As individuals, we have to take a step outside and get to know more people. We have to travel and seek diverse experiences. What we find through this process is that we are all not that different and those struggles we’re having, someone else is having them, too. As a society, we need to battle intolerance at every turn and appreciate people for their differences, not in spite of them. Intolerance is driven by fear and anything driven by fear quickly turns to spite and anger. Tolerance, on the other hand, is driven by compassion and anything driven by compassion leads to understanding. In other words, fight for compassion. Finally, as a government, we need to leverage technology to improve accessibility, empowering communities through programs, tools and campaigns. We need local communities to engage more and take some responsibility for one another. The government can’t do it all.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Ben Springer.
Ben is an educational psychologist and author of the popular book, “Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face.” Ben is the Director of Student Wellness in Wasatch County School District and is the Founder of Totem PD, a professional learning company that publishes online training courses in managing aggressive behavior; child, parent, and teacher wellness; as well as special education.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
My choice to work in mental health kind of comes down to laughter. I like making people laugh, I like laughing and I can’t stand awkwardness. I’m also in a constant state of wonder when I work with kids. I don’t know if it was because I enjoyed my childhood so much or that I think kids are just great. I genuinely feel that every kid deserves to be happy. Once you combine that kind of drive and the fact that my parents were two life-long educators, I ended up as a school psychologist working with kids of all types, helping them get through their daily struggles.
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?
That is a super-sized question and I’m afraid I’m only going to be able to give you a small (maybe medium) two-part answer: 1) Accepting differences has not always been America’s (or many other countries’) greatest attribute. Human diversity and neurodiversity suffer many of the same obstacles, first and foremost: Intolerance. 2) We tend to be addicted to convenience, (I know I am…). Anything that is deemed as “inconvenient” tends gives us a headache. The mental health spectrum is not convenient
— it is human, and we need to accept the headaches, bumps, bruises — and the wonder! So much is still yet to be discovered about what makes us all really tick, but it can be easy to overlook that amidst the daily challenges of life, leading to us being critical of those who have mental health struggles.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
First off, I’m a member of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and they deserve a major shout-out because they’re a great non-profit organization that advocates to de- stigmatize mental health supports.
Secondly, I’ve had a lot of success professionally with my approaches that are totally designed to de-stigmatize aggression in schools by incorporating new techniques and programs that are fun and simple to implement, making it easy for overworked teachers to implement into their daily curriculums and better connect with students facing mental health challenges. This led to my book, “Happy Kids Don’t Punch You in the Face” and the sudden growth of my company, Totem PD. The DNA of my book and Totem PD is about studying what works for kids and families, not fixating on what’s broken. Honestly, it’s just a shift in focus and as it turns out, that shift in focus really helps de-stigmatize the strategies and resources associated with mental wellness.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
The story behind my work is phone calls and emails filled with all sorts of questions from teachers and parents who were looking for ways to better help the many kids in their lives. I just kept (and keep) getting calls asking how to solve specific challenges with specific kids, but the answers are actually pretty similar.
I think I’m approachable, friendly, and compassionate, which has enabled parents and teachers to more easily open up to me. I’m also a family man and didn’t love traveling all the time, so I decided to leverage online and mobile technology to share my tools and tricks online. As a graduate student, I loathed the jargony-academic-peer-reviewed-speak of really good research. I never understood why researchers didn’t want their work to sound cooler. So, my de- stigmatization efforts have been (and currently are) taking solid research-based practices and making them fun, simple and cool.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Great question. As individuals, we have to take a step outside and get to know more people. We have to travel and seek diverse experiences. What we find through this process is that we are all not that different and those struggles we’re having, someone else is having them, too. As a society, we need to battle intolerance at every turn and appreciate people for their differences, not in spite of them. Intolerance is driven by fear and anything driven by fear quickly turns to spite and anger. Tolerance, on the other hand, is driven by compassion and anything driven by compassion leads to understanding. In other words, fight for compassion. Finally, as a government, we need to leverage technology to improve accessibility, empowering communities through programs, tools and campaigns. We need local communities to engage more and take some responsibility for one another. The government can’t do it all.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness?
Learn. We often encounter challenges in life that we are not well-equipped to handle. I make a point to stress this in all the trainings/workshops I facilitate: We are human. None of us are equipped to go at this alone. New obstacles can’t always be overcome using old techniques so it’s critical to seek help, whether from professionals, from friends, online or somewhere completely different.
Communicate. It’s easy to get lost in our own problems and forget that those around us are often fighting the same, silent battles. When we, (the adults in the room), actually attempt to branch-out and communicate our wants and needs (and prepare to accommodate other’s wants and needs), not only do we benefit — but we become models to our kids. If we want our kids to use compassionate communication skills, apply empathy to their lives, and be able to ask for help sincerely — then we need to show them how.
Express gratitude. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. For me to really do this, I have to acknowledge that most of the time I’m a goofball. Without my family and colleagues, I’m not very useful. So, we have to face the facts about our weaknesses and be super grateful for folks that work with us despite those weaknesses.
Get into nature. I’m fortunate to live in the great state of Utah. We have national parks all over the place and in a half-hour, I can be deep in the wilderness. If you don’t live in Utah, or you can’t get into the boonies, get outside and literally smell the flowers. It gets you outside of your day-to-day world and adds layers to your soul.
Goldilocks boundaries. We’ve all had experiences in our lives where there were some boundaries that were too strict and some boundaries that were too loose. It’s up to us to find those “Goldilocks Boundaries” with the people in our circles. The weird part is that our “Goldilocks Boundaries” don’t always match with others — and that’s okay. We need a safe framework for ourselves or we’re no good to anybody when we’re boxed-in or stretched-out.
Take moment snapshots. It doesn’t matter to me if we do it on Instagram or whatever. Document the joyous moments you have. Time is fleeting and it can be easy to overlook the happy moments we have on a day-to-day basis. There are true celebrations to be had in these moments and appreciating them can do wonders for our mental health. What did Ferris Bueller say? “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around, you could miss it.” I stand by Ferris Bueller.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I’m madly in love with everything the Gottman Institute puts out. I love the work and research of V. Mark Durand and I can’t stop geeking-out about Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on Flow.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!