In today’s society, it is too easy for people to hide their problems behind happy-looking social media posts if no one is willing to really ask how they are doing.
Asa part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Samantha Foster, co-founder and President of the nonprofit organization, Rethink Mental Health Incorporated. Rethink Mental Health Incorporated was founded to improve the way our society treats and views people suffering from mental health issues, especially children and young adults. As a result of its initiatives, more people can speak openly about what they are experiencing and seek professional help without fear of stigmatization, discrimination or harassment.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
All my life I have dealt with mental illness and mental health issues, both personally and among my friends and family members. I’ve seen countless people suffer in silence due to fear of judgment and stigmatization if they were to open up as being “not ok.” The injustice and marginalization caused by the mental health stigma in our society have been a point of pain and suffering for many, including myself, and I’ve always wanted to find a way to improve it. Finally, I was able to form a nonprofit organization with just that mission and it has been amazing to watch how much of an impact we have made in just a short period of time.
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?
Much of the stigma about mental illness comes from misinformation which influences actions and judgments. The stigma is influenced by the false belief that mental and behavioral disorders are personally controllable and if individuals cannot get better on their own, they are seen to lack personal effort, are blamed for their condition, and seen as personally responsible. It is influenced by the false idea that those with mental disorders as frightening, unpredictable, and strange. It is influenced by our false labeling of individuals with mental and behavioral illnesses as unequal or inferior.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
Our organization, Rethink Mental Health Incorporated, promotes mental health advocacy and education. As a result of our educational and advocacy initiatives, we are actively combating the stigma on mental health. Our flagship initiative is a middle school curriculum program designed to improve the way students treat themselves and others for years to come. We also promote mental wellbeing as a cause for change via our “Rethink the Stigma on Mental Health” Pledge. This pledge has gained significant traction, including being shared by actress and model Cara Delevingne on Instagram. All of our initiatives support the message that it is ok to not be ok! In spreading this message we hope to eliminate the stigma on mental health so people can speak openly about what they are experiencing or seek professional help without fear of judgment, discrimination or harassment.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Pledges to promote a movement or mission are not a new concept, but pledges that actually insight action over empty platitudes are. It is not uncommon for people to acknowledge mental health and the stigma it has in response to a newsworthy mental health event or on dedicated mental health awareness days. While we are grateful that these specific dates bring mental health into focus, the relevance is fleeting and the impact lasts no more than 24 hours. In addition, we believe the time for awareness has long passed. Now is the time to action, advocacy, and education to make long-term and wide-spread improvements in the way mental health is viewed and treated. As such, our Pledge to Rethink Mental Health is not a cause for virtue signaling, but a movement to combat the negative and critical stigmas about mental health issues and correct misconceptions and stereotypes. By pledging, you are choosing empowerment over shame. By pledging you are spreading awareness for the cause and helping those around you be more mindful and understanding of people who suffer from mental health issues. This is an active pledge that can make an active difference in the lives of those who suffer from mental illness.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals and our society as a whole should be more knowledgeable about mental health issues and separate the facts from the stigmas. They should speak out against the stigma and stand up for those being discriminated against or marginalized. They should become more empathetic; try to understand the struggle of those experiencing mental health issues. They should be an advocate for friends, family, and co-workers so they know they can speak to you without judgment if they are experiencing tough times or mental health issues. They should not equate people suffering from mental health issues as their mental illness. For example, instead of “he is bipolar,” “he is struggling with bipolar disorder.” They should consider the comparison between physical and mental illness. Ask yourself why you empathize, sympathize and support those with physical illnesses differently than mental illnesses? They should learn the warning signs of mental illness and help loved ones get help when they need it. They should make genuine connections. In today’s society, it is too easy for people to hide their problems behind happy-looking social media posts if no one is willing to really ask how they are doing.
The government should continue supporting mental health education in schools, but not in the form of labeling mental illnesses which further secludes those experiencing them. The focus in mental health education should be around basic coping skills, such as those taught in the H.E.A.R.T. social-emotional learning curriculum, that help all students gain emotional resilience. The government should secure funding for research and education on mental illnesses to promoting better and more easily accessible treatment options. The government should monitor pharmaceuticals and psychiatrists for the misdiagnosing and over-prescribing of unnecessary and potentially dangerous medications, where therapeutic solutions are best suited.
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?
I promote my own mental wellness with the following strategies:
- I remove toxic people from my life and work on creating healthy, supportive relationships with others. I grew up in a codependent relationship with my parents, which put a lot of emotional burden on me. I can easily slip into a pattern of wanting to please others even at the expense of my own happiness or wellness. To avoid this, I am mindful of the balance and boundaries in my relationships.
- I remember that I cannot control the future and I cannot change the past, I can only control myself in the here and now. It is easy to become consumed by a damaged past and obsessed with a hopeful future. When this happens you lose sight of the here and now and can find yourself unhappy even when things are going well. I remind myself to be in the moment and appreciate the little things every day.
- I am self-compassionate. Self-compassion is extremely hard for most people to have. The comfort, understanding, and support we give to our loved one in difficult times comes so naturally, but when we are undergoing hardships we often become our own worst critic. This negative self-talk only makes us more upset and emotionally broken, whereas practicing self-compassionate can support us from the inside-out.
- I remember that perspectives are within my control and therefore happiness is within my control. When we perceive experiences as black and white, or through a narrow-minded view, we limit our abilities to find the good or advantage of these experiences. We limit ourselves to negativity and therefore negative emotional reactions. Every experience, even the most devastating, can become an opportunity if you perceive it in that way.
- I practice self-care. Every day I try to do something kind for myself. It can be as small as eating a snack I enjoy or as big as treating myself to a spa day! Giving myself these joyful experiences reminds me that I can contribute to my own happiness and stress management.
- I talk about my feelings to avoid letting them get bottled up. While sometimes difficult, it is very important to allow yourself to both expresses and feels your emotions. Emotions are a natural, normal part of our daily life. When we shove our emotions down and avoid them, we are not removing them, we are only prolonging their inevitable release, which will likely occur unexpectedly as a result.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Honestly, my favorite resources for inspiration are the people I’ve met through my work with Rethink Mental Health Incorporated. These people are not mental health professionals, experts or celebrity influencers. Rather, they are everyday people, like you and me, who are brave and strong enough to open up about their experiences and take the next step to help others as well. These people are the true mental health champions and without them, I would not be able to reach and impact the thousands of people I do through my nonprofit organization.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!