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Mental Health Champions: “I’ve also taken a close look at my values and reflected on how well my behaviors match my values” with Dr. Jen Brandt and Chaya Weiner

I’ve also taken a close look at my values and reflected on how well my behaviors match my values. A few years ago, it became very apparent that although I said that my health and my family were a priority value, what I showed I valued was work. In fact, work won every time. I […]


I’ve also taken a close look at my values and reflected on how well my behaviors match my values. A few years ago, it became very apparent that although I said that my health and my family were a priority value, what I showed I valued was work. In fact, work won every time. I now have strategies in place to better integrate work and home.

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. Jen Brandt. Dr. Brandt is the AVMA Director of Member Wellness and Diversity Initiatives, responsible for identifying, developing, implementing and coordinating activities and programs that enhance the well-being of its members, and advancing the association’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the profession. Dr. Brandt received her Ph.D. in Social Work and her Master of Social Work from The Ohio State University. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social Work and Sociology with a Minor in Spanish from the University of Indianapolis. Prior to joining the AVMA, Dr. Brandt served in several roles at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine, including Director of Individual and Organizational Development; Director of Health and Wellness; Director of Student Services and founder and coordinator of the Honoring the Bond Client Support Services Program.


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

As an undergraduate in social work, I was interested in the intersection between animal and human health. I chose to pursue study in that area by conducting research on the emotional benefits of companion animal utilization in inpatient settings. In the course of my PhD research — Towards an Empirical Typology of Battered Women: Differentiating Subgroups and Service Outcomes of Female Survivors of Domestic Violence — the intersection of human and animal health continued to be an area of focus, due to the number of survivors who reported that threats of violence against their pets were one of the barriers to the survivors’ own safety. Findings from that study led to my work on an interdisciplinary team to help develop a Safe Haven for Pets program, which assists the pets of victims of domestic violence by providing veterinary care, food, and shelter. These projects and a host of other experiences set the stage for a career dedicated to interprofessional efforts on behalf of healthcare providers and the clients/patients we serve.

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?

Historically, humankind has inflicted much suffering on those with mental health conditions. During the Middle Ages, mental illness was considered a punishment from God and sufferers were burned at the stake or thrown in penitentiaries where they were chained to the walls. A main contributor to the persisting stigma is our continued overwhelming lack of mental health literacy. Unfortunately, the challenge with addressing stigma is that it has a kind of cyclical effect. Because of the historical stigma associated with mental illness, taboos remain to learning and talking about mental health. And when we don’t learn and talk about mental health, we are likely to maintain the same false beliefs that perpetuate the continuation of the cycle.

For example, it remains a common misconception that individuals who suffer from mental health issues are more prone to violence, when in fact, individuals who suffer from mental health issues are more likely to be the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of violence. Despite the wealth of existing science and research available, we also still tend to assume that mental illness is rare and caused by a character defect. However, one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives, and around 450 million people currently suffer from these conditions. This places mental disorders among the leading causes of poor health and disability worldwide. One consequence to this stigma, therefore, is that despite the availability of treatments around the world, nearly two-thirds of people with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional.

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

My commitment is to personally model the same values and behaviors that I teach to others. A first step I’ve taken is to share my own struggles and challenges. My understanding of the magnitude of work it can take to pull back from the abyss and the recognition that hope can be found in the darkest of places isn’t theoretical — it comes from lived experience. I also strive to create dialogue around mental health that is respectful. An example of this is not defining a person by a condition (e.g. “he’s bipolar”) and instead saying, “he experiences bipolar disorder.”

I speak up when I hear people using stigmatizing or harmful language. An example here would be raising awareness to not refer to the weather as “bipolar” because it changes frequently, or label someone as “OCD” because they are organized and detail-oriented. This undermines legitimate diagnoses. More examples include not referring to someone as “crazy” or “psychotic” when they are experiencing symptoms that are beyond their control or labeling someone as “abnormal” or “those people” which creates an us vs them narrative and leads to further isolation.

In the last decade, I’ve focused my educational efforts on promoting a greater understanding of how our brains work, what factors contribute to patterns of human behavior, and how empathy and compassion play key roles in supporting the health and wellbeing of ourselves and others.

So much of what we judge and fear comes from a lack of understanding. In our society, we tend to blame individuals for how they’ve had to adapt in order to survive, and pathologize their coping strategies, rather than recognizing the strengths they exhibit, or the context and influence of their environment. Telling someone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps only works if someone has bootstraps to begin with. And even then, it can take a village to help remove barriers and provide support so the person can adequately access and use those bootstraps.

It’s my hope that as we gain more insight into the adaptive nature of human behavior, we can more readily ask “what has caused this person pain and how can I help?” instead of creating more shame, isolation, and stigma.

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

I need to first acknowledge that I represent only one perspective through a mental health professional’s lens. Better supporting people who are suffering from mental illness requires connection with a range of systems including government departments, education, medical, social welfare, employment, law enforcement, housing, finance, criminal justice, legal, healthcare, transportation, and others. Because people with mental illness are often excluded socially, stigma continues to be detrimental; not just to the people with mental illness, but also to the health of society as a whole.

To say it’s complex is an understatement. However, there is growing recognition that preventing suicide and addressing mental illness is a global imperative. A number of agencies, including the World Health Organization, provide policy guidance in this area, and one of the components they prioritize is gathering the various entities to determine what should be included in a national strategy (e.g., the infrastructure for implementing policies) and ensuring there are enough engaged individuals to facilitate implementation.

Identifying clear, measurable goals overall, while also recognizing the need for locally tailored solutions will also be an essential step. As individuals and agencies, we can all be mindful of the language we use, and gain awareness of how our policies and practices either promote or serve as barriers to mental health.

Improving access to a wide range of services will be essential — and moving away from a strictly medical model that pathologizes patients and instead recognizes the context in which they operate is also key.

On an individual level, I believe we can all play a role by being informed about our own health. We cannot give away what we do not have — so an essential part of being an advocate in this area is ensuring that our own health is attended to so that we have the energy and capacity to support the needs of others. Much of what we can do is continue to get educated about issues related to mental health, speak out when we hear misinformation being spread, and remember that all people are inherently deserving of being treated with dignity and respect.

What are your strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Promoting wellbeing and mental wellness requires ongoing, consistent, and intentional effort, and I am no exception to that. There is no ceiling to wellbeing and mental wellness — there are always opportunities for learning and growth, and I have an array of strategies on board that I continue to calibrate as needed.

First, I would not be the person I am today without the support, guidance, and insight I’ve gained from therapists over the years. I’ve heard some tough truths from therapists that allow me to reflect on patterns of behavior that no longer serve me well so that I have the ability make better choices for myself. An effective therapist allows you to see the freedom and opportunity that comes from taking accountability for your own choices, rather than pointing the finger elsewhere. In turn, that influences the lens through which I do my work.

I’ve also really dialed in my own nutrition over the years and immersed myself in the study of nutritional psychiatry — which likely holds keys to the future of supporting mental health on a global scale. A few years ago, I discovered that I had a serious — potentially even life threatening — food allergy, but I’d been so used to feeling sick that it hadn’t occurred to me that something I was eating on a daily basis was a contributing factor. Since then, I avoid the allergen while focusing primarily on eating a rainbow of whole foods. Because of the link between processed foods, inflammation and mood disorders, I avoid foods that are processed and high in refined sugar.

Because of the impact of hydration and sleep patterns on mood states and energy levels, I commit to drinking lots of water throughout the day and I prioritize getting adequate sleep.

To make all that possible, I consciously establish firm boundaries and I carefully consider what kind of people and energy are permitted in my space. I’m crystal clear on my non-negotiables. As a result, I’ve made some difficult decisions, like disconnecting from relationships and patterns that don’t support my health.

I’ve also taken a close look at my values and reflected on how well my behaviors match my values. A few years ago, it became very apparent that although I said that my health and my family were a priority value, what I showed I valued was work. In fact, work won every time. I now have strategies in place to better integrate work and home.

I exercise regularly. I don’t necessarily love every moment of it, but I recognize that exercise is a known pillar to mental health. So I prioritize exercise in my life. I’m currently training to walk my first (and only!) full marathon. Tackling difficult physical challenges is a powerful metaphor for life and I’ve found that in the process of training to walk 26.2 miles, I’ve learned more about myself, what I value, and how I speak back to that voice in my brain that says, “This is hard. You should quit. You can’t do this.”

I also focus on a mindset of gratitude — and take time to appreciate the good things that life brings on a daily basis. As a social worker, I’m exposed to some of the worst atrocities that humans can inflict on other humans. In addition, clients who are hurting may often take their pain out on me. All of this requires a great deal of grounding to stay present and engaged in the work without getting derailed by someone else’s behaviors.

Perhaps as a result, the best things in my life are the simple things — I love my husband, our cats, and our home. I have funny, intelligent, and generous, friends, I have legs that can carry me for many miles, eyes that can see, and lungs that are healthy. There isn’t a moment that goes by that I take any of that for granted. I often say that the process of maintaining optimal wellbeing and mental health isn’t necessarily “fun” or “easy”. For me, it requires a process of ongoing, rigorous assessment and the willingness to course correct when current strategies are no longer effective.

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

Great question! That may be difficult to answer because I love learning, I’m a voracious reader, and see symbols of hope, compassion, and tenacity everywhere — like in the flower that grows out of the cracks in the sidewalk, or the momma cat who adopts and raises a litter of orphan hedgehogs.

When I think about it, I suppose I ultimately gravitate to stories and images that inspire me to do better and be better and that fortifies me to continue the work I do on behalf of others. I’ve always been drawn to stories of women who have faced and triumphed over seemingly insurmountable obstacles and stories about people who blazed their own paths, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

As a kid, I remember being entranced by stories about Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Florence Nightingale, and Clara Barton. I’ve read everything written by Maya Angelou and, more recently, by Brené Brown. There are nuggets of wisdom to be found all around us — sometimes, it may be just one sentence, but it sparks an idea in me that I can integrate going forward.

In the online world, I’ve drawn knowledge and inspiration from Mirna Valerio, an ultramarathoner who is redefining what an athlete looks like, and Oneika the Traveller who is dedicated to inspiring women and people of color to see the world. Their work transcends the worlds of sports and travel and intersects with the pressing issues of our time.

In the past year, my heart has been filled by the stories of everyday folks who decided to train for a marathon — often for very personal reasons: To find a way to heal after a traumatic loss, or because someone told them they couldn’t, or to reclaim their space in a world that seeks to silence, oppress, and marginalize them. When I read stories like this, I’m always humbled by the resilience of the human spirit to persevere under almost impossible odds, and by our deep capacity to be forces for good.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.

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