Dr. Keith Renshaw: “Compartmentalizing”

Compartmentalizing. Whenever possible, I try to put work aside when I am not working, rather than continue to “sprinkle” it throughout my evening and night. This does not always work naturally, so I often try to set a time at night when I close my computer and phone, plug them all in, and leave them […]

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Compartmentalizing. Whenever possible, I try to put work aside when I am not working, rather than continue to “sprinkle” it throughout my evening and night. This does not always work naturally, so I often try to set a time at night when I close my computer and phone, plug them all in, and leave them until the morning. When I do this successfully, it does wonders for my own wellbeing!

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

Keith Renshaw, Ph.D. is Department Chair and Professor of Psychology at George Mason University, in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Renshaw specializes in anxiety, stress, trauma, and interpersonal relationships, with a particular focus on the experiences of service members and veterans, and their families. He is also the Director of the university’s new Military, Veterans and & Families Initiative (MVFI), which brings together all that Mason does for service members, veterans, and their families.

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 Delaware with an older sister and younger sister. Our parents got married very young (19 and 21), and worked hard their entire lives to try to give us what we needed. My dad worked a second part-time job throughout much of my childhood, and even took on a third job delivering Sunday papers for a while when I was accepted to Duke University. We weren’t poor by any stretch, but I learned early on to appreciate the difficulties people faced in meeting their needs.

When I was in grade school, my parents made the decision to switch us all to private schools. In 5th grade, I started in a somewhat exclusive Catholic school named St. Edmond’s Academy — we weren’t Catholic, but those schools were some of the best in the area. For high school, I went to Archmere Academy (Joe Biden’s alma mater) in Claymont, DE. The opportunities those schools gave me are what paved the way for me to head to Duke University as an undergraduate.

I did really well in school, but my best classes were definitely math and science. I thought I might go into biomedical engineering or biochemistry when I started at Duke, but I found that those classes didn’t excite me. I found my passion when I began taking classes in psychology. As I progressed, I learned that I could use my inclination for math and science in psychology through research, while still focusing on a field that allowed for a lot of interpersonal interaction and a focus on helping others.

In graduate school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I found my passion doing research on how mental illness affected families, and how families, in turn, could affect the progression of mental illness. Working with Dianne Chambless, a leader in the promotion of evidence-based practice and understanding family influence on mental illness, I developed as a clinical researcher, leading me to my current career.

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?

I am the Chair of the Psychology Department at George Mason University — one of our five doctoral programs is in clinical psychology. This program focuses on training doctoral students in both research and practice. Most of our faculty focus on helping high-risk, underserved populations (e.g., veterans, jail inmates, suicidal teens), and our program includes a “training clinic.” Under the direction of Dr. Robyn Mehlenbeck, this clinic — the Center for Psychological Services — provides therapy and assessment to the community while also training our doctoral students. The students are the primary clinicians, operating under the close supervision of faculty members who are licensed psychologists. We provide evidence-based services for children, teens, and adults on a sliding scale basis, with our highest rates being less than half of those that are typically charged in the community. We also offer specialized, pro-bono services for veterans through our Jennifer DiMauro Honor Fund for Veterans. The clinic also recently opened a COVID Helpline for healthcare workers and other essential workers. We have merged our mission as a university with our mission to serve the community — we trained undergraduate volunteers in an evidence-based approach to stress management, and they handle incoming calls under the supervision of an advanced doctoral student. The advanced doctoral student then provides an evidence-based brief intervention for those who need more care (under the supervision of a licensed psychologist) — and anyone who needs services beyond that brief intervention is referred to our clinic (which is currently offering teletherapy to anyone in the Commonwealth of Virginia) for free therapy.

In addition, I am also serving as the Director of George Mason’s newly emerging “Military, Veterans, & Families Initiative.” This initiative seeks to bring all the strengths of our university together to meet the needs of service members, veterans, and their families. We focus on promoting education (scholarships, specialized programs, and enhanced support), services (pro bono mental health services through the Center for Psychological Services, pro bono legal services through our M-VETS clinic, and free arts workshops through our Veterans and the Arts Initiative), training (specialized training for future educators in working effectively with military children), and research (much of which focuses on enhancing health and wellness in these populations). We are working to strengthen our existing services for this population, while expanding and starting new services, as well.

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

My parents had a strong influence on me in terms of inspiring a desire to do things that improve the condition of others. I initially funneled this desire toward thinking about things like engaging in cancer research, but, as I grew in college, I realized that I also wanted a career that would involve a deeper interpersonal connection to those I was trying to help. When I learned more about the havoc that mental illness can wreak not just on individuals but entire families — and saw the deep stigma that often prevents people from seeking help — I realized that I wanted to devote my career to helping those affected.

In 2005, I secured a position as an Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Utah. At that time, deployments of active duty and National Guard/Reserve troops were happening at an unprecedented rate as we fought wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. I wanted to use my expertise to give back to those who were so selflessly giving to our nation. So, I worked to shift my research focus from understanding how families are affected by anxiety disorders to working on how families are affected by things like trauma and the stress of deployment. That shift led to more than 15 years of sustained research in this area. My new work as Director of the Military, Veterans, & Families Initiative is the latest iteration of my desire to support the mental health and well-being of this incredible population of individuals who selflessly give their entire lives to the protection of our country.

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 have had several steps along the way. Shortly after beginning graduate school, I realized I was in the most challenging academic environment I’d ever experienced; I wasn’t used to having to work very hard, and I am embarrassed to say I almost quit. However, my parents convinced me to keep at it — and I’m so glad they did! Having the support of my family has been essential to my success.

During my third year of graduate school, I read a series of papers about how the family environment can influence the trajectory of mental illness. This entire area of clinical psychology fascinated me, and I found a strong desire to engage in research related to it. At that time, Dianne Chambless — a well-known psychologist who was a faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill — was conducting research in that area. I requested to join her lab, and she agreed to give me a “trial period.” This changed the entire course of my life — I was not the most mature individual when I began graduate school, and she was understandably reluctant. My experience that year — and in the years after — shaped my approach to work and my deep commitment to following through when I say I will do something. Dianne is a deeply dedicated mentor who always follows through on her responsibilities. Seeing her example made me want to live up to it — and that continues to shape my approach to professional work to this day.

Finally, after receiving tenure at George Mason University, I began serving on George Mason’s Faculty Senate. I began speaking up about issues I felt passionate about, and, through my service, eventually became elected as the Chair of the Senate. For three years, I was responsible for representing the more than 1,200 faculty to the university’s administration. It was in this role that I recognized an affinity for leadership. I found that the very skills I learned as a clinical psychologist — listening, working to understand multiple perspectives, communicating assertively — were extremely helpful in a leadership position.

These experiences led me to seek the role of Department Chair, so that I can now strive to facilitate the work of our department on a broader level. Having the opportunity to help others do great work is incredibly gratifying.

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

I’ve had a number of interesting stories, but one stands out. As a faculty member, I mentor doctoral students in our clinical psychology program. Because of my own research on military and veteran families, most students who want to work with me have similar interests. Recently, one of my students — Jennifer DiMauro — graduated and began a postdoctoral fellowship at the Washington DC Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC). She received an offer as a full-time staff psychologist at the Boston VAMC — her “dream job.” While out walking one morning shortly before her upcoming move, she was struck by a car. After a few days of fighting her injuries, she tragically passed away.

This was a devastating event for our faculty and students, to say nothing of her parents and husband. In the midst of this tragedy, we sought to find a way to help her memory live on. Knowing her deep passion for providing mental health services for veterans, we agreed to work toward establishing a fund in her honor. That was the birth of the Jennifer DiMauro Honor Fund for Veterans. The funds support free mental health services for veterans at our Center for Psychological Services. With the generous support of Jennifer’s parents, and the leadership of Dr. Mehlenbeck, the fund quickly grew above 25,000 dollars, allowing us to name it.

This event is easily the most difficult event I have experienced in my role — but also one of the most meaningful. Despite my deep sadness whenever I reflect on the loss of Jennifer, it warms my heart to know that we can continue to support the work she was so passionate about.

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?

My parents have been an enormously positive influence on me in every way possible. From the innumerable sacrifices they made to allow me to get the education I did, to the tangible and intangible support they provide throughout the more difficult transitions in my professional career, I very clearly would never be where I am today without them.

My graduate mentor, Dianne Chambless, is another person who was essential in my success. Her willingness to take a chance on me, her tireless mentorship, and her fierce support have been instrumental in my professional development. The story that sticks out for me is when I formally joined her research “lab.” She had given me a “trial period” in my 3rd year of graduate school in working with her on a project. After that year, we discussed the possibility of my formally switching into her lab. I expressed my enthusiasm for the prospect, after which, she candidly said she was supportive, but had strong concerns. She bluntly stated that she was concerned that I was not as serious about my work as her students usually are — and she did this in a way that was not judgmental, but was simply honest. It allowed me to acknowledge my shortcomings, but also try to directly allay her concerns. She agreed, and she has told me multiple times in years past that she now thinks she made the right call!

Finally, my wife and kids are an unbelievable and unconditional source of support. When I was first elected as Chair of the Faculty Senate, I came home and found them with a “Congratulations” sign and a special dinner — even though my kids didn’t quite understand what any of this meant! They were similarly supportive of my stepping into the role of Department Chair, and my daughter even asked to read an article about our new Military, Veterans, and Families Initiative when it launched! At every turn, my wife has been my most important sounding board for ideas and concerns, and she has supported my various career moves, even when they have brought new changes to our family. I hope that I have been able to do the same for her!

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 lingering stigma about mental illness is honestly somewhat mind-boggling, given how common it is! I think that much of this derives from early messages children receive about mental illness — we do not cover it well in early education at all, and cultural messages (TV, movies, etc.) frequently do a further disservice.

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

First, I think we need a well-developed, research-based curriculum about mental illness that can be incorporated into early childhood education, and then continue throughout middle and high school. The education needs to include different types of disorders and what the research tells us about prevalence and treatment.

Second, I think we need to acknowledge just how much of an impact mental illness has and begin covering evidence-based treatments as part of standard health insurance packages. The United Kingdom has begun a national effort to ensure that those with mental health conditions receive evidence-based treatment through the National Health Service, largely in part because it is economically justified. Economic analyses show that evidence-based treatment will more than pay for itself through reduced long-term treatment costs, enhanced economic productivity (fewer days of work missed, etc.), and other similar sources. It requires an initial investment, but that investment will pay dividends in the future.

Third, I think we need to bring together training programs with government services. In my own role, I am now working to develop a curriculum in our undergraduate program in psychology that will prepare our graduates to be well-trained for roles as “Qualified Mental Health Professionals,” a designation in Virginia for people without a graduate degree in the field. We need to pair with community agencies to develop internships that will enhance the services those agencies can provide while also training our students to step into those roles as professionals when they graduate.

Another necessary move is to promote “stepped care.” Many mental health conditions are responsive to fairly straightforward interventions that do not need to be administered by doctoral-level clinical psychologists. Our essential worker helpline is a good example of this. Advanced undergraduates are trained in an evidence-based, straightforward approach to stress management. They are also trained in identifying whether people need more care; then they can either provide a low-level intervention or know to refer people on for more intensive services. We need this type of approach to truly meet the needs of the population.

Additionally, we need to embrace research-informed approaches to treating mental illness. There has been extensive research on how to assess and treat mental illness — this research must be used to guide our administration of services to those in need.

Finally, now that the country has been forced into living virtually, we need to embrace the benefits that telehealth can provide in treating mental illness. Many people live in an area without any professionals who can provide evidence-based services, but with improved internet access across the country, individuals almost anywhere can access needed services through telehealth.

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?

Regular exercise. Even during the pandemic, I have tried to keep up with exercise by walking during meetings. I have managed to get over 5 million steps during 2020 with this approach!

Good sleep. The importance of a good night’s sleep cannot be overestimated. Anyone who has had a few nights in a row of bad sleep can attest to how much more intensely they feel negative emotions — but we often neglect to consider this in the broader context of our mental health. I see this most obviously in our 9-year-old son. With the excitement of Christmas this year, he was sleeping less and less — he ultimately woke up around 5:00 a.m. on Christmas Day. Excitement soon gave way to various meltdowns throughout the day, until we were able to coax him into an early bedtime that night!

Compartmentalizing. Whenever possible, I try to put work aside when I am not working, rather than continue to “sprinkle” it throughout my evening and night. This does not always work naturally, so I often try to set a time at night when I close my computer and phone, plug them all in, and leave them until the morning. When I do this successfully, it does wonders for my own wellbeing!

Getting outside. Even on a day when I have back-to-back meetings all day long, I try to pick whichever ones don’t require video or note-taking, and go for a walk outside while meeting.

Time with family and friends. Spending time with those you love and who support you is incredibly important for maintaining mental health. My wife and I have instituted “home PE” with our kids, where one of us does some type of activity with each of our kids every day during the school week. This gets them active, and it gives us a chance to connect individually with each of them throughout the week.

Fun hobbies. For me, playing basketball is an incredible release. I’m not all that good, but taking time to focus on nothing else but hustling up and down the court and trying to play well gives me a break from the general stress of the workday. I haven’t had that during the pandemic, but I’ve made decent use of the basketball hoop we have in front of our house!

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

I don’t know that there is just one thing I can say. However, in my own mind, it’s as simple as wondering what I want my life to be about. If at the end of the day, I’ve done something that makes someone else’s life a little bit better, I can feel like I’ve had a worthwhile day. I don’t know why that is — it likely goes back to the way I was raised by my parents. If you don’t have that same inner sense, maybe try doing something for someone else — something that lets you see their reaction. And then see how that feels for you at that moment and throughout the day. I bet you’ll find that you feel better than you might have otherwise.

How can our readers follow you online?

Twitter: @KeithDRenshaw

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