Community//

“Develop a gratitude journal” Kristen de Marco and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Optimizing mental wellness means recognizing that all of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lives whether through illness, addiction, the loss of a loved one, or adjusting to our new normal during the pandemic. Since we spend most of our time at work, our personal lives will no doubt […]

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Optimizing mental wellness means recognizing that all of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lives whether through illness, addiction, the loss of a loved one, or adjusting to our new normal during the pandemic. Since we spend most of our time at work, our personal lives will no doubt seep in. A company which recognizes these peaks and valleys in mental health, and has support systems in place, will ultimately aid in removing the stigma of getting help and boost employee engagement in mental wellness programs. EY wrote a great article acknowledging the mental health crisis and normalizing the challenges employees are facing during the pandemic.

As a part of my series about the “5 Ways That Businesses Can Help Promote The Mental Wellness Of Their Employees” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristen de Marco.

Kristen is the founder and Executive Director of Gateway HorseWorks, a nonprofit organization which incorporates horses for the mental health treatment of people. She has pioneered several groundbreaking free community-based programs in suburban Philadelphia for justice-involved youth and adults, children and families who have experienced trauma, people recovering from addiction, Veterans with PTS, crime victims, human trafficking survivors, families experiencing grief and bereavement, and healthcare workers on the frontline of the pandemic. She collaborates with universities researching the impact of equine-assisted psychotherapy and has co-authored a white paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Advances in Social Work. Additionally, Kristen owns and operates WorkHorse, an equine-assisted professional development firm serving the needs of teams in corporate, academic, and government organizations in the U.S. and Europe.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, 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?

I grew up riding, competing, and training horses. As a kid, the barn was the only place I felt I truly belonged in a world where I was just trying to fit in. I stepped away from horses to attend college and pursue a career in the fashion industry. Years later when I was facing a divorce as a new mom, I started to ask myself some big life questions. It was then I found my way back to the barn to rehabilitate an abused horse. I quickly realized it was a parallel process — this horse was healing me as much as I was healing him. It was at that same time I learned about how horses were working in mental health. I was fascinated. Even though I didn’t have the language when I was younger, horses have always helped me manage my own anxiety and depression. After a life-changing training experience, I became certified in the Eagala Model in 2011, started my for-profit company in 2012, and then founded the nonprofit in 2015 to make this innovative mental health approach accessible to everyone in our community.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Six clients from a drug and alcohol recovery inpatient facility quietly shuffled through the barn door, hands stuffed in their pockets on a brisk winter day. Slumped in couches and chairs they waited for the session to begin. After treatment team introductions, dozens of pictures of wild horses were spread across the table and clients were asked to pick two cards — one card representing where they are now, and another card that represented where they hope to be. As the clients shared their cards, themes including feeling lonely, stuck, disconnected, and “like no one understands” emerged. Goals of rebuilding relationships, feeling connected, and finding peace arose. The treatment team then asked, “What needs to happen between the ‘now’ cards and the ‘hope to be’ cards?” Clients responded with words like openness, acceptance, honesty, perseverance, and living in the moment. As the clients walked out to the pasture to join four horses, they were invited to help the horses “return home” to the small run-in shed several acres away. Clients were observed moving towards the horses, and the horses taking a few steps back. With hands on the horses’ necks and sides, people walked back and forth between the four horses, gently trying to move or cajole them. The treatment team observed the horses taking a few steps forward in the direction of the shed, and then one step backwards. Despite attempts from several clients, a black and white horse remained still. Eventually, one woman put her arms around his neck and buried her face in his mane. After almost an hour, the treatment team checked in with the clients. They shared how the horses needed more time with them before they could return home because they needed to build trust. They also discussed what people need in relationships, and their desire to “honor the horses’ boundaries.” Many spoke about rebuilding the trust they had lost with family and friends due to their addiction, and the challenges they face when returning home. As the clients prepared to leave, one client walked back towards the treatment team. She tearfully revealed that the experience of trying to move the black and white horse was profound for her. She realized that she was trying to control the movements of this huge animal, and knew that the relationship hinged on her ability to accept him as he is, and let go. She realized that accepting herself as she is could make room for her to feel connected to others — more than she had in a long time.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

We have to take care of the caretakers. If they go down we all go down. It’s like the mindset of a parent putting on their oxygen mask on a plane in an emergency before they help their child. So many on the front lines are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the pace at which they are working and the chaos they never thought they’d witness. So, we decided to offer free sessions to anyone — individuals or teams — who needed the support. We pivoted quickly and came up with a way to offer our services via live video conference. We’ve heard from these folks that the speed at which we were able to shift to online was extremely helpful. We didn’t know how we were going to do it, we just did it. In our own powerlessness during the pandemic, we wanted be part of the solution and offer the resources we had available in order to support our community.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Consider how to make people feel like they work with you, not for you. In team experiences at the farm, people try to motivate the horses with bribes like food, or with force by pushing or pulling. While these tactics may have some early success, they quickly stop working with 1,200 pound prey animals. The same is true for talent retention. Throwing more incentives or money at employees has been shown time and again to be ineffective in making people feel invested at work. True connection is formed by building trust over time, and valuing people over bottom lines.

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

“Do you see me? Do you hear me? Does what I say mean anything to you?” — Oprah Winfrey

I have worked with hundreds of people over thousands of hours and heard countless stories of unimaginable trauma, abuse, and neglect. The Eagala Model teaches me that people have the solutions to their challenges if given the space to discover them. I know that I am not a healer or a fixer, but rather I am there to hold space for people to be the experts in their lives. This belief changes the power dynamic and makes people recognize their inherent capacity to heal themselves. This quote reminds me that I don’t have to do anything, but rather be something. I always strive to make everyone feel seen and heard when they step onto the farm, and hope they leave feeling empowered and dignified in their experience.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. In recent years many companies have begun offering mental health programs for their employees. For the sake of inspiring others, we would love to hear about five steps or initiatives that companies have taken to help improve or optimize their employees’ mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each?

1. Name it:

Beyond a brief reference to mental health in some subsection of the employee handbook, companies which value mental wellness name it, and the challenges surrounding it, regularly.

2. Normalize it:

Optimizing mental wellness means recognizing that all of us will struggle with our mental health at some point in our lives whether through illness, addiction, the loss of a loved one, or adjusting to our new normal during the pandemic. Since we spend most of our time at work, our personal lives will no doubt seep in. A company which recognizes these peaks and valleys in mental health, and has support systems in place, will ultimately aid in removing the stigma of getting help and boost employee engagement in mental wellness programs. EY wrote a great article acknowledging the mental health crisis and normalizing the challenges employees are facing during the pandemic.

3. Educate about it:

Companies that cultivate leadership from within know that education is a tenet of talent retention. Cultures which create space to educate their people about the signs of anxiety, depression, or addiction, for example, help to inform people of the signs while offering a portfolio of coping strategies. Jansen offers employees free access to apps to support mindfulness and stress-reduction, for example.

4. Fund it:

It is no surprise that companies which optimize their employees’ mental wellness make funding available to support it. Beyond helping individual employees, companies that value regular growth and development for teams understand that investing in wellness programs pays dividends long term. The Employee Assistance Program at CHOP offers free counseling services as a part of their wellness benefits package.

5. Advocate for it:

Companies which turn externally and publicly support mental health causes underpin individual employee commitment to mental health and wellness. Zoetis, an animal pharmaceutical company, advocates by providing wellness resources to veterinarians who are more at risk for suicide than any other professional industry.

These ideas are wonderful, but sadly they are not yet commonplace. What strategies would you suggest to raise awareness about the importance of supporting the mental wellness of employees?

I think more articles and interviews on this topic are a start, like this conversation we are having right now. The more we speak freely about mental health, in an approachable way that speaks to diverse populations, the closer we get to destigmatizing the issue. A JAMA study out last month said that, right now, depression is three times its normal rate. And, with the colder, darker months ahead, mental health care professionals fear this stat will increase. Financial instability, fear of losing a job, unease in the political environment, fear of getting sick, increased isolation and stress– all of these create triggers. So now that you have a heads up, how is your organization going to prepare for this ahead? The first step after becoming aware about the current state of mental health in world, is to work with HR to find resources available to you and your employees. There are many organizations working with all sorts of teams — first responders, health care professional on the front lines, corporations to help create these human touchpoints in the workplace in a way that is meaningful and not awkward. Ask friends what their organizations might be doing. Seek articles on the topic in prominent health care news outlets as well as news sources for managers. Of course, the logical counter you hear often in conversation is that these things cost a lot and now is not a good time. Consider this to be a leaking roof — it’s never convenient to take that on either, It cost thousands of dollars to replace a more junior employee and perhaps in the hundreds of thousands for a CEO. Keeping people happy makes better business sense, it just does. Perhaps you have a company newsletter, an internal website, etc. — use these platforms in a creative way to share information and resources. Do a small survey about what workers might find helpful in the workplace. For example, if working remotely, how about a zoom meditation hour when phones and computers are put in sleep mode at the insistence of the boss? How about the boss joins in? Small, but consistent steps, can make a huge impact on health and company culture. It is especially critical now that employees know this is up there on the priority list along with touchless hand sanitizer stations and readily-available masks.

From your experience or research, what are different steps that each of us as individuals, as a community and as a society, can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling stressed, depressed, anxious and having other mental health issues ? Can you explain?

As individuals, we can reach out to our family, friends, and neighbors. It can be as simple as a text saying, “thinking of you,” or being transparent about how we are struggling, “I am overwhelmed trying to manage working from home while orchestrating virtual school!” The common thread linking all people struggling with mental health issues is feeling alone. Connection is the antidote, so make sure to stay connected to folks who are at risk such as adolescents and the elderly. As a community, we really need to revamp accessibility to mental healthcare. For so many people, access to transportation and childcare (and, now, add in the complexities from the pandemic), coupled with lack of funding to pay for deductibles, creates physical and financial distance from wellbeing. Supporting nonprofits which help to bridge these barriers is essential to the wellness of our communities.

Habits can play a huge role in mental wellness. What are the best strategies you would suggest to develop good healthy habits for optimal mental wellness that can replace any poor habits?

Get outside!

Every day (yes, even if the weather is less than perfect), get outside for at least 15 minutes. Try to put your phone on silent and just observe the birds, the trees, the clouds, and breathe. Don’t put pressure on yourself to make it into some big workout or time accomplishment. Actually, try to do the exact opposite.

Stay connected!

Text, email, or call one friend each day and ask how they are doing or send them a funny article or cute picture of your pet.

Volunteer!

Try to give one hour per week to a cause that is near and dear to your heart. Giving to others is the fastest way to feel like you matter in the world.

Develop a gratitude journal!

Before you go to bed, write 3 things (in a notebook or the notes section on your phone) that you were grateful for that day. Some days you’ll have to dig deep, but this will transform the way you live your life.

Do you use any meditation, breathing or mind-calming practices that promote your mental wellbeing? We’d love to hear about all of them. How have they impacted your own life?

For my own mental wellbeing, I make sure to spend time with my horses apart from work. Since they have always been my safe haven, it is my practice to be outside and be silent with them as much as possible. I’ve also just started running (barely a mile per day), and it is really lowering my stress level!

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

The Girl with the Incredible Feeling by Elizabeth Swados was given to me when I was five years old by my kindhearted neighbors. I rediscovered it when I was going through old boxes in my basement as I prepared to move out of my marital residence. It was only then that I understood the parable about the girl who has an incredible feeling, loses it, and finds it again after dealing with her shame and staying true to herself. It was poignant to find it at a time when I was seeking to rediscover myself and begin my next chapter after divorce.

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. 🙂

I would like to see a movement of insurance companies covering innovative mental health treatments so all people had access to a portfolio of treatment options that fit their individual needs.

What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @gatewayhorseworks or visit us on our website at www.gatewayhorseworks.org

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

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