I have learned from my work and studies in the field, that anyone can face mental health challenges — regardless of their economic status. However, poverty creates additional stressors that are often ignored or overlooked in the field of mental health. Having said that, and looking at the bigger picture, mental health is a function of not only biological but also social factors, and medication is not the only or even the best response to mental health challenges. Research has shown that even when biology is a main factor, the most effective treatment is a combination of therapy and medication.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Edina Adler. Edina has over 20 years of experience with families of diverse backgrounds and orientations. She is a former Family Court and Divorce Mediator, social worker in child welfare, therapeutic foster parent trainer, and school counselor. She is the proud stepparent of two high-school teenagers. Complimentary phone consultations are available. She utilizes Gottman-based couples counseling, step-family counseling, and mediation and conflict resolution strategies. When appropriate she also makes use of expressive arts therapies, particularly art and drama therapy.
Thank you so much for doing this with us, Edina! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
From about 1987–1997 I was an educator and conflict resolution/violence prevention and bias awareness specialist and trainer in the NYC public schools, with an organization called Creative Response to Conflict, and also with Global Kids. I began to see a pattern of the kids who were most at risk of dropping out, and were having problems at home which I was not in a position to address. I wanted to understand these kinds of problems from a big picture perspective, which led me to more extensive studies in social justice and further work in community activism (I had been a fundraiser for NJ Citizen Action for a year while taking a break from college). In 1999 I received a grant to start a non-profit in New Mexico in a small rural community impacted by youth violence and badly in need of programs like Creative Response to Conflict, so I started and ran a branch of Creative Respone to Conflict for 5 years, while also training to be a mediator and work with foster youth. Between my work in the public schools, and then with foster youth both in New Mexico and California, as well as being a mediator for Family Court in New Mexico, and a social worker for Child Protective Services in the Bay Area of CA, I came to see kids who are “at-risk” or “acting out” as part of a larger set of problems, both social and family-based. Working with parents and co-parents before kids got involved in the foster care and later criminal justice system due to their delinquent behavior, was the way I could impact social problems through prevention rather than intervention after the fact. That is what led me to return to school at UC Berkeley (California) to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. In addition, I had developed a meditation practice with the help of several ordained Buddhist teachers, including a woman who had been a former political activist. I came to see how mind, body and spirit were connected and all equally important in an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
It’s hard to isolate, but one of my favorite is when I finally got a Facebook account, and suddenly two of the high school students who I hadn’t heard from since 1998 when I was working with at-risk youth in a Brooklyn high school, contacted me in (it was 2013 I believe) to say how much our relationship had meant to them in high school. One of them was now a police lieutenant in New York City! The other was successfully raising her teenaged son (who she’d had as a teenager). Another experience which was very meaningful to me is when one of the foster parents who had taken in several of the kids on my caseload as a CPS worker, contacted me to share how the child she had adopted was doing well, and also to invite me to the high school graduation of another of the children she had foster/adopted.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
Most dumb but innocent mistake: Bringing a bottle of champagne to a client’s wedding party in rural New Mexico, which I was invited to as I had helped out that family alot with housing and childcare issues, when I was a fairly untrained case manager at a social service-type agency in that small town. First of all, I shouldn’t have attended the party, second of all, it turned out the client, as well as many family members, were alcoholics. At that time I wasn’t yet a social worker, just an educator with a Masters Degree (which is why I was hired, in that town where there was a shortage of degreed professionals). Also, I was fairly inexperienced in working with substance abuse, lacking training in professional boundaries, and in that small town, it was not surprising that some of the case managers had personal involvement with clients’ families, so there were actually some seasoned social workers at the party who should’ve known better!
Lesson learned: people involved with a social service agency who have kids in foster care often don’t just have financial problems.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
In addition to my spiritual teachers (in the Buddhist and Quaker communities) Some of the most inspiring mentors I’ve had were back in New York, when I was an intern at Creative Response to Conflict, which was started by Quakers as a school-based violence-prevention program back in the 1970s. One of the founders, Priscilla Prutzman, was very actively involved in developing bias-prevention curriculum for schools, and later, for Mayor Dinkins’ Increase the Peace Program. Another one, Lee Stern, had gone from being a well-paid engineer, to taking a vow of poverty and working in the field of peacemaking. He was a very patient and kind man, (although with a fiery anger when it came to social injustice) in his late 60’s when I met him, and both he and Priscilla greatly contributed to my commitment in working for social justice in some form. The Buddhist teachers who were most influential had been students of a well-known Tibetan Rinpoche, and had started their own communities here in the US. I spent 6 months living in one of these communities in Northern California.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Having a spiritual practice or some kind of self-care involving mindfulness-based meditation, was crucial to my mental health, and buffered me from the stress of working with people who were suffering from poverty, mental-health challenges, and discrimination — due to racism, sexism, classism or homophobia, among other things. More recently, neuroscience-based research is now demonstrating the value of mindfulness and meditation practices to managing anxiety and stress. Meditation helped me re-train my mind and emotions (and eventually reoriented my career path) to utilize developing compassion as a means of self-improvement as well as improving the world.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
When I started and ran a non-profit in New Mexico for 5 years, I was very committed to training and supporting the people in this organization to improve their skills and education level to the highest extent possible. I saw them as equals, if not in my field, then in other equally-valuable forms of life experience which had transferable skills. I think that they knew I recognized their potential, and felt valued and important, much as I had felt at Creative Response to Conflict in New York, and this is what contributed to our good work culture.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
I don’t have a story or example for each, at least not one that wouldn’t violate confidentiality more than I am comfortable with. I have learned from my work and studies in the field, that anyone can face mental health challenges — regardless of their economic status. However, poverty creates additional stressors that are often ignored or overlooked in the field of mental health. Having said that, and looking at the bigger picture, mental health is a function of not only biological but also social factors, and medication is not the only or even the best response to mental health challenges. Research has shown that even when biology is a main factor, the most effective treatment is a combination of therapy and medication. Taking into consideration the stressors of trauma and PTSD, I would like to add to that, addressing the hierarchy of human needs should be taken into account in terms of mental health. And as I mentioned earlier, mind, body and spirit are equally important in an individual’s mental health and wellbeing.
When there are major stressors in one’s life, whether work-related, economic, family- or community-based, or natural disasters or traumas, or where there are deficits in any of the following human needs (from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, actually derived from Native American cultures): feeling safe and economically secure, having a sense of belonging to some social group, feeling appreciated and valued and loved or cared for, having a sense of meaning and purpose, and feeling some control over one’s life circumstances, as well as making progress towards fulfilling one’s potential and life dreams, then there will be an impact on one’s mental health. Minimizing the stressors and being aware of the deficits in meeting Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, would go a long way to improving or optimizing mental wellness.
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
I’m not sure where the above paragraph comes from. I do not work with people planning for retirement.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
As previously mentioned, working with parents and the whole family, or even members of the larger community, when possible, helps understand the social environment and some of the major stresses in a child’s life. I have found it more effective to work with the family or parents rather than the child alone. Addressing some of the problems that a family is facing as well as providing some parent coaching, can go a long way in helping a child.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Too many books to mention in a short answer. Paolo Freire (a Brazilian educator and activist) is one early inspiration among many. Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, and Children of Violence series, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Dr. Lissa Rankin’s Anatomy of a Calling and Mind Over Medicine, Marianne Williamson and The Dalia Lama are more recent inspirations.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If only! I would encourage people to wait to have children until they have had not only therapy for themselves, but taken a course or two in healthy relationships, as well as in parenting and building emotional intelligence. Also, the more a person has a sense that their life is meaningful before they have children, the less they will expect their children to be perfect, and the more understanding and accepting they will be of their children’s mistakes (which are unavoidable).
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I’ve always loved George Bernard Shaw and this quote , “This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. Being a force of nature rather than a feverish, selfish clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it what I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations…” That’s a quote I’ve remembered since high school, which has had no small influence on me since then.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
If I could just get some help with that, it would be much appreciated! 🙂 I do have a website, stepbystepfamilycoaching.com, which needs some tweaking, and also a FB page Step by Step Family Coaching. I just can’t find the time to keep up with it.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!