My advice for family and friends is to listen empathetically. Voice your support and offer to participate in the treatment process in any way you can. Encourage your loved ones to speak to their doctor and seek out necessary treatment, helping them identify the needed resources.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Michael Genovese.
Michael Genovese, M.D., J.D., is a clinical psychiatrist, addiction specialist and the chief medical officer of Acadia Healthcare. Acadia operates a network of 585 behavioral health facilities with approximately 18,000 beds in 40 States, the United Kingdom and Puerto Rico.
Dr. Genovese is also the medical director of the Officer Safety and Wellness Committee of the FBI National Academy Associates (FBINAA), helping to equip first responders with the tools they need to withstand, recover and grow following repeated trauma. He has previously served as the Chief Medical Advisor to Acadia Healthcare’s Treatment Placement Specialists®, a service that helps individuals find the best and most appropriate professionals to work with based on their needs, as Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of Arizona, and as Chief Medical Officer of Sierra Tucson. He is a Diplomate of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, and a member of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry and the American Society of Addiction Medicine.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
My dad was an internal medicine physician and my mom was a nurse. I grew up around the hospital and conversations at home frequently revolved around the cases my parents were treating. While I had respect and admiration for doctors, I did not consider myself ready for medical school to follow in my parents’ footsteps. Instead, I pursued law school with an interest in defending doctors in medical malpractice cases. In the end, as much as I was interested in the judicial aspect, it was through learning and truly understand disease pathology I found my passion for medicine, the psychiatry specialty and my desire to help treat people suffering from diseases, including mental health conditions and substance abuse disorders.
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?
Mental health is often misunderstood, and attitudes and discriminating behavior directed towards individuals with mental health conditions are some of the biggest factors contributing to stigma. In my role as medical director of the Officer Safety and Wellness Committee of the FBINAA, I know first responders’ risk for behavioral disorders is exponentially higher due to the trauma they face daily, yet many aren’t getting the help they need, largely due to the stigma surrounding mental health and concern that their badge — and thereby, their identity — will be taken away. Many say they’re expected to be mentally and physically tough and deny or resist seeking mental health care due to discrimination, prejudice and ignorance.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
Education and language are the most important steps to demystify and normalize mental health illness and mental health treatment. I partner with the FBINAA to provide The Comprehensive Officer Resilience Train-the-Trainer Program, an initiative aimed at helping first responders across the country adopt strategies to withstand, recover and grow in the face of stressors. The program includes mental, physical, social and spiritual strategies to promote resilience, something that evidence shows can be learned. We teach officers the biology of trauma to ensure they understand post-traumatic stress is an injury, rather than a failure of character, and should be treated as such.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Like many Americans, the events of September 11, 2001 were a defining moment for me. I grew up in New York and had friends in the twin towers that day — some survived and some did not. One friend vividly remembers seeing firefighters and first responders ascend the stairs as he and many others ran down to safety. That always stuck with me. It’s moments like those that inspired the launch of the Resilience Train-the-Trainer Program. I am passionate about serving those who serve and it’s important that we help officers prioritize mental health so we can create healthier communities and save the lives of those we often rely upon to save our own.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
- Individuals: My advice for family and friends is to listen empathetically. Voice your support and offer to participate in the treatment process in any way you can. Encourage your loved ones to speak to their doctor and seek out necessary treatment, helping them identify the needed resources.
- Society: Be mindful of stigmatizing language. Anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are not a choice. Change your mindset and change your language around these issues. Be patient with the people around you, both at work and at home.
- Government: Policymakers should advocate for better insurance coverage for mental health services and treatment options. Leadership at the state and federal levels must also normalize mental health care by proactively offering support services and treatment. Support systems can include employee assistance programs, peer support policies and confidential resources, to name just a few, in addition to proactive training like the FBINAA resilience program.
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. Keep a healthy diet but allow for the occasional splurge. We know that a balanced diet helps maintain good physical health, which in turn helps us maintain good mental health. But we also need to leave room to celebrate food from time to time. Staying generally healthy can let us enjoy the occasional treat without the guilt of “cheating” weighing over us.
2. It gets said a lot, but don’t forget to laugh. Humor is a mature ego’s defense and can be a good way to cope with tense or stressful situations. If we can recognize the funny aspect of a situation — particularly a situation we can’t control — it can help make it manageable, both for us and those around us. My grandmother was right when she said, ‘we can either laugh or cry, but it is always better to laugh.’
3. Exercise regularly. There is no shortage of research that shows the link between exercise and mental health. Cardiovascular exercise in particular can be beneficial for our mental health, especially depression.
4. Celebrate others. Making other people feel good is therapeutic. Take a minute to compliment someone or offer to get coffee for a colleague. Tell someone something that you respect or admire about them — you’ll find their smile to be infectious.
5. Read. Read enough non-fiction to know what’s going on in the world, and enough fiction to avoid getting caught up in it.
6. Be present and willfully joyful. Try to take a step back and remember the world isn’t going to end if you don’t have an instant response. It’s okay if your phone goes to voicemail during your child’s school play. Let your children have a sleepover. Go on a date with your spouse. Be proactive in planning vacations or celebrations. Enjoy it now instead of putting it off until you achieve some arbitrary milestone.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I listen to the Medscape Psychiatry Podcast on occasion and enjoy it, but I prefer reading. I look forward to receiving my hard copies of The American Journal of Psychiatry, The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Journal of Addiction Medicine in the mail. I also like reading books about the history of medicine, the evolution of healing. One of my favorites is Doctors, The Biography of Medicine by Sherwin B. Nuland. My latest fictional read was Daniel Mason’s The Winter Soldier, which was about a medical student from Vienna who was thrust into real medical practice at a field hospital during World War I. Books have a way of reminding me of why I got into medicine in the first place.