Mental Health Champions: “Daily journaling can provides continual attention to your inner life” With Jude Treder-Wolff

Daily journaling is a ritual I prioritize because it provides continual attention to my inner life, to my thoughts and feelings, and helps me sort out where my reactions to life are coming from. I keep the journals so that I can refer to them, and one of the most remarkable gifts that arise from […]

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Daily journaling is a ritual I prioritize because it provides continual attention to my inner life, to my thoughts and feelings, and helps me sort out where my reactions to life are coming from. I keep the journals so that I can refer to them, and one of the most remarkable gifts that arise from this practice is having an authentic record of my struggles, where I can see how far I have come with an issue. Or I can see that there is a repetitive pattern to my thinking that needs to change.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Jude Treder-Wolff. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Certified Group Psychotherapist, Certified Practitioner of Applied Improvisation, improviser and writer/performer. In her 30-year career, she has in worked in hospitals, community mental health centers and in private practice before her current focus on training mental health and health care professionals using improvisation and storytelling. Currently, she is chair of the Applied Improvisation Network 2019 World Conference, in partnership with the Alan Alda Center For Communicating Science, which will take place at Stony Brook University from Aug 8–11, 2019, host/creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS and MASHUP-Stories Into Song storytelling shows. She is author of Possible Futures: Creative Thinking For The Speed of Life, has been published in academic journals — The International Journal of Arts In Psychotherapy, Music Therapy Perspectives, Social Work Bulletin, Recovery Press — and interviewed about issues related to mental health by NBC News, VICE, Bustle, LI Pulse, Newsday, Woman’s World, The Chicago Sun-Times and many others.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

Having worked in the field of mental health for 30 years, I have always been writing, speaking and sharing the facts about this essential area of human experience. My own struggle with anxiety and depression while working in psychiatry threatened to burn me out within a few years of starting my career, and I felt judged even by people in the field.

Self-care became a high priority for me early on just so I could stay in the field. I am a creative arts therapist and the foundation of my training is the power of the creative process and the expressive arts to shift thinking, improve mood, empower positive emotions and build community, among other clinical benefits. These were always part of my own self-care, and I used my skills as a songwriter, storyteller, and improviser in therapeutic work with clients. When I became involved in the storytelling scene in New York City, it was clear that a story is the most powerful way to change thinking and attitudes about subjects like this that continue to be shadowed by stigma. When real life is elevated into art — and that includes comedy that deals with very serious issues — listeners respond.

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?

Stigma is always rooted in fear, which produces an almost instinctive impulse to create distance between ourselves and what is causing the fear. Until the recent developments in Emotional Intelligence and social-emotional learning, most of us learned little to nothing about how to understand our inner life, nor gain skills in how to communicate about it. As a result, we have a social environment in which psychological and emotional struggles that anyone might encounter –e.g. loneliness, social anxiety, intrusive thoughts, the sense of futility that constant pressure can induce, just to name a few that are common interior experiences to so many people– can make a person feel like a failure. Even now, with more attention and awareness than ever before, people often feel these kinds of challenges are something we need to hide, a sign we are just not cutting it in the real world.

We receive little to no real education on how to understand our inner life. The way we are educated, starting with elementary school, creates an artificial split between emotions or psychological states and the learning mind. If we understood the workings of our psyche there would be significantly less shame around mental health challenges.

When people are as open and honest about mental health-related struggles and how they deal with them as they are about physical health issues, the fear that these problems make us deficient is greatly reduced.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

Storytelling is the most powerful way to communicate about anything and very effective to reduce the stigma attached to mental health challenges. In 2014, I created (mostly) TRUE THINGS, a game wrapped in a storytelling show. We do monthly performances at a theater on Long Island, then branched out to doing shows at The Peoples Improv Theater in NYC and performances around the country, including a teen edition. In this show, people from all walks of life, ages and backgrounds tell true stories, but some include very subtle little lies.

The audience gets to question the storytellers, then votes for the person they think told it straight. The whole truth about all the stories comes out in the end. People are hearing true stories, but have to listen very closely because the lies are so carefully woven into the narrative — e.g. a song playing at party that doesn’t fit with the timeline, or a subway stop that isn’t where the storyteller says it is. These stories have heart, are often hilarious while dealing with serious realities, and as a result, audiences connect deeply with the storytellers. We do performances in which all the stories are on a theme of mental illness and mental health challenges, and in some shows simply include stories on that theme. The game focuses the attention of the audience, and audience interaction increases the social-emotional connection to each story. Recently I initiated a new show concept called MASHUP-Stories Into Song, which combines songwriting to the storytelling experience.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

I was hired to do a series of workshops on the subject of Emotional Intelligence for a large organization that employs researchers, scientists, and their support staff, all very intelligent and highly educated. Many of these people struggled secretly with intense anxiety, paralyzing perfectionism that led to depression, post-traumatic stress and other issues that only came to light because I opened each workshop with a true story, and the story opened a door that led to in-depth discussions mental health issues in a very helpful, supportive way. The story was designed to deliver information about the link between emotional states and our ability to think, learn and connect with others. I used stories to share a struggle I have faced myself or something I helped a client deal with — hiding all confidential information, of course — and demonstrate a concept. The feedback from the group was overwhelmingly positive.

Participants shared more openly with one another, understood each other better and as a result, their collaborations improved. Some came to view seeking treatment in a very different light. Seeing the power of storytelling to move, enlighten, educate and connect people around difficult issues moved me to create a local show and make it a community-building form of activism.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

Individuals can and should share their true experiences of dealing with mental health issues and support other people who are open and honest about them which helps to normalize attitudes simply by making these realities part of the conversation. Working on a story to share with others can deepen appreciation of self, bring about a shift in perspective that can be very empowering, and can make a real-life situation a kind of hero’s journey.

Individuals can be brave enough to seek treatment for mental health problems and take self-care seriously;

Society can provide space for people to tell their stories, support policies that promote mental health as a valid human struggle equal to physical health and that make treatment accessible and affordable. When we de-stigmatize an issue (as with HIV/AIDS, for example) social support follows.

Government can:

1) police to receive training in how to manage situations with mentally ill individuals that can lead to a reduction in the number of mentally ill people arrested and jailed simply because there is a lack of training in how to deal with them in a therapeutic way or options for where to place them;

2) Fund public health initiatives that increase options for mental health treatment among people who have lower incomes, are poor or cannot work;

3) Help fund hospitalization for anyone with a serious mental health condition (inpatient treatment now is up to private insurance companies’ decision-making and increasingly unavailable to people who really need it).

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?

Improvisation training has been one of the most fun, engaging and powerful forms of self-care for mental health for me. I trained in improv for many years simply to learn games and exercises that I can use in my groups and workshops.

Then in 2014, my husband was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition that required a 7-hour surgery from which we both knew he might not recover or could have life-changing complications. The month leading up to the surgery I was in an improv class for 3 hours a week and the laughter, cognitive shifts and radical support that improv brings about gave me a complete respite from the stress and fear, but even more importantly trained my brain to ride out situations of great uncertainty without shutting down. A sense of possibility and creativity rides the same track as anxiety and improve the brain in a way that shapes resilience. The positive emotions also give rise to greater energy for managing stress, and I was able to provide psychological and emotional support for my husband through a long and difficult recovery and gain support as a caregiver just be being part of improv classes and groups. I have been in improv training almost constantly over the last 5 years and it is one of the most empowering — and hilarious — ways to promote well-being.

Daily journaling is a ritual I prioritize because it provides continual attention to my inner life, to my thoughts and feelings, and helps me sort out where my reactions to life are coming from. I keep the journals so that I can refer to them, and one of the most remarkable gifts that arise from this practice is having an authentic record of my struggles, where I can see how far I have come with an issue. Or I can see that there is a repetitive pattern to my thinking that needs to change.

I write a daily gratitude list and make sure to include at least 5 things that happened in the last 24 hours. I am grateful for many things that are ongoing and list those as well but it is helpful to focus on the most recent events and people I appreciate.

I work on stories every day, shaping my own true experiences into comedic, honest accounts of personal change. I want to be ready with stories to pitch to shows and podcasts and as with any other art form, the quality improves with persistence and practice. But most importantly, crafting stories to be shared with others puts my own life experiences into perspective and focuses on how we can grow and transform.

Walking in nature, or high-intensity workouts at the gym are essential for my mental health. I am a songwriter as part of my work, and when I get stuck with writing lyrics, it can spark a negativity spiral that seems to have a life of its own. If I feel that happen, I get the body moving as quickly as I can. Sometimes I have to keep a notebook with me on the cross-country ski machine at the gym because once the sweat comes pouring out, so do the ideas!

Eating a sugar-free — or at least very low-sugar — diet, and eating lots of greens. Sugar makes me depressed in a way that is like a shame-filled hangover. It induces a physical sense of heaviness and the psychological state of negativity. When I gave up sugar 10 years ago I felt liberated.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

RISK! — stories that always challenge the listener because they are often about issues that are tough to talk about. This podcast has amazing power to de-stigmatize many human realities that are often not talked about, especially in such an artistic way.

Clear & Vivid — Alan Alda’s podcast features guests from so many different worlds and rich with conversations about empathy and the human connection.

The Moth Radio Hour — because of stories!

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