Hello, Happy Resilient Mama: Stacy Kuwahara Shares personal perspectives on life, loss and moving forward in healthy ways
by Callie Collins
Aug 29, 2023
Stacy Kuwahara shares her perspective on mental health access, motherhood and more. Rileigh Braisher, Kern BHRS photographer.
Stacy Kuwahara is personally and professionally familiar with so much human experience. Best known for her role as director of behavioral health at Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services, that very public title is just one aspect of her life. She wears many hats, with an authentic self resting firmly below.

“I was born in Bakersfield and have always had a home here but my parents divorced when I was young and I’ve lived in different places. I am proud and surprised to be here but it’s with a different viewpoint after being in other places. I have an appreciation now for our community that I just didn’t as a young person,” said Stacy.

Although she considers Bakersfield home, living other places has added perspective to her life and work. Her undergraduate studies started in Hawaii and included three transfers to different California colleges before graduating from the University of California, Santa Cruz and earning her master’s degree in counseling psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. Even with those shifts in location, Stacy finished her graduate studies at just 22.

“That phase of life was challenging while I went through it but looking back, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I struggled to identify a path and know what I wanted to do. The journey, for me, was helpful. Life doesn’t always travel down a straight road,” she explained. “I found how to be comfortable saying yes to new experiences and knowing that when they don’t always work out, I can keep moving forward, how resilient I am and ways to be adaptable to change. I learned I can find my way back. It’s a lesson I carried forward and it became a strength for me.”

That strength would be a characteristic Stacy would continue to draw on through unexpected turns. She met her husband, Terry, in San Diego and the couple later relocated to England, his country of origin. While living in Halifax, West Yorkshire, Stacy took a job as a supervising clinician with the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. Their life took a shocking turn when Stacy found herself a widow after Terry's sudden death from cancer at age 40. Their son, Max, was just 5 months old.

“Because of the illness, my husband left us much sooner than anticipated. Terry's death had a really big impact. That was one of the hardest times of my life but also one of the most important,” said Stacy. “When we go through these incredibly hard life experiences, we can focus on the grief and sadness but  we can also choose to see how it strengthens us and what we build out of that sadness and those tragedies because we will come away with something different. In my case, I got to spend many years with an incredible person. I also learned how strong I am and what I'm capable of and I always choose gratitude.”

Working with the public, often through individuals’ most challenging life phases, took on new meaning as Stacy’s own life experiences changed.

“The truth is everyone has unexpected life changes. There are upheavals. There are life events that test our ability to adapt and a lot like physical health, we have mental health that can be impacted,” said Stacy.

After another year in England following her husband’s passing, Stacy made the decision to move back near her family in Bakersfield with her toddler son.

“Having Max ultimately got me through the darkest time of my life. I knew I had to keep going for his sake. Every moment of every day, I had something to not only keep me going forward but also keep me doing my best,” said Stacy. “Our son was such a light for me. I had to pick myself up every single day. There was no choice because I knew it was up to me to create the family environment I wanted Max to have. That’s why we returned to Bakersfield.”

From therapist to compassionate rising member of its executive team, Stacy’s role at Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services has also continued to evolve. The organization operates safety net services as the mental health plan for Medi-Cal insureds but also the broader community regardless of insurance with a crisis clinic and crisis healthline for Kern County residents.

Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services mission: Working together to achieve hope, healing and a meaningful life in the community.

Kern Behavioral Health and Recovery Services vision: People with mental illness and addictions recover to achieve their hopes and dreams as well as enjoy opportunities to learn, work, and contribute to their community.

“The unique thing about our department is we get to be the voice for behavioral health in Kern County. We offer services through a prominent role that allows us to help individuals know where to go and teach them what is available through education and outreach,” said Stacy. “An important part of what we do is to help county residents know what is available to them in terms of mental health and substance use services.”

Stacy continues to see the grounding effects family has on people through her work and in her own life. She is the caretaker for her father, who now lives with her and with Max, 17.

“We have extended family throughout Bakersfield, the U.S. and in England. Family is such an important part of my life for which I am very grateful. They keep me grounded and humble, surrounding me here and far,” said Stacy. “I feel very blessed because there is a security that comes with family, whether that’s the family you’re born into or the family you create through dear friends. Family is everything.”


Q. Here at Kern County Family Magazine, we often talk with parents, especially mothers, in phases of life that can seem lonely or isolating as they raise young children. What advice do you have for respite and renewal for women going through that phase of life?

A. I remember that phase. It can feel unsettling and uncomfortable. That took me a while to navigate and I had to learn to balance how I see myself. Part of being a mom is being a person caring for a brand new baby and it is a very consuming phase of life.

For me, it was important to stay connected to myself and carve out time and space for my person. Even now, it is really important that I have a sense of self separate from the roles I embody. Being director of behavioral health is a very big role. My self-care focus is on staying connected to who I am. I carve out time for myself, time to be quiet and go within. Even if it's just five minutes a day, that has been a lifelong practice for me.

We should also recognize that different roles require different capacities. As our kids get older, roles change and leave space for other things. We may have more time in different ways.

What has been incredibly grounding in my life has been separating myself from the roles that I occupy. Sometimes, hats are lifelong. Other times, the hats we are wearing evolve, shift and change. I need to stay connected to the person underneath the hat.

In a motherhood role, other people’s needs often supersede our own needs. As long as I know I am still a separate person, I am still here. The “me,” that sense of self, remains through it all.

My best advice is to find your thing. Take a quiet moment, exercise, go outside, read a book or spend time with the people that you love. What offers renewal is going to be different things for different people given their circumstances and what those responsibilities are but absolutely find what works for you. Be intentional about what you do because when we do it with the intention of “this is my time,” it lands differently.

Q. Do you have any hidden talents?  

A. I surprised myself by taking up equestrian riding a couple years ago. I was not very good and my peer group was much younger but I had so much fun. I was surprised at my own willingness to try something new and different that I had never done before. It’s not something I am doing right now but it is something I will always treasure.

Q. What should families in the Kern County area know more about in their community?

A. There are a lot more mental health and substance youth services available than Kern County residents might anticipate. People may believe that their mental health or substance use orders have to be more significant to seek help but we are now having conversations about mental health being a spectrum and normalizing the act of seeking services. We are making great strides in de-stigmatizing mental health. My encouragement to our community is to look to see what's out there. There doesn't have to be something drastically wrong for you to benefit from having someone to talk to and be your best self.

Q. What is your parenting PSA?

A. Be kind to yourself and to others. Help is all around you. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it and don't stop asking for it until you get what you need.

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