Bio: Nicole Blanchette is an avid practitioner of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and advocate for mental health care. In her early teens, she struggled with multiple mental health diagnoses and employed various treatments. Though traditional therapeutic and medication management approaches were beneficial, her journey of healing had not yet truly begun. After a suicide attempt in 2007, she was placed in a psychiatric ward for one week. It was an incredibly difficult experience to navigate as a teenager and remained with her throughout her life.
In 2010, while completing her BA at the University of Maryland – College Park, she enrolled in a mixed martial arts academy. She was initially drawn to the striking aspect of Muay Thai and trained full-time for two years. During this time, she noticed significant improvements in her mental health and functioning. Working with her psychiatrist, she was able to come off her psychiatric medications and use therapy and martial arts to maintain her well-being. She quickly began to realize that martial arts were crucial to her journey of healing.
After sustaining a double hip injury that required surgery, she chose to further pursue her education. Nicole completed an MA and EdM in psychological counseling from Columbia University in New York City. She continued to train in martial arts during this time, choosing to pursue BJJ. Once again, she found significant improvements in her mental health functioning. Reflecting on her time in the psychiatric ward during her teens, Nicole felt that those in the inpatient setting could benefit tremendously from the therapeutic and positive healing power of BJJ. She has devised a program that couples BJJ training with group therapy that focuses on a mental skills curriculum she developed. She hopes to bring her program to those in need and foster the hope and resiliency that one so desperately needs in the darkest time of their mental health. She is eager to engage with those in her community and spread word of her initiative. Together, through BJJ, we can learn to love one another and ourselves, and begin to heal collectively.
How do you envision your future career following graduation from UWS?
My time at UWS has inspired me to develop an initiative based on my personal struggles with mental health. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has been monumental in my journey of mental health recovery. I seek to bring the positive, therapeutic and healing power of BJJ to those in mental health settings. This initiative is The Anna Ellis Project: Recovery Through Rolling (www.annaellisproject.org). My project will allow me to implement BJJ within mental health settings. More specifically, I will teach a one-hour training session immediately followed by a group therapy session grounded in a reflection of the training session, as well as mental skills training. Additionally, I seek to raise awareness in the BJJ community and bring mental health education to BJJ academies and their instructors. Upon my graduation, I envision The Anna Ellis Project as an established non-profit organization that brings the unique coupling of BJJ and therapy to a large number of treatment facilities in the community.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Humans are capable of extraordinary things. One of the most extraordinary things to witness is the change that one can undergo when they persevere through challenges. BJJ is a mental, emotional and physical challenge that tests our capabilities in each of those domains. BJJ allows the practitioner to gain greater insight into who they are, where their supposed limits exist and ultimately, empowers them. When we persevere through the challenges presented by BJJ, we learn that we can apply this perseverance to other contexts and better manage other challenges presented in life. To facilitate this through BJJ instruction and therapy is incredibly rewarding.
How does having a specialization within the CMHC world help set you apart from the rest?
My experience as a clinician, a BJJ practitioner and as an individual with a mental health diagnosis places me in an incredibly unique position. I have valuable knowledge and education in each of these domains that allows me to deliver a one of a kind healing experience to clients. My insights gained after years and years and years of experience, as well as numerous struggles and triumphs.
What is your advice to current students when it comes to determining what their specialization will be?
Explore your identity. Who are you? Embrace each and every part of who you are. For me, I am a counselor. I am a BJJ practitioner. Embrace the beautiful, but also the parts that others may deem “ugly” or invaluable. For me, that means that yes, I am an individual with a mental illness. Though some may shame this, I embrace it because I am continually healing. Take each of these parts and harness the power of each one. Leverage them to your advantage. Being authentic to your identity will inspire you and drive you. The rest will follow suit.