Mental Health Champions: Why & How Azizi Marshall Of Center for Creative Arts Therapy Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
An Interview With Michelle Tennant Nicholson
Listen to music. Music has been found to increase positive emotions, reduce pain, alleviate anxiety, and increase immune functioning. Music has a direct link to your emotions, so when you are feeling overwhelmed or totally stressed out, turn on your favorite song and jam out! Better yet, sing along to your favorite self-love anthem and feel the negative emotions leave your body.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Azizi Marshall.
Azizi Marshall is an award-winning Mental Health and Workplace Wellness expert teaching businesses around the world how to create and sustain the healthiest, most successful versions of their business possible — by actively engaging employees, leaders and business owners through interactive trainings, strategic mental health plans and creative wellness programs; engaging the WHOLE business so it can thrive. As a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Board Certified Trainer in Creative Arts Therapy, keynote speaker and accomplished author, cultivating a culture of care within businesses and their teams is her life’s passion. She has been featured in Oprah Magazine, CNN, NBC News, Thrive Global, Bustle, Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Glancer Magazine.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Growing up in a household of two artistic psychotherapist parents, I learned at an early age that people are beautifully complex. I was witness to how the arts could guide people and communities who were painfully struggling to a place of healing and growth. By participating in group therapy with my father’s clients struggling with eating disorders, multiple personalities, aggressive behavior, etc., I observed my father transform these individuals from people that hated life to people that loved themselves and the people around them. It was not through traditional talk therapy but through a therapeutic intervention called psychodrama; the marrying of psychotherapy and theatre. I even co-taught my first graduate-level psychodrama course at Iowa State University at the ripe old age of 16.
After having worked as a professional theatre artist for many years, my father passed away from a heart attack when I was 21. I was lost for quite some time without his presence. I later stumbled upon an opportunity to do theatre with inner-city youth. They were some of the most challenging teens I had ever encountered, and they had little knowledge of the world’s possibilities of growth due to their community’s lack of safety and financial stability. Through theatre, I saw these kids grow and learn about a world outside of their existence. They were able to give voice to their struggles and begin to form bonds with not only one another but also with the community.
You are currently leading an initiative that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit more specifically about what you are trying to address?
Mental health in the workplace is an ongoing issue, especially in the aftermath of the pandemic induced global trauma. Business leaders are struggling to navigate the ever-increasing demand for mental health support of their people and teams, which are leading to increased turnover, absenteeism and an overall lack of productivity and engagement.
In order to support these business leaders, the “Mental Health at Work Summit: Stigma Free Experience” in Chicago, July 21–23, 2023 is the go-to summit for leaders who are ready to take action on mental health at work. The Stigma Free Experience’s focus is on providing LIVE, interactive mental health training throughout the world with the Stigma Free Actors!
Mental health in the workplace must not be performative. Words must be followed by meaningful action.
In order to “act”, you must first experience!
We believe that by offering an interactive and engaging experience using applied improvisation, theatre of the oppressed, professionally trained actors and expert training facilitators, we can make the greatest amount of impact as mental health allies. It is our mission to help business leaders and human resource professionals have a clear vision of what it truly means to create a culture of care and give them the tools to turn that vision into reality.
Set in a resort and IAAC-approved conference center surrounded by a serene 150-acre estate that includes the Audubon-certified 18-hole Willow Crest Golf Club, just 25 minutes from Chicago O’Hare International Airport. With a lakefront outdoor pool, tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts, a spa, two golf simulators, and two restaurants, there’s plenty of rest, relaxation and fun to be had during participants’ downtime.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
So many businesses that we’ve supported with their mental health trainings and workplace wellness programs have been asking when we were going to create something that they could send their teams to in order to engage with other business leaders struggling with increased conflict and struggling employees, in order to work on mental health issues on a global level. Instead of us going out to organizations one team at a time, we wanted to create an experience similar to the interactive trainings we already offer, at a larger scale for hundreds of businesses at the same time.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
It wasn’t an “aha moment”, but an amalgamation of multiple requests from organizations to create an event that would bring business leaders from across the globe together to learn how to truly support employees struggling with mental health challenges.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
“Courage allows the successful woman to fail — and to learn powerful lessons from the failure — so that in the end, she didn’t fail at all.” Maya Angelou
As a past professional actor, I experienced rejection on a regular basis. Audition after audition, I was told that I was “not what they are looking for”. I used to take it personally. I used to take each rejection as a failure. That was until I opened the Center for Creative Arts Therapy. I started to understand that I could not be everything for everybody. I could only share my talents of helping people with their mental health challenges through the arts in a way that produced the most efficient results possible for THEM. I learned that the training we were offering resonated with them because we had them actively engaging with the learning material by incorporating professional actors and drama therapists for role plays. I no longer took those past rejections as a failure. Instead, I used it to improve who I was as a business leader and as a mental health professional who specializes in workplace wellness.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
My biggest mentors have been my parents. They were both in the mental health field and raised me to be resilient, empathetic, and observant. I learned how to connect with my authentic emotions and creatively express myself to the world.
One time when I had been struggling with a particularly challenging case, I called my mom on one of our usual morning walk-n-talk and sobbed to her about how I was feeling like I was letting the business I was advised down. I was having a difficult time determining the best steps to take with a particularly resistant leader who had yelled at me during a past session, and my mom simply said, “Remember who you are, honey. Remember who you are.”
I took a deep breath and realized that this particular leader was not angry at me, they were actually angry at the situation they found themselves in (super high turnover rates, low morale, and high conflict). Their anger was not mine, but there was.
The next day I confidently approached this leader with compassion and insight into the emotions they were feeling, and THEY actually began to weep. We broke through many of their barriers that day, and were able to begin the work that was really needed to change their workplace culture from one of crisis to one of care.
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?
We tend to stigmatize mental illness because we are led to believe in false, baseless, and superficial assumptions about people living with them. A common misconception is that people living with mental illnesses should be feared or avoided due to their potentially dangerous nature. In reality, It is far more likely that people with a serious mental illness will be the victim of violence, not the other way around. This can lead to social exclusion, unemployment, and eventual homelessness.
Stigmatization often stems from a lack of education, misinformation, and fear.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Be kind. Simple, yet difficult for some to do. Just be kind (to yourself and others).
What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own well-being and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
- Tap into your creative side. Exploring your creativity can improve your mental health. Whether it’s an evening journal, a short crafting session, or a guitar jam in your living room, your brain craves an opportunity to create and reconnect with your core self. Creative outlets are a great way of expressing yourself by putting your emotions, thoughts, and needs on canvas or in a song, and loving what transpires; therefore creating more space to love yourself and others.
- Listen to music. Music has been found to increase positive emotions, reduce pain, alleviate anxiety, and increase immune functioning. Music has a direct link to your emotions, so when you are feeling overwhelmed or totally stressed out, turn on your favorite song and jam out! Better yet, sing along to your favorite self-love anthem and feel the negative emotions leave your body.
- Create an Art Journal. What is an Art Journal, you may ask? Basically, it’s a visual diary of your emotions, thoughts, and experiences. It allows you to let out all of those challenging feelings and stressful thoughts in a more productive location. It’s a safe place to let it all out, especially when you are feeling less confident in yourself and need a way to release all of that self-doubt. Spending just 20 minutes at the end of your day in order to pause for reflection can allow for a moment of clarity and release. You can also write positive messages to yourself throughout the day. Seeing a colorful sign that says “I am fabulous!” in your bedroom when you wake up can go a long way to feeling great about yourself and what you have to offer the world.
- Be mindful of your body. Stop for a minute. Take a moment to recognize how you feel within your body. Are your shoulders tight from slouching over your laptop? Are your eyes looking downward most of the day? These can be signals of self-deprecating thoughts displaying themselves through your body. Try this instead. Sit up straight, look up, pull your shoulders back, and allow yourself to feel connected to the ground with your feet. These small changes will support the body and mind in a more positive way. Plus, a smile never hurts when working on those positive mental health vibes.
- Make it a priority. Self-love is not selfish. It is necessary. If we do not make time for our own needs, other aspects of our life (career, marriage, parenting, etc.) will suffer. Make yourself a priority!
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
“The 5 Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace: Empowering Your Organizations by Encouraging People” by Gary Chapman & Paul White. It’s one of my go-to books for training organizations on how to effectively communicate with and engage their employees so that they feel heard, seen, and appreciated.
“The Creative Connection: Expressive Arts As Healing” by Natalie Rogers. This is where I geek out psychologically. Rogers incorporates all of the arts into what she has coined the “Creative Connection”, to help us connect with the creativity that lives inside all of us while deepening our psychological strength and resilience.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
Why not now? Why not you? One person can cause a ripple of change, which causes another ripple that causes even more ripples until a full wave of change occurs throughout the world.
One person can make a difference.
That one person can be you.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
About the Interviewer: Inspired by the father of PR, Edward Bernays (who was also Sigmund Freud’s nephew), Michelle Tennant Nicholson researches marketing, mental injury, and what it takes for optimal human development. An award-winning writer and publicist, she’s seen PR transition from typewriters to Twitter. Michelle co-founded WasabiPublicity.com