Mental Health Champions: “Why therapists should be in therapy as well” With Psychotherapist Ruthie Kalai

Therapy: yes, even though I’m a therapist, it doesn’t exclude me from benefiting from someone to talk to. Over the years, I have always been in some form of psychotherapy. I find that the more I work on myself, the better therapist I am to others. In fact, during my clinical training, we were required […]

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Therapy: yes, even though I’m a therapist, it doesn’t exclude me from benefiting from someone to talk to. Over the years, I have always been in some form of psychotherapy. I find that the more I work on myself, the better therapist I am to others. In fact, during my clinical training, we were required to attend some form of individual psychotherapy.

As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Ruthie Kalai. She is a psychotherapist and education consultant with over 20 years’ experience in a wide range of nonprofit, school, and counseling settings. She has her own private psychotherapy practice working with children, adolescents, and adults. Her areas of expertise include anxiety, depression, life transitions, women’s issues, and parenting issues. Her experience stems from years working as a school counselor. From the New York City Department of Education to the Detroit Public School system, Ruthie has multiple and individualized approaches to educating students, using empathy and empowerment to maximize their potential. She uses her vast experience in her work with individuals. As a psychotherapist, she weaves different elements of traditional and more holistic therapeutic approaches to suit each individual’s specific needs. Ruthie has a Master in Social Work degree from New York University and a Master in Education degree from Lehman College. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and School Building Leader. She holds licenses in both New York and Florida.

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

I have always been that person people go to for support. The friend everyone turns to for advice or the family member that will always be there in times of need. In fact, being that person makes me happy. Unfortunately, I also had a difficult childhood so helping others also helped me escape some unhappy times. In college, I was always interested in psychology and loved working with children. So when it was time to choose a major, I realized that I wanted to find a way to combine those two interests. It was then that I realized that my ultimate goal was to help other children who may be struggling not go through some of the emotional pain I went through. I wanted them to realize that someone understood what they were going through and validate their experiences. I became that someone. That’s when I began my career as a school counselor. I love working with youth and helping them navigate some of the challenges that come with being a young person in today’s world.

Over the last few years, I have transitioned to my own private practice but work predominantly with the “millennial” generation; those 20-something and 30-somethings who are a little stuck in their lives and are not quite sure with which direction to go. I love helping them get “unstuck” and make whatever changes are necessary to accomplish their goals.

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?

I believe there are several reasons why this stigma has persisted. First, I think society has a difficult time with a condition that can neither be seen nor confirmed with a test such as an MRI. Often people think that one needs to be able to see something in order to realize that it is real. Mental illness does not show up on an X-ray or through a blood test. Therefore, there will always be those skeptics who challenge the legitimacy of mental health issues because they cannot confirm its existence.

Another reason why there continues to be a stigma is that there will always be people who believe that one can conquer a mental illness just be being “strong enough.” Furthermore, they believe that mental illness is a sign of weakness and balk at the idea of using medications such as antidepressants to treat symptoms of mental illness. As long as there are people who reinforce these myths and false notions, mental illness will remain a taboo subject. Unfortunately, it is the people who live with mental illness who suffer the greatest because they are on the receiving end of the scrutiny and shame that often comes with having a mental illness.

Finally, there is often a stigma associated with individuals with mental illness that deems them dangerous and/or a public nuisance. For example, there is often comorbidity between individuals who have substance abuse and mental illness. Unfortunately, these individuals may display dangerous behaviors as a result of their substance abuse issues. However, society assumes that mental illness is what causes these individuals to be dangerous. The media also depicts those with certain mental illness such as schizophrenia as dangerous. These individuals are not dangerous per se but their symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions often cause them to display dangerous behaviors. It is a misunderstood illness that often has a stereotype of being dangerous.

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

One of the best things I can do to help de-stigmatize mental illness and promote mental wellness is to validate the legitimacy of mental illness with my clients as well as individuals with whom I discuss these issues. When my clients begin therapy with me, they are often filled with shame, embarrassment, and fear that they will be judged for reaching out for help. They often don’t tell their families or friends that they have sought therapy. Therefore, it is imperative that I validate that their feelings are real, their emotions are real, and their experiences are real. I reinforce the notion that just because one can’t physically see mental illness does not mean it does not exist. I often ask them: “If you were sick with a heart condition, would you visit a cardiologist?” Naturally, the answer is always yes. I conclude with “well then consider this as going to a doctor for your emotional pain. It’s just as important as heart pain or any other physical pain you may experience.”

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

I am always looking for ways to educate others. As a therapist, it has become one of my missions to help people understand mental health and the importance of taking care of our mental wellbeing. During my 15 years as a school counselor, I made sure that mental health issues were just as important as the academics of our students. In fact, when our students thrived emotionally, they succeeded academically. Therefore, when given the opportunity to share my experiences with others, I didn’t hesitate to contribute to this initiative. I have always been an advocate of the importance of mental wellness and I will continue to fight to make sure those that need the help will get it. Whether that’s by educating others or providing the services myself, my goal will always be to destigmatize mental illness and encourage others to get the help they need.

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

The first thing all of us can do is legitimize mental illness and the importance of ensuring an individual’s mental wellbeing. Unfortunately, I have found that the government, society, and various individuals make it nearly impossible to do so. For example, it has become almost impossible for me to find a psychiatrist who accepts insurance due to the low reimbursement rate with which psychiatrists receive from insurance companies. Therefore, I am at a loss when trying to refer my clients for psychiatric care unless they are able to pay out of pocket upwards of $400 an hour. This is a disgrace. Mental illness does not discriminate according to socio-economic levels; those living below the poverty levels suffer just as great as those with financial means. Therefore, we must first acknowledge that mental illness is real and then, find ways that everyone can access not just psychological care but quality psychological care.

Second, we must destigmatize mental illness. Individuals who are suffering do not need to feel shame and embarrassment for needing mental health services. They should not be made to feel they are “crazy.” This only serves to prevent them from accessing much-needed care. We as a society must support each other in all times of need, not just for those that can be seen concretely. Mental illness creates silent sufferers and those who suffer should receive the support they deserve to access services that will be beneficial.

Finally, I believe that a mandatory part of our education system should include social-emotional learning. As a school counselor, I often witnessed the dire consequences that resulted when children’s social-emotional needs were ignored. What good does learning one’s ABC’s do when that student suffers from anxiety or is bullied by their peers? What happens when a student is physically, sexually, and/or emotionally abused by a parent but cannot rely on the school to be a safe haven because all of the money to fund school support services has been cut? Who do they turn to for help? How are they supposed to pay attention to daily lessons when they are afraid to go home at the end of the day? This is their reality and it is more prevalent than we realize. Our students are suffering every day because their social-emotional needs are not being met and as a result, become adults who struggle with mental health 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?

I love this question! This is often not discussed so I’m thrilled to be able to talk about this. Here are 7 strategies that I use to promote my own wellbeing:

1. Therapy: yes, even though I’m a therapist, it doesn’t exclude me from benefiting from someone to talk to. Over the years, I have always been in some form of psychotherapy. I find that the more I work on myself, the better therapist I am to others. In fact, during my clinical training, we were required to attend some form of individual psychotherapy.

2. Exercise: This is a must for everyone! Exercise gets our physical endorphins going and is a fantastic way to relieve stress, anxiety, and depression. Even if it’s only 20 minutes, I try to make sure I include exercise into my day at least 3–5 times per week. I also use it as an opportunity to catch up on professional podcasts in which I subscribe.

3. Yoga: This is similar to exercise but on a whole other level. Yoga is great for the body but also for the mind. It also forces you to breathe and that can have tremendous effects on reducing anxiety. I have a rule for my yoga practice: while I’m on my yoga mat, I’m not allowed to think or worry about anything. So it “forces” me to devote an hour to mindfulness and forget about any of my problems.

4. Self-care: I cannot stress this enough! Taking time for yourself, in whatever way, is so important. Many of us may think, “I don’t have time to take care of myself, I’m too busy.” Or “I don’t have the money for a spa day.” I’m here to tell you that self-care comes in many different forms and it doesn’t have to cost a penny. What are some of your guilty pleasures? Maybe it’s spending 20 minutes playing a game on your phone or binge-watching that new Netflix series. For me, it’s spending 10 minutes watching dog videos or catching up with friends on Facebook. Both cost no money and don’t have to take a lot of time out of my day. But it’s the ultimate way to shut my brain off for a while and recharge my batteries. You have to take time for yourself, otherwise, you won’t be there for anybody else.

5. Friends & Family: I would absolutely be lost without friends and family. They are essential to my wellbeing. They remind me that I am loved and that I matter. Plus, I am guaranteed to spend hours laughing. What better way to take care of your own wellbeing?

6. Meditation/Mindfulness: many of us are intimidated by the idea of being “mindful.” But I have a really simple way of looking at it: mindfulness is just about shutting your brain off and being in the present moment. When you’re in the present moment, you can’t think about things that worry you such as the past or future. Of course, it’s easier said than done. But I think the best way to practice is by developing a simple meditation practice. There are wonderful guided meditation apps that take the guesswork out of meditation and make it much more user-friendly. Even 10 minutes a day is enough to see noticeable changes in your moods and can greatly reduce anxiety.

7. Reading: reading is one of my favorite ways to relax. When I’m reading, the whole world melts away and I get lost in the story. I always feel better after spending time reading.

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

I am an avid reader and it’s actually one of my go-to “self-care” activities. So any time I am able to sit down and read a book, it helps me relax and unwind. I love anything by the following others: Brene Brown, Mark Manson, David Burns, Edmund Bourne, and Jen Sincero. These books have helped me personally and professionally. I also love the following guided meditation apps: Calm, Insight Timer, and 10% Happier.

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

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