Children spend the bulk of their day at school, and most adults are in the workforce. However, mental illness negatively impacts academic and occupational functioning for children and adults. Schools should implement programs designed to bolster communication skills, teach conflict resolution, and practice mindfulness, all of which positively impact emotions and behavior which leads to better mental health. Companies should make concerted efforts to support employee mental health by encouraging mental health days, creating a positive workplace culture that does not tolerate toxic employees or toxic bosses, and offering onsite therapy services through an Employee Assistant Program or other model that gives employees access to counseling services as needed. The media should seek to portray mental illness honestly rather than perpetuating stigma and stereotypes.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Leesha, Leesha M Ellis-Cox, MD, MPH, LLC. Dr. Leesha is a board-certified child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist, dynamic public speaker, wife, mother, and best-selling author. Born and raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, Dr. Leesha earned both her Bachelor of Science and Doctor of Medicine degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Upon graduating from medical school, she completed her general psychiatry residency training at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, followed by a fellowship in child and adolescent psychiatry. She completed a second fellowship in Community Psychiatry/Public Health during which she obtained her Master of Public Health degree. She has lived and worked in Alabama for the last ten years and is the medical director at a community mental health center in Birmingham. In addition to her work as a full-time physician, Dr. Leesha is a leading authority on women’s and children’s mental health and a highly sought-after parenting expert. She has a heart for moms, especially those who struggle with mommy guilt, the nagging sense of inadequacy and constant fear of failing as a parent. Dr. Leesha, herself, is a mother to three energetic children ages 4, 8, and 11, so she knows first-hand how tough parenting can be. Through a collective of creative initiatives, she has created a safe space for moms to celebrate the motherhood but also lament its challenges. She wrote a book, she is hosting an amazing new conference, and is launching several other projects in the months to come, all designed to support mommy mental health and wellness. Dr. Leesha is changing the narrative for all moms, crafting a new story in which we, ourselves, and our communities intentionally and consistently support these women. Healthy moms raise healthy children and families. Learn more about Dr. Leesha and read her illuminating blog at www.drleesha.com. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and her Facebook page @drleesha.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
I fell in love with science at an early age. My first love was rocks and fossils, so I imagined myself as an archaeologist, discovering a giant dinosaur fossil. Then I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau, the famous oceanographer, except that I’m afraid of sharks. Then, I fell in love with medicine because of the heart and compassion of my childhood pediatrician, Dr. Burroughs. Pediatrics stuck, so I applied to medical school. I enjoyed my pediatrics rotation and learned so much, but the children I encountered were very sick. Some of those children died, and my heart broke. Pediatrics no longer felt right for me. While on my child psychiatry rotation, I met a 12-year-old boy who was admitted to the hospital after he laid down in the middle street hoping a car would run over him and kill him. We began talking and he began to open up to me. I watched him slowly get better, his confidence growing and his smile returning as his depression began to improve. We worked as a team, the psychiatrist, the therapist, the nurse, me, the medical student, and this young man. He got better, and his transformation was almost magical. It was then I realized that psychiatry was for me.
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’m not crazy.” This is one of the most commonly uttered retorts I hear when I ask why individuals choose to forego mental health treatment. Other factors include:1) lack of access to mental health care because of the shortage of mental health providers and inadequate insurance coverage; 2) failing to recognize symptoms as indicative of a psychiatric illness such as mistaking several missed days of work as simply fatigue; 3) believing that psychiatric symptoms will resolve on their own without intervention; or 4) the pervasive inaccuracies that exist about many psychiatric illnesses like the belief that people with schizophrenia are violent. Unfortunately, the media and our health care system reinforce stigma and stereotypes, too. Those with mental illness are portrayed as “crazy” and “mad,” the deranged psychotic killer or the emotionally unstable woman with the wild eyes stalking her ex seen in television and movies. People who seek hospitalization for suicidal thoughts are sometimes placed in handcuffs and transported to the “psych ward.” We must do better.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
As a mother of 3 young children and a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I am uniquely positioned to address the needs of moms. I am intimately familiar with the challenges of parenting. Parenting is rewarding but also incredibly hard. Mommy guilt is real which can lead to mommy burnout and depression. As moms we are tough on ourselves, and society criticizes us, too. We need a safe space, a judgement-free zone within which we can celebrate motherhood but also lament its challenges. So, I am creating it. I wrote a book called Ditch the Mommy Guilt: A Blueprint for the Modern Mommy. This phenomenal book explores the root cause of mommy guilt and provides tangible strategies to kick that guilt to the curb such as dismantling parenting mistruths and building a rock star mommy tribe. I am also hosting the first annual conference, Motherhood: The Remix, which builds upon this theme of letting go of mommy guilt. “Ditching the mommy guilt” is so much more than a funny catchphrase, it’s a movement. We are tackling tough conversations armed with humor, transparency, and authenticity. At minimum, this is mommy mental health; but at the heart it is a full spectrum of wellness for women who are the glue that holds families together.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Accepted into and earned a full, four-year scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill — check. Matriculated at UNC School of Medicine — check. First physician in my family — check. Completed my general psychiatry residency training and a combined fellowship training in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Community Psychiatry/Public Health at Emory University School of Medicine — check. I accomplished each academic feat without any hiccups along the way.
I married my love during my internship year in a beautiful ceremony at the Fernbank Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. A few of our stunning wedding photos were even featured in a regional wedding magazine. To make sure we had time to adapt to our new life as a married couple, travel, and enjoy each other, we elected to postpone starting a family for the first five years of our marriage. Once we decided we were ready to become parents, we went all in full throttle; but pregnancy and motherhood were kicking my butt. During my first pregnancy, I was diagnosed with an incompetent cervix, discovered when I went into premature labor just shy of 24 weeks. I was in the hospital for a brief stay then placed on bedrest for 14 weeks. With every cramp, twinge, or sensation of pressure, I feared the worst. I thought I was going to lose my baby. No one seemed to understand what I was going through as many of my friends would say something like, “Oh how nice, you get to stay at home all day and rest” when all I could think about was the complications my sweet baby might face if she arrived prematurely. She came at 37 weeks, small but loud. I now have 3 children, but my first one set the tone for my new identity as a mom, an identity riddled with mommy guilt. I struggled to breastfeed, so I hired a lactation consultant, read the latest books about breastfeeding, took fenugreek until my pores oozed the scent of maple syrup, drank mother’s milk tea, and pumped and pumped. Still, she had trouble latching, and I could not produce enough milk. I felt like a complete failure. Breast is best, and this mommy physician had to supplement with formula. I only stayed out of work for 6 weeks as I was finishing up my fellowship training, but other resident physician moms took 3 months — another mommy failure. Returning to work at 6 weeks meant that I had to send my newborn baby to daycare as I had no family close by to keep her at home for another few months — bad mom x 3. The day that really broke me was 8 years ago. Bailey was 3, and she and her toddler classmates had put together a special Mother’s Day tea for all the moms. I remember receiving a sweet invitation to the program; but with only a few days’ notice, I did not want to reschedule my entire afternoon clinic. I made the decision to skip the tea. When I arrived later that evening to pick up Bailey, she was devastated. Tears filled her eyes, and she softly said, “Mommy, where were you? Why did you miss the tea?” Instantly, I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I stammered, trying to find the right words to explain to my heartbroken 3-year-old why her mommy felt like work and patients were more important than spending the afternoon with her to enjoy tea and cookies. I could barely look her in the face. As tears welled up in my eyes, I grabbed her and hugged her tightly. I apologized profusely for my grave mistake. This was the failure of all failures, and I had totally botched this parenting thing. I quickly concluded, “I’m a HORRIBLE mommy.” It seemed like forever before I was able to forgive myself.
My experience with mommy guilt is not unique. Whether during conversations with the moms of kids I treat or with colleagues or friends, almost all mothers experience some degree of mommy guilt. Unaddressed, mommy guilt can lead to stress, mommy burnout, anxiety, and depression. I have personally witnessed the devastating impact of depression on moms and their children, and I don’t want this for any family. I am creating the change I desire to see.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
A) Individuals — Treat everyone with kindness, show compassion, and take time to learn about those things that you don’t understand rather than remaining uninformed and ignorant. Remember there is no health without mental health so go see someone. Don’t be afraid to get help. It takes more courage to get help than to suffer in silence.
B) Society — Children spend the bulk of their day at school, and most adults are in the workforce. However, mental illness negatively impacts academic and occupational functioning for children and adults. Schools should implement programs designed to bolster communication skills, teach conflict resolution, and practice mindfulness, all of which positively impact emotions and behavior which leads to better mental health. Companies should make concerted efforts to support employee mental health by encouraging mental health days, creating a positive workplace culture that does not tolerate toxic employees or toxic bosses, and offering onsite therapy services through an Employee Assistant Program or other model that gives employees access to counseling services as needed. The media should seek to portray mental illness honestly rather than perpetuating stigma and stereotypes. Organizations should devise public anti-stigma campaigns much like has happened with campaigns against bullying.
C) Government — The federal government should enact several changes to better support individuals with mental illness. Here are just a few: 1) fully cover treatment for individuals seeking services along the mental health continuum from mild illnesses with treatment focused on preventing worsening of symptoms to serious mental illness that requires more intense services. Currently, insurance will only reimburse for services associated with certain diagnostic codes which limits treatment to only the most seriously ill unless you can pay for care out of pocket; 2) increase reimbursement for physician services; 3) implement workforce shortage initiatives to attract more physicians to psychiatry which would enlarge the pool of physicians available to deliver mental health services; and 4) provide grant funding for creative and innovative ways to deliver mental health services outside of the traditional clinic or hospital models that would also improve access and reach more people seeking something different but still desiring recovery from their mental illness.
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) Prayer — My faith is my foundation, the very core of who I am. People will disappoint you, and circumstances may deter you, but God never fails. My belief in my Heavenly Father sustains me and ensures that I will always have access to His peace that transcends all understanding no matter what life may bring. I have always known there was more for me to than just see patients every day for the rest of my life but starting my own business has whisked me outside of my comfort zone and stretched my faith. I read my Bible and pray daily but especially when I am riddled with doubt and unsure of my next step. I find wisdom and clarity in scripture, and the word of God reminds me of my purpose.
2) Exercise — Exercise provides a multitude of benefits: a) releases endorphins, brain chemicals that create feelings of euphoria; b) decreases stress and anxiety; c) improves memory and cognition; d) improves sleep; and e) boosts self-confidence — all things that are good for my mental health and overall wellbeing.
3) Practicing real self-care — Self-care is a popular buzz word these days. Many envision self-care as spa days, girls’ trips, and retail therapy. But real self-care is so much more than doing things. Real self-care encompasses creating a healthy mindset that prioritizes your emotional well-being as much as your physical restoration. It means saying “no” to overextending yourself and tasks that don’t align with your purpose, freeing yourself from others’ opinions of you, and accepting your limitations; and it’s being okay with putting yourself first sometimes. Self-care is not selfish; rather it’s self-preservation.
4) Living life on my own terms — Living my best life is defined by me, not by society, my parents, or my friends. My life, my goals, and my dreams — all experienced on my own terms and this matters deeply to my mental health. What I do and how I live matter to my wellbeing. I answer only to 3 people, my God, my husband, and myself. Even now as I juggle a full-time medical practice, marriage, motherhood, and entrepreneurship, people wonder why I am so ambitious and feel the need to take on so many responsibilities. I believe that to whom much is given much is required, so I delight in the manifestation of my creative mind as I watch my dreams materialize.
5) Boundaries — We are not designed to be all things to all people, but many of us go through life like this. As I have gotten older and more mature, I understand how critical boundaries are to my mental health. Because of competing interests, I won’t make every PTO meeting and I can’t be room mom. Each child can participate in 2 extracurricular activities at most as much as for me as for them. I have grown confident in saying “no” to things and people that no longer work for me. Toxic relationships have no place in my life. Boundaries allow us to keep the good stuff in while simultaneously keeping the bad stuff out.
6) Rest — Rest is restorative, but we require emotional rest just as much as physical rest. I give myself permission to rest without guilt. I find emotional rest through reading books that inspire and encourage me and snuggling with my children. I make time to sit and do nothing, if only in 10-minute increments. I must decompress and quiet the overwhelming thoughts (the fear, the angst, and the what ifs) that daily fill my brain otherwise those thoughts accumulate and can derail my path. I also try to make sure that I get adequate sleep every night.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
More than any book or podcast, the patients I serve inspire me to be a champion for mental health. Their stories are ones of unimaginable pain, trauma, and heartbreak but also of hope, survival, and redemption. I treat survivors of sexual abuse, children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), men and women facing job loss and homelessness, and mothers diagnosed with depression after losing a child. They choose not to be defined by the sum of their circumstances but by their strength and their pursuit of wholeness. I am honored to be a part of and a witness to their growth and transformation.
Thank you for all of these great insights!