I surround myself with caring, loving, supportive family and friends. During the pandemic, for example, I have frequently Facetimed with relatives in other countries because we couldn’t visit in person. I’ve been calling extended family members. I’ve been messaging friends whom I haven’t seen for a while. My best friends all got vaccinated, then we hung out as much as possible.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Kim Burgess, Ph.D.
Dr. Kim Burgess is a Board-Certified Psychologist who specializes in the evaluation and treatment of children, adolescents and families, as well as provides consultations and workshops. Dr. Burgess is the creator and developer of the BHIP (Biopsychosocial Health Intervention and Prevention) Programs that have shown effectiveness via scientific research. She has given numerous presentations at national and international conferences, as well as television interviews.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town in Ontario, Canada, about an hour’s drive from the ‘big city’ of Toronto. My father moved out without notice before I turned 5 years old and he moved 3,000 miles away; so my mother was a single parent of two children while trying to work full-time. For years, my sibling and I were the only ones in our community who came from what people called “a broken home.” The whole situation in our environment cast a cloud and resulted in some unhappy times.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
My first mission is to make mental health care available to every child, teenager, and parent/guardian regardless of income, race, geographic location, and other barriers to getting help. My second mission is to provide health and wellness education and parenting education from infancy up to young adulthood. To fulfill these missions, we must do the following:
De-stigmatize “mental health,” having a “disorder,” doing therapy, or taking medication.
Deliver services via multiple mediums (telehealth, website blogs, social media platforms, free webinars to the public, media outlets including magazines, newspapers, radio, podcasts, TV, town halls).
Conduct outreach to underserved communities.
Be flexible and accommodate our clients’/patients’ schedules.
It also means telling about my and others’ scientific research findings in a way that makes sense to everyone rather than only to fellow academics.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
The more years I spend as a psychologist and professor, the more people I find who are unable to receive help or don’t know how to access it. I also became aware of how difficult it is for the public to find useful and valid information rather than inaccurate sources on the internet. Coming at it from the public’s side, I see how confusing and overwhelming it can be, how there’s mass misinformation being conveyed, and justified public skepticism about whether people they seek answers from are qualified. Parents often tell me how long it takes to find somebody who can help their child, how people don’t return their phone calls, or how previous experiences with evaluations or therapy turned them off the process.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
That moment for me was at age 7. My parents’ ‘high conflict’ separation and divorce caused multiple traumatic experiences for me and my sister. One of the less serious times occurred on a Sunday afternoon when a parent was yet again criticizing the other, and as a small child, I always felt like I had to defend the parent who wasn’t there and felt pressure to take sides. By then, I had reached my breaking point. I still visualize myself sitting on the stairs after arguing with my parent, hanging my head crying. I got very upset and sad every time this happened. Sitting there on the stairs, I thought to myself “I never want this to happen to any other child in their life.” At that moment I decided that when I became a grown-up, I would do whatever it takes to prevent another child from experiencing distress or trauma. So, I followed through on the promise I made to myself. Children need advocates — caring people and professionals — to stand up and step in. My sister and I had neither.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
The mother of an extremely shy boy who was starting middle school told me her son had been terrified to leave home and go to a new school. He said he wouldn’t know anybody or make any friends, and told his dad that he would fail his classes and never talk to his teachers. After BHIP, his confidence increased greatly; and he began to enjoy learning, communicate with teachers, make friends, and even run for student government!
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
I have so much gratitude for all my mentors from the hospitals, clinics, and universities where I trained. My cheerleaders were my grandmother, my mother and my father (with whom I resumed a relationship as a teenager), my sister, and my kids. I would not be doing what I’m doing, nor at this career stage, without their teaching and support.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Historically, mental health issues have been viewed solely as diseases and disorders. To some extent, problems were treated as untreatable and permanent, and as something to be ashamed or embarrassed about, hidden from others including immediate and extended family members and employers, and rarely talked about. Patients were put in institutions and heavily medicated, largely because of a lack of knowledge and an inability to see mental health as part of the bigger picture of ‘health’. That last reason continues to be a problem today.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals could recognize that almost everyone to their left and to their right is or has suffered from a mental health difficulty or disorder, or at a minimum been challenged by unexpected or overwhelming stressors. Moreover, when we look inside ourselves we might see moments or times that need our attention or somehow need to be resolved, which could also help us be more empathetic toward others.
In society, we should begin to have informed and open conversations in our schools and homes about our daily experiences. We should teach our children at a young age about stress and about how to express our thoughts and feelings, as well as how to discuss problems and solve them. We also need to change our language around mental health. For starters, we should delete the word ‘mental’ and instead call it health, which it is. We need to educate others that health encompasses physical and mental processes, which are totally intertwined and therefore should not be separated. Neuroscience illustrates that the brain and the body live together in every way; hence, societal actions and decisions must fully reflect this reality.
Governments need to change their models of healthcare and change their decision-making on policies and funding to address inequities in healthcare access for various populations. For instance, they can implement specific policies like the Mental Health Services for Students Act, or require youth engagement as part of funding applications regarding teen mental health. Furthermore, perspectives and value systems need to change to reflect the many medical and psychological studies that demonstrate how the brain/mind and body affect each other. Basically, the government needs to recognize that mental health truly should be healthcare for everyone instead of the discrimination that still abounds.
We must change the way we think about mental health — change our beliefs and attitudes. We must change our interpretations and assumptions of what’s happening with someone, and stop making judgments about people when we don’t know their background or experiences. Give people the benefit of the doubt because we cannot possibly know their situation, yet we act like we do and make ill-informed conclusions. We must change our family, school, and societal treatment of mental health. We must get past the zone of awareness about mental health and stigma and move forward faster into the zone of taking action.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1. I surround myself with caring, loving, supportive family and friends. During the pandemic, for example, I have frequently Facetimed with relatives in other countries because we couldn’t visit in person. I’ve been calling extended family members. I’ve been messaging friends whom I haven’t seen for a while. My best friends all got vaccinated, then we hung out as much as possible.
2. I play with my dog (German Shepherd) and go on walks with her. Sometimes our walks are not peaceful when she tries to chase anything that moves, but it’s a wellness exercise for both of us and uplifting to see how happy these walks make her.
3. I watch my own stress level, which means not taking on too much, saying no to some requests, and spending time on my current priorities then revising as necessary.
4. I play board games, cards, and trivia with my kids or friends, play sports, listen to music, and play video games, as well as watch soccer and Formula 1 racing with my sons.
5. I cardio dance with YouTube in our family room.
6. I watch comedians, movies, Netflix series and shows like Blacklist, This is Us, Jeopardy, and Friends.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Tony Robbins got me through my Ph.D. dissertation when I got stuck in the final stage, and he has helped me stay inspired during the pandemic. I listened to his tapes while I was in graduate school. (I should probably write him a thank-you note!) He’s so passionate about life that his podcasts work well for me. Certain relevant movies about mental health inspired me too, such as Good Will Hunting and Ordinary People. Now I read a lot of journal articles and books related to my work. My daughter reads a ton, and one of my favorite times is when she shares book excerpts so we can discuss them.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Consider the psychological health field because there’s an enormous need in our communities, our country, and around the world to understand and improve the lives of humans from zero to hundred years old. In this line of work, the opportunities for helping many people are unlimited.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!