams writes in a 2020 column. “Experiences of racialization may be embedded into the client’s symptoms, but when therapists dismiss or minimize challenging race-based experiences, they can do more harm than good.”

It’s Not All Good In The ’Hood

Profile of a man

LaVontae Hill, 28, says he’s no longer letting obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety define who he is. 


When Hill was an adolescent, he remembers going to his aunt’s house with his brother and seeing their mother laying on a bed, having been attacked by her second husband over an argument about going to see a movie.

“My mom’s face had third degree burns. Her jaw was broken. It was a shock to me to see my mom laying there unconscious, not being able to speak or anything,” he recalls.

The brothers felt lost in how to deal with what had happened to their mother. 

“Imagine going through that and then having to go to school the next day,” Hill said.

The boys hadn’t been taught to handle trauma or pain in general.

“You don’t cry. You don’t show those emotions. That was always embedded in me,” Hill said. “As a kid, you learn by what you see. The men around me didn’t cry, so I didn’t think it was OK to do that. I didn’t know it was a bigger issue if you didn’t process those emotions, because it was normal for me.”

Hill never got to sit down and talk about the many traumas he was experiencing.

“It was more so, ‘make sure you don’t show that emotion. Don’t show any tears. Get up tomorrow, you’re going to be good. You’re too young to be anxious, too young for days to get on your nerves. You’re too young to overthink, that’s not a thing.’  I never heard the words ‘mental health’ as a kid.”

A natural athlete, Hill’s parents put him in youth sports to keep him away from the negative influences of life in the streets. He considers himself a “product of the YMCA” and went on to mentor other youth there and coach them in flag football. Those activities wouldn’t offer 24-hour protection, however.

As a kid, it would be very scary for me to even walk to the end of the corner and be out on the street when the street lights came on. That was like an unspoken rule, you’d better be in the house when the street lights came on,” Hill said. “I really started to get exposed to what the reality of living in an impoverished community was. I got that early. I would say 12 was my first experience really seeing what the reality of it was.”

It doesn’t get more real than gunshots, but Hill became desensitized to the sound.

“It was a very consistent and constant reality for us, but we never knew anything other than just getting down on the floor, to kind of stop and just be aware and be alert.”

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, children who are exposed to violence are at higher risk for physical injury and are more likely to have poor overall health, including illnesses that require medical attention; attempt suicide; display aggression; and experience delinquency.

There would be several traumatic events during Hill’s high school years –  seeing vicious on-campus fights between Black and Mexican students, being racially profiled by police officers on the way to school and there was also that time he narrowly escaped being shot in a case of mistaken identity.

 Hill had been dropping off a younger cousin after a basketball game and vividly recalls bullets being shot at the car he was in and seeing the red beam of a pistol scope aimed at his little brother as they fled.

“I remember thinking I’m not even 18 yet,” Hill said. “I was 17 at the time experiencing all these different traumas early on and never processing it, never understanding, never learning what’s happening.”

Unlike countless other Black boys in Richmond, Hill did make it to 18 and his high school graduation. He attended John F. Kennedy High, ironically named after a U.S. president who was shot and killed. 

Hill became one of the Bay Area’s top African American scholars, graduating with a stellar 3.9 GPA and earning 21 scholarships, a record for his school at the time. 

“Kennedy High at that time was known for the most lockdowns in all of Contra Costa County,” Hill said. “There were times where we had random lockdowns because somebody had a firearm in their locker. Someone went off campus once, went to their home with a friend and next thing you know, they get shot in the mouth with a 12-gauge and half of their jaw and everything was gone.”

Hill was sociable, stylish and funny, the kind of kid who was cool with everybody from the athletes to the nerds and could travel freely within ethnically diverse friend groups. He wasn’t interested in being in a gang, but it wasn’t hard to notice that the young men who were, got the attention.

“I would always see that they would praise the violence in the gang-related behavior a lot more than they would praise academics. I was a top student, that was something that I loved. However, I didn't get a lot of praise from individuals around me until I actually started to really go into the sports and do things like that. Everyone praised the ’hood guys, so naturally, you gravitate towards those things.”

Hill asked a gang member he knew from the neighborhood how he could join them, how he could “be down.”

“He said, ‘It’s simple, LaVontae. All you have to do is get me a gun.’ At that moment, I said, ‘Yep, that’s not for me. That’s never going to be for me.’”

It’s All A Process

Hill didn’t want to be a statistic, but he was often in situations that could have easily gone bad. Particularly memorable is senior ditch day that ended with Black students maced and body slammed by police.

“This is a normal experience, and again, never processed it, never talked about it. It was just, ‘Wow,’ this is a crazy experience that we went through.’”

Hill initially envisioned a career in sports medicine, but decided to major in social work in college. His only knowledge of the field, however, was Child Protective Services and seeing other kids, including a younger cousin, be removed from their homes.

“I was thinking there’s no way that I want to be that person because I want to help youth. I don't want to break up families,” Hill said.

Fortunately he got a wider view of what social work is.

“It changed everything. That’s the first time I was exposed to mental health. It was the first time that I ever learned what mental health was and what it means to have symptoms and what ACEs mean.”

ACEs, or Adverse Childhood Experiences, are traumatic events that happen between the ages of 0-17. Common examples are violence, physical or emotional abuse and neglect, having an incarcerated relative or witnessing domestic violence. According to the Center for Child Counseling, 61% of African American children and 51% of Hispanic children have experienced at least one ACE, compared to 40% of white children.

According to a 2021 study published in “General Psychology,” people with ACEs were more likely to experience schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and OCD. 

“Some evidence suggests that ACEs may not only cause the emergence of OCD, but also influence individuals to show disease progression, increase in intensity and/or frequency and change in content,” reads a summary.

A 2022 study that included parent responses found that of those who reported ACEs, 50% reported ACE exposure prior to OCD diagnosis.

Learning about ACEs opened a whole new door of understanding for Hill. 

“This is everything I experienced. Now I can put knowledge to it,” he said. “I learned why my thinking was the way it was. I learned why I overthought every situation when I was a kid. Why I had to think about everything so heavily before I left the home, because that was the difference between me making it back home and me not coming back.” 

With clarity, Hill began to think about the overdiagnosis of ADHD in children of color on a deeper level.

 Oftentimes, he says, adults place children on medication rather than talk to them and figure out where their heads are and why they’re displaying certain behaviors.

“It doesn’t mean that he has a diagnosis of mental illness,” Hill said. “It just means that maybe this kid’s circumstances are that he’s an at-risk youth. I started to understand what that was and understand more about kids who are more privy to poverty, kids who walk through circumstances like bullying, gang violence, domestic violence in the home and things of that nature.”

It all started to click. He was one of those children.

“That really opened up the door for me with mental health,” Hill said.

After interning with Dignity Health, Hill began working with them as a clinician. His experiences, and gaining insight about them, help inform the work he does. “I use my experience to be able to relate, but also be compassionate to their experiences and let them know, ‘Hey, you’re not alone.’” 

Being able to meet youth patients where they are and show them that he’s not so different than they are has been effective.

“Many of the things that I’ve gone through have really been able to propel me as a clinician, but also prepare me as someone who I label as being a ‘wounded healer.’”

Do No Harm

A man walking in a garden

LaVontae Hill recently joined a local campaign to end mental health stigma. He’s inspired to use his voice by his mother, a domestic violence survivor, who is now a motivational speaker.


After an initial bad experience with a therapist, Hill found the right one for him – a white woman who used to live in Richmond, in an office that deals specifically with OCD. 

“I’m crippled by my thoughts at this time. So I say man, ‘I don't care, no matter what amount of money it costs … I’m betting on therapy, I’m betting on y’all and I’m going to do everything you guys ask for because I know this is not my life.’”

Allowing someone else to guide him through the process of recovery was difficult at first. 

“Going through therapy was for me, the hardest part because genuinely, I would sit down every day and I would ask myself, ‘How am I going to get through tomorrow? How am I gonna get through the next two days if I can't even make it through this one hour?,’” Hill said.

The years 2019-2021 were low periods for Hill. The pandemic didn’t help.

“That made it worse, because now at this point, the world is closing in,” he said. “Now I'm sitting here with my thoughts, the one thing that I didn't want to do.  I couldn't sit in silence. I had to play music every single time I came home because I could not sit with my thoughts for more than two minutes.”

Hill found comfort in lo-fi music he found online, soothing background noise he could play to lull himself to sleep. The combination of medication and group processing therapy also helped. 

“I used to love that because it was the first time that I ever felt like somebody can relate to me that had the same exact symptoms, that knows exactly what I have but they’ve gotten better. The hardest thing for me was that the OCD was chronic. I used to dread the fact that I'm going to live with this forever, but they would tell me that the thoughts get a little bit easier to manage, you get to start to do more things.”

Recovery took work and for the most part, people in his life still didn’t know he was dealing with mental illness. He was hesitant to open up about it.

“I could be smiling in your face, like ‘Vontae is good,’ but no, I was going through it. I knew at a certain point, people wouldn't understand, so I felt it would be easier for me to not say anything than for me to have to explain it.”

Hill spent most of his mental health journey in silence.

“No one really knew about OCD for me until 2022. I was out of therapy at that time, I stopped going to therapy in 2021, I was able to graduate out of that. And in 2022, I was able to get my life back on track,” he said. “I was back to the gym, I was back doing my principles, I was doing meditation, I was really having moments, while I was sitting in my thoughts being there, I was no longer afraid of the thoughts, no longer latching on to them and I attributed it mostly to therapy.” 

Part of the work included learning ways to keep the negative thoughts at bay and how to “have a relationship” with his thoughts. Faith also played a role in his recovery.

“God understood that I can get through it,” Hill said. “He understood that this is not going to break me.”

Powerful Testimony

Hill considers resilience to be his superpower. 

“Look at me, I’m able to speak about it. I’m able to break those barriers and talk about mental health. I’m able to be in those spaces where I can do that. That’s why I developed that name, a wounded healer, because now I’m not only explaining to you how to get through this, but I can tell you from a place of experience. My experience really drives how I navigate a lot of stuff. Being a wounded healer is me understanding that I’ve still got that one weapon, it’s never gone anywhere. But also it doesn’t determine who I am, nor does it determine how I am as a person.”

Hill was encouraged to share his personal experiences with mental illness by colleague La Viola Ward, with whom he works at Dignity Health. The two quickly bonded over both having names that start with the letters “LaV” and a shared desire to serve their community. 

“I immediately recognized the spark that he has when he talks about coming from a similar community that I hail from, and the struggles of fighting stigmas associated with mental health and mental illness in the 'hood,’ Ward said.

“That passion rang true to me,” she continued. “I encouraged him to share his story because I realized the incredible value that he can contribute. He is a phenomenal clinician and works diligently to help the young people that we serve. I see him doing great things in the future –  both in the mental health field as well as improving the overall plight of our community.”

Hill is one of only two Black men on the Stop Stigma Sacramento Speakers Bureau roster of 39.

“It has been challenging to get Black men involved in the Speakers Bureau due to a lack of awareness about the project and stigma around mental health issues in the community,” said Marielle Vaughn-Hickman, who co-leads the group.

They’re making the effort, Vaughn-Hickman says, because it’s deserved..

Most communities want to hear about experiences or share experiences with people who look like them,” she said. 

Hill is sharing his story to empower others and in doing so, he’s done the same for himself.

“OCD broke me down to the core and I had to build myself back up intentionally. I had to be genuine in the fact that, ‘Dude, you will not be like this. This is not your life. This is not me,” he said.

“My last name is Hill, so when I talk to myself, it’s ‘Come on Hill, you got this.’ Every time I get up, I’m like, ‘Come on Hill, we’ve got to go.’ I had to create this version, because that's the version of me where I’m like, ‘Yep, this is the one that’s going to flourish.’ There was a lot that I had to go through in order to create this version, this man that I am today that will continue to become better.”

This Sacramento Observer project is supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and is part of “Healing California,” a yearlong Ethnic Media Collaborative reporting venture with print, online and broadcast outlets across California.