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“Even good therapists see therapists, I’d like to help end the ongoing stigma of mental illness”

With Maria C. Inoa


If I could inspire a change in mental health, first, I would want to end the ongoing stigma of mental illness. The truth is that good therapists even see therapists. I want to see people getting the help they need. The mental health field is largely undervalued which only perpetuates the stigma. Secondly, I’m passionate about changing corporate America to support mental health more. The health of any family unit trickles down from the top, the working adults. There are some companies that are doing a great job with this, but there’s so much room for improvement across the board.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Maria C. Inoa, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, public speaker, and owner of Full Potential Counseling in Florida. She specializes in working with women to build healthier relationships with themselves and others. With over 15 years experience in the mental health field, she has been featured in Yahoo News, HealthiNation, and Thriveworks.


Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! What is your backstory?

I was born and raised in Daytona Beach, Florida. I had a relatively “normal” childhood. I obtained both my undergrad and graduate degrees at Florida State University. I initially was a psychology major but switched to social work after learning more about it. I knew I had a strong desire to help people deal with their identified issues and problems. I have a family member with mental health issues and got my first taste of counseling because of this. I also went to counseling by my own choice my freshman year of college as I adjusted to being in a new city and on my own for the first time. Frankly, I loved it.

I initially worked in a rural area of Florida in an alternative school setting. It was a very eye opening experience just starting out in the field. The youngest child I saw come into the school was 5 years old, meaning his school kicked him out and sent him to the alternative school due to his alleged out of control behaviors. After that, I worked in community based agencies providing mental health therapy to children and their families in the schools and in their homes. The children came from families that were either at or below the poverty threshold. It was very difficult but meaningful work. I began private practice work in 2011 and now focus my practice on helping women increase their self-esteem and self-worth while addressing relational issues they are experiencing with friends, co-workers, family, or romantic partners.

With the holiday season upon us, many people are visiting and connecting with relatives. While family is important, some of them can be incredibly challenging. How would you define the difference between a difficult dynamic and one that’s unhealthy?

I would describe a difficult dynamic as one where you and the other person have different interests, values, and/or beliefs. For example, your Uncle Tom has very different political beliefs from you, so it may be difficult to converse with him at times.

On the other hand, an unhealthy dynamic would be one where the other person has moved past being difficult and is abusive and/or a bully. This is often seen with emotionally or verbally abusive behavior, such as calling you names or putting you down. An unhealthy dynamic tears you down as a person and is much more severe than just a difficult dynamic.

Families have a large part to play in our overall mental health. While some members may be champions for wellness, others may trip triggers. In families where celebrating separately is not an option, what advice would you give about engaging both types of relatives?

I would say first, be cordial. We can’t be close to all of our relatives, so be kind and polite on your end. Second, I feel it’s crucial to know yourself. It’s important to recognize what or who may set you off so you can take action to remove yourself from them if necessary. On the other hand, if you know a particular family member has always been very understanding of your mental illness, I recommend letting them know you may need their help or even asking them to sit with you at certain times during the gathering to help you feel more supported.

We often hear about “toxic relationships.” Do you believe there is a difference between a toxic family and an unhealthy one? If so, how would you advise someone to handle a toxic family member?

In my opinion, an unhealthy family and a toxic family are one in the same. As I mentioned above, It’s so important to recognize what or who may set you off. If you feel like you are being pushed into a corner, then step away. Make an excuse to step outside, go to your car, or even escape to the restroom. In some cases, the situation may be so toxic that it is unhealthy to stay, and that is understandable. It’s okay. I do not believe it is worth it to stay, just because it’s the holidays, if it’s going to negatively affect your well-being.

Can you share about a time where you helped someone overcome a challenging family member?

There are many instances where I’ve worked with people who have a close family member that is toxic. In those instances, we come up with a plan of how to deal with them when they are around. It’s not usually possible to avoid this person completely, so we identify boundaries to put in place and identify what works best for my client in order to cope with the other person’s toxic behaviors.

Managing mental health in high stress situations is challenging and although holiday gatherings are only a few days a year, they can make a major impact on overall wellness. What 5 strategies do you suggest using to maintain mental health when faced with an unhealthy family dynamic?

1. Know your triggers — if your Uncle Tom tends to set you off with his very different political beliefs, you may need to limit your time speaking to him. Maybe grandma likes to comment on your appearance in a not-so-nice way. Say hi, give her a hug, then find someone else to engage in conversation with.

2. If you go with someone, have a signal to let them know when you need to take a break by getting some fresh air or taking a brief walk.

3. Have an exit strategy. If you are feeling your anxiety rise, try to identify a place you can go to be alone ahead of time. Maybe it’s a spare bedroom, a bathroom, or even your car. When you get there, close your eyes and focus on your breathing taking good, cleansing breaths in and out. Work on relaxing all areas of your body starting with the top of your head to the bottoms of your feet (called a “body scan”).

4. Don’t sit for too long. Get up and move after 20 minutes or so.

5. Don’t overstuff yourself so you feel like crap, but try to pace your eating.

What advice would you give to family members who are allies of someone struggling with mental illness at these gatherings? How can they support strong mental health without causing friction with other members of the family?

If you have a family member that you know may be struggling, keep an eye on them, and check on them. Ask them if they need to step away. Sit or stand next to them. Let them know you are there if you need them.

If you could inspire a movement or a change in mental wellness, what would it be? How can people support you in this mission?

I adore the quote “be kind for everyone is fighting a hard battle” because the reality is, life is hard for everyone. I’ve yet to meet someone who has a perfect life and wouldn’t change anything. Everyone is struggling in some way and could benefit from kindness. We see people who appear to have it all, but beneath the surface, they are hurting in some way.

If I could inspire a change in mental health, first, I would want to end the ongoing stigma of mental illness. The truth is that good therapists even see therapists. I want to see people getting the help they need. The mental health field is largely undervalued which only perpetuates the stigma. Secondly, I’m passionate about changing corporate America to support mental health more. The health of any family unit trickles down from the top, the working adults. There are some companies that are doing a great job with this, but there’s so much room for improvement across the board.

What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?

I’d love for you to check out my Facebook page, Full Potential Counseling (@fullpotentialcounselingjax) or connect with me on LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/maria-inoa-lcsw-b1529011b)

Thank you this was so inspiring!

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