It’s okay if life doesn’t go as planned: While you may not know what’s ahead, you can trust that there are many others (an entire world of people, in fact) who are navigating changes like you. You are not alone and there will be others to greet you as things change. Things may be different, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be well or be able to weather new challenges.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Doreen Marshall, Ph.D. the Vice President of Mission Engagement at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
As a psychologist with experience that spans clinical, educational, and professional settings, Dr. Doreen Marshall has been engaged in local and national suicide prevention and postvention work for more than 15 years.
Since joining AFSP in 2014, Dr. Marshall has expanded AFSP’s menu of programs and improved program delivery through AFSP’s nationwide network of chapters. Dr. Marshall oversees AFSP’s Prevention and Education and Loss and Healing programs, which includes community-based suicide prevention training, clinician training, AFSP’s Survivor Outreach Program for survivors of suicide loss, and programming for International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day. Dr. Marshall works to foster partnerships with mental health organizations, such as with the National Council for Behavioral Health to train people across the country in Mental Health First Aid, and oversees the development of new programming, including clinician trainings, community trainings and K-12 educator trainings.
Prior to joining AFSP, Marshall served as Associate Dean of Counseling/Chair at Argosy University, where she contributed to the CACREP-accreditation process for the university’s counseling programs, and chaired the counseling program on the Atlanta campus. She is also past-chair for the Suicide Prevention Coalition of Georgia, and previously served as Associate Director of The Link Counseling Center’s suicide prevention and aftercare program in Atlanta. She has served as a consultant for both national and state suicide prevention and postvention initiatives, which included providing suicide prevention training for the Division of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and serving on a task force of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.
Marshall holds a doctorate in Counseling Psychology from Georgia State University, a master’s degree in Professional Counseling, and a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and English from The College of New Jersey.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I have always been interested in understanding and helping others, but really didn’t understand until I was older what mental health professionals did in terms of their occupation. A few experiences were heavily influential. I worked as a live-in English tutor at a camp for college-bound teens that were from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and realized the most important part of that work for me was helping them to navigate challenging life experiences. That interest led to graduate work to become a mental health professional. During my graduate work, my fiancé at the time died by suicide, and I never looked at my work the same again. It led me to consider both how little we knew about suicide (this was in the mid-90s) but also how much I wanted to be a part of making sure that future suicides were prevented as much as I could.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I was at a professional event when New York City had experienced one of its historic blackouts. We were mid-meeting when the power in the entire city went out. I was traveling with a mentor of mine at the time. A group of us that had traveled in from out of town ended up spending the night in the conference room where the meeting was because our hotel room was a very long walk, it was July, and no cabs were running because the traffic lights were out. We were also told we may not be able to get into our hotel rooms because the electronic locks weren’t working. We ended up spending the night sleeping on conference room chairs or the floor and had some interesting conversations. Many of those individuals are still close colleagues today!
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I do a lot of public speaking and training as part of my work. I have had a few times where technology failed, or my notes/presentation weren’t accessible to me in the moment and I just had to continue with the talk based on what was in my head, which can be pretty nerve-wracking if you are someone who likes to prepare and refer to notes. One time I left my notes for a talk in a hotel room 20 miles away from the presentation and there was no time to go back and get them. I just had to go with what I knew and hope that was enough. Afterwards, someone complemented me on speaking without notes! In hindsight, I learned that while preparation is important, it’s also important to share what you know, to engage with your audience and to be present with them. I also learned that the regular reading I do on these topics pays off! These days I rarely speak using notes.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
So many people took a chance on me when I was early in my career and when there were others more senior and more experienced available. I have never forgotten that and am forever grateful to them.
What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?
Take care of yourself and ask others for help, even as you are helping others. Working in mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. Do the things that will help you stay the course, even if it means occasionally slowing down, changing your focus, or taking breaks.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Help people do what they do best. Don’t lead by inducing fear or treating everything as an emergency. Encourage people to take care of their mental health and make sure the environment is one that supports people in doing that.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Mental health is often looked at in binary terms; those who are healthy and those who have mental illness. The truth, however, is that mental wellness is a huge spectrum. Even those who are “mentally healthy” can still improve their mental wellness. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to improve or optimize our mental wellness. Can you please share a story or example for each.
- Have an open, honest conversation: When you are going through a challenging situation — relationship problems, financial strain, or health issues — it can feel like you are alone. One of the simplest and most helpful things you can do is to talk to someone about what you’re experiencing. Open, honest conversations about mental health and the factors influencing it can open up opportunities for support, protect our mental health, and build resiliency. It helps to be honest about how you are doing too, as a way to model that for others.
- Separate what is in your control from what is not: Taking things one day at a time and focusing more on what is in one’s control bodes well for one’s mental health. For example, during times of uncertainty such as the coronavirus pandemic, there are things you can control such as washing your hands, reminding others to wash theirs, taking vitamins, and limiting consumption of news. I try to also remind myself that what is in my control is my reaction and response to what is happening. I can always choose to focus on something that makes things better or easier for me, even if it feels like nothing is in my control. I can decide to do laundry, eat healthy, breathe deeply and stretch, all of which improve things for me even when life feels out of control.
- Do the things that make you feel physically better: Taking care of one’s physical health, such as regular exercise, drinking water, and seeking comfort in mindfulness activities can provide a healthy distraction when things feel like too much. My treadmill is getting a lot of use these days, and I find even just a few minutes of getting some physical exercise and staying well hydrated can change how I feel.
- Challenge yourself to stay in the present:When you find yourself worrying about something that hasn’t happened, gently bring yourself back to the present moment. Notice the sights, sounds, tastes and other sensory experiences in your immediate moment and name them. Engaging in mindfulness activities, like meditation or yoga, is one way to help stay grounded when things feel beyond your control. I have been working on my mindfulness practice for some time, and there’s a reason it’s referred to as a practice! It takes work and its more important to do this consistently than perfectly.
- Stay connected and reach out if you need support: Turn to the people who are supportive and can listen provides a safe space to discuss what you’re feeling can help you maintain mental well-being and a sense of calm. If you feel you have no one to turn to, there are people who are trained to listen and help, such as mental health providers. There are also support services available, including the Crisis Text Line (Text TALK to 741741) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1800 273-TALK (8255).
Much of my expertise focuses on helping people to plan for after retirement. Retirement is a dramatic ‘life course transition’ that can impact one’s health. In addition to the ideas you mentioned earlier, are there things that one should do to optimize mental wellness after retirement? Please share a story or an example for each.
I am fortunate to have several retired individuals in my life who have retired in the last few years, and many of them are good models for retiring in ways that help optimize mental wellness. Finding new ways to contribute to the world around you, to learn new things, and to engage with others are ways to also help your mental health as you make this life transition.
For example, the older adults in my life who have recently retired are very engaged in life. They are active volunteers and community members, have learned new skills such as playing instruments and new languages and have regular contact with other adults for recreation and community-building. My in-laws for example, actively support their local library and are the best Scrabble players I know, and they get even more time to do this now!
It’s particularly important to take care of your physical and mental health as we age, and to be mindful that the mental health of older adults can be impacted when their routines and usual support systems are disrupted by retirement.
The most powerful factors that impact mental health and well-being for older adults include:
- Mental health conditions: Often undiagnosed, mental health conditions (either previous or current) can have their first onset in later adulthood. Depression and severe anxiety are not a normal part of aging and can be addressed with clinical treatment and social support. Uncertainty around life after retirement and the potential for increased susceptibility to disease can exacerbate any underlying risk for depression or anxiety.
- Physical health, pain and disability: Medical conditions are prevalent for most older adults and can often be well managed. When pain or chronic illness lead to functional disability, the individual’s sense of identity and well-being can be significantly impacted. Being in an older age demographic and having chronic health conditions are criteria for “high-risk” vulnerability to disease. This can compound the stress many older adults feel.
- Social isolation, feeling lonely or disconnected: Any regular contact with family, neighbors, clubs, faith communities, and social services (such as meal delivery or home care personnel) can serve as important points of contact and a lifeline for social connection.
- Losses: Losses are a more frequent experience for older adults and generally include the death of friends/family, and other kinds of losses such as driving, autonomy, financial, or functioning in various roles. Older adults’ capacity to adapt and heal through grief and loss is generally vast. Yet grief can become complicated for some. When losses occur in combination with other stressors, mental health deterioration can occur.
If you are an older adult or want to support one, here are three things you can do to help optimize mental wellness after retirement:
- Stay connected. Regularly check in on your neighbors and family members. Call or video-chat since texting and social media may not be the best method of connecting.
- Keep doing activities that you enjoy. Keep doing the activities that you identify as being most helpful in supporting your mental health, such as daily exercise or a walk, stretching, listening to or playing music, reading, enjoying favorite or humorous shows, puzzles, games, social activities, and meditation or prayer.
- Keep doctors informed. Seek medical advice or care if you are experiencing symptoms of physical or mental health decline and stay in communication with your healthcare provider.
How about teens and pre teens. Are there any specific new ideas you would suggest for teens and pre teens to optimize their mental wellness?
When children hit puberty, there are changes in their body and brain that can and do lead to behavioral changes. Changes in the body may contribute to behavioral changes, and some of these, such as mood or sleep changes or attempts to assert more independence, are a natural part of adolescent development. These changes can have a potential impact on mental wellness and can be challenging for teens and preteens to navigate.
There are ways teens and preteens can optimize their mental wellness if they’re navigating change, including:
- Reach out to who and what you know helps: Turn to the people in your life who are supportive and can listen. Talk about the things that help you regain a sense of calm.
- Do the things that you know help take care of you: Exercise, drink water, and seek comfort in music, books, journaling, meditation, your pets, or other healthy distractions when things feel too much.
- It’s okay if life doesn’t go as planned: While you may not know what’s ahead, you can trust that there are many others (an entire world of people, in fact) who are navigating changes like you. You are not alone and there will be others to greet you as things change. Things may be different, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be well or be able to weather new challenges.
- There are others available and looking to help you: Please know that there are support services out there if you are struggling with your mental health and alone. You don’t need to navigate any of this by yourself. Text TALK to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1800 273-TALK (8255). Many counselors and other helping professionals are also looking to provide telehealth services right now. Take some time to learn about resources in your community, including those that may be online.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I am an avid reader. The book that has had the biggest impact on me is likely, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. That book is an ongoing reminder that while we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we respond. It was required reading for a graduate class I took in my mid 20s and left a lasting impact on me. I’ve reread it multiple times.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
That’s a hard question because there is so much need in the world right now. It would probably be a campaign that encouraged other people to always be kind to one another as a starting place and if you are fortunate to have more than others (whether that’s health, wealth or happiness), share it with those who are less fortunate.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
I have a magnet with the quote “Love is the answer” at my desk. It reminds me to try to start from a place of love, no matter what I am about to do. While not always easy, if I start there, things usually have a way of working out.
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