Taking care of mental health: UW experts weigh in

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May is national Mental Health Awareness Month, with its clarion call to prioritize our psychological well-being as much as we do our physical well-being.

That’s sometimes easier said than done.

While there is certainly cause to celebrate the rising awareness and acceptance and declining stigma of mental health disorders, these trends have also revealed a growing crisis of mental health in our nation. Some call it an epidemic.

According to National Institute of Mental Health, one in five U.S. adults and an estimated one in two adolescents (aged 13-18) experience mental illness each year–and one in 20 adults experience serious mental illness each year. Half of all Americans will be diagnosed with a mental illness or disorder at some point in their lives. Fewer than half of them will receive treatment for it.

Left untreated, mental health issues such as depression can lead to an increased risk of physical health issues, disability and suicide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that we can take actions to address this too-common malaise, at work, in our families, among our communities and in our own lives.

A panel of experts from around the University of Washington gathered on the stage at April’s UW Wellness Symposium to discuss ways to improve mental health—for organizations and individuals.

You can catch the entire panel discussion here:

…Or read a few highlights below.

Well-being from wellness

Many organizations promote wellness at many levels. The UW, for instance, offers a vast constellation of wellness activities, events, campaigns and classes to all faculty and staff through The Whole U. Beyond that, many individual departments, units and teams offer their own wellness activities.

Jenn Nguyen, director of the Washington State Employee Assistance Program (WA EAP), emphasized the importance of understanding the difference between “wellness” and “well-being.”

“We often miss the mark when we interchange the term wellness with well-being. They are two different things,” Nguyen said. “Wellness refers to activities, things you can touch, taste, feel and participate in. Think mindfulness meditation, yoga, going for a walk, wellness symposiums. Well-being is how you feel while you’re engaged in these activities. When we infuse the two and care for the individual as a holistic person, that’s when you get sustainable outcomes.”


Brennon Ham, director of the Q Center, discussed the fine points of creating a culture and environment conducive to enhance mental health. “When it comes to setting up a safe environment for folks, start from a place of abundance,” they said. “Learn what their capacities are, learn about how they like to have conversations, open doors for them to do so… it’s a matter of co-responsibility.

“Instead of having the onus be on the person who is at the margins, battling whatever is going on with them, it’s about all of us, taking care of each other. When we make that shift to co-responsibility (about mental health), we’re able to cultivate the sense of belonging that fosters well-being for folks.”

This includes making reasonable and necessary accommodations, added Gretchen Bennett, senior disability services consultant at the UW Disability Services Office.

“When you hear somebody saying, I’m struggling with this, I’m struggling with that, my back hurts or I need to take a break. Buzzwords that might suggest that there’s something else going on, a supervisor can say, what is it that you need? We don’t want to get into what’s the problem or what’s the treatment plan is.”

The power of listening

Fiona Cohen, violence prevention and response specialist at UW SafeCampus, emphasized the paramount power of listening when trying to support a friend or co-worker or person you’re supervising and not sure how to manage the situation.

“Think about resourcing yourself when you’re helping someone else,” Cohen said. “You never want to feel like you are alone in having to support someone, or that you’re the only support for them. And you don’t have to feel like you need to be an expert. I think there’s such a pressure in our society to feel like you have to have the answer right away. You don’t. Listening is such a powerful intervention.

The power of choice

Marie Cockerham, director of the CARE4U Well-Being & Support Program at UW Medicine, brought up a key distinction in helping people navigate their mental health challenges.

“Most of us are caretakers in some way. And we are looking to fix problems all the time. But that’s not always what people want. And when you show up that way, it sometimes feels like ‘you don’t see me, you don’t understand me, you don’t get it. I feel dismissed, I feel minimized.’”

Instead, she advised letting the person guide the response, using a simple open-ended question: “Wow, that’s a lot. Do you need solutions or support? And then they get to choose their own adventure. If they just need support, you listen to them, you validate, you normalize, you do all the things that make them feel that you’re right here with them. You’re giving them the best gift you can give, which is presence.

“Or, maybe they say, ‘I want to do solutions.’ And then great, let’s go.”

The ‘warm handoff’

Making connections or the space to make connections is important groundwork, especially at work. It also allows for the building of trust, which is essential when dealing with personal matters.

“How do we rehumanize things that have been dehumanized,” Cockerham adds. “How do we make small moments of connection? How do we diffuse situations moment by moment? What are those little times to build trust.”

She adds that care doesn’t have to take the shape of formal programs or projects, and that people in leadership roles sometimes overstep into roles of counsel. “It can really be just how can I show up for this person? How do I make them feel seen and heard? And how do I connect them to a resource in a way that they might be more willing to engage in. What does that ‘warm handoff’ look like?”

Put on your oxygen mask first

While most of the conversation touched on helping others enhance or address their mental health, Nguyen emphasized that none of this works unless you address your own mental health first.

“We’re often in positions when we want to be serving others,” she said. “But it’s that oxygen mask metaphor. You really are not serving anybody until you’re serving yourself first.”

That can be tricky, especially for people who are prone to put others’ wellness ahead of their own.

“A really great activity is to think about the person in your life that you have the most trust and rapport with, and ask them this question: how do you know when I’m not well? What are my tells? And listen to what they tell you, because often we will display behaviors before we can even recognize that I’m not ok.”

Reframe the situation

Moderator Anne Browning, the associate dean for well-being at UW Medicine and founding director of the UW Resilience Lab, suggested that a reframing of terms and conditions can be helpful for those dealing with anxiety, depression and other common mental health challenges.

During the pandemic, a psychologist pointed out that anxiety is a normal emotion that, when kept in check, keeps us healthy and safe. When we overestimate the threats in our environment and underestimate what we can do to mitigate them, anxiety becomes a problem. “So, helping folks recognize that some sense of anxiety and stress can actually be very good, powerful, helpful as normal emotions,” she says. “It’s that tipping toward overwhelm where you want to pause and try to regulate.”

Nguyen spoke of reframing anxiety and depression, widely seen as ailments, as human behaviors to unmet needs. To eliminate the shame and see it for what it is, for instance, “I’ve been reframing depression as ‘deep rest.’ It’s sometimes our body telling us that we need a time out, a pause, a time to ourselves, however that manifests in behavior. It’s thinking in terms of self-compassion and giving myself grace.”

Cockerham adds that whatever the response to mental health issues—in ourselves or those around us—is never going to be perfect. But that should never stop you from trying. “Please do something, anything,” she says. “That’s my favorite PSA.”

10 ways to prioritize your mental health

  1. Exercise regularly – even just walking can boost your mood and improve your health.
  2. Eat healthy and stay hydrated – a balanced diet and plenty of water can improve your energy and focus.
  3. Make sleep a priority – stick to a schedule, turn off devices before bed time.
  4. Take time to unwind – explore meditation, relaxation or wellness apps.
  5. Stay active – schedule time for healthy activities you enjoy.
  6. Set goals and priorities – decide what needs to get done now and what can wait; learn to say no.
  7. Practice gratitude – appreciate the things that give you joy.
  8. Focus on positivity – identify and challenge your negative or unhelpful thoughts.
  9. Stay connected – reach out to friends or family who can provide emotional support and practical help.
  10. Honor yourself – recognize your struggles as real and legitimate.

Learn more