Connect with others: All too often, we become so immersed in our work and routines that we deem ourselves “too busy for friends.” In reality, though, in each day there are dozens of opportunities to connect with those around us in meaningful ways. I try to make the best of these opportunities by being sure to look into the eyes of those with whom I am speaking, taking time to listen when people respond to “how are you doing” greetings and asking questions that I really want the answers to. Each of these things can help deepen our brief connections in meaningful ways. They are such small steps but ones that we skim over every day, and each one is a missed opportunity to feel more connected to the positive energy from others around us. Additionally, I keep my weekend time for my family and friends and I try to use that time to nourish and support my own caring community.
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Kylie Dotson-Blake. She currently serves as the President and Chief Executive Officer for the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC) and Affiliates. With over 65,000 National Certified Counselors (NCCs) in more than 40 countries, NBCC is the premier credentialing organization for counselors. NBCC and Affiliates is comprised of three organizational affiliates: the National Board for Certified Counselors (NBCC), the Center for Credentialing and Education (CCE) and the NBCC Foundation (NBCC-F). Dr. Dotson-Blake served for six years on the NBCC Board of Directors and previously served as NBCC’s Interim Chief Operating and Policy Officer. She also served two terms as Chair of the Board of Directors for NBCC. Prior to accepting her role at NBCC, Dotson-Blake served as Professor and Counselor Education program coordinator at East Carolina University in Greenville, NC, and as a visiting assistant professor at the College of William and Mary. She received her master’s degree in Counselor Education from East Carolina University and her doctorate in Counselor Education from The College of William and Mary. Over the course of her career, Dr. Dotson-Blake has focused on increasing access to mental health services in rural communities and developing countries and promoting the growth of the professional infrastructure of counseling through governmental engagement, scholarship and professional service. Through her work with NBCC and Affiliates, she has collaborated with international partners from Romania, Argentina, Bhutan, Malawi, Zambia, South Africa, and others to advance legislative recognition of the counseling profession and expand access to mental health and career development services.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Early in my career, I provided services to children and families facing a wide range of challenges and I found myself working closely with a school counselor. This school counselor had a powerful impact on the lives of the children and families; she worked to foster resilience, positive behaviors and the overall health and wellness of the families. I found myself drawn to that work and the opportunity to help children chart a course for positive mental health and wellness that could help them lead more successful lives and careers. Consequently, I decided to pursue a masters degree in counselor education, and my career moved forward from there.
As a practicing school counselor in rural eastern North Carolina, I worked with many immigrant families from rural Mexico and heard powerful stories of their efforts to engage with their communities and be active participants in the education of their children. There were — and still are — many barriers to that engagement, and I felt that the education system had more to do to engage all parents in order to help children become contributing, healthy, successful citizens. My doctoral research compared family-school-community partnerships in rural Veracruz, Mexico, and rural North Carolina in an effort to better understand how we might engage immigrant families more successfully in U.S. schools.
This research and other work I have done over the years has shown me the importance of structures and processes in government, regulatory systems and education in shaping the growth and development of our communities. The environment we build for our children and the services we provide for them is crucial because young people ultimately shape the future of our society. In my work, I aim to positively shape children’s perceptions of mental health and ensure that the necessary resources are accessible to them. The work that I’m doing now with the NBCC and the opportunity to advance the profession of counseling through supporting and promoting National Certified Counselors (NCC) really brings together my commitment to expanded access to high-quality mental health services and my respect for the regulatory processes that govern our profession and protect the public.
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?
We are always more comfortable with what we can see; things that are external to ourselves are often seen as more easily treatable or controlled. Mental health is internal and requires us to examine our own thinking and behaviors, our connections with others and, many times, things we cannot control in our lives. The ambiguity and limited control of the factors impacting us is sometimes difficult for people to accept. We are also afraid of how we might be judged by others. There is a sense that if you are struggling with your mental health, you are somehow lacking or falling short in some capacity.
Open discussion is critical to normalizing the situations that we all encounter over the course of our lifetimes. As long as we continue to shy away from topics like anxiety, depression and other mental health concerns, those issues will seem scary and unique to us and viewed as personal weaknesses rather than as factors that any of us may encounter in our individual mental health journeys. There are also many cultural factors that impact the stigma and perceptions of mental illness across different communities. Through awareness, discussion and connection with others, we can reduce these stigmas.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
NBCC and Affiliates include a department with the mission of developing community capacity relative to mental health services and resources. Community capacity means focusing on increasing the community’s access to board certified counselors, improving professional resources for those counselors and increasing awareness of mental health resources and services among all community members. This department operates the Mental Health Facilitator’s (MHF) program, which has a two-part focus: developing and promoting capacity building capabilities for mental health services and decreasing stigma associated with accessing those services. We operate this program primarily in underserved or never-served communities across the globe, with a specific focus on rural communities in developing countries where stigma as a barrier to accessing services is particularly high.
With the MHF program, our organization provides community-based trainings collaboratively with local community organizations. MHF trainings include individuals who do not have a professional background in counseling or therapy and are intended to raise the public’s awareness of mental health and resources, reduce stigma and prepare individuals to respond to mental health needs. The program includes an intentional focus on helping community members connect with each other and support each other on the path to wellness.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
In the early 2000s, Tom Clawson, then President and CEO of NBCC and Affiliates had a meeting with Dr. Benedetto Saraceno who, at the time, was serving as Director of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse of the World Health Organization (WHO). From that meeting emerged a strategy to mobilize staff to develop a program that would leverage the resources of NBCC and Affiliates to help address mental health needs in rural communities and developing countries across the globe. Since then, we have worked to raise awareness of the importance of mental health, provide education that helps community members be resources for each other and support organizations trying to address these needs in their own communities. In the years following the initial development, the MHF program has expanded operations into 26 countries and many underserved communities across the United States, and our organization remains committed to helping communities grow their own initiatives from the initial MHF foundation.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
It is critical that we advocate for mental health care — just as we would any other facet of health. As individuals, we must be willing to broach discussions of mental health with our friends, family, and colleagues. We spend a great deal of time talking about other aspects of our health and wellness, and mental health needs equal air time to help normalize the experiences we all have and feel reluctant to talk about. Broaching those topics with a friend or colleague may allow them to open up in a way you didn’t even know they needed.
As a society, we need to provide support for individuals walking a path to wellness. Board certified counselors play a crucial role as highly prepared professionals, ready to help us on that journey and to address mental health needs within our communities. At NBCC, we work to ensure that our communities support and encourage connections with these professionals and build a powerful network of support for people when they need it most.
NBCC and Affiliates focuses a great deal of effort on this final piece, governmental engagement. In the U.S., we work closely with the state counseling licensure boards to ensure that there is appropriate governmental infrastructure in place to support the counseling profession and provide critical protections for the public. On the federal level, we work to ensure that counselors are included in legislation related to serving the mental health needs of all citizens, with a particular focus on the needs of children and families, the military, rural communities and those dealing with substance abuse issues.
What are the 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Connect with others: All too often, we become so immersed in our work and routines that we deem ourselves “too busy for friends.” In reality, though, in each day there are dozens of opportunities to connect with those around us in meaningful ways. I try to make the best of these opportunities by being sure to look into the eyes of those with whom I am speaking, taking time to listen when people respond to “how are you doing” greetings and asking questions that I really want the answers to. Each of these things can help deepen our brief connections in meaningful ways. They are such small steps but ones that we skim over every day, and each one is a missed opportunity to feel more connected to the positive energy from others around us. Additionally, I keep my weekend time for my family and friends and I try to use that time to nourish and support my own caring community.
- Connect with nature: Engaging with nature can be a peaceful way to remove ourselves from stressors at home or at work. Taking time to remove ourselves from technology and work is a great way to rest and recharge. Engagement with nature and recognizing the vitality of life all around us in the natural world has a restorative impact on our energy, focus and overall mental health.
- Be active: Physical activity and the impact it has on my body helps me to feel balanced and energized. For me, physical activity doesn’t need to be running on a treadmill or hitting the gym, it can be a variety of enjoyable hobbies, such as yard work or gardening, canoeing, hiking, playing with my sons, fishing and generally engaging in physical movement and fun out in the natural world. Making time for this on a regular basis boosts my energy and positivity and, ultimately, brings me joy.
- Make time for meals: Eating and the act of sharing a nourishing meal with people we care about provides us not only with sustenance but also with an opportunity for connection. Feeding our bodies in ways that replenish our energy and boosts our positivity is critical for mental health.
- Taking time to reflect: Though it is easy to get caught up in all the activities in our daily lives, taking ample time for reflection and introspection is so necessary to maintain balance and mental health. Reflection and introspection also feed our efforts to live with intentionality. Making the time and space for reflection and introspection is essential for my mental health. Finding time in a hectic world can be difficult, so seek to optimize your time in unexpected places. Time spent waiting for the bus, taking a shower or doing the dishes can be an opportunity for reflection with a little bit of intentionality.
- Seek counseling: A counselor is a professional and a partner who will walk with you down the paths that may be lonely and challenging. As a partner, they will help you tap into the deep well of resilience and resourcefulness that you hold at your core — even when you are having a hard time accessing that well on your own. Counselors are there to help you celebrate your successes and leverage those successes for even more extensive growth and development. Maintaining an active connection with a board certified counselor is a foundational element of my mental wellness.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
One of my very favorite books is David Whyte’s “The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America.” Whyte brings us right to the core of what matters — connections with others and recognition of the connected selves we all embody. The concept of bringing together opposing sides of ourselves, honoring and engaging the creative energy we bring and connecting it to vision, continuity, and contemplation is a concept I find very powerful. It opens the door to opportunities to more holistic perceptions of ourselves. This approach to cohesion has been very important for my own mental health and wellbeing.
Another book that I believe makes critical contributions to the discourse around mental health is “Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv. As I mentioned earlier, valuing the complexity of the natural systems around us and engaging in intentional ways with nature is very important for me as an individual and as a parent.
The work that counselors in private practice do extends beyond the therapy room and into their business practices and entrepreneurial efforts. In order to best advocate for the success of counselors and ensure access to highly qualified, board-certified counselors, I must understand the factors that impact the work lives of those counselors. The blog Practice of the Practice is great for helping me understand the lives and responsibilities of counselors operating their own independent practices. Joe Sanok is an NCC who facilitates meaningful and informative conversations for counselors and I really love his podcasts.
The podcast Let’s Talk About it With Taylor Nolan speaks the experiences of young women in the field. It’s important to make sure that I’m connected with our constituents and aware of the issues that are part of their lives and work. Nolan’s podcast opens the door to some of those discussions for me. In balancing being a mother of two young boys and my work as President and CEO of NBCC and Affiliates, I’m sometimes more removed from the conversations of the young professionals than I want to be — Taylor Nolan is a vibrant, engaged NCC and podcaster who opens that world a little for me through her podcast.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!