Keeping Stress in Check
As Chief Medical Officer at Carrier Clinic®, I can tell you that the concept of “silver linings” is not one that you’d commonly encounter in scientific journals. As a professional on the front lines of the mental health field, I believe that the search for that silver lining can play a significant part in the process of navigating anxiety, depression, and stress-inducing setbacks in our lives.
Maintaining a positive outlook is not the same thing as living in denial. It’s about seeking ways to proactively address an issue, rather than searching for ways to assign blame or direct negative behaviors. It’s about believing that things can be made better, so long as we refuse to run from our problems. It’s about the knowledge that the right person—whether a medical professional, a psychiatrist, a counselor, a caring friend or family member—can effect a change in our emotional weather forecast.
The mental and physical toll of stress in our lives can turn any one of us into our worst enemy— someone who lapses back into destructive behaviors, who lashes out at the people closest to them, who lacks the energy to confront stressful situations head-on. The Carrier team knows that a positive state of overall health and wellness begins with the ability to keep stress from taking control —and the silver lining comes from discovering the best part of ourselves, as we work together to stay focused on goals and stay engaged with the world around us.
Although Lisa Tenenbaum confesses that she was never “an avid gardener” by nature, the faculty member at Carrier’s East Mountain School has, since the spring of 2012, nurtured a fascinating new pilot program for her students. Centered around the operation of an “Enabling Garden,” it’s a program that’s already displayed remarkable growth, especially of the personal kind.
Created last year as a partnership between Rutgers University and Rotary International District 7510, the effort known as “Enabling Gardens: Growing Lives One Seed at a Time,” caught the attention of Carrier’s Fund Development team. They looked into the program as part of that department’s mission of identifying “community initiatives that enrich the lives of our students, residents and patients.”
The project was created and spearheaded by Laura DePrado, Director of Club and Community Service for central jersey district 7510, comprised of 41 clubs in 5 counties, including Somerset.
After meetings between Fund Development personnel and liaisons from the Rotary International District 7510, Montgomery Rocky Hill Rotary Club and Rutgers, Carrier Clinic® was selected as one of five pilot sites in the Garden State, representing Somerset County in the project. “Designed and built to be accessible, barrierfree, and provide unlimited opportunities for people of all ages and abilities.”
With an assist from EMS, including Tenenbaum and biology teacher Laura Zullo, they worked with Rutgers’ team members to establish working gardens–a series of seven raised 6×12 planting beds; six of which are purposed as vegetable and herb gardens (the seventh and most immediately visible features a colorful array of flowering perennials). They also enlisted the participation of students, who quickly got busy moving soil, weeding and cleaning up debris.
“We’ve got a bumper crop right now,” says Tenenbaum, a statement that could describe the coming tomato harvest as well as the core of “about a dozen” Lodge students who have shown particular enthusiasm for gardening. “It’s fun for them to be able to taste a mint leaf that they’ve grown; to realize their role in making that happen.”
“Biotech, hydroponic systems and alternative energies are areas that we touch upon,” says Tenenbaum, who observes that while the garden is not fully organic, the utilization of rain barrels and a composter allow the students to see firsthand the benefits of employing renewable resources in the growing of food.
“Just the act of gardening is a great help to many of our students…there’s a lot of growth going on here.”
Finding balance and healing, on the other side of the storm.
As Associate Executive Director of the New Jersey Association of Mental Health Addiction Agencies (NJAMHAA), Shauna Moses is well acquainted with the ways in which people from all walks of life navigate their personal storms of depression, addiction, and mental illness— as well as in the ways that Carrier Clinic® and the 180 member agencies in her organization work to see people through the other side of the storm. More often than not, it’s a process that involves hard work and commitment, rather than the Hollywood devices of innocent misunderstandings, well-timed coincidences, and magical good luck.
While her full-time job keeps her busy creating press materials, conducting educational conferences, and advocating to policymakers on behalf of her clients, the veteran administrator with the winning smile and friendly conversational manner has also watched the passing of the storm clouds from the other side of the desk—as a person whose own depression caused her to “spend weekends in bed, explode at my family members…and attempt to hurt myself.”
“My depression became so intense that I knew hiding under the covers for a day or two would not work,” Shauna wrote in a May 2012 op-ed published in the Times of Trenton. It was, she explains, a problem that was keyed to the lingering and unresolved devastation wrought by the sudden death of a loved one— a tragedy that occurred nearly a decade ago.
It was largely for the sake of her then 7-year-old child that Shauna dealt with the immediate aftereffects of the tragedy by seeking therapy, and by going on a prescribed program of antidepressants. It was “because I felt that I was okay now” that the single working mom opted out of continuing her medications— a decision that began to have significant repercussions some five years after she first went to work for NJAMHAA.
“About a year and a half ago, I started to become more frequently depressed,” recalls Shauna at the Plainsboro apartment that she shares with Harrison, her now 16-year-old son from her first marriage—and with a spirited “part chihuahua” rescue dog by the name of Chica.
“Work became overwhelming… I started dwelling on my divorces, on failed relationships, and something like a particular song would trigger another bout of depression. I knew then that I needed help.”
After finding herself ignored at the local hospital emergency room, Shauna came to the realization that “I needed the help of an inpatient facility… I had met a lot of people from Carrier Clinic® through our conferences, and for me there wasn’t even a debate as to who I’d turn to.”
During a brief but very busy stay at Carrier’s Belle Mead campus in the spring of 2012, Shauna Moses found herself getting a new and first-hand perspective on a facility with which she’d previously been involved purely on a professional-to-professional basis; consulting with a grief therapist, psychiatrist and social worker—and taking part in a program of activities that ranged from a morning exercise class with “upbeat party music,” to drum circles and art therapy that represented “a pleasant surprise as to its effectiveness.”
“I really did learn a lot about these different forms of therapy…and the diverse viewpoints of the different people who take part in them,” observes the woman who credits the Carrier Clinic® team with helping her to “break through the darkness.”
Since her time at Carrier, Shauna has maintained a program of medication, therapy and “off and on” exercise. She’s taken additional comfort from her involvement with the Plainsboro-based nonprofit Attitudes in Reverse (AIR) (see sidebar story), from her high school senior son, and from Chica, a loving little handful who’s inspired her through AIR to “promote the mental health benefits of pets.”
The NJAMHAA administrator has also approached her work with a renewed vigor, raising awareness of the coming changes to the American healthcare system, and its caseload impact on providers who are already struggling in an era of smaller staffs and slashed budgets. Another focus for Shauna is her lobbying for an easement of the documentation requirements for member organizations, a “regulatory burden” that she believes results in “less time to see patients” in the case of her clinical members.
Underlying the tectonic shifts in the healthcare landscape is a persistent stigma surrounding mental illness —its diagnosis, treatment, and its very prominent place in a society that continues to shy away from it.
“I can understand people’s caution about family histories of suicide and mental illness,” Shauna says, “but to me, the bigger fear is for the next generation; that kids wouldn’t know how to get help if they needed it.” “It’s important to emphasize that many tragedies can be averted…it’s ultimately all about saving lives, and lessening the risk of people giving in to their depression and their hopelessness.”
The sun begins to break through on what, up until this moment, had been a day of epic downpours. Shauna muses about her own “silver lining” that revealed itself through the dark clouds of her struggles with depression.
“Our own tragedies can be a way of life, opening up opportunities to help others,” she smiles as she folds up her umbrella. “And in my case, thinking of my son, my parents, the people who depend on me being there, helped pull me through…I hope that, whether it’s clergy, family, or friends, everyone has the kind of support network that I’ve had.”
In March 2012, I experienced the most intense and frightening depression–even more so than what I endured 10 years ago after the sudden death of a loved one. Miraculously, the positives in my life, which I struggled to focus on in my darkest moments, eventually broke through the darkness, making me realize I needed help. I immediately thought of Carrier Clinic®, which I know about through my work at the New Jersey Association of Mental Health and Addiction Agencies.
After just a few days of various therapeutic activities at Carrier Clinic®, my depression was no longer oppressive. I started on medication and was linked to a therapist, who stressed the importance of having meaningful activities and a social life outside of work. The absence of these necessities and the presence of other factors triggered my depression. I am fortunate that I learned about Attitudes in Reverse® (AIR), which meets these needs.
As often as I can, I join in the AIR presentations to students in middle and high schools and colleges– the age group at the most risk of developing mental illnesses–about fostering strong mental health, recognizing when help is needed and seeking help. We share our struggles with mental illness and loss in our lives, and we emphasize that treatment is effective. We also stress that no one should feel embarrassed about needing help because mental health disorders are very real, biologically based illnesses.
I also write press releases and grant applications to build awareness of AIR, and hopefully secure funding to further spread our message and continue achieving our goal of saving lives–which is happening, based on students’ testimonials we’ve received. I also participate in many events to build more awareness and support for AIR.
AIR is unique, not only in its proactive approach through education, but also its AIR Dogs: Paws for Minds™ program. Volunteers foster and train displaced dogs to be Emotional Support Dogs for individuals with mental illness. Two lives are saved with each match.
I have no doubt we will connect with many more people. We were invited to present at colleges in Georgia and Vermont, and recently presented at two New York colleges, in addition to an increasing number of middle and high schools throughout New Jersey. In the first two years, we have presented to more than 11,000 students.
I say “we,” even though I joined the organization so recently, because AIR is a major part of my life. I am tremendously inspired by Kurt, Tricia and Katelyn Baker, who established AIR in 2010 soon after they lost their son/brother, Kenny, to suicide. He faced discrimination from the staff at their high school. The Bakers have reversed the attitude of stigma at this school. The principal is now one of AIR’s biggest supporters and he recently agreed to have the Bakers present the first Kenny Baker Memorial Scholarship.
I am proud to be part of this vital organization. I’m helping to save lives through AIR the same way Carrier Clinic® has, undoubtedly, saved mine.
“Carrier Clinic® saved my life, and now I help save others.”
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