Social Support — I know that when I feel lonely or isolated, that no matter how great the rest of my life is — things don’t feel right. To that note, I make sure I’m in touch with my family over the phone, texting and regular calls with friends, participating in the groups I’m part of (I dial into a Zoom philosophy discussion group back in Australia each week, where I talk philosophy with my father’s retiree friends, and have a Women Who Like Beer meetup back in New York that I co-convene remotely), spending quality time with my husband each day, annoying my cat, and getting out in the world as much as I can, even for a takeaway coffee before work.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Briony Leo.
Briony Leo is a Psychologist and the Head Coach at Relish, a relationship coaching company that has been featured in Well + Good, Fast Co., Good Housekeeping, Mashable, among many others. She has nearly two decades of experience in the space who has a background in trauma counselling, addictions and health and wellbeing. Briony is trained in EMDR, Neurofeedback, Schema Therapy and ACT, and enjoys working with clients to improve their overall quality of life and connection and harmony in their relationships.
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 Australia and lived on the beautiful Gold Coast near Byron Bay. My father was a hotelier and my mother was an artist and my sister and I grew up hearing stories about their adventures before they settled down with us. They hitchhiked around the world in the 70s and had incredible stories about their travels in Africa, Europe and South America. Given our parents’ backgrounds, my sister and I both sought unconventional jobs that took us to new places — me, as a Psychologist living and working overseas, and her as a Graphic Designer living in Cambodia working for a children’s hospital.
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?
As a Psychologist and Head of Coaching at Relish, I work closely with our founder and CEO, Lesley Eccles, to understand what people need in their relationships and how we can deliver this. One of our biggest motivators is the connection between relationship quality and mental health. Essentially, a strong and supportive relationship is hugely protective of mental health and, on the other side of the coin, an unhappy relationship is a huge risk to our mental health and creates additional strain and knock-on effects like substance use, physical ailments and parenting challenges. We like to talk about a relationship as an ‘accumulation of supports and stressors’ (I know that doesn’t sound very romantic) and so we are interested in helping people build the support and minimize the stressors. Our organization is quite unique in that we work in the tech space as well as the human space, so we are also constantly asking how to make our product as engaging and user friendly for couples as possible and how we can work with people to really impact their relationship satisfaction.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As a certified Psychologist, you quickly realize that a lot of human functioning — addictions, wellbeing, performance, and health, is affected by the quality of our relationships. I started out working in the trauma and addictions field in the prison system, and was surprised to see that a lot of relapses and addictions were due to stressors such as relationship breakdowns, or even poor relationships or interpersonal and developmental trauma growing up. Furthermore, my clients who were struggling the most often had unstable relationship templates, so they found it hard to hold down a job or even build close friendships, as they had not learned how to ask for or show support, regulate their emotions or handle conflicts in a productive or meaningful way. I started working within an attachment framework with my clients and saw that helping them to understand how to relate to other people had huge impacts on their mental health and general well being. You can have all the money in the world, but if you are disconnected from those around you or lack meaningful relationships, you’re likely to be miserable.
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?
I think people in my field have the benefit of always feeling huge work satisfaction — but for me, the big moment was deciding to step away from working face-to-face with clients in Australia, to working in the tech space overseas and working as a remote clinician. My husband and I had always wanted to live and work remotely so we did that for two years, spending time in Japan, Croatia and Portugal. We moved to New York in July of 2019 and I left my remote job and was lucky enough to land a job with Relish. I was very fortunate as it was exactly in my area of expertise and the culture and work was a perfect fit for a hybrid psychologist/digital therapist/coach/writer! It also allowed me to fulfill my dream of building a team of like-minded Coaches and building up their capacity and skills, and working with my other Coaching lead Munni to intentionally build up a system to train our Coaches in best practices.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
It might not sound too interesting, but witnessing how relationship therapy translates to an app and a digital platform has been truly fascinating. Traditional therapy has just two or three people in the room, whereas a product like Relish is the work of dozens of people thinking through each detail, from how a notification will look, to how a Coach should sign off on their message. Working with product owners and designers forces you to unpack a lot of the unseen aspects of therapy and how we work with clients, and it is a mutual education; we learn about design thinking and they learn about how a therapist thinks and engages with clients. Working with our team of Coaches it is great to see how quickly these seasoned therapists begin talking about A/B testing and user experience. And in terms of individual stories, I suppose it would be in hearing client testimonials about how Relish has helped them improve their relationships and veer away from the divorce track. Some of our members have even signed up to Relish when they were single, with the intention of improving their relationship patterns and dynamics. That is such a mature and empowered way of engaging with our content and speaks volumes about our amazing users.
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 was lucky enough to have a university lecturer who also ended up being a clinical supervisor at my first job, and who then recommended me for my second job, so I was able to learn from him over 10 years or so. He had supervised a lot of the psychologists who I had admired in my professional circles, and had a huge knowledge and understanding of how a client might present. He would encourage us to think about the big picture when discussing clients, and as he was attachment-based, psychodynamic and existential, would really look at their motivations and the core processes that were making them behave as they did.
I am quite a non-confrontational person, and in one of our sessions when I was discussing a client who I was having problems with, he told me, very politely but directly, ‘You’ll never be a good psychologist if you can’t challenge this client’. Although I was shocked and unsettled, his words stayed with me all that day and the following, and I somehow began to be more and more assertive — prior to that, my concern about offending or alienating clients had stopped this. I most respected his total lack of ego and kind presence. He supervised so many psychologists and had so many clients, and his work was truly about just doing what he could and sharing his skills, and being a positive presence for the people who needed his 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?
One of the strangest things about mental health is that it is really so personal and individual (as well as often invisible) AND it is really poorly understood. It still surprises me that we use the phrase ‘mental health’ to describe someone having a bad day and also someone suffering a total fragmentation of their consciousness. It really feels like something is being lost in translation. I’ve broken down the reasons I think the stigma exists:
- Fear — We are brought up to be as normal as possible, or at the very least to be able to conduct ourselves well in public — that is part of our social contract. When we see people who are really unwell and behaving oddly, it is a kind of violation of that social contract — its unusual for us too, since most of the people we interact with are like us and have their ‘public’ face on. It is deeply unsettling to interact with someone who is going through psychosis or who is in a manic episode, and we can’t understand it like we might a broken leg or an asthma attack. That loss of control and disconnection from reality are hard to face as humans, since that is what makes us unique.
- Lack of education — We’re only now beginning to understand the role that trauma and disadvantage play in serious mental health and even now, mental health is a stigma because it is so poorly understood. We’re starting to see mental health diagnoses as similar to diabetes or chronic pain or as things that impact our lives, but are manageable and able to be treated successfully. Even within the last century there was a lot of fear and ignorance about things like PTSD or post-natal depression, and likely a sense of fear that it could happen to anyone, and was not able to be treated.
- Experience — Younger generations are more comfortable talking about their mental health and seeing it as a normal fluctuation, like physical health; sometimes it is great, other times not, but older generations are less comfortable with this. Many people from older generations might have their own shame or misunderstandings of mental health (and may be struggling privately with their own issues), so will feel uncomfortable with conversations about stress, anxiety or depression. As we see more representation in society and popular media, this is likely to change. But the reality is that there is still stigma, particularly around more serious mental health conditions that are lifelong, such as schizophrenia, bipolar or personality disorders.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
This is not a huge surprise when I say that a lot of mental illness is the result of systemic inequality and stress — those in vulnerable populations are over-represented in the statistics on suicide, prevalence rates and mental health disability. That said, mental health is a concern for everyone, no matter your place in society and support is key.
- Individuals: The best thing you can do is to improve your own mental health literacy. Firstly, to ensure your own wellbeing and functioning through stressful times, but also to understand and support others. This might mean reflecting on the times you have felt the best in your life, and when you’ve felt the worst by figuring out the basics, such as how much sleep you need each night, how much exercise you need to keep healthy, what kinds of stress management activities help you to wind down and feel refreshed. Having a baseline of these practical things can be hugely beneficial for your mental health. Once you have yourself sorted, you can then look to those around you who might be struggling, and consider what kind of support they need. Often having a friend who is there to talk and listen is hugely protective for mental health, and being able to have honest conversations about stress, workload, relationships and your own experiences with mental health can help. You can also help to normalize seeking help and provide friends with numbers for mental health support lines or other services. Often the stigma of seeking help or admitting there is an issue can be huge, so sharing your own experiences and the outcome can be helpful for people who are feeling stuck.
- Society: This is a tough one as we know that society is so divided with things like this, but just generally, being educated about mental health and being open to having supportive conversations about this. This might look like a manager learning about how to discuss mental health and stress with their employees, or a friend asking how you are going after a breakup if you’ve been out of touch for a while. Just checking in on people and showing support and lack of judgement is invaluable. One thing to note — remember that everyone’s experience of mental health is different, so even if something has worked for you, it may not work for others so giving advice or pushing someone to do something (like fasting, exercise or meditation) may not be productive. Try to listen and offer non-judgemental support, and guide them towards professional help.
- Government: At the risk of being political, the government does have a role in addressing mental health concerns and often it is a case of ‘too little, too late’ when they funnel resources into treatment services or crisis support. As noted, poverty and inequality are the source of a lot of distressed adults, and being able to offer basic support to families who are struggling, and early intervention for children who are growing up in unstable or violent environments, is a valuable investment in the future mental health of a generation. Government can also take a more holistic approach and regard things like housing, peer support and vocation as part of an individual’s mental health and well being, rather than just treating the condition itself. Finally, listening to people with lived experience and developing peer support and consumer-led organizations means that people will be able to actually get the help they need. Investing in new and user-friendly technologies and interventions (like mental health and relationship apps) can also be a huge boon for public health, as these are often highly effective and low cost.
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?
- Social Support — I know that when I feel lonely or isolated, that no matter how great the rest of my life is — things don’t feel right. To that note, I make sure I’m in touch with my family over the phone, texting and regular calls with friends, participating in the groups I’m part of (I dial into a Zoom philosophy discussion group back in Australia each week, where I talk philosophy with my father’s retiree friends, and have a Women Who Like Beer meetup back in New York that I co-convene remotely), spending quality time with my husband each day, annoying my cat, and getting out in the world as much as I can, even for a takeaway coffee before work.
- Morning Routine — As I have an abundance of energy when I wake up, I find that if I exercise at this time it gives me a great baseline for the whole day. My ideal morning routine would be to wake up early and find a pickup soccer game for an hour, but due to pandemic limitations and living in a snowy area, I drink a few glasses of water, run down the street to grab a takeaway coffee, and then jump on a stationary bike for 30 minutes while watching Netflix — the perfect combination of self care with some hedonism thrown in.
- Creativity — My family are artists, and being able to dive into something like writing, drawing or painting is a great way to switch off after a busy, task oriented day. Whenever I am feeling flat or exhausted, I know that doing something that involves visuals with colours or textures, helps to shift my mood and erases any worry or exhaustion.
- Reading — I stopped reading for about ten years due to being too busy, but now try to keep a backlog of books on my phone and by my bed to dive into instead of TV in the evenings. I spent most of my childhood reading due to a knee condition and had forgotten how calming, soothing and inspiring a really good book can be (just finished Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld and it was incredible).
- Helping — It sounds trite but there is a huge benefit in my profession of having a sense of meaning and purpose — even on a bad day you know that you have likely improved someone’s day. Spending time responding to coaching messages and seeing change over time, as well as hearing back from happy clients, is a bit of a freebie since it is all part of a day’s work but it is deeply satisfying and helps to give perspective and context to what I am doing day-to-day, and provides that opportunity to glimpse into someone’s life and inner thoughts.
- 10 Core Needs — As much as I am a therapist at heart, I truly believe that good mental health is as much about overall wellbeing as much as working through your issues. To that end, I love the ’10 Core Needs’ concept that I first heard about from another Psychologist, Matthew Berry. He works with AOD patients and suggests that for someone to feel satisfied and mentally well in their lives, they need to pay attention to their 10 core needs, which are Health, Home, Money, Social, Partner, Close Friends, Group Belonging, Nurture, Personal Growth and Meaning & Purpose. His theory is that, even if someone is living with a mental health diagnosis, making sure that most of those needs are at least partially met will result in a high level of wellbeing and stability. I have found that reflecting on the happiest or most satisfied times in your life, and comparing it to now (against all 10 of those core needs), can help to identify what truly matters to your mental health. For example, many people find that their happiest times were when their relational needs were met — so they had a good social group, close friends, and felt like they were part of a community and making changes in their lives to improve these areas results in much greater wellbeing. Some people identify that they were happiest when they were investing in their health, or when they were undergoing some kind of personal growth such as study or travelling, and this helps them to shift focus onto these areas. It sounds overly simplistic but it can be a good ‘how to’ guide for mental health.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Come as you Are by Emily Nagowski — a wonderful book about sex and relationships that we often recommend to clients. It is truly eye-opening.
The State of Affairs and Mating in Captivity by Esther Perel — two incredible resources about human relationships and how we can find satisfaction amongst the complications.
Wired for Love by Stan Tatkin — a useful book about attachment theory and relationships.
Trauma and Recovery by Judith Lewis Herman — a fundamental book about trauma and its impact on relationships.
Far from the Tree and The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon — two incredible books about unconventional families and the author’s own experience of depression and suicidality.
The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova — a great resource for learning more about human behavior and learning.
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion — a wonderful book about grief and loss.
Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales — a valuable book about loss and resilience.
Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker — a must-read about sleep in all its mystery.
Esther Perel ‘Where Should We Begin?’ and ‘How’s Work?’ — a great exploration into human relationships and a therapy session.
‘The Couple’s Therapist Couch’ with Shane Birkel — an incredible resource for relationship discussion with guest therapists.
Strong Songs with Kirk Hamilton — music is an incredible tool for mental wellness and this podcast unpacks classic songs and what makes them great.
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?
I’d say that choosing this direction is in some ways, a win/win, since you’ll likely end up doing something you love, surrounded by like-minded people, and also making a meaningful impact. Most of the happiest people I know are those whose work helps others and reduces suffering. As i mentioned, it is a kind of bonus to the job that you can also see the impact you’re having on others AND you get paid for it! So, in a nutshell, I’d say that working to make a positive impact on the world is also likely going to transform your own life — through your relationships, your understanding of the world, and your place in it.
How can our readers follow you online?
Relish’s Instagram @ https://www.instagram.com/relishrelationship
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!