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Starting With Questions

“Take wonderful care of yourself. Decide to be a good friend to yourself. It’s such a neat skill—that’s a skill for life, being able to say ‘I am worthy of self-care’ and ‘I am worth of self-love.’”

In the middle of October, I found myself in a house filled with members of Yale Students for Christ (YSC). We gathered for something different than I was used to. It’s called a Common(s) Conversation, referencing the mysterious Schwarzman Center where this group of students once gathered and discussed whatever their souls cried to voice.

To say I was a little nervous doesn’t quite hit the mark. I didn’t know my fellow students well, but I did know my own inadequacies in knowledge of and response to mental health struggles. Instead of embracing an opportunity to learn, I prepared to let my guilt that had numbed itself away reemerge in full.

They didn’t let that happen. Rather, I participated in an uncommon phenomenon: open dialogue between all, reflecting the strength to dance with different perspectives in an aura of support. It was a good conversation about mental health.

Amy Mueller, a clinical social worker at Safe Harbor Christian Counseling of Connecticut, spoke that evening. She shared personal and professional experiences, answered questions, and graciously agreed to be interviewed.

(Disclaimer: this interview includes elements of the Christian faith but was conducted with the intent to reach Yale’s population in all its diversity.)

What are the most important preventative measures students can take to maintain a healthy mental state?

“[Self-soothing is] the idea of what I really want to do in the moment, when I feel down, or I don’t feel great, or I feel kind of homesick—what I really want to do is watch a show or climb in bed or eat that huge plate of unhealthy food. There are moments when I would say practicing self-care is going to be more important than practicing self-soothing. We’re talking about trying to practice good sleep hygiene—dedicating six to eight hours, just this idea that you’re going to protective over your sleep time; you’re going to be protective over exercise, whatever that looks like; drinking water—you may really want a huge cup of coffee or a big milkshake, but you know what your body needs is water.”

“You definitely want collaboration and to receive different forms of input. But the idea of [self-validation is] being able to say these ideas and realities to yourself first. So, you know, ‘I’m going to call my Mom about parenting advice. I hope she tells me I’m doing a good job and that it’s really difficult sometimes.’ But, being able to hold myself gently, say that stuff to myself [first] and then make that call. Sometimes it’s going to be a double validation, and sometime it may not.”

How connected are spiritual, mental, physical, and social health? Are they dependent or independent from each other?

“I truly believe that you can be functioning if one area is affected. For example, if I am sick with a terrible cold, I can still be a good friend. I believe they are really, totally connected and I don’t believe that they are always 100% dependent upon one another. However, the question of their independence leads me to this idea of compartmentalizing: if I am struggling with my mental health I don’t want to impact any other area—say social health. I’m going to hide that struggle from my friends. Is that sustainable and genuine? I don’t even know.”

How do spiritual, mental, physical, and social health differ from each other?

“I don’t believe that they are very different from one another. If I’m practicing health spiritually, mentally, physically, socially… that’s all going to look pretty similar. Something that I am doing for my spiritual health I truly believe is good for my mental health and is good for my physical health.”

What is the most important thing to keep in mind when caring for loved ones struggling with their mental health?

“Empathizing and listening first—I think a lot of us jump in to fix immediately. ‘I want to fix; here’s some information.’ And I think it’s a disconnected information age. You can get information and you can literally Google, ‘how do I feel better from depression?’ Information is easy to come by but connection and empathy and validation are really hard to come by. That, to me, is one of the most important things to keep in mind.”

Must we draw a line when trying to help our loved ones struggling with their mental health? If so, where/when?

“’Help’ being the operative word in your question. And there really is [a line], and I’m guilty [of crossing] it—we’re all guilty. Because it’s our loved ones. There are plenty of times when I’m dying to say what is enabling to hear. But, it’s an idea of ‘I’m trying to help you and some of the ways I will be helpful to you are going to be letting you help yourself.’ However, I really, really want to emphasize the idea of grace because there have been plenty of times when I’ve offered a lot of tough love and that person could have used some grace.”

Please elaborate more on the role and effect of loneliness on mental health.

“Alone does not equal loneliness. Someone who isolate themselves withdraws from friends, family, and activities. [It] is one the hallmark tells of depression. The more you isolate yourself or the more you don’t seek to bring in new perspectives and points of view on information, there’s this echo chamber effect.”

Fear was mentioned multiple times during the Common(s) Conversation. Specifically, I remember you saying that fear is a natural and healthy reaction: however, after acknowledging that fear, we should press toward what is valuable. Can you speak more to the significance of this idea?

“Cognitive diffusion is what that is. It’s this idea of ‘Yes, I am actually having these thoughts and am actually experiencing these emotions and they are not valuable to me. This is not the same thing as being burnt by a fire and then running into it. So, I am going to bring these thoughts, fears, and anxieties with me while I press toward something that is actually valuable to me because these thoughts, these feelings, these fears are not adding value to my life.

What is the role of a community in caring for individuals who struggle with their mental health?

“So, again, I’m thinking Christian community. Say there’s a little kid in town who is battling leukemia: signs are up everywhere and people are like, ‘Let’s start a bone marrow drive and a Go-Fund Me.” And there’s another little kid who is suffering from terrible outbursts and is hurting himself and other people: people are like, ‘Oh, that poor Mom. We feel bad for her.’ Physical health—we like that because we can sow and reap. With bone marrow, someone donates and the kid does the transplant and the transplant works and everyone is like, ‘Oh my God, they’re better! We got to sow peace and love and mercy and got to reap healing.’ With mental health, we may not see reaping. But that shouldn’t prevent us from doing some sewing.

What is the greatest barrier to improving mental health treatment?

“In my opinion, the cost, stigma, and availability. I know people who have told me, ‘It took me two months to get here!’ I’m always shocked. And I have to say this: I feel like another barrier to improving mental health treatment is the fact that there are times when we can’t always show concrete results. When we’re talking about guns people are saying, ‘We need to improve mental health care!’ but this person did have a counselor that they were seeing regularly and still they went and did this. Another scenario: this person had a counselor, changed their mind and turned in their guns. While that happens, you don’t really hear about that: but, you definitely hear about ‘This person had a counselor, and it just didn’t work.’ While we can show this evidence-based practice out there-- look at this, look how much we’ve been able to reduce [struggles with mental health]-- I don’t know that it’s quite the same as ‘If you put sunblock on, you’re going to reduce your chance of skin cancer.’”

Has working in this field taught you anything about yourself?

“It has taught me that this idea of self-acceptance and self-love, this idea of accepting who I am and loving myself has helped me make more change in my own mental and physical health. I used to be really, really hard on myself. Everybody is hard on themselves, but I used to be much harder on myself. I always wanted to do more that would help me improve in my skill and make change. Yet, I had a pretty harsh tongue with myself. As I would tell clients, ‘Be gentle with yourself, be kind with yourself, be compassionate with yourself,’ I finally thought, after many years, that I should do that, too.

Introduction and Interview by Jadan Anderson.