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Dr. Shainna Ali of ‘Integrated Counseling Solutions’: “Adolescence is such a formative time for mental health”

In the process of reflecting about what your personal mental wellness looks like, you will notice that examples of what does not fit will arise as well. Take a closer look at this list as it may help you form an idea of what your signs of slipping away from mental wellness may be. Say […]

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In the process of reflecting about what your personal mental wellness looks like, you will notice that examples of what does not fit will arise as well. Take a closer look at this list as it may help you form an idea of what your signs of slipping away from mental wellness may be. Say for example you consider that when you are in your optimal state of mental wellness you are able to be present and engaged in social activity. This may also help you to consider that lacking presence, withdrawing from engagement, or avoiding social activities altogether could be signs of slipping. Consider these signs as yellow flags. Being cognizant of these signs helps you to be as proactive as possible in terms of tending to your mental wellness.


As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Shainna Ali.

Dr. Shainna Ali is a mental health counselor, educator and advocate. Dr. Shainna owns Integrated Counseling Solutions, a mental health counseling and consulting practice located in Central Florida. She enjoys teaching counselor education courses to future clinicians, but also values spreading mental health awareness on a larger scale. She advocates for mental health through her blog A Modern Mentality and serves on the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Association of Central Florida. In addition, she is also the author of The Self-Love Workbook and The Self-Love Workbook for Teens and is looking forward to releasing a new addition to this series in 2021.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

As long as I can remember, I have always been fascinated by people. Even as a young girl I was intrigued by diversity and interested in learning what makes us unique, as well as what unifies us. For most of my life I didn’t know very much about mental wellness, hence, I had no idea how much mental well-being played on each of these variables that I was so interested in.

As I was studying cultural anthropology and prepping for the LSAT, I came to learn about mental health at a personal level. It was not until I was in college that I had the ability and resources to realize that I had been struggling with anxiety, likely for quite some time. As I delved into my healing journey it felt as though I turned up the light on my previously unrecognized yet dim view the world. My academic studies shifted as well as the immersive lessons beyond the classroom. I realized that mental health is important for each and every one of us, but like myself, I realized that most people did not know this or even if they did, they did not know how to foster mental wellness. It was then that my passion of helping others foster mental wellness chose me and I couldn’t imagine being in any other path today.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Once I found my professional calling in mental health, my path quickly seemed clear to: get my clinical mental health counseling degree, gain experience in the field, return to strengthen my knowledge in pursuit of a counselor education degree, and share my passion for mental health education by training clinicians. It seemed obvious and practical back then, and it certainly put my anxious mind at ease. But when it came time to apply to tenure-seeking professor positions, things did not feel as aligned as they did in the years prior. Nothing truly felt right. At the time I told myself it was my anxiety understandably surfacing around this big, new step.

I returned to the methods of mental health exploration that had helped me in the years prior to try to figure out what was really going on. It just didn’t fit anymore. My views about mental health education and advocacy were not the same as when I started out as a new counseling student. I still loved teaching and research, but my perception by this time evolved to the notion that genuine mental health advocacy is inclusive of mental health awareness and education for all people, not just professionals. This was where I opted for the non-traditional path of fostering this initiative rather than pursuing a career in academia. If I had blindly followed by career checklist, I would not have made the detour that brought me to the fulfilling, purposeful path I am privileged to walk today.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

N/A

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?

I have no doubt in my mind that I would be in a different place, and perhaps even a different person, without the help from my therapists. While I will keep them anonymous to protect their confidentiality, not naming them should not distill the respect and gratitude I have for them.

Other professionals seek help from other professionals, especially when it comes to wellness. Physicians see physicians, and we wouldn’t bat an eye at this reality, however, mental health stigma permeates into the profession as well. Although most practitioners can taut the value of therapy, not everyone who provides counseling has actually been in counseling. For me, my strengths-based view of mental wellness is not something I share as a method for clients; I truly believe in this method on a wider scale and that encompasses my well-being. Not only have I been changed for the better through therapy, I also plan on utilizing therapy as-needed for the rest of my life.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

When I address this with colleagues and counseling students, I find it helpful to start backwards.

We need to recognize that burnout can affect anyone, and mental health professionals are not immune by the mere essence of their careers. Burnout isn’t to be taken lightly as the implications range from inconvenient to dangerous. It is our ethical responsibility to invest in our wellness in order to prevent burnout. Moreover, our wellness does not need to be reduced to a burnout prevention method, it can be a catalyst for our ability to thrive in not only our profession, but in our lives.

With all things considered, self-care is non-negotiable. If we wish to better help our clients, we must be willing to practice what we preach and prioritize our wellness. The “fill your cup” metaphor is often used when it comes to self-care. For anyone in a helping profession, a primary goal of filling your cup is to have they foundational nourishment available for yourself and for others in need.

I understand that the concept of self-care is often refined to a limiting scope. I encourage all individuals who are investing in their wellness to broaden their perspectives by defining what self-care means to them. In our time, many fall victim to marketing schemes that may lead you to thinking that one specific thing will be the cure to all of your wellness woes. I wish that were the case, however, humans are much more complex and therefore self-care may not be as simple as it seems. Self-care is a practice rather than a “one and done” task. In addition, as we grow and evolve, our needs may change as well. Further, self-care, the tangible actions that you take to meet your needs, may only scrape the surface of your wellness. Instead, the wider concept of self-love is often a key cornerstone in fostering wellness. Finally, we do not have to traverse this journey alone. We can prevent burnout by establishing collaborative community systems and seeking professional help.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Mental wellness is essential in creating a healthy work culture. A group collaborates best when all parts are functioning well. Leaders should value employee mental health and create measures to assist workers in fostering their wellbeing. In recent years workplace wellness has gained attention, especially since the World Health Organization acknowledged burnout as a state of chronic stress just last year. Many workplace environments are making the connection that mental wellness is important, however, it’s important that methods align with this shift in priority as well. It’s one thing for an institution to allude to wellness in their mission statement and another to authentically align with this mission by methods such as supporting mindful moments, encouraging taking mental health days, creating genuine check-ins, and/or providing mental health resources.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.

(1) A foundational step in fostering mental wellness is to take a moment to acknowledge that mental health is indeed an essential part of wellness. This step may seem rudimentary, but it is crucial. Oftentimes we see wellness as a physical concept, however, mental wellbeing is a crucial component in improving our quality of life. Reminding yourself that mental health is important helps to keep you accountable to investing in your mental wealth and it also helps you to be mindful of pitfalls such as minimizing or ignoring your mental health. The Self Love Workbook has a practical activity to help with this first step. Even without the workbook, you can still begin this practice by defining what wellness means to you.

(2) Once you acknowledge the importance of mental wellness you can benefit from tailoring your conceptualization. What does mental wellness look like for you? Say for example you defined mental wellness as a balance of your thoughts and emotions. Then, a hint to deciphering your mental wellbeing may be to explore these two areas.

Considering what mental wellness means for you can be done with visualization. When you are mentally well, what does life look like for you? When exploring this reflection you can use memories of times in which you were very well to help decode the key components of your mental wellness. On the other hand, you can project into the future what optimal wellness would look like for you to help you prioritize areas of mental wellness that need to be incorporated in your life.

Since the ingredients for mental wellbeing can differ slightly from person to person, you are encouraged to stay focused on yourself. However, this depth of self-reflection can become intimidating. If this occurs, you can find some inspiration by thinking about individuals you believe are mentally well and considering what are key components that may work for them. Especially if these are like-minded individuals or folks you relate to, you may be able to use these external examples as a way to reflect on what does or does not fit for you.

(3) In the process of reflecting about what your personal mental wellness looks like, you will notice that examples of what does not fit will arise as well. Take a closer look at this list as it may help you form an idea of what your signs of slipping away from mental wellness may be. Say for example you consider that when you are in your optimal state of mental wellness you are able to be present and engaged in social activity. This may also help you to consider that lacking presence, withdrawing from engagement, or avoiding social activities altogether could be signs of slipping. Consider these signs as yellow flags. Being cognizant of these signs helps you to be as proactive as possible in terms of tending to your mental wellness.

(4) Committing to mental wellness is a journey that encompasses the lifespan. You can be aware and proactive with these reflections, but also note that it’s natural and normal to have difficult days that you may slip. This ebb and flow is to be expected, however, if we are not conscientious about the process, it’s possible to sail far from our path.

Continued mental wellness requires an ongoing assessment to keep you aligned with your intention. This assessment does not need to be constant or critical, instead, it can be a helpful check-in to either validate when you are on the right path or to signal when you may need to readjust. Knowing what mental wellness does and doesn’t look like for you serves as a template for you to re-assess your mental wellness. This can be done as-needed, however, especially in the beginning, it can be helpful to create a habit of checking in with yourself. I have worked with clients who made this a daily practice and others who have benefited from a quarterly checkpoint. Consider your own personality and what your wellness goals are in order to discern a timeframe that fits best for you.

(5) I hope that in seeing these practical steps you are encouraged to take charge of your mental wellness. However, I do not wish to create a misleading notion that this process is always easy. You will likely encounter some bumps in your process. Please do not get discouraged when this happens. I encourage you to use these obstacles as opportunities for growth. Encountering problems in your path does not mean that you are incapable of being mentally well, it may simply mean that you need help. If you were driving and your car started to stall due to a malfunction, it does not mean you will never be able to drive again. It may simply mean that something needs to be fixed, and perhaps that you require assistance in that process. Therefore, these steps are meant to be an encouraging start, but they may signal where you need professional help and in no way replace the need for therapy.

Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.

Since mental wellness is a lifelong journey, it is imperative that we do not fall into the trap of abandoning this process due to retirement. As with any other milestone, we can expect that your life may look quite different, however, if you choose, you may have more time to dedicate to fostering optimal mental wellness post-retirement. Moreover, any moment of drastic change in our life is likely to affect our mental wellbeing. Hence, this can be a key moment to utilize a wellness check-in for yourself. Within this reassessment, you may also benefit from circling back to step one to make sure you are utilizing a version of mental wellness that fits your present lifestyle.

How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?

Adolescence is such a formative time for mental health. In this phase you are learning about who you are and how you fit into the world around you. Due to gains in cognitive developmental during this stage, an exciting change is that teens can understand mental wellness in a way that they were not privy to in the past. Further, laying the foundation for one’s mental wellness practice during this time can lead to benefits in adulthood as well. It was this exciting recognition that led me to create The Self Love Workbook for Teens. The 5 strategies shared above can be implemented by teens. In addition, adolescents can benefit from learning communication, emotional regulation, and coping skills as well.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you?

My favorite book of all time is Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This book completely changed that way I viewed my life. Without ruining the story, learning about Frankl’s experience in the Holocaust and his mentality greatly impacted the way I viewed the empowering role of mindset in mental wellness. Not only has this book provided a foundation for how I view mental wellness, but it has influenced the strengths-based method that I use personally, that I share with my clients, and that I incorporate into my mental health advocacy.

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

I firmly believe that as a society we would benefit from dismantling the notion that self-love is selfish. I cannot take credit for this moment, as I know that many who value mental wellness have acknowledged the essentiality of self-love in being able to foster wellness and subsequently help others. A key component in this misconception is the notion that when we fuel ourselves, we are inherently taking from others. This logic is flawed. Is it possible for folks to be selfish and careless? Yes. However, when someone dedicates to their personal growth journey, it is often with others in mind. A parent who invests in wellness is better equipped to take care of their child, a teacher who invests in wellness is better equipped educate their students, a provider invests in wellness is better equipped to help their customer etc. This focus helps not only one individual, but has benefits can the permeate into a wider system such as a family system or community.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

A quote that has become a mantra in my life is “perspective is power.”

I’ve been saying it for years, and as far as I know, it’s anonymous.

This came about when I was first exploring my mental wellness and existential philosophy. I found it quite empowering to recognize that while we cannot control the world around us, there is a lot we can do regarding the world within us. In dissecting my thoughts and beliefs, I realized how much every thought carries weight. Knowing that energy is limited, how different would the world be if we all chose to make the conscious decision to frame our thoughts in the healthiest way we can? This does not negate or minimize one’s experience, but it forces us to consider the role we play in allowing our mindset to affect our wellbeing, and potentially others in turn. This quote has also allowed me to honor the uniqueness of each individual as well. For example, when experiencing an interpersonal conflict, there is likely a variance in perspectives. Regardless of right or wrong, knowing this helps me to make space to see my own mindset in addition to creating space to understand theirs.

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

You can find me on Instagram @DrShainna, Facebook @Integrated Counseling Solutions, or LinkedIn.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

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