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“Lead from within.” With Beau Henderson & Jay Shifman

Lead from within. Remember you’re there to be a member of the team, not above it. And remember, your employees are people with lives and problems and struggles of their own. Treat them as such. Put people over profit and in the long run, you’ll win because your people will want you to. As a […]

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Lead from within. Remember you’re there to be a member of the team, not above it. And remember, your employees are people with lives and problems and struggles of their own. Treat them as such. Put people over profit and in the long run, you’ll win because your people will want you to.


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

Jay Shifman is a Mental Health and Substance Misuse & Recovery Speaker, Coach, and Advocate, and the host of the Choose Your Struggle podcast. Ten years in recovery from a Substance Misuse struggle with prescription pills, Jay works with those ready to choose the next step in their Mental Health journey. Jay lives on Daniel Island, South Carolina with his wife, Lauren, and their dog, Nell. You can learn more at his links: https://campsite.bio/cys_jay.


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?

Thank you for having me. I love talking about these topics and anyone interested in helping to end the stigma around Substance Misuse and Mental Health is a good person in my book!

I’ve been working in this field for about five years. At that point, five years in recovery, I’d been pretty reluctant to talk about my experiences with struggles of Mental Health and Substance Misuse & Recovery. I saw it as a mark of shame; as a failure. But telling my story on stage for the first time in 2015 opened my eyes to the stigma that I was buying into and, even bigger than that, the good I could do by speaking out. Which is exactly what I’ve been doing ever since.

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

There’s a story I always tell. It happened early in my experience, almost five years ago, but it’s super powerful and gives me chills still to this day.

Not long after I started telling my story, I gave a TEDSalon speech. When I came off stage the manager of the event space was waiting for me. He asked if I wouldn’t mind coming with him to the kitchen. I had no idea what he was getting at but I said sure. I mean, who turns down an opportunity for food right?

Anyway, we get back to the kitchen and it turns out every person there was in recovery. It was a policy by the owner of the space to hire people in recovery. They had the speaker turned on so they could hear the TED talks and they’d heard mine. We ended up chatting for forty-five minutes or so, having a mini recovery meeting. To say there wasn’t a dry eye in the room would be an understatement!

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?

While I wish I had a fall-down funny story to tell, I’d rather focus on something that isn’t funny to me but has had a profound impact on who I am when I get up on stage.

I have a B.A. in Psychology and nine applied certificates. More importantly, I have a life-experience degree in struggling with issues of Mental Health and Substance Misuse and entering Recovery. But for many, many people in the Mental Health and Substance Misuse & Recovery field, these aren’t good enough.

The first few years after I started telling my story, I got passed on or dismissed routinely for not having a graduate degree. I can’t tell you how many times I was in discussion to speak or be quoted somewhere only to be told partway through the other party was withdrawaling because they learned I didn’t have an advanced degree.

The most egregious examples of this is TED. As I said before, I’ve spoken at a TEDSalon event, but I’ve been passed over, despite making short lists, three times for TEDx events. And all three of those times, the final list of speakers had one, maybe two people without an advanced degree and but with lived experience.

I don’t want to minimize the importance of those who spend years studying these issues. It’s incredibly important. But when you look at conferences and similar events, it’s always 80 to 90% research based. We have to fix this. Because we’re missing so many voices and this has real consequences. Especially in ignoring people of color and other systemically ignored communities.

Now, let me tell you how I learned from this. I actually started grad school, in a terrible program (how bad was it? It eventually got shut down by the state for knowingly teaching antiquated knowledge and I got a full refund), all because I let these voices get to me. I started believing I needed an advanced degree. And look, I may end up getting one for my own knowledge. But I wasn’t getting one for the right reasons before. I was getting one for their reasons.

Here’s the really sad thing to me. I read the books. I have a stack of psychology and applied history textbooks next to me as I answer this question. And I’d like to think that I prove I have the knowledge. That’s why I’m getting approach for quotes in the first place. So it’s not an education thing. It’s a coverage thing. Seeing those letters, PhD or Masters of X, they provide cover and imply expertise. But we all know people with degrees who are ignorant and people without them that are the smartest people we know.

We allow these ideas, few of which are based on anything other than “that’s how we do things here” thinking, to keep voices we need to be hearing out of the rooms and away from the tables. Yes, your research means you know a lot about these topics. But unless you live it, you don’t have the passion. You don’t have the feel! Let’s embrace those stories and celebrate those voices.

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?

Another story I’ve probably told to death but I love it and think it deserves hammering home.

Before I told my story for the first time, I was reluctant. I was scared! I thought I’d be judged and ostracized for being in recovery. Stigma is real, you know? For five years I believed this. For five years I hid.

But a buddy of mine was asking me repeatedly to speak at his storytelling event and one day while home having dinner with my parents, I told my Dad about this opportunity. He asked me why I’d been saying no and I told him how scared I was. This was back in 2015 and since then we’ve had a lot of conversations about what being in recovery means to me, but my Dad wasn’t as tuned in with that kind of stuff back then. Not that he was against it, just we hadn’t talked about as much.

But that makes his leadership here even more incredible. Without really digging deep into the situation he dismissed my bs, saying “fear is never a good reason not to do something.” And he was right to do that. I was being foolish. See his answer wasn’t even about the stigma I was buying into. Instead it was an honest appraisal that I was using the stigma as a crutch, allowing it to hold me back from taking a risk. And overcoming this reluctance, that one moment changed my life. It pushed me to tell my story and now, five years later, that one speech launched my career. So a lot of love and appreciation for my Dad.

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

There’s a saying in our line of work; you can’t help others if you’re not helping yourself. Selfcare isn’t selfish, but I totally understand how it can feel that way. A woman I interviewed for my podcast told me not long ago that she struggles with selfcare because in her work, any time not working can feel like you’re possibly costing someone their life. Which is really heavy! But if you think of it long term, taking an hour to go for a run, take a bath, paint, whatever, that keeps you in the game longer enabling you to save more lives in the long run, it’s worth it and important.

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

I think the most important thing is showing your humanity. A true leader is someone who leads from within. Be vulnerable. Be empathetic.

We all had those bosses who treated us like we’re lesser because they’re the boss and we’re the worker. Hopefully, we all had that boss who was the opposite, who came to work, rolled up their sleeves and jumped in with us. Those are the bosses we want to work harder for.

Lead from within. Remember you’re there to be a member of the team, not above it. And remember, your employees are people with lives and problems and struggles of their own. Treat them as such. Put people over profit and in the long run, you’ll win because your people will want you to.

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.

Treat Mental Health Like Physical Health

So my first tip is one that I think gets overlooked. Or at least, we hear too many voices telling us the opposite. And that is, we need to be treating our Mental Health like our physical health.

If you’re feeling crummy, you call your doctor. It’s pretty simple. But we don’t do that with our Mental Health. Mental Health American has a saying: Before Stage 4. They make the analogy, which I love, that if we think of our Mental Health as a disease like cancer, we’re currently waiting until Stage 4 to get help. Well, no wonder we have such a crisis of Mental Health in this country.

So a few ways to make this happen. One, we need to literally approach Mental Health like we do our physical health. Think about all you do for your physical health: you eat right, you work out, you see multiple specialists. But for your Mental Health? Not much. Maybe you see a therapist. Maybe take a little time for self-care or mindfulness. Maybe.

Be willing to shop around. Go to one therapist for work in one area, and another for other focuses. Work with a Mental Health coach and do mindfulness exercises (more on that next). Be aware of what you’re feeding your brain. Treat your mind like your body!

But second, to make all this happen, we need to push insurance companies to cover what they’re supposed to be covering. Parity is the law of the land but it’s a farce. A NYT study found that as much as 80% of one popular insurance company’s Mental Health offerings are either no longer in business, not taking new patients or completely fabricated. That’s unacceptable. And while they’re the most egregious example of this, they’re not alone. Many psychologists don’t take insurance because the insurance companies have made it impossible for them to do so. It’s going to take us pushing our providers to make a change. Human Resource contacts, busines leaders, push your insurance providers to provide extensive Mental Health coverage. If this becomes a financial issue, I guarantee you they’ll quickly begin to comply.

Practice Mindfulness

Number two. As I mentioned before, everyone should be practicing mindfulness! I understand the reluctance though. We’ve been erroneously led to believe that the only way to practice mindfulness is through meditation. And this simply isn’t true.

Let me be clear, meditation is great. For many, many people, it’s an incredibly healthy way to practice mindfulness. But it’s hard. And for hordes of others, an inability to meditate in a beneficial way can be a turn off to practicing mindfulness in the future, especially if we continue to push this idea that mindfulness = meditation.

In fact, there are many other ways to practice mindfulness. Deep breathing exercises, daily check ins, and positive affirmations are just a few other ways you can achieve a level of mindfulness that is both beneficial and, I’d say, necessary, to maintaining a fit level of Mental Health. But it takes work. I work with clients on these ideas a lot because they take practice to get right. So do a quick Google search for nonmeditation Mindfulness practices and try a few!

Diversify Our Voices

Number three is something we all need to do, in every avenue of our life but especially in the Mental Health and Substance Misuse & Recovery fields and that is diversifying our voices. Just recently, the National Council for Behavioral Health announced their headline speakers at their virtual conference, and they are four white men, one Black man and one white woman. Which is pretty much the norm in our world.

Here’s the thing, not only does this convey the message that white, male voices matter more, but it doesn’t allow for a diversity in thought and experiences. The more diversity we have in voice, the more diversity we’ll have in views and ideas. For example, recently, a newly created podcast has become one of my favorites. It’s called In Recovery and it’s hosted by Dr. Nzinga Harrison. Dr. Harrison is a woman of color and her takes on important topics in the Mental Health and Substance Misuse sphere are incredible. I want to hear from more people like Dr. Harrison and less old white men. And if we do this, I promise you we’ll have some incredible shifts in the industry as new ideas take hold.

But this is going to take intentionality. We all have to CHOOSE to do better. We have to call out these organizations and make the shift in our personal lives. We have to show organizations like Nat Con that if they don’t change, we’ll leave them behind.

Tell Your Story

Number four is pretty simple but needs to be said. Tell. Your. Story. Full stop. It can be scary. I totally get that. As I said earlier, I lived in that fear for five years. So I fully understand. But when you tell your story, people listen. And it creates a snowball that forces change. I can’t tell you how many people have reached out to tell me what my story meant to them or inspired them to do. And that has an impact on me too! It makes me feel incredible every time.

We hear this idea a lot but we don’t see it for what it does. When we tell our story, we chip away at stigma. It’s easier to hate something you can’t put a face on. I love it, LOVE IT, when I’m in a group and someone says something derogatory about drug users or people who struggle with substances. Or even just something erroneous based on the lies they themselves have been told. I take those moments to challenge them, not in a finger in their face kind of way but more of an educational moment.

When you picture “Addict” or “Substance Misuse” most people don’t picture me. They picture a stereotype. So when I challenge them, it’s a way to knock a bit of that stigma wall down and enlighten. And that’s how we win. We win when we destroy that stereotype.

Express Gratitude!

Finally, let’s end on a happy note. Number five, is one of my favorite ways to spread joy, and that’s expressing gratitude. I can’t say enough about gratitude. I do so purposely as often as I can, from little actions like thank you texts and calls to the two intentional acts of gratitude I do every week.

Monday morning, I post on LinkedIn thanking a group of people or an organization for their hard work. I highlight why I think they’re so incredible so others will follow them and/or support them as well. And on Friday, I Venmo someone I respect $5 with a message of thanks. I then post that note on Instagram to again highlight this awesome person and bring them some love. People love it, I get a lot of great responses and it makes me feel good to thank people who deserve it and don’t always get the support they deserve.

Finally, at the end of every one of my podcast episodes, I give my listeners a little homework to do. I call them Good Eggs, and they are good deeds, intentional acts of gratitude, that spread love and foster connectivity. We need more of this. We’re missing empathy and vulnerability in our society. It’s dying out! So I hope that by making it intentional, we can create more of it. And studies have been done that show expressing gratitude releases dopamine in our brains and actually makes us feel good! So go express some gratitude!

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.

The most important thing is changing your perspective and definition of success. If you spent your adult life, thirty to forty years, chasing the definition of success our American society ascribes to, the nine-to-five, white picket fence house and retirement with a handshake and a watch, actually arriving at retirement can be really hard on people. Because we don’t glorify retirement the way we should.

In our society, what’s the first question we ask someone we meet? It’s, what do you do? Our jobs are our defining qualifications. So when someone retires, their identity changes with it. Which can be wonderful if you embrace it.

I think of my grandparents, my mom’s parents, who retired not long after I was born. I knew them as these globe-trotting, community investing and enjoying ballers who showed me that retirement is awesome! I was incredibly lucky in that way. Not everyone is. I applaud everyone I meet who embraces their retirement. You’ve earned this. So do you!

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?

You are the future. I hope, for your sake, we Millennials will treat you better than the Boomers have treated us and the Gen Xers. But if we don’t, as a whole, let us know! Hold us accountable. Make us walk the walk after talking the talk.

Boomers have left this country in rough shape. So I think you have an ally in our generation. Nevertheless, you have all the right in the world to feel the anxiety your generation feels on a broad scale. It’s ok to be pessimistic about the future of our earth and our country. I can’t promise you it will get better soon. I wish I could, but I can’t.

Here’s what I can promise: many of us care and many of us not only will listen but actively want to hear from you! Speak your truths, tell your stories, feel your feelings and reach out to us. Let’s make change together.

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

I have to give a shout out to a book I return to time and again: Dreamland by Sam Quinones.

The book preaches something I try to remind people of all the time. The story should not be the drugs. The story should be the people behind the drugs. To quote a law enforcement friend of mine, “the U.S. has never solved a drug crisis.” We haven’t. We’ve always moved on to the next. Sam does an incredible job of highlighting this in his book. Yes, he discusses the opioids and explores the drug stream. But more importantly, he tells the stories of those struggling with substance misuse and how it has ruined their lives. It should be a required read. I’m talking taught in schools required! Needless to say, I’m a huge Sam Quinones fan.

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. 🙂

As I said before, Tell. Your. Stories. It’s really that simple. Everyone has a story in the Mental Health and Substance Misuse & Recovery world. But we get it into our head that “oh, that bullying I experienced wasn’t that bad,” or “ I mean sure, my Mom/Dad/Brother/Sister did X but people have it way worse so I shouldn’t speak up,” which is just silly. Trauma doesn’t care! Trauma impacts individuals differently. You and I can experience the same event and it will have vastly different effects on us. Speak up. Talk to someone. We can’t heal if we don’t speak and if we don’t speak we allow stigma to flourish.

And practice mindfulness. Every day.

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

Well, besides “fear is never a good reason not to do something,” which I already discussed, I’ll go with my hashtag, my personal brand, Choose Your Struggle! Let me explain.

When I was struggling, I didn’t get to choose what I struggled for. Simply getting off my coach and doing something with my day, avoiding withdrawal symptoms, those were my struggles. Now? I get to choose what I struggle for.

Here’s how it relates. We live in a world where we’re supposed to care about everything all the time. But even more than that, we get caught up in what is expected from us and never take the time to think, “what do I want for my life?”

When I work with clients, I helped them find the answer to that question. Because it doesn’t matter what Mom or Dad or Brother or Sister or the hordes on Twitter want for us if we’re not happy. Society tells us to fit into its box. But we’re all vastly different people and if we’re ignoring our happiness to better fit into society’s box, we’re going to flame out. We’re going to crash and burn. And when that happens, it’s not good for anyone!

This idea isn’t new. Essentially what I’m preaching is, work toward self-actualization and embracing a life that makes you happy. You only get one, as far as we know. Choose Your Struggle!

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

I use a Campsite page to keep all my links in one place. You can find it here: https://campsite.bio/cys_jay

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

Thank you for covering these topics. Only through talking about them, only through telling our stories can we break down stigma and make sure all those who need care get the care they deserve. Spread some love, and Choose Your Struggle!

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