Practice mental health parity. In other words, pay as much attention to mental as to physical health. Daily, brush (like your teeth), exercise, feed and rest your mind like you do your body. It is uncanny how we understand that without regular daily care and hygiene, our bodies would fall apart. But we seem to think that our minds and souls don’t require the same rigor of care. It is no wonder that depression is now one of the top causes of disability on the planet. I am far from perfect in this consideration but with maturity I have come to understand that I need to brush my mind everyday same as I brush my teeth. For me, this manifests as assuring that every day starts with at least 20 minutes of yoga and or meditation to a) loosen up my body which wakes up tight, and b) to settle my mind which wakes up racing. This routine is critical to avoiding “mental/emotional cavities” much like brushing and flossing my teeth.
As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Craig A. DeLarge a digital healthcare strategist and mental health advocate/caregiver. He and his wife founded The Digital Mental Health Project to produce research and education that enables a responsible adoption of digital tech in mental health contexts. In a social-cultural context where we hear so much about how digitaltech is damaging our mental health, Craig and his wife are on a mission to teach people how it can support mental health.
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?
My background is in marketing. I was a marketing professional who had worked for many years on both mental health drug brands as well as on mental health educational programs in collaboration with a local chapter of the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). My work with NAMI was precipitated as result of a family tragedy involving severe mental illness. The work I do today is with my own project: The Digital Mental Health Project, brings together these prior experiences with mental health to produce research and educational programs that enable responsible adoption of digitaltech in mental health and wellness situations.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
During the time I served as a mental illness caregiver, I naturally looked to my church for support with my difficult journey. Instead, I found that the church, a pillar of my spiritual wellness, was not equipped to aid in this life transition as it had with others. This became among the most interesting things that came out of this experience. I saw this gap as an opportunity to use my background to help these communities. As a result of my education and work with NAMI, I have had the privilege of developing educational programs for communities of faith that equip pastors, rabbis, imams, priests to better respond to the mental health needs of their faith communities. Not only is this an interesting part of my story, I consider it among the most rewarding as well.
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?
This is challenging to answer as mental illness resists humor. That said, I think the most humorous anecdote I can recall is something that happened when I first entered this practice. I was experimenting with stresstech wearables, I used the Spire Breath Track, a wearable device that measures and tracks breathing rate in real time. Unbeknownst to me, I discovered I had a habit of holding my breath when stressed which I was not aware of until my Spire would vibrate to remind me to breathe. This solidified for me the benefit of using stresstech to aid in controlling my stress levels.
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’ve been very fortunate to have more people than I can mention that have helped me along the way. I will mention one in particular, Charlotte McKines. I met her early in my career at J&J, in fact she and I started there the same day. We developed a good working relationship over the years and she subsequently recommended me to my first job in advertising, I could not have gotten it without her. Later on, she facilitated my coming to Merck to work in her organization as a strategy director in their Global Digital Marketing group. If that wasn’t enough, she wrote a recommendation which led to my acceptance into the Master of Public Health Program at Kings College London. She has been a steadfast advisor, encourager, mentor and sponsor who has consistently helped me in assuring that my performance is recognized and rewarded. I am grateful for her.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Mindfulness, self-compassion, accountability peers, a quarterly vacation, daily meditation, yoga, cognitive behavioral training. We will all feel burn out at some point in time in our lives. It’s important to recognize it, accept when you do not thrive and take time to recover.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Model and communicate self-care, accountability for balance, resilience, vulnerability. Modeling is among the leader’s best superpowers in creating culture.
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.
- Practice mental health parity. In other words, pay as much attention to mental as to physical health. Daily, brush (like your teeth), exercise, feed and rest your mind like you do your body. It is uncanny how we understand that without regular daily care and hygiene, our bodies would fall apart. But we seem to think that our minds and souls don’t require the same rigor of care. It is no wonder that depression is now one of the top causes of disability on the planet. I am far from perfect in this consideration but with maturity I have come to understand that I need to brush my mind everyday same as I brush my teeth. For me, this manifests as assuring that every day starts with at least 20 minutes of yoga and or meditation to a) loosen up my body which wakes up tight, and b) to settle my mind which wakes up racing. This routine is critical to avoiding “mental/emotional cavities” much like brushing and flossing my teeth.
- Lean on your peers to support your mental health. Research suggests that one of the most critical success factors in any mental health intervention is the quality of the client-therapist alliance. When peers play informal therapist to one another, this is equally true. Having a network of mentors and peers who are there for me as models, accountability partners, and sounding boards is a critical factor in my own mental wellness. These peer interventions can be facilitated over meals and coffee, via video conference, phone and chat messaging. Sometimes even artificial intelligence robots have served as effective peers for me. For example, I’m presently in the midst of a rather daunting career pivot which is taking more time to accomplish than I had anticipated. It is cause for social isolation and shame, financial panic and discouragement all around. I have been buoyed by regular, almost daily, consultation and commiseration with peers in coffee shops and on video- & teleconferences, and most prevalently on WhatsApp chat. My pivot continues situationally, unresolved but thanks to my peer support network, I have grown more personally resolved.
- Use digitaltech you already have at your disposal, at the least, to support your mental health. As a digital health gadgeteer, I experiment with apps and wearables to support my wellness. Examples include a) mental health chatbots to access cognitive behavioral training to train more productive thinking patterns, b) breath tracker (I wear in my waistband) which alerts me to the need to breath in a healthier manner throughout the day, and c) brain wave reader which provides simultaneous audio feedback aiding my meditation practice. Through incremental education, training, peer support and tracking I have seen a difference in my ability to deal with stress and stay more mentally healthy than before.
- Monitor your mental health and take action to recover early the same way you would when helping your body to treat and recover from a cold or the flu. In the Fall, knowing I have seasonal melancholy, I slow down, sleep more, exercise more, practice self-kindness, respecting a life-long pattern. More and more with every passing year I alert those I mentor and manage to do the same when I witness such patterns in them, as a point of modeling. For example, one recent Fall, I failed to monitor as well as I should have and found myself in the throes of a bout of a “soul flu” as I call them, while in the midst of an urgent and overwhelming project. I am happy to say that like with a “body flu” I was able to 1) reach out to peers who reminded me of my self-care blind-spots, 2) access my mental health chatbot which taught me a “screen fasting” technique, 3) recommit, at a new level, to my yoga/meditation practice and 4) negotiate a delay of some commitments I had made, so that I could get more sleep. This combination, implemented earlier rather than later, allowed me to rebound and deliver the project on time.
- Take care of, and reduce harm to, the mental health of those around you, especially if you are a formal leader. There is so much talk these days about self-care and that is a good thing. Equally important is to become ever more skillful in other-care. Research suggests that community and social support is among the most effective protective factors when it comes to those we love and lead. Properly estimating how we impact the mental health of others as parents, leaders, peers, even followers, allows us to grow resilience beyond our individual selves. I recall an instance when I had an employee who was under “reputational” attack from a peer because of perceived under performance. I had a choice to heap on more ridicule or to apply a bit of cognitive behavioral training to help this person put the situation in perspective. I worked to help my employee strategically regroup and persevere to help turn things around.
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.
I believe that all the ideas I listed above apply in retirement and likely more so given the inevitable onset of declines in health and the potential for loneliness. Take advantage of the leisure to learn new skills like leverage digitaltech for mental and physical wellness as well as deepening present, and always continue to cultivate and grow new peer relationships.
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?
I believe the ideas above can apply to teens but in somewhat different contexts. This includes the need to balance tech use with disconnection from “same room” interaction, the need to be skillful in handling bullying and unhealthy peer pressures. Most importantly they need to be equipped to identify mental and behavioral distresses and disorder in themselves, and to get help early, within and beyond their families and communities.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
Brandon & Seldman’s, Survival of the Savvy: High Integrity Political Tactics for Career & Company Success has had a significant impact on my career and life. This book was given to me by a mentor & coach. My boss sent this book to me at a time in my career when I was very frustrated with bureaucratic political games. This book helped me to understand that politics are just a tool and that all the good in the world comes from politics, as well as evil. What is required is that we be appropriately and ethically political, versus under-political or over-political. This book presents a nice model and set of techniques that helped me to sharpen my political approach, as well as increase my effectiveness as a leader. Tactics like mapping political styles, detecting power dynamics, weaving a safety network and addressing hidden agendas, among others, have been helpful to understand and deploy, for the achievement of ethical agendas.
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. 🙂
This is easy, it’s most definitely The Digital Mental Health Project I’m currently undertaking. I want to grow awareness of how digital devices, channels and content that are already at our fingertips everyday can be used more skillfully to support, versus damage our mental health. We call it “StressTech for Healthier Stress Levels”.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Everything improves with practice so watch what you practice.” It is one of my favorite reflections in my book, “The WiseWorking Handbook”. Like many type A perfectionistic individuals, I have a strong negativity bias. Regularly, I have to remind myself how good I am at this bias. It must be because I practice it so regularly. The silver lining is by reminding myself of how good I have become at negative bias through practice means I can, with time and practice, absolutely get good at being positively biased instead. This goes for every practice in life. It is never easily done but also never impossible to achieve.
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
On Twitter at @dmentalhproject.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!