Dr. Robyn Mehlenbeck of George Mason University: “You are not expected to learn everything”

You are not expected to learn everything — no one can. That is why consultation with colleagues and recognizing when you need someone else on the team is critical. Even today, there are situations that come up that I have never encountered; I consult with my peers to make sure I am thinking things through! As a part […]

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You are not expected to learn everything — no one can. That is why consultation with colleagues and recognizing when you need someone else on the team is critical. Even today, there are situations that come up that I have never encountered; I consult with my peers to make sure I am thinking things through!

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Robyn Mehlenbeck.

Dr. Robyn Mehlenbeck is a Child and Adolescent Board Certified Clinical Psychologist who specializes in working with adolescents and kids with medical conditions, including Type I Diabetes. Her recent research focuses on weight management for Latino youth and families. Currently, she is a Clinical Professor at Mason and the Director of the GMU Center for Psychological Services, a clinic committed to training graduate students and providing evidence-based, accessible services for the Northern Virginia community.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

In college, I thought I wanted to be a sport psychologist and did a double major in psychology and kinesiology — I thought sport psychology meant helping to teach running backs not to fumble the ball! As my studies progressed, I realized I was passionate about working with teenagers. This is an amazing age; teens are discovering who they are, who they want to be. They are passionate, impressionable, and motivated in ways that are inspiring. Then, I fell in love with working with teens who struggled with health issues such as eating disorders, weight management, type I diabetes, and other medical issues. There was a chance to make a huge, direct impact on not only the teen and their longer-term health, but the entire family, who often (understandably) focused solely on the medical issues going on and not the emotional ramifications. Family patterns make a huge difference in health and wellness, as well as in the emotional development of children and teens. As my career progressed, teaching became a prominent portion of my work as well — helping psychology interns, postdoctoral and medical students, residents and fellows understand how family systems are critical to helping children overcome life obstacles, including medical issues. In moving to George Mason University and directing the GMU Center for Psychological Services (which serves the local community rather than the Mason students), I had the opportunity to shape this perspective earlier in training for clinical psychology graduate students while also developing top notch therapy and testing services that were accessible to everyone in the community, regardless of income — a rarity in mental healthcare!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

One of my most interesting stories involved my passion for teaching — once an educator, always an educator! As an educator in a medical setting (Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University/Hasbro Children’s Hospital), I always worked with trainees from different disciplines. When I was a patient getting a breast biopsy, a complication arose, and a medical fellow needed to determine how best to stop the bleeding. She asked if the resident who was working with her could administer an injection as I was already numb, and it would give him practice. As an attending in a teaching hospital, I said “of course.” He then passed a HUGE needle across my face to reach the area he needed to inject. Fortunately, I am not needle phobic, but I could not resist this teaching opportunity, and I asked what he would have done if I had been needle phobic and had fainted. Both the resident and fellow immediately realized the error and discussed the alternative options, including how to handle a patient who had fainted. I made sure he was not embarrassed, but I also guarantee he never put another needle in front of a patient’s face!

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My biggest mistakes all involved not trusting myself and not asking for the help I needed. When I was a young psychologist, I felt strongly that I needed to prove myself both to my clients and to my colleagues. There is tremendous pressure to look like you know what you are doing, especially if you are younger than the clients you are working with, or don’t yet have kids but are working with families! There is also tremendous pressure to feel that you can “do it all.” At one point, I had promised to do some trainings, was seeing patients through a day hospital program for significantly ill children, keeping up with some research responsibilities and also had a young baby who didn’t like to sleep. Fortunately, I had a wonderful colleague who shared her concerns with me that I was doing too much, and I worked out a way to temporarily scale back some professional responsibilities until we got our son sleeping a little better!

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?

Honestly, there have been several professional mentors who have made a huge impact, including Dr. Lori Stark, Dr. Elissa Jelalian and Dr. Nancy Lanphear; but the most important person in my success has been my husband, John. He has been my number one fan since we met and has followed me through several moves for my career. He would pick up extra slack at home if I needed to focus on work more, and also kept an eye on when I got too focused on work. I could never have been the mother, professional, or mentor that I am today if not for him!

Ok perfect. Now let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

Mental Health is critical to every part of our life, yet some people who most need support don’t have access to it. Thus, being part of a training clinic — where I both help teach others to become the best mental health professionals that they can be, as well as one that specifically targets accessibility to the wider community — is truly a dream. I hope that by decreasing stigma, focusing on skills-based treatments that research shows us work, and making those services available to all — regardless of income, race, ethnicity, etc. — and helping trainees embrace these values as well, we will have a butterfly effect on mental health!

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.


Especially in this time of pandemic, when we are all moving less, this is critical. Getting outside, taking a walk, absorbing sunlight, walking up & down your stairs, doing a dance party — anything to keep you moving will help your mood.


Getting enough sleep helps keep everything else in perspective. There are skills to use if you have sleep difficulties, and teens really do need much more sleep than they get!


Everyone loves stories about grand gestures of kindness, like when someone in front of you pays for your takeout food; these acts make it easy to feel grateful. But focusing on the little things you are grateful for each day (even if it is just being able to get out of bed that day!) can help shift your mindset. Small random acts of kindness don’t have to cost anything and contribute to your own sense of gratitude!

Everything in moderation

We hear a lot about diets, the “thin ideal,” and the importance of eating healthy. However, treats are also important — in moderation. For some, enjoying a glass of wine is healthy; but for others, it can be a trigger. I love chocolate and am able to indulge in moderation (most of the time!).

Social connection

The pandemic is also highlighting — even for those who are socially anxious — how critical social connection is for all of us. Creativity is key these days, and developing and/or maintaining social connections is critical, whether it is socially distanced waves from across the street, zoom family calls, or games via the internet. Even just an old fashioned phone call can make us feel more connected!

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

In addition to basic self-care skills, I would love to start a movement focused on gratitude. Taking a brief moment to focus on gratitude can lead to huge changes in mood and behavior. Imagine if all of us focused on something we were grateful for instead of what is wrong or missing in your life! Writing down three things you are grateful for each day can lead to significant mood improvement. I would love to see this lead to more of a sense of community and all of us taking care of those who need help in any way.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

Relationships matter — Don’t be afraid to ask questions or talk to a professor or potential mentor and ask if you can buy them a cup of coffee in exchange for 15–20 minutes of their time! They can always say no, and you are no worse off than you started!

You are not expected to learn everything — no one can. That is why consultation with colleagues and recognizing when you need someone else on the team is critical. Even today, there are situations that come up that I have never encountered; I consult with my peers to make sure I am thinking things through!

Wait 24 hours before responding to someone’s nasty statement — This one is key. If I have an emotional reaction to something, I am more likely to say something I would regret and, in this age of email and social media, it does not go away. Thus, my “24 hour” rule helps me stop to think through how I can best respond.

Ask for things — including salary, raises, benefits, etc.! Data clearly shows that women do not advocate for themselves or ask for things at nearly the same rate that men do. This results in long term salary inequities as well as unequal benefits. ASK! Again, the worst that can happen is that they say “no.”

“Balance” is a myth — Work and family life will never be in perfect balance, and you will feel like a failure if you try to achieve this. Rather, accept that, at times, work takes more attention, and at other times, family takes more attention.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Mental Health — As a family systems and pediatric psychologist, my hope is that most people will recognize that seeking mental health services is nothing to be ashamed of. There are excellent therapies and skills that everyone can benefit from and taking advantage of therapy does not mean you will be in therapy “forever.” Parents are so critical to helping their children, and should be involved in any therapy their children engage in. We need to do a much better job at making therapy affordable and accessible to all, recognizing that different groups need different things in therapy.

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

Facebook — GMU Center for Psychological Services

Instagram — gmucps

Twitter — @DrRobMehlenbeck


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