Community//

Dr. Doug Nemecek of Cigna Behavioral Health: “Ground yourself in the situation”

Resilience is, simply put, our ability to quickly recover from challenges in our own lives. Individuals with high resilience have a robust set of personal qualities that allow them take on stressful situations successfully as they arise. They also have the social and institutional supports they need to deal with bad times as well as […]

The Thrive Global Community welcomes voices from many spheres on our open platform. We publish pieces as written by outside contributors with a wide range of opinions, which don’t necessarily reflect our own. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team and must meet our guidelines prior to being published.

Resilience is, simply put, our ability to quickly recover from challenges in our own lives. Individuals with high resilience have a robust set of personal qualities that allow them take on stressful situations successfully as they arise. They also have the social and institutional supports they need to deal with bad times as well as the ability to find new resources when the situation demands it. This has a meaningful impact on someone’s health because without the ability to cope with challenges, adults are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression and resort to negative coping strategies, such as social withdrawal and substance abuse/alcohol.

We conducted the largest study on the state of resilience in America of its kind and found that resilience is at risk for approximately 60 percent of Americans surveyed. This means the majority of Americans may struggle to bounce back from the challenges they face today.


In this interview series, we are exploring the subject of resilience among successful business leaders. Resilience is one characteristic that many successful leaders share in common, and in many cases it is the most important trait necessary to survive and thrive in today’s complex market.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Doug Nemecek, Chief Medical Officer for behavioral health at Cigna Behavioral Health. Dr. Nemecek also leads Cigna’s national Coverage Policy team, responsible for developing policies and tools that are used to interpret standard medical, behavioral, and pharmacy benefit plan provisions. Additionally, he helps to coordinate Cigna’s national medical cost trend analysis and initiatives to address major medical cost drivers for our clients.

Prior to joining Cigna, Dr. Nemecek served as Executive Medical Director for Allina Behavioral Health Services in Minneapolis, overseeing five outpatient clinics and four inpatient mental health units with over 80 mental health providers. He also has 10 years of clinical experience with an inpatient and outpatient psychiatric practice in Minneapolis.

Dr. Nemecek received his M.D. and completed his psychiatric residency at Washington University in St. Louis in 1993. He is recognized as a Distinguished Fellow with the American Psychiatric Association, is board certified by the America Board of Quality Assurance and Utilization Review Physicians and holds an M.B.A. from the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. Dr. Nemecek is currently the Chair-elect for the Board of the Association for Behavioral Health and Wellness. He also serves on the Scientific Board for Shatterproof, a national non-profit organization dedicated to ending the devastation that addiction causes families.


Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?

My passion is psychiatric medicine. It’s something I discovered about myself while attending medical school and during that time, I realized the importance of both mental health and substance use care in treating individuals and their families. After my third year as a medical student, I decided that my career should be focused on providing psychiatric care to people in need.

After graduation, I oversaw a successful psychiatric practice for over a decade, but ultimately decided that I could help even more people if I worked with a larger scale organization. Eventually, I joined Cigna where I help serve in our mission to help improve the health, well-being, and peace of mind of individuals across the globe. Through my work with Cigna, I’m able to encourage treatments that value the “whole person,” as well as prioritize mental and emotional health just as much as physical health.

Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

Early in my career, I traveled with several colleagues to a sales presentation for a potential new client. We had prepared extensively and were excited about the opportunity. When we arrived and engaged with the client, it quickly became evident that the client had already decided that we would not get their business.

As we left to head back to the airport and fly home, frustrated about all the work we had done, we realized that in our haste, we had left the hatch on the back of the van open, and our luggage was slowly falling out of the van along the road. We retrieved the luggage, and enjoyed a long laugh.

We quickly recognized that we need to move forward and focus on what we can control, and we reminded ourselves of the importance of laughter and connection. To this day, when we are together, we still enjoy sharing this story, and laughing at what happened to us.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

To me, Cigna’s uniqueness is that our goal is pretty simple, and that’s to help people live healthier lives and support them when they do get sick or need help. Through Cigna I’ve had the privilege to engage in so many discussions about mental health with people from all spectrums of life. And I have really gotten to see firsthand how mental health treatment has progressed over the years, including how virtual care is now helping people access care whenever and wherever they are.

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?

The person who really helped me to see the opportunities for physician leadership across the health care industry was Dr. John Scanlon. He was the Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health at BCBS of Minnesota at the time, before I joined Cigna, and he saw the opportunity for psychiatrist medical directors across the Twin Cities in Minnesota to connect, share experiences, and to learn from each other. He helped to mentor not only me, but others as well. He opened the window to see the opportunities across health care, including with payers, and he supported my initial efforts in the managed care field.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?

Resilience is, simply put, our ability to quickly recover from challenges in our own lives. Individuals with high resilience have a robust set of personal qualities that allow them take on stressful situations successfully as they arise. They also have the social and institutional supports they need to deal with bad times as well as the ability to find new resources when the situation demands it. This has a meaningful impact on someone’s health because without the ability to cope with challenges, adults are more likely to experience stress, anxiety, and depression and resort to negative coping strategies, such as social withdrawal and substance abuse/alcohol.

We conducted the largest study on the state of resilience in America of its kind and found that resilience is at risk for approximately 60 percent of Americans surveyed. This means the majority of Americans may struggle to bounce back from the challenges they face today.

When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?

As I mentioned, a resilient person is someone with strong personal qualities — for example, the ability to see an opportunity during a challenging time — along with the ability to reach out to support around them to get to a positive place. These are oftentimes people with strong family systems in place, regular employment and positive relationships with their colleagues.

A recent example that stands out in my mind is Alex Smith, quarterback for the Washington Football Team. He had a terrible injury to his leg a couple years ago, and almost had to have his leg amputated. He endured multiple surgeries, and extensive rehabilitation, even to survive. Yet, with his family by his side, his physicians and other health care providers, and his coaches and teammates, he was able to return to the team, and actually went back on the field to play in an NFL game a couple weeks ago.

Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?

Interestingly enough one of the biggest setbacks early in my career was when I initially applied for the role of Chief Medical Officer for behavioral health at Cigna.

I applied even though I had no experience in managed care or insurance at the time. When I did not get that job, I was disappointed, but I did manage to build several new relationships and was instead offered my entry role as a Medical Director with Cigna. Since then, I’ve learned so much about health care at Cigna and the health care system overall that I ultimately did become the Chief Medical Officer for Behavioral Health — a dream job that enables me to help the people we serve every day.

Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?

One of the experiences I recall from my childhood was a weekend camping trip I went on with the Boy Scouts. It was spring, and when we left on Friday night, the weather was warm, and we were ready for a beautiful weekend.

When we awoke on Saturday morning, the weather had turned, it was cold, and we had gotten 6 inches of snow overnight. Several people on the trip had left their gear outside overnight and it was all wet, including much of their clothes. Others had simply not prepared and packed appropriately for the weather. But we were able to work together, to share our clothes and other resources, and we not only survived the weekend, but we enjoyed the camping trip and the unexpected snowstorm.

Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.

While the solution to resilience is unique to each individual, we found in our study that there are several ways to build resilience. And most importantly, there are a few tactics each of us can take to G.R.O.W. when we face challenges. They include:

G — Ground yourself in the situation

  • Write down your ideal outcome

R — Recognize what you can control

  • Commit to one thing you can tackle today

O — Organize the resources you need

  • Visit CignaResilience.com to access expert resources

W — Work with your community for support

  • Know that asking for help is a sign of strength

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

Possibly the biggest barrier to people getting the support and care they need for resilience and all mental health and wellness conditions is the stigma surrounding them. This is particularly important to understand for the next generation — as we learned that Gen Z (or 18 to 23-year olds) have the lowest resilience of all groups we surveyed. This is also of utmost importance to me — as someone who’s invested in grooming the next generation of our workers, community leaders and parents.

If I could, I would encourage all readers — particulary young adults — to begin building their resilience now through managing their physical and mental health, using the tools they have access to, building stronger connections and surrounding themselves with a diverse community.

We are too often afraid to ask for help, and afraid to talk about the issues facing us, our families and friends. We need to make it okay to talk about these things just as we talk about cancer or heart disease. When we do this, we will open the door for everyone who is struggling today and help them to get the help and support they need.

I would also stress that our research shows that building and practicing resilience from a young age has a significant impact on overall health and well-being through adulthood — which has the potential to lower healthcare costs and reduce spending. I hope that the next generation will begin the discussion on mental health early, and better understand how mental health is just as important as physical health. The earlier we start discussion, the earlier we can introduce the emotional resources necessary for overcoming challenges they will encounter later in life.

We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂

As resilience and mental health challenges continue to arise across the United States, we recognize that these are issues that impact people around the entire world. One person that has opened up about their challenges with mental health and substance use is Michael Phelps. I’d like to talk about the challenges he faced in his own life and career, what steps he’s taken to improve his mental wellness, and how he is reaching out to help others who may be impacted by mental health concerns.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

For the full survey report and to take a shortened version of our national resilience survey, as well as some additional documents on Cigna’s 2020 resilience findings, visit CignaResilience.com and follow Cigna on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...

You are more powerful than you realize: How to become stress resilient. Photo by Vicky Sim on Unsplash
Community//

Why “Resilience” Is The Word Of The Year

by Bryan Robinson, Ph.D.
Halfpoint/ Shutterstock
Thriving in the New Normal//

Here’s How Today’s Young People Can Live a More Resilient and Less Stressful Life

by Dr. Michael Ungar
Community//

Stronger than Kryptonite

by Allyson Belton

Sign up for the Thrive Global newsletter

Will be used in accordance with our privacy policy.

Thrive Global
People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.