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Colleen Camenisch: “Having a routine is very helpful”

One thing people can do is to look for the signs in other people as well as themselves. It takes a lot for someone to look inward and analyze their feelings to determine if they are in need of help, so keeping an eye out for others is a great way to support people who […]

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One thing people can do is to look for the signs in other people as well as themselves. It takes a lot for someone to look inward and analyze their feelings to determine if they are in need of help, so keeping an eye out for others is a great way to support people who are suffering from mental illness.

Another way is to just talk about it. The stigma for most people is lessening and we see individuals freely discussing that they are seeing a therapist or practicing mindfulness in order to safeguard their mental health. But we also need to remember that doctors are humans just like we are. Perhaps that sounds trivial, but if we are acknowledging that mental health benefits everyone, we must also consider it can be applied within the medical community.


As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Colleen Camenisch.

Colleen Camenisch, MBA is the executive director of the Nevada Physician Wellness Coalition (NPWC). She has a unique blend of a business background, six years of which were in medical education, in addition to the work she has done in the contemplative field. She has been teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs along with other meditation courses for more than a decade, including teaching at the UMASS Center for Mindfulness, and is currently a teacher trainer for The Mindfulness Center at Brown University. She also teaches a Mindful Practice program for physicians. The program was developed by Mick Krasner, MD and Ron Epstein MD. She hopes that her professional work and background will help contribute to changing the culture of medicine.


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 Reno, Nevada. I have lived here most of my life with the exception of spending a couple of years in Italy and about a year in Massachusetts.

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?

Established in 2018, the Nevada Physician Wellness Coalition (NPWC) is a non-profit organization headquartered in Reno, NV. To address the highly sensitive nature of physician burnout and associated stigma, NPWC operates independent of regulatory and licensure bodies, medical societies, as well as where a physician may be employed. As an autonomous entity, NPWC serves Nevada physicians, medical students, and families — regardless of place of employment or employment status.

NPWC delivers programs that provide outreach, education, and supportive resources to physicians and their families to intervene at all stages of burnout and to prevent suicide.

The NPWC provides a confidential resource line for physicians or their loved ones. The line offers a consultation by psychologists who provide free information on where to find independent, confidential mental health services or a referral to speak with additional professionals, the organization also hosts a repository of information that can help doctors identify signs of burnout and employ strategies for improved mental health.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

Probably each of us has a story about how ourselves or a family member was impacted by the field of medicine. In fact, many physicians enter the field of medicine because medicine impacted their lives or a friend or family members life. Those experiences, the miraculous stories, and even the hard ones can change our world. As I started to work in medical education it was striking how much work was involved in all aspects of the path of medicine and how altruistic the folks were who chose that path. I could see the number of hours people were putting in and the sacrifices they were making so that they could help people and make a difference. Having a background in teaching Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs I wondered if it could have a positive impact on people in medicine. I was lucky to have the opportunity to pilot a program and we found amazingly positive results. In fact, it was very interesting how much of what I taught was linked to job satisfaction or joy in practicing medicine, feelings of being connected, and patient safety. Knowing all the positive impacts greater awareness and wellbeing could have on doctors and patients inspired me to want to get involved with the Physician Wellness Coalition to help make an impact on the culture of medicine.

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 am sure I am not so different from many of the other people who take action and get involved in change. I was stressed myself when I discovered the benefits of meditation. I knew that if I wanted to be successful not just professionally but in my personal life I need to find new tools that could help me do that. I think this is what makes me a good mindfulness teacher as well. I know experientially how it feels to be super stressed and to feel like life is pulling you around, and I know what it is like now to feel balanced to be able to make skillful decisions even when things are highly stressful and how to live my life more fully. I was so inspired by the changes this brought into my own life that I wanted to be able to share this with others. It has been an honor to get to do the work I have been doing in the wellness field.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I guess for me it is all interesting all the time. Every day brings opportunities and experiences that keep things fluid. I suppose that COVID-19 has been one very unexpected challenge that all of us have faced this year but its particular impacts on healthcare workers highlighted to the general public a problem that already existed but was exacerbated by these new pressures. In some ways this helped our organization be recognized as one way that this problem could be addressed. It also helped us pivot our platform from being in-person activities to online activities. That has been powerful and has helped us increase our programming reach across this very geographically diverse state.

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 been extremely lucky since a very young age to have many different people acts as mentors and teachers in my life. My dad was a huge inspiration to me. He was the first person who really taught me about mindfulness. He was good at being fully present and taking in what was happening in the moment. Additionally, I studied martial arts for many years and I also worked in the martial arts school for just over a decade. That is such a unique culture in that we learn about dedication, self-discipline, not giving up, public speaking and maybe most importantly modeling success. All of these lessons and all of my instructors have influenced me that way. I have also been very inspired by my friends and family members. All of my colleagues and the UMASS Center for Mindfulness and now the Brown Mindfulness Center have shaped me and changed my life in so many ways they have been truly inspirational. That is how I met Mick Krasner, MD who mentored me in the Mindful Practice Curriculum. He has done the most amazing work and embodies what is possible in the field of medicine. I also can’t forget all my meditation teachers who have provided so much guidance in my life. Lastly, I have to say I am incredibly grateful and inspired by all of the board members of the Physician Wellness Coalition. They have such dedication, belief and are each so talented. The organization would not be what it is without each of them.

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?

For physicians in particular there has been quite a bit of information coming out recently about a culture of silence. Physicians have a unique set of personality traits coming into the profession. They tend to be very smart, super hard working and altruistic. These qualities are a part of what makes them great doctors but those same qualities can also lead to them not wanting to admit that they might be struggling. In some ways the training they go through on the path to medicine also puts them through rigorous hours and expectations. Usually their response is to work harder and push through. It almost gets trained into them. Often times when a physician is burnt out or experiencing stress most people don’t even know because they are so good at hiding it or pushing through. This is one of the reasons that our resource line is also for loved ones of physicians who may be the first to know of issues. Additionally, for physicians to practice medicine they have to be approved by the State Medical Board. Each state medical board functions a bit differently with different guidelines. In some states doctors could be penalized or feel they could be at risk of losing their license to practice if they report mental health issues. That is not true in Nevada. But one can see how even if a physician needed help they might be afraid of how that help might impact their job. Couple that fear with the significant amount of student loans physicians have and you make the chances of people seeking help even smaller. We want to help physicians learn to have safe spaces to talk. Most or all of our programming is specifically designed to help physicians develop meaningful collegial relationships.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

One thing people can do is to look for the signs in other people as well as themselves. It takes a lot for someone to look inward and analyze their feelings to determine if they are in need of help, so keeping an eye out for others is a great way to support people who are suffering from mental illness.

Another way is to just talk about it. The stigma for most people is lessening and we see individuals freely discussing that they are seeing a therapist or practicing mindfulness in order to safeguard their mental health. But we also need to remember that doctors are humans just like we are. Perhaps that sounds trivial, but if we are acknowledging that mental health benefits everyone, we must also consider it can be applied within the medical community.

In general, don’t forget the power of gratitude. NPWC offers a gratitude wall where the community can provide notes of appreciation to doctors (anonymously), wherein doctors can then see this feedback. Sharing a kind word to your own physicians can go a very long way for someone who may not have the ability to share whether they are having a difficult day.

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. Having a routine is very helpful. Routine can help us commit to the wellness goals we have in our lives and people are finding this particularly useful during COVID-19.
  2. I commit to working out every week. This is something that I know is good for my mind and body. I like to get a good blend of strength training and cardio.
  3. I have a daily meditation practice. These days mindfulness has been promoted as something to do when you get stressed out. Yet research shows that the long-term benefits of mindfulness require about 20 minutes a day of practice. I think of this as my mental fitness.
  4. I make sure to eat a healthy diet. My dad had a heart attack when I was young and it really inspired me to eat healthy and workout. I want to have good heart health and lots of energy for many years to come.
  5. I make time for self-care. Many people feel guilty for taking time out for self-care. There are so many things to get done and maybe people they are taking care of in their lives. I try to remember that you have to fill up your own cup to keep giving to others.
  6. Remember that joy is the counterbalance to having a lot of responsibility and stress. For me this might mean calling a friend who I know I can have a meaningful interaction with or watching a funny movie or even noticing small things that are happening all the time which can be easily missed if we aren’t mindful. I have been seeing a little hummingbird each evening recently and it is just a momentary joy I try not to miss.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Jon Kabat-Zinn has a number of amazing books which I highly recommend. Full Catastrophe Living is one of them.

There are many amazing talks on a platform called Dharmaseed.org. OnBeing is a great one by Krista Tippett and

Dan Harris has a podcast called 10% Happier that is fantastic.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

From my experience, sometimes it can seem like there are so many big challenges in the world that it would be hard to make an impact. I remember thinking that when I was younger. When I started to learn meditation, I realized that the greatest gift I could give the world was to be at peace with myself. I realized something that seemed so small was really big. It impacted every person I interacted with. If every single person on the planet did just that it would be a different world. It helped me to see that all of the positive actions we take make a big different and we can’t actually know how our one small thing might change the life of a person and their kids and generations into the future. Don’t underestimate what your intentions and actions can do. Seek the good, find what inspires you, and you will be amazed the doors that open for us. I also want to add that it hasn’t been an easy journey it has taken a lot of no’s and a lot of me believing in things other people didn’t see the value in. Many people told me they didn’t really understand what I was doing when I first started teaching mindfulness but they gave me and opportunity to teach because I seemed to passionate about it. Follow your passion and don’t give up!

How can our readers follow you online?

They can find Nevada Physician Wellness Coalition at https://nevadaphysicianwellnesscoalition.com/

and on Facebook.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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