I stay in the present moment as much as possible. Psychologists say that if you find yourself dwelling in the past you will slide toward depression. Likewise, if you worry about the future you will struggle with anxiety.
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. Beatrice Tauber. Dr. Tauber who a clinical psychologist with specialties in child development and neuropsychology. In addition to being the founder of Harborside Wellbeing (www.HarborsideWB.com) in North Carolina, she has been published in national and international publications and has been lecturing on mental health since she entered the field. Although she has worked with many people over the last 25 years of her career, she felt she needed to do more to de-stigmatize mental illness. She began the initiative of writing children’s books to change the narrative on mental health one condition at a time. Dr. Prior partnered with Mary Ann Drummond to write Grandma and Me: A Kid’s Guide for Alzheimer’s & Dementia to educate, de-stigmatize and provide tools to stay connected despite a diagnosis that is dreaded by so many.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Mybackstory began in 9th grade. I observed from an early age how some people thrived in the face of tragedy while others suffered despite having access to seemingly abundant resources. It became important to me to understand why some lived well while others did not. I knew I could use this to make a difference in the lives of others. I decided I would become a clinical psychologist in 9th grade so I could walk the pathway of wellbeing with others.
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?
There are several reasons why the stigma about mental illness exists:
(1) Mental illness taps into a person’s worst fears, anxieties, and vulnerabilities. Everyone has thought that they may not be good enough, they may not be able to handle a situation, or they feel insecure when beginning a new task. Then they are faced with a situation that seems to confirm these thoughts, and it fuels the stigma that mental illness is due to a character flaw on their part.
Imagine for a moment you are a woman who has just given birth to a healthy baby. You have been told by so many that you will feel a positive surge of emotions that will bond you to your baby.
Instead, you feel sad, frightened, maybe even traumatized and angry. These emotions persist and you wonder, “What is wrong with me?” You know the term “postpartum depression,” but you don’t think that applies to you. You tell yourself, “Women have been having babies for centuries. Why don’t I feel happy?” These thoughts send you into an even darker place. As psychologists, we know the depression this new mom is experiencing is fueled by a combination of factors including a surge in hormones, sleepless nights and difficulties during the birth process. However, this new mom sees depression as a character flaw on her part.
(2) A second reason for the stigma is that we don’t see mental illness the same way we see a physical injury. If you break your arm, you feel localized pain and can see the break in an x-ray. You are given a cast to wear and a prescribed amount of time to heal. In stark contrast, the impact of mental illness on the brain is invisible to the bystander.
Imagine for a moment you are the caregiver for a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease is one of the many different types of dementia. Each day you remind your loved one of the same facts. Each day you help your loved one with simple tasks they once could do for themselves. Each day you become more irritable as your loved one becomes more irritable. You struggle to understand why your loved one is treating you with irritability given all you do for him or her. For years, psychologists have known that the brain is altered as a result of dementia. These days, we can use neuroimaging technology to confirm the brain changes we have long suspected. In the case of Alzheimer’s disease, the brain shrinks, lose connections between brain cells and messages are lost in a web of plaques and tangles. These structural changes in the brain are partly responsible for the behavioral changes families struggle to manage.
(3) Finally, I think a stigma continues because when people do break their silence, some people respond with ridicule. People who break their silence are told they are “an embarrassment, disgrace or dishonor to the family.” These are all synonyms for stigma.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
No one chooses postpartum depression, Alzheimer’s disease, Bipolar disorder or any other mental health condition. The condition chooses the person, and when it does, the person wants to be treated with dignity by others. I decided that the first step in de-stigmatizing the focus on mental wellness was to educate the youngest generation before bias, stigma and even hatred has a chance to take hold. Children don’t come into the world thinking, “She’s crazy,” “He’s lost his mind.” They are told statements like that, and then they repeat them. By educating our youngest generation, we can stop stigma before it begins.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
For years I worked primarily with young children and families who had experienced abuse, neglect, and trauma. In addition, I worked with children who were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders, developmental delays, and chronic illness. Because of my expertise in neuropsychology, my practice began to expand to include working with clients of all age groups. As I began working with older clients, I was struck by the level of ageism they are confronted with on a daily basis. It was at this time that I was approached by Mary Ann Drummond to write a children’s book for families impacted by dementia. I knew that the time had come to do more to educate and de-stigmatize mental conditions. I immediately said yes to authoring a children’s book. Mary Ann had insightfully written Meet Me Where I Am: A Caregiver’s Guide for Alzheimer’s, so I knew she was the perfect co-author for a children’s book on the topic. Together we wrote Grandma and Me: A Kid’s Guide for Alzheimer’s & Dementia. It was published within 12 months of our first meeting and has been recognized by many organizations and publications as a critical resource that, in the words of one reviewer, “handles a difficult subject with grace and consummate skill.”
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
We will all face difficulty, illness or trauma at some point in our lives. It is not a matter of “if,” it is a matter of “when.” When it happens, we don’t want others to turn their backs on us. Individually, we can do the same for others. When you see the pain in another person’s face, do not turn away from them. Rather, reach out to him or her as you would want another to reach out to you.
As a society, we must take a stand for those who cannot take a stand for themselves. We can act by donating our time and money to organizations that champion human wellness initiatives and make our voices heard with our elected leaders to implement policies and laws that create positive changes in the mental health field.
Early intervention and preventative programs help to reduce the individual and financial burdens of mental illness. The government can allocate funds toward early intervention, parenting classes, and offer greater financial assistance to school systems to support and educate the next generation.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
1. Words are powerful. The words we tell ourselves or hear from others can lead one toward wellbeing or sickness. I’m aware of my internal dialogue, and I challenge the phrases I tell myself that send me into an unhealthy spiral. Think about the sinking feeling you have if you tell yourself “I’m worthless.” Now watch your response if you think about “the happiest moment in the past year.”
2. I stay in the present moment as much as possible. I also find something to laugh about each day. Psychologists say that if you find yourself dwelling in the past you will slide toward depression. Likewise, if you worry about the future you will struggle with anxiety.
3. I go outside in nature each day. Researchers have shown that spending time in nature sparks creativity. It also provides opportunities for fresh air, sunshine, and movement, all of which increase endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitter. Years ago, when my daughter was still in a stroller, we needed to run errands on a rainy day. Honestly, I didn’t want to go out and get soaked in the rain. I ran as I pushed the stroller. Suddenly, this little voice emerged from the stroller, “Mommy this is fun. We are getting raindrop kisses.” I no longer mind going out on rainy days.
4. I strive to live a life that embraces certain lifestyle factors including healthy nutrition, quality sleep, and exercise, all of which promote wellbeing. It wasn’t until recent years that I began to recognize the power of quality sleep. I went through a time when I would wake each morning feeling as if I only had 2 hours of sleep. As a brain health expert, I decided to take my own advice by eliminating some of the lights and sounds in my bedroom that were preventing me from getting a good night’s rest. For instance, I leave my cell phone in a different room at night. These changes help me fall into a deep sleep each night, and now I wake feeling rested. I also know that deep sleep is helping clear my brain of the potential plaques and tangles that are implicated in brain disease.
5. I unplug and connect in real-time each day. While there are benefits to being able to technologically connect with others at any time from anywhere, there are also drawbacks. I believe that today, more than any time in history, we are finding it difficult to find the balance between digital connections and human connections. I see people in my practice who are struggling with loneliness even though they can pick up their phones and connect to someone within seconds. I connect in real-time by looking at my kids in the eyes as they tell me about their day, and I leave the phone in my purse when I get together with friends for dinner.
6. Finally, and maybe most importantly, I would like to share a lesson I have learned from my role models. Each day we are given an opportunity to impact another person’s life. We choose whether that impact is helpful or harmful. When we choose to act with compassion toward others, we help not only them but ourselves as well.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
I am an avid reader. Books that immediately come to mind are ones where the author not only survived a tragedy but thrived despite his or her experience of trauma.
Etched in Sand by Regina Calcaterras. This memoir by Calcaterras depicts the journey from childhood abuse and homelessness to a successful lawyer, New York State Official, and foster youth activist. Her account of tenacity and hope despite childhood trauma and abuse is imprinted in my mind.
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl is the incredible account of Dr. Frankl’s own experience in a concentration camp during World War II. Not only did he survive what is perhaps one of humanity’s worst tragedies, but he writes about the ways he utilized the psychological resources within all of us to prosper despite the most difficult of circumstances.
We Are Displaced by Malala Yousafzai. This is a collection of urgent, articulate first-person accounts from displaced and refugee women around the world whom Yousafzai met and interviewed. As a teen, Yousafzai was shot by Taliban soldiers in Pakistan in a failed attempt to silence her activism for girl’s education. After recovering from the assassination attempt, she continued her activism and became a Nobel Peace Prize winner and best-selling author.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!