Ben Barrett: “Everything is not always how it seems”

Create a routine together. With the chaos of the COVID-19 Pandemic, our lives have dramatically shifted to less structure. Because of this lack of structure, our minds wander, and we become consumed with the uncertainty of the times. In order to improve our own mental wellbeing, structure is needed. If you’re not going into the […]

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Create a routine together. With the chaos of the COVID-19 Pandemic, our lives have dramatically shifted to less structure. Because of this lack of structure, our minds wander, and we become consumed with the uncertainty of the times. In order to improve our own mental wellbeing, structure is needed. If you’re not going into the office any longer, it’s important to still get up, take a shower, get dressed, and follow a routine seeded in productivity. When we can create structure and be productive, our minds become protected against worry and anxiety.

As a part of my series about the things we can do to remain hopeful and support each other during anxious times, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Barrett.

Ben Barrett is a social worker and addictions counselor who gives back to the mental health community through his blog The How to Social Worker. His work supports those who struggle with their own mental health by utilizing his own experiences with depression and anxiety. Ben even provides professional development tips for those looking to enter the mental health field.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! 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?

Mental health definitely wasn’t an overt decision from the start. When I was in undergrad, mental health and therapy were the last things I could ever see myself doing. By this point in my life, I had some mild depression and had seen a therapist before, and it just didn’t seem like something I could do. However, my life drastically changed.

Following a pretty horrible breakup, I moved back to my hometown leaving friends and a place that I loved. My hometown is a place I never wanted to return to; yet, there I was. My depression became very serious, and I was drinking a lot every day. Through this struggle, which took me about three years to really get control of, I ended up falling into the mental health field.

One of the only jobs that I could find when I first moved back was working in vocational rehabilitation with individuals with serious mental illness and intellectual and developmental disabilities. Case managers from the local Community Mental Health would stop by to check on their people, and I developed friendships with some who helped me make the jump to their agency starting as a case manager.

As I’ve grown at my agency, I’ve gone back to school and became credentialed to provide therapy and other clinical services. It’s been quite the journey.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can on leadership. Over the last few years, I’ve been promoted at my agency to a team supervisor and most recently clinical manager. Being a supervisor isn’t about telling others what to do; it’s about inspiring others. Through my reading, one book has really stood out because of its message about personal accountability: Extreme Ownership: How US Navy SEALs Lead and Win.

This book has really helped shape my mindset in leadership and in my own professional growth. The concept is very easy to understand but is difficult to fully implement. At the end of the day, you are responsible for everything that happens in your world and need to own all successes and failures.

This hard lined approach has pushed me to become a better clinician and supervisor. It has forced me to more fully align myself with clients in therapy to better support them. As a supervisor, this approach forces me to take action rather than become neutral to underperformance. And because of that action, staff are also coached to take accountability and act to be successful.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. From your perspective can you help our readers to see the “Light at the End of the Tunnel”? Can you share your “5 Reasons To Be Hopeful During this Corona Crisis”? If you can, please share a story or example for each.

The pandemic certainly makes it difficult to be hopeful. There really isn’t a closely related event of recent times that we can try to derive that hope either in comparison. But there are reasons to be hopeful- call it a silver lining. Here are my observations:

  1. Everything is not always how it seems. Earlier this week, my wife was at the grocery store trying to get some last minute items to help us make it through being home for the next few weeks. While there, she had a breakdown due to all the panic. As she made her way back out to the car, she saw an older woman pushing her cart across the crosswalk. A man in a large truck appeared to be quite impatient waiting for her to cross and was blowing on his horn several times. My wife couldn’t believe what she was seeing. The man then rolled down his window and shouted to the lady “Ma’am, you dropped your toilet paper!”. In the midst of all the panic, this man was actually trying to be helpful. It was easy to write him off and miss the other details. So, it’s important in these times to slow down and evaluate the entire situation without jumping to conclusions.
  2. Difficult times bring solidarity. If you’re a healthcare worker, you are considered to be essential staff. Whether a nurse, social worker, or anywhere between, this pandemic is requiring you to still work with people. That increases the risk of infection. When I’m on Facebook, I would have expected to hear healthcare workers outraged at being deemed essential due to their heightened risk. However, they’re not. My Facebook feed was full of strangers showing gratitude for these essential staff. Even within the healthcare group, staff are checking in on one another and assuring they’re feeling well and able to continue their arduous jobs. This pandemic may have physically relegated many to their homes, but it has unified everyone in the digital space.
  3. Family means more now than ever. With this, I do not necessarily mean because of the mortality of infection. That is certainly important. What I mean, however, is that families are spending significantly more time together than ever before. Those families are also now bonding and building closer relationships than thought possible. As my wife and I now work from home, our toddler often runs amuck, because she doesn’t have the structure that she did at daycare. So we implemented structure that includes play and learning. Time together along with these tasks has enhanced our bond so much more. She isn’t getting the tired parents fumbling through the evening until bedtime; our daughter is getting our fullest attention for long periods of time. I promise this isn’t unique to toddlers; this situation is forcing many to rekindle and bond. Spend these next few weeks placing emphasis on your relationships.
  4. We are being less wasteful. With many stores shutting down and cities mandating shelter in place orders, a run to get essentials isn’t always as easy as it once was. My family has really buckled down on spending and groceries. As hard as it is to do sometimes, this pandemic really has forced our hand and not allowed excuses or slips to occur. Heck, I still have my full allowance from two weeks ago, because there’s no real way I can spend it. So though food and other necessities must be obtained, the many I’ve spoken with have also begun to learn how to reduce their use and last longer on the goods in their pantry. This is a great lesson and means to take away from the pandemic.
  5. We are in charge of our own destiny. In therapy, one thing you’ll likely learn early on is that you cannot control other people’s actions. We can only control our own. So to assure that you make it through this, you have the ability to follow the recommendations to prevent getting sick. That means you can stay home until safe to leave; you can practice social distancing if you must go out and frequently wash your hands. These are very simple things to do that are in your own control. There are some people who won’t follow these reasonable requests, but doing so will keep you safe.

From your experience or research what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?

As I’m a mental health professional, my perspective is geared toward wellness. So here are five things that you can do to control any worry or anxiety you have.

  1. Practice mindfulness daily: There are many different techniques to keep yourself in the moment. Anxiety is created when we worry about the past or future- things out of our control. With mindfulness, you can keep yourself experiencing the present, which will dissipate the anxiety. It will take some practice, but it’s a great way to learn how to feel better. Here’s my favorite mindfulness exercise: Guided Body Relaxation. Close your eyes and control your breathing. Imagine your anxiety being pushed down from your head. Imagine that anxiety moving through your fingers, arms, and shoulders down your torso. Continue to imagine this anxiety moving further down your legs, through your feet and out your toes. Spend at least 10 minutes visualizing all your anxiety leaving your body. During this process, control your breathing using deep diaphragmatic breaths. This exercise can be done by yourself and taught to others.
  2. Regularly reach out to support others. Call, Skype, or Zoom friends and talk. Don’t let social distancing affect your relationships with others. Even if we can’t be in close proximity to others, we can still enjoy one another’s company. Some coworkers and I had a virtual party a week ago. We all logged into Zoom at the same time and hung out. It was a pretty unique experience but fun.
  3. Send thoughtful gifts to others. If you can’t hand deliver a gift, let the mailman do it for you. Many online stores are still stocked and will mail packages. If you know your friend or relative is struggling or simply want to do something nice, order them a gift. Everyone loves packages; and this is an easy way to give support.
  4. Offer affection where you can. Our bodies can do things that our words can’t. If your loved one is having a difficult time, simply listen and give them a hug. Warm affection generates oxytocin in our brain, which is the neurotransmitter that makes us feel loved. Physical touch is a powerful tool we can use to help loved ones who are struggling.
  5. Create a routine together. With the chaos of the COVID-19 Pandemic, our lives have dramatically shifted to less structure. Because of this lack of structure, our minds wander, and we become consumed with the uncertainty of the times. In order to improve our own mental wellbeing, structure is needed. If you’re not going into the office any longer, it’s important to still get up, take a shower, get dressed, and follow a routine seeded in productivity. When we can create structure and be productive, our minds become protected against worry and anxiety.

What are the best resources you would suggest to a person who is feeling anxious?

There is a massive amount of information at your fingertips. A simple google search can yield great free resources to help you manage anxiety. Everyone is different, so there isn’t necessarily a one-stop place. However, should you need some more significant help, iit is important to speak with your Primary Care Provider. They can help determine if your anxiety is an actual disorder or just related to a rough time. Seeking out a skilled therapist can be very helpful for either of those cases as well. They can even provide in session coaching to improve your skills in reducing your anxiety. Many offices may not schedule an in-person appointment right now; however, they can now provide those services via telephone or video chat. Don’t suffer in silence; get help!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

“A Journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step”

This quote is commonplace, but there aren’t many who really understand its full meaning. In the depths of my worst depression, there were things that I had to do to be well: getting up, taking a shower, going to work. Day after day, it often didn’t seem like there was much change. I still felt lousy. Each and every day was a tremendous struggle for years. Though, when I began to really evaluate where I was at that moment to where I began, those incremental steps were clear.

Those small efforts each day, where I focused on my own well being, were compounded. And when I really considered how I felt compared to the start, my depression really had improved. It was still there, but because I’d been taking care of myself, my mind was healing.

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. 🙂

The movement that I would want to inspire is mental healthcare taking a priority in politics and social systems. There are little to no safety nets for those affected by mental illness. When there’s an increase in symptoms, often people lose their jobs as a result. Those who experience this cycle may qualify for social security benefits; however, that is a very limited and fixed income and substandard quality of life. There are so many cracks that this population falls through, this movement of mine would help bridge those gaps and support a higher standard of care and quality of living.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

You can follow me on my blog The How to Social Worker ( and Facebook.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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