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Dr. Gail Saltz: “We should be treating the struggle and lauding the strength”

I also have spent time understanding and communicating a little known but important part of differences in human brains. The hardwired differences that often lead to mental health struggles are also part and parcel of the differences that lead to potential for extraordinary strengths. Many of the world’s most astonishing geniuses also struggled with a […]


I also have spent time understanding and communicating a little known but important part of differences in human brains. The hardwired differences that often lead to mental health struggles are also part and parcel of the differences that lead to potential for extraordinary strengths. Many of the world’s most astonishing geniuses also struggled with a mental health issue. Without these hardwired brain differences, we as a society would likely have missed out on incredible people who changed the fields of art, music, science, writing, etc. so rather than stigmatizing these issues we should see both the downside yet upside of difference. We should be treating the struggle and lauding the strength.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Gail Saltz, an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of medicine and a psychoanalyst with the New York Psychoanalytic Institute. She is best known for her work as a relationship, family, emotional wellbeing, and mental health/wellness contributor in the media and frequently shares her expertise and advice in print, online, on television and radio. She is a bestselling author of numerous books and the go-to expert on a variety of important psychological issues, as well as the Chair of the 92nd Street Y “7 Days of Genius” Advisory Committee. She also serves as a Medial Expert for the Physicians for Human Rights. Her newest book, The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, was released in March 2017. Dr. Saltz has a private practice in Manhattan.


Thank you so much for joining us for my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness. Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was doing my residency in internal medicine when I realized that I found that patients mental health status had more of an impact on their physical health and wellbeing more than almost anything else. My fascination with the mind and realization that we still had much to learn in the field of psychiatry propelled my decision to switch into psychiatry. Making this change elicited an interesting reaction from many people in my world including many colleagues in internal medicine, one of surprise I would want to do something so stigmatized. As I moved along in my training I noted that this pervasive stigma surrounding anything to do with mental health is often what kept people who really needed help from seeking it. In fact, it was the number one reason people struggling did not get care. As a mental health professional I thought one of the most important contributions I could make would be to do everything possible to diminish this stigma and help everyone to understand that psychiatric illness is like any other illness, that they have a biology and require treatment because they are not just something one can “stop doing” and that actually the health of your mind is perhaps the most important and least shameful path to pursue. This is when I embarked on the road of public education via writing, the media, etc., because of course knowledge is power and understanding allows the change of perception.

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?

The stigma arises from the days when mental illness was not understood at all and the behaviors and feelings associated with especially severe mental illness were both frightening to the affected person but also to those around them. Patients were subjected to horrible “treatments” that were more like torture and they were locked away to prevent others from knowing that the family had a relative with mental illness. In those days patients did not get better often enough because of course they weren’t being treated and so illness was often a life sentence that impaired that person’s ability to be a productive member of society. The stigma, shame and shunning came from the terror of yourself or anyone you love being affected and the desire to hide or push away any reminder this could happen to defend against the fear that it could. The stigma also came from the mystery of what was causing the problem and the blame on a person’s character or very essence. Again, this was a way of telling yourself it wouldn’t happen to you or your loved one because you were a good person or a strong person. The stigma also comes from the fact that our brains really are our most important, but complex and least understood organ, and this mystery which can so devastate a life remains very frightening to many people, fear breeds stigma.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

One way I have worked to de-stigmatize mental health issues is through education. By understanding both the biology and psychology of illness, difference and treatment it demystifies and makes accessible what is really going on and how one can get help. I also work to help people become more self-aware of the signs and symptoms of problems, because issues caught earlier are more easily treated. I also try to help others understand that the reasons people feel and behave the way they do has a lot to do with how well they understand their own minds, and that there are many things we all can be doing preventively to take care of our own minds.

I also have spent time understanding and communicating a little known but important part of differences in human brains. The hardwired differences that often lead to mental health struggles are also part and parcel of the differences that lead to potential for extraordinary strengths. Many of the world’s most astonishing geniuses also struggled with a mental health issue. Without these hardwired brain differences, we as a society would likely have missed out on incredible people who changed the fields of art, music, science, writing, etc. so rather than stigmatizing these issues we should see both the downside yet upside of difference. We should be treating the struggle and lauding the strength.

I do these things via writing books, giving talks, speaking to the news, podcasts, etc.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

The reason I decided to write “The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius” which explains the science behind this link, is because over my many years in practice I saw this frequently, patients suffering, but also with incredible strengths. I also host a series at the 92nd street Y about Geniuses of the past and what makes them tick. I found after years of doing this that almost everyone had a mental health issue! I have long been interested in the topic of genius, my brother is a Nobel prize winning astrophysicist, so I grew up with a genius. But most people think that it be a genius means you have high IQ and no issues. They don’t understand that this may or often enough, may not, be the case. The public is so stigmatizing about mental health problems I thought that understanding this connection might shift the perspective on mental health issues in general.

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

  1. Share your story. First off talking to others helps you, but it also helps others who then feel less alone with their own issues. Close to half of us will have a mental health diagnosis of some sort at some time, and yet people feel they are alone and therefore embarrassed. The more clear how common these issues are the less embarrassing they will be. Also, seek help early. The earlier in any process one gets help the quicker you tend to respond and the more suffering you avoid. In addition, earlier treatment often diminishes the chance at relapse later. Know the signs of mental health issues so you can spot and inquire of those around you. Asking someone if they are hurting and helping them get help can make a huge difference and even save a life.
  2. Society can definitely alter the perception of mental illness. Society can be more inclusive and more supportive. Society can make changes to educational systems in order to spot and help children who are experiencing differences and struggling. This is very important because many, many mental health diagnoses start in childhood. Society can recognize that depression, for example, is the number one source of disability in this country and causes the loss of millions and millions of dollars in lost productivity. Meaning mental health issues take a real human and economic toll. As a society we should therefore be more proactive about research in mental health and treatment. Mental health care still remains the step child of medical care with many people unable to access this care.
  3. The government needs to prioritize mental health research and care. As of now very, very few dollars are spent on mental health research and yet an increase in suicide as a cause of death along with opioid deaths account for the reason for the first time life expectancy has dropped in this country. Medicare and Medicaid pay the least to mental health professions, compared to other types of medical care, a reflection of how little it is valued. Without further research, treatment options will remain limited.

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. As a psychoanalyst too, I had to undergo my own personal training psychoanalysis which I found to be invaluable to my own mental health. Everyone can benefit from psychotherapy.
  2. Exercise. I do some form of aerobic exercise multiple times per week. Exercise has been shown to improve mood and decrease anxiety. I run, do the elliptical, lift weights.
  3. I have date nights with my husband. We both work hard and raised three daughters but always made time for weekly date nights, just the two of us to really talk, connect and play together. Our connection is a huge source of happiness and support for each other.
  4. I talk a lot! Expressing my feelings and sharing my thoughts, connecting with others especially my daughters and friends makes a huge difference to me. I also talk to myself a lot, reminding myself when my anxiety is rising that it may just be my anxiety rather than a true danger signal and to do something relaxing to help me center.
  5. I practice gratitude. I try to remind myself each day of three things for which I am grateful in my life, they may be big or small. The practice of regular gratitude is shown to be important in perspective and mood.
  6. I have a stash of relaxation techniques. Deep breathing, muscle relaxation, visual imagery are tools I use off and on to relax my body and my mind. This interruption of anxiety with relaxation is useful for me and helps me to feel comfortable and calmer.

Thank you for joining us!

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