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Dr. Desreen N. Dudley: 5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness

Share your thoughts and feelings with others. A part of being mentally healthy is paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, not stuffing or ignoring emotions. I tell my clients, as I’ve recognized in myself, stuffing emotions inward is like a pressure cooker…eventually, ignored emotions will bubble over, and you will explode

As a part of my series about the “5 Things Anyone Can Do To Optimize Their Mental Wellness”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Desreen N. Dudley

Dr. Desreen N. Dudley, PsyD, a mental health quality consultant and clinical psychologist at Teladoc, the global leader in virtual care.

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 knew from early on that I wanted to be in a profession that helped people. I’m an identical twin, so growing up I sensed from others that I was unique in that way — I was a part of a twinhood, instead of being a ‘singleton.’ While my twin sister and I look exactly the same, our personalities differed and we were often compared, for good or bad. My biggest challenge since childhood and going into adolescence and young adulthood was how do I understand myself as an individual while differentiating from my sister? That question sparked my interest in gaining a deeper understanding of human beings, what makes us think, feel and do the things we do. In high school one introductory psychology course I took gave me the answers that my curiosity was begging for! I knew from then on there was no other career path for me — I abandoned my earlier aspirations of becoming an actress and author and set out to become a psychologist — with the main intention of understanding myself and helping others to understand and help themselves, as well.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

The first position I was offered after completing all my training requirements and getting licensed as a psychologist was a big one. I was hired as a clinical director at a substance abuse treatment facility to create a 28-day substance abuse residential program for active-duty military personnel. I was humbled and excited by this! Starting my career there were certainly times when my confidence in my abilities was not that strong, but I have always been one to go toward challenge. So, for the first time in my career I built a treatment program, that became wildly successful! Watching it grow from two individuals on one unit to three units completely full of active duty personnel made me feel accomplished, honored, and humbled all at the same time. At the ground-breaking of my novel treatment program, I gave a keynote speech to a large audience of high-ranking military officials who had traveled to see what I created and how I intended to help service members. It was one of the first times in my early career that I felt honored, humbled and excited to experience my ultimate goal that I had trained for years to accomplish — helping individuals treat their mental health on a large scale.

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?

A significant part of a clinical psychologist’s training is constant supervision and observation. My licensed supervisors at agencies where I was practicing treating patients would review my video-recorded therapy sessions and provide feedback. Of course, the patients I saw understood that I was a student in training, and consented for our sessions to be recorded. One of my first clinical supervisors would sit with me, and we would view the session together. I recall one viewing session where he timed how long I spent talking about the weather with my client and counted the number of times I used the cliché term “like.” I was mortified! But this was a great learning experience for me and helped me develop as a therapist. The experience taught me how to be intentional in therapy, and how my own anxiety can interfere with helping others focus on their sources of stress. Professionally and personally, the experience also taught me not to be fearful of feedback and constructive criticism. Being a psychologist calls for you to have Teflon skin and requires you to seek out and openly accept feedback, whether positive or negative!

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?

Several individuals contributed to my success along my career path, but I must say, my parents have been my biggest influencers. Originally from Kingston, Jamaica, my parents migrated to the U.S. in 1968, married and started their family of my three sisters and myself. Growing up, I felt they were very strict; however, as I grew older and wiser, I realized that my parents’ goal was for their children to achieve in the ‘land of opportunity’ that which they always heard was possible. They worked hard to navigate a foreign academic system and never stopped pushing me to succeed. They always taught me to strive to be the best at whatever I was doing and saw any grade that was less than an ‘A’ as unacceptable. They never told me that I could not do whatever I wanted to do. They created a firm foundation for me to stand on my entire life, until I learned from them what it takes to create that for myself and my own family. I will always be grateful to my parents for who they are, and the person they helped make me to be.

What advice would you suggest to your colleagues in your industry to thrive and avoid burnout?

Being a professional helper can be emotionally taxing. Similar to what we teach our clients whom we treat, we need to prioritize our mental health by engaging in self-care activities. I recommend that my colleagues find activities they enjoy that are not related to providing therapy and set firm boundaries for themselves. I believe that when we as professional helpers take care of our mental health we are most likely to see our work as rewarding and not as a source of stress and burnout.

What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?

Great leaders show that they care about their employees’ mental well-being as much as their work productivity. Leaders should model for their employees the importance of keeping a healthy balance between work and personal life. Leaders can do so by encouraging use of vacation time, offering flexible work schedules, and hosting fun and social engagement activities. Also, leaders should demonstrate to their employees that they care about their mental wellness by informing them of relevant resources, like Teladoc, and encouraging them to not be afraid to voice their questions and concerns.

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.

It is a dark moment in COVID-19, and one of the biggest concerns is mental health. In fact, Teladoc’s mental health and specialty visits are spiking at over 500% compared to last year alone. I have a few tips on how people can maintain and improve their mental health throughout this season ahead.

1. Share your thoughts and feelings with others. A part of being mentally healthy is paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, not stuffing or ignoring emotions. I tell my clients, as I’ve recognized in myself, stuffing emotions inward is like a pressure cooker…eventually, ignored emotions will bubble over, and you will explode.

2. Take care of your physical well-being! Get good sleep, eat healthy, and fit in physical activity regularly. Physical activity alone has been shown to have positive impacts on depressed mood.

3. Stay connected with family, friends, and loved ones. Social isolation and withdrawal exacerbate depression, and people feel more worthwhile when they feel connected to others. The pandemic has changed the typical manner that we connect with others, but staying connected is still possible through virtual means and physical — not social — distancing.

4. Seek help in the form of therapy. Engaging in mental health treatment, such as through telemedicine, IS taking care of your mental health. It can offer ways to challenge negative patterns of thinking and behaviors, and learn to replace them with more adaptive ways. Of course, virtual care providers like Teladoc also offer the benefit of being done in the comfort of your own home and on your own time.

5. Do things that are enjoyable to you. If you are struggling to find something of interest, research something new. Volunteer! Helping others increases your own sense of gratitude, appreciation, and sense of worth.

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.

Retirement is a major life transition. Work or career is a major part of one’s identity. Retirement can feel like a loss of one’s sense of self and can make the elderly person prone to feelings of depression. To optimize mental wellness after retirement, I recommend focusing on a new source of meaning and value. For example, my father has found much value in volunteering, giving back to the community by transporting the elderly to medical appointments after he retired at age 63. I also recommend finding enjoyable hobbies and trying new ones! Staying active is beneficial for all ages, and physically active people who are older extend their longevity and keep their minds flexible. Also, I have seen elderly for therapy — often for the first time in their lives — who want to reflect on their lives and express feelings and emotions that they had never discussed before.

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?

Generation Z — pre-teens and teens — is growing up in an era where mental health has less stigma attached to it than previous generations. Therapy is a common and acceptable option for them. To optimize their mental wellness, teens and pre-teens should have the option of an alternative outlet to express their feelings, other than a parent. They should be encouraged to share their thoughts and feelings with another adult whom they trust, whether it’s another family member, a coach, teacher, or counselor. Also, pre-teens and teens are masters of technology and social media, but this can, at times, be to their detriment. Social media can be a great source of stress for teens and pre-teens. Teens and pre-teens should be encouraged to limit screen time and engage in physical and social activities. Like adults, physical activities have positive effects on mood, including depression and anxiety, and pro-social activities foster self-confidence and self-esteem, as well as communication skills and a sense of belonging. Teens and pre-teens can’t optimize their mental wellness without the support of a parent. As a parent of a pre-teen boy myself, I know teens’ and pre-teens’ mental wellness is connected to how their parents support them; therefore, these ideas are for parents, as well. Parents should be open with their children, invite them to talk about anything, understand what their lives are about, be receptive to questions and thoughts, and try to avoid becoming reactive and dismissive of their concerns. Although it is common for adults to feel the worries and concerns of most teens and pre-teens are trivial and temporary, they should change their perspective. Parents should understand that those feelings are often experienced as major to children and partner with their kids to help them navigate any concerns.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

Growing up, I was an avid reader; one of my first career aspirations was to be an author. I read many books, but really loved novels by Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, and Rita Dove; particularly Rita Dove’s book, “Thomas and Beulah,” the life story of the author’s grandparents, beautifully told through a compilation of poems arranged in sequential order of life experiences. I admired how eloquently these women of color articulated their thoughts. As a woman of color myself, books by these authors allowed me to envision myself as an author. I wrote my very first short story while in 6th grade, and my teacher encouraged me to continue writing and seek publishing it. Although I became a psychologist instead of an author, I’ve always seen myself as a writer and have been published (more so research articles instead of fiction). Expressing myself through writing has always given me a sense of feeling free.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would love to start a movement that focuses on teaching and mentoring youth to pursue careers within fields that lack diversity. The fields of psychology, information technology, and chief executives are some examples. This could involve creating programs for middle and high school students of color to enroll in to spark their interest early on in these careers. The movement for social justice and equality that we have seen in 2020 has highlighted the need to level the playing field. I once heard a Black woman who is a medical doctor state that she did not conceive of pursuing a career in medicine until she visited an African country and saw Black doctors. When you don’t directly experience professionals of all races in any field, it is difficult to envision yourself as a person of color in that field. Personally, as a Black female psychologist myself, I see that this profession lacks diversity. I would love to be able to create interest in pursuing psychology in the minds of youth, as I found the field so intriguing myself.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

Without question, my favorite life lesson quote is simply, “Everything happens for a reason.” There are many variations of this, but one of my favorites is a direct quote from Ritu Ghatourey:Everything happens for a reason. That reason causes change. Sometimes the change hurts. Sometimes the change is hard. But in the end, it’s all for the best.” I relate this quote directly to the most pivotal experiences I’ve had in my life, a near-death car accident that my sister and I were victims of in 2002. The experience was harrowing and forced me to confront my mortality way before I was ready to do so. I found myself in an existential crisis. After surgery and during my recuperation, I found myself struggling for a long time to understand how my sister and I could have survived the tragedy. After much soul searching, I came to the conclusion that as terrible as the experience was, its occurrence and my survival was for a reason. My perspective on life and my priorities changed, and every decision I made in my life since then has a direct connection to this very scary experience. I view mistakes that I’ve made, missed opportunities, and successes not with regret or as a stroke of luck, but with acceptance. I believe that the opportunities that I have been given to lead me to where I land is all in my plan, and that I am exactly where I am supposed to be. This feeling and belief has given me peace of mind.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

My Instagram is @desreendudley. You can follow Teladoc at @teladoc.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!



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