Dr. Crystal Clark: “Get enough sleep”

If I could start a movement would be to achieve access to mental health care for all. In addition to that, I would normalize obtaining an annual mental health exam similar to how we have annual physical exams. I believe this would reduce stigma and encourage people to check-in with their emotions. A short-course of […]

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If I could start a movement would be to achieve access to mental health care for all. In addition to that, I would normalize obtaining an annual mental health exam similar to how we have annual physical exams. I believe this would reduce stigma and encourage people to check-in with their emotions. A short-course of therapy would be offered to those who would like it or for those advised to obtain further treatment.

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Crystal Clark, MD, MSc.

Dr. Clark is an Associate Professor and Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. Dr. Clark research and clinical interests focus on women’s mood and anxiety disorders across the reproductive life cycle at Northwestern Medicine. Her patients battle with bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, depression, and trauma.

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?

As a medical student I was torn between the medical specialties of obstetrics and gynecology (OB/GYN) and psychiatry. My surgical interests drew me toward OB/GYN but my interest in understanding the human emotion and behavior, which began in high school, attracted me to psychiatry. I especially enjoyed working with women and empowering them to be confident, have healthy self-esteem, and achieve optimal emotional health. I quickly appreciated that pregnancy and the postpartum periods were vulnerable times for emotional health. Commonly women experienced new onset mental illness during pregnancy and postpartum. Women who had a pre-existing mental disorder were at even greater risk for symptom worsening. I was intrigued by the challenge of how to maintain wellness for my patients during this critical time in their lives. I also found it very rewarding to be the listening ear and advocate for my patients. I ultimately decided to marry my interests of psychiatry and OB/GYN by pursuing a career in reproductive psychiatry. Reproductive psychiatry addresses mental health issues that are uniquely impacted by the changes in hormones around childbirth and throughout the different reproductive stages of women’s lives (e.g., menstruation, perimenopause). I like to think of myself as the doctor who manages any time the hormones meet the mood.

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

After I set my intentions on becoming an expert in reproductive psychiatry, I realized I wasn’t sure how to pursue this goal. Reproductive psychiatry was a newer specialization compared to most in the field of psychiatry. As a result, there were very few medical institutions offering training in reproductive psychiatry and the competition was tight for the few national spots available. I discovered that research was also a path that many established national and international experts had taken. However, it seemed like an unlikely path for me. I had only envisioned myself as a clinician. The idea of research as a part of my career seemed daunting despite having some research training, albeit limited. Nonetheless, I was determined to be well-informed and equipped to address the unique issues of my female patients. A former attending of mine encouraged me to pursue a two-year fellowship in research and women’s mental health. I completed my application thinking, “what’s the worst that could happen” while also crossing my fingers and hoping that I didn’t find out the answer to that question. Several years later I am an expert in reproductive psychiatry and I am the co-director for training in reproductive psychiatry at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine. I am also a researcher. During my fellowship, while looking for a scholarly project with my mentor I began investigating how the physiological changes in pregnancy impact metabolism of medications that are commonly used to treat mental illness. Today, I continue to investigate how to optimize medication dosing during pregnancy to maximize wellness and minimize adverse effects on the mother and fetus. I am rewarded beyond my expectations by my patients and research participants who most often have healthy pregnancies, deliver healthy babies, and have healthy postpartum periods. My research expertise has also enabled me to assist when patients have been abandoned by doctors who feel uncomfortable treating them during pregnancy. I have found that research is a far-reaching way to help optimize treatment for women broadly and more specifically my patients who are the motivation and inspiration for my research endeavors.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

I can’t think of a humorous mistake as a psychiatrist.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

When I think of what has attributed to my success, I think of my upbringing and the values my parents instilled in me as a young girl. Work ethic was paramount and instilled through the assignment of regular chores and the expectation of obtaining excellent grades on my schoolwork. I also watched how hard my parents worked to provide for my sister and me. However, having lost my biological father as a young girl, and my step-father in college, I am most grateful for my mother who has been my constant foundation, inspiration, and the motivating force in my life. She exemplified resilience, perseverance, and what it means to take risk. As a first-generation college and medical school graduate, she inspired confidence and encouraged me when I questioned my ability to excel on the never-ending exams and in spaces where few looked like me. I continue to be grateful for our close relationship. I hear her voice saying, “where there is a will, there is a way” anytime I am discouraged or unsure about how I am going to achieve the next goal. I think about her work and I take a step forward.

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

To thrive and avoid burnout I advise setting boundaries as well as taking time for yourself and those you care most about. Setting boundaries is akin to learning when and how to say, “no”. Too often we (I included) take on too much because we are afraid to disappoint a boss, a colleague, a mentor, family, or a friend. Over time that leads to unnecessary stress and exhaustion. I advise mentees, junior colleagues, and staff to say no before overstretching themselves. I also highly recommend self-care. I support and encourage taking regular vacations. Several successful senior colleagues have advised me to take two week vacations a couple of times a year. Two weeks allow for enough time to “let go” of things at work, fully relax and engage with family or friends, and then prepare to return. I have found this to be great advice and I have passed it on. If two weeks aren’t feasible a mentor advised me to take shorter trips or long weekend getaways 3–4 times a year and completely disconnect from work. I believe that both can be helpful ways to renew and re-energize.

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

I would advise leaders to spend time getting to know their colleagues and direct reports on a personal level. It is important to see each other as human. I also advise timely and transparent feedback to help everyone maximize their strengths and address weaknesses.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

1. Exercise — Exercise is known to increase the release of endorphins which helps to improve mood. This is especially true for aerobic exercise that gets your heart rate up.

2. Eat Healthy — The food we ingest directly impacts how well our brain functions. Good nutrition increases our brain health. For example, omega-3 (such as that found in salmon) has been shown to help prevent depression and serotonin found in some foods such as salmon and eggs decrease. Alternatively, poor nutrition can impair brain function resulting in an increased risk for depression and anxiety as well as decreased cognitive function.

3. Get enough sleep — The data on the link between sleep and mental health has consistently shown that inadequate sleep is associated with increased emotional symptoms such as increased sadness, irritability, and feeling short-tempered. Prolonged sleep deprivation such as that experienced by people with insomnia increases the risk for the development of a mood disorder such as depression.

4. Give yourself grace — Believe it or not, being kind to yourself takes practice. We all have bad days and times when we feel stressed, make a mistake, or just aren’t at our best. Grace may be taking the time to meditate, go for a walk to clear your head, or treating yourself to your favorite snack. Find a way to decompress, take a break, especially when you are feeling your worst.

5. Practice gratitude — Acknowledge the good things in your life including things you have received, the good things that happen to you, and the people who support you and bring good energy into your life. Taking a few minutes to do this at the beginning or end of your day can boost your mental health and relieve stress.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

I would recommend maintaining a daily structure and staying socially connected. I find that some people struggle with adjusting to the loss of their identity as someone who worked daily and if their job was of a certain status letting go of that role, can be difficult even though it is their choice to retire. Finding purpose is also difficult for some. Therefore I recommend maintaining involvement in regular activities such as volunteering and doing activities with grandchildren if they have them.

How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

I would start by saying that although adolescent mental health is not my area of expertise, I know that reaching increasingly shows that teens, preteens, and children, can reduce stress and anxiety by learning relaxation breathing techniques and how to be present in the moment. We can all benefit from that.

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

Like many, I was excited to read Becoming by Michelle Obama when it was released. I bought a few copies, went to the book tour, and enjoyed each chapter. I wanted to understand her journey as a professional woman and her perspective as the first African-American woman to become the First Lady of the United States. Much of her story validated my experience as an African-American woman also born and raised in Chicago and its neighboring suburbs, with modest means, and as a first-generation college student. What I took away from Mrs. Obama’s book was that the journey of becoming ourselves is continuous and requires that we aren’t afraid to be true to ourselves, pursue our inner desires, and step into our own light. After reading her book, I made a point to check-in with myself on my goals and what I am passionate about. Empowering women is something that I care about deeply and I consider it a part of my role as a doctor but I realized there were other ways in which I have always wanted to make a broader impact. I wanted to give back more to my community. I began mentoring girls who were in high school or college and aspiring to become doctors. I also joined a non-profit board, Resilience, which serves survivors of sexual violence.

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. 🙂

If I could start a movement would be to achieve access to mental health care for all. In addition to that, I would normalize obtaining an annual mental health exam similar to how we have annual physical exams. I believe this would reduce stigma and encourage people to check-in with their emotions. A short-course of therapy would be offered to those who would like it or for those advised to obtain further treatment.

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

“Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins” by Sharon Creech is one of my favorite life lesson quotes. We can often make assumptions about others because of their behavior or how they appear. As a psychiatrist, I am aware that we often don’t know people’s fears, desires, stressors, joys or what they have experienced in their life (good or bad) unless they share it with us. I have learned that judgement is futile and may prevent the development of deeper interpersonal connections.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

They can follow me on IG @drcrystallistens or Twitter @crystalclarkmd

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

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