Mental Health Champions: Why & How Beth Wuller and Keith Ruffner Of Neugroove Are Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

An Interview With Michelle Tennant Nicholson

Michelle Tennant Nicholson
Authority Magazine
20 min readMar 6, 2023

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Journaling is really helpful for me. I like to write things down, whether it’s something that happened during the day, or just something I’m thinking about. There have been several times I have sent my journal entry to my therapist. I’m still not always comfortable saying things out loud, but I can send it in writing and then we talk about it.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Beth Wuller and Keith Ruffner.

Beth Wuller is the founder and Chief Intention Officer of Neugroove® and Neugroove Coaching®, a brand she created to invite others to celebrate new ways of thinking, living, and just being. With more than 25 years’ experience in leadership and marketing strategy roles, she is now a model of living with intent and how to create a fulfilling work-life balance. As a happiness life coach, and through Neugroove, she actively supports others’ healing journeys with gentle reminders about practicing patience, self-compassion, resilience, and courage.

Keith Ruffner is the author of new children’s book, Making Friends With Feelings, which is a story written to help children and adults learn about mental health and introduce concepts like being vulnerable, trusting others, and asking for help. Beyond his work with Neugroove, Keith works as a certified interpretive guide at the Dallas Zoo, speaking to guests about conservation opportunities to help make the world a better place for animals — and humans. He has also volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate® (CASA) to help children who have experienced abuse or neglect, and helped raise funds for BuildOn to build a school in Africa.

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?

KEITH: I grew up south of Fort Worth, Texas between the two small towns of Cleburne and Joshua. We were outside of the city limits and lived in a rural area on a small property with seven acres. I have two brothers, one older and one younger, and my parents are still married. Because we lived further from town, we mostly entertained ourselves, only having one neighbor nearby with another child of similar age.

I’d say we were in the upper middle-class socio-economic group. There wasn’t a lot of integration between the various economic and ethnic groups. There was an undercurrent of racism and separation based on money and education, and a hierarchy based on the longest multi-generational families in the town. It’s only been recently that I have begun exploring my memories of childhood and how it may not have been as happy as I once thought.

BETH: I was born and raised in Dallas, the youngest of seven kids. My father started his career as a pharmacist, but retired as a doctor because my mother wanted so many kids, and of course dad had to support them. Although he was a doctor when I was born, my siblings talk about how the family struggled financially when they were children.

My parents had a very specific path of activities they set up for us all, at least for the youngest few children. Lots of must-do’s, like Catholic school, Boy or Girl Scouts, piano lessons, and others “interests” were forced. There wasn’t a lot of room for self-expression. I enjoyed art so much but was actively discouraged from pursuing any path that wouldn’t make “enough” money. In my dad’s perception, money = success.

The only joyful thing I remember from childhood were my bunnies. I got my first pet rabbit, Nibbles, at age 7. The quiet, gentle spirits of bunnies have always soothed me. My current pet rabbits inspired Keith to write Neugroove’s first children’s book, “Making Friends with Feelings.”

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?

KEITH: This is a result of what I’ve been exploring, processing, and healing from. The traumas I experienced in childhood have had a major impact on my quality of life. Being unaware of how I had learned to cope and function with the suffering I had experienced, led me to behave in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and self-protection. I was unable to trust others and be vulnerable in any way that would allow me to ask for help. I believe that if there had been more awareness of mental health, emotional health and emotional intelligence when I was a child, I might have received the help I desperately needed. This initiative is intended to make a multi-generational impact. How could I have cared for my children’s mental health when I didn’t have the knowledge or skills? How could my grandparents have taught my parents? We didn’t have the knowledge and awareness, creating multi-generational suffering. I want to create the awareness; create some tools for parents to engage with children; and help normalize and increase the conversations about emotions and feelings.

BETH: I created my company, Neugroove to help the world suffer less, love more, and heal, one soul at a time. That is our mission statement. Every day, Keith and I try to live our lives with this in mind. We intentionally create moments of connection and belonging with both friends and strangers. We invite others to join us in whatever way they are comfortable to challenge the current culture that drives feelings of isolation and loneliness and increasing suicide rates.

Our vision is to inspire and instill a new understanding of self-love that leads to a culture of authentic, visible compassion for self and others. This goes beyond optimism or empathy. We hope to inspire others to intentionally choose new behaviors that healthfully and proactively deal with challenging feelings. The very first step is understanding how to respond to the broad range of feelings inside oneself.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

KEITH: I’ve always felt compelled to help children. I’ve participated in raising money to build schools, volunteered for CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate), participated in Big Brothers, was a substitute teacher — but nothing felt right. I’ve always been extremely empathetic, to the point that I couldn’t separate myself from the suffering of others. I wanted to help children who were suffering from anything, but I couldn’t identify why. When I left a long career in Construction Management because my own mental health was getting so bad I couldn’t hide it, I started studying happiness, compassion, empathy and mindfulness. I thought I could heal myself.

Even though I was wrong, it was during this time I started writing. The stories about the bunnies were primarily for Beth and were about her bunnies. After Buddy had injured his back, I had noticed that Molly had become more caring and gentler with him. The stories came very easy to me, because I placed myself in each bunny character. I knew how it felt to need support and I knew how it felt to give support — I was just lacking any understanding of how to accept help.

I was also trying to find my voice within Beth’s company Neugroove. With a motto of “Helping the World Hurt Less and Love More,” who wouldn’t want to participate! Once I finally accepted the fact that I needed professional help with my mental health, trusting Beth fully, being vulnerable with Beth, feeling safe with her, I was able to accept help from a ‘team’ of mental health care providers. That was when this initiative moved from an idea to a passion.

BETH: When I was 12 years old, my mother was hospitalized with a major mental illness. She was in and out of hospitals, with varying diagnoses, for the next 10+ years. Her mental illness, coupled with my family’s general reaction, left me feeling isolated and abandoned. I want to prevent anyone else growing up feeling so sad and alone like I did, leading to my clinical depression and suicidal thoughts in my teens and 20s.

When I went to college at age 18, I could finally choose how to handle my own sadness about my traumatic teenage years. As soon as possible, I began therapy through the on-campus services. At age 21, I checked myself in for a week of inpatient treatment for depression. These critical decisions during college marked the very beginning of my healing journey.

I want to help tweens & teens know that some adults really do understand those awful-feeling emotions. I especially want to give them hope even if relatives or friends don’t, or can’t, understand.

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?

KEITH: I don’t remember the exact trigger that day. I was sitting on the couch reading, journaling and working on my therapy notes. It was January 19, and I was mostly working every day on my mental health. It had been a really hard few months for me and I decided that was the day I was moving forward with something! I didn’t want anyone to suffer like I had, so I needed to start right at that moment.

BETH: In 2018, a life-changing series of events happened one after another. Now I see that each step was divinely orchestrated in my life.

In April 2018, I attended a class about burnout at the Brain Performance Institute in Dallas. I started to realize that I had been living in perpetual survival mode (officially now called “burnout”) from a 20-year series of high-stress, non-fulfilling jobs. In early May, I parted ways with a toxic work environment to take time to slow down, breathe, and truly enjoy my life for a little while. I traveled to Belize in late May with my sister and her family.

While exploring Tikal, the Mayan ruins in Guatemala, I shared with my sister some highlights of what I’d learned during my long journey toward inner peace. My experiences included decades of yoga, therapy, learning about self-care, culminating with my training to become a certified neuroscience and spirituality-based life coach in 2014. My sister’s reaction to my insights helped me realize that much of what I had learned wasn’t familiar to others.

During our trip to the caves the next day, I had a very profound emotional experience that words just can’t do justice. I finally understood that my perspective on life was uniquely different from most, due to my childhood trauma and relentless personal drive toward inner peace. I was hopeful and eager to make a difference for others by speaking up about my self-directed path of healing.

Upon return from Belize, we learned our adventurous, endearing, and funny tour guide for those amazing excursions died within a day of our flight home. The sudden loss of a beautiful soul we’d just connected deeply with felt quite jarring, seeing how precious and unpredictable life can be.

Added to several other factors I was already dealing with, this triggered a deep depression. Within just a few days, I recognized the familiar but distant feelings and quickly assembled my mental health team. Within about two weeks, I was on my way out of that black hole.

Feeling better each day, I allowed myself to feel very proud of how I successfully leaned on my decades of learning in that moment. It seemed I had “graduated” from my lifelong struggle and finally found my final steps toward inner peace. In June 2018, I started Neugroove to help others suffer less, love more, and heal.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

KEITH: I’ll leave this to Beth, but I remember the day she said something like, “I’m not comfortable having my own company.” I responded with, “Well, you do! Who started the LLC in 2018? You did!” All I’ve really done is be as supportive as I can in whatever way she needs. But that doesn’t mean I feel like I’ve got any less involvement or ownership in my contributions. We are a great team, good in different areas, and fully supportive of each other.

BETH: I had a positive, even inspirational, dream about my mother. For others, that may sound perfectly normal. But for me, “dreams” about my mom have been more like nightmares — pretty disturbing. Just like our relationship was for most of my life. But through this dream, and in a very unexpected way, she contributed something that has become a core takeaway from our children’s program.

In real life, when I was very young, mom would tell me bedtime stories about a flying horse she invented. She had me hold onto her thumbs as the horse’s ears, so I could “fly” with the horse on the adventure of the night. I hadn’t remembered anything about that in decades. But upon waking, the mental picture of her “horse ear” thumbs quickly translated into my “peace fingers” becoming bunny ears.

One of the most important skills in life is self-soothing through troubling thoughts or moments. My real-life pet bunnies always helped comfort me when I struggled. But the “peace finger” bunny ears were a new twist! I realized everyone with fingers, or toes, or just an imagination, can have instant bunny ears to pet when they feel bad, sad, scared, lonely, etc. It’s so easy and memorable!

Now we teach the children (and adults too) to place your two peace fingers against your own heart, and “pet” them slowly and gently, as if they were soft bunny ears, to calm yourself through a few moments of quiet breathing. This self-soothing technique has become very popular with children, teachers, therapists and parents.

The irony that this gentle gesture was a “gift from my mom” will never be lost on me.

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?

KEITH: This work is so far from anything I’ve ever done, that I can’t think of anyone who was a mentor or cheerleader other than Beth. I think those who influenced me the most are those who I know who have personally struggled with mental health and have had a lot of suffering in their life. There have been inspirations for sure. Fred Rogers and Thich Nhat Hanh are two big ones for me. Thich Nhat Hanh says we have to use language and words in a way that can be understood, and I love that Fred Rogers was able to do that with children.

BETH: No mentors or cheerleaders, but my progress was due to several resources and experiences, all of which I initiated. I was lucky each time, they embraced me where I was on my healing journey and helped me continue to progress. Here are a few examples.

In my late 20s, I was accepted into a depression study program through a well-known medical school, UT Southwestern in Dallas. They were testing the impact of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) vs. medication. I learned a lot through that program and CBT was a new advancement that worked for me beyond “talk” therapy where you just rehash problems. I met my most influential therapist through this program.

Around the same time, I joined NAMI — National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. I signed up for their “Family to Family” (F2F) program, which helped me understand my mother’s situation and my own struggles better. The next Spring, I trained to be a group leader of the program. When I co-led the Fall program, it was hard, but so important. Through the 12-week program, I felt a consistent level of support, relatability, and comfort from the group, my co-teacher, and our NAMI advisor. Plus, I continued to develop a broader perspective about mental health challenges beyond my own family’s experiences.

While teaching the F2F program, I remembered a specific class from college that was taught by my favorite Public Relations professor. She always had a Spring class called “Campaigns” where the students developed PR campaigns to help real-world non-profits. I pitched her the idea of focusing that class on NAMI, and she agreed. I became a guest professor and a NAMI liaison for any questions from the students throughout the semester.

The next Fall, one of my good friends was working for Eli Lilly’s mental health medication division. Through her, I heard that the company awards grants to support mental health community education and activities. On behalf of NAMI and my college professor, I applied for a grant. In just a few weeks, we were awarded $5,000 to evolve the college students’ concepts into on-campus programming.

The students’ awareness campaign was executed the following Spring, again during the same “Campaigns” class. Through a pre/post measurement approach, we know that the series of on-campus PR activities led to a significant lift in awareness of mental health conditions among that college’s population.

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?

KEITH: I think it’s what kept me from getting help for so long. We have such a romanticized version of our history of being American. Rugged individualism, never asking for help, never showing weakness seem to be the story behind our success as Americans. I like to look for the definition of words to ensure I’m using the best word I can. What is success? Is there a difference between societal perceived success and our own definition of personal success?

Each person would have to identify what they think success means, but from what I see, success is usually defined as wealth, education, status and popularity on social media. How many people do you know that measure success by happiness, peace, joy, compassion for self and others? I think the stigma on mental health is attributable to our belief that rugged individualism and self-acquired success is more acceptable than asking for help, admitting we are hurting and suffering with our emotions and feelings. Why can’t we be strong if we are asking for help?

BETH: Mostly I have not experienced explicit stigma because I never told anyone whom I didn’t trust completely. However, my internalized stigma was conditioned at a young age and has always been quite prevalent until the last few years. I think our inner voices are what is most impactful and why stigma continues. Changing everyone’s internalized perception is a long, slow process, and not everyone is motivated to make that effort. At this point, many generations of families have been conditioned to avoid uncomfortable, raw conversations about sensitive and sometimes painful situations, especially related to mental health. A common misperception is that it is “easier” to avoid difficult conversations, which is not healthy for anyone involved.

As Brené Brown says, “Shame cannot survive being spoken. It cannot tolerate having words wrapped around it. What it craves is secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you stay quiet, you stay in a lot of self-judgment.”

One time I got in big trouble as a teenager for talking about my mother’s illness with a few neighbors. It’s one thing to be discouraged to talk outside your relatives about “family secrets” but I also was discouraged from talking about it within my own immediate family. Even though my mother died almost 5 years ago, it is still not generally acceptable within my own family to talk candidly about my mother’s situation or my experiences growing up with her. Most of my family seems more comfortable to “forget” or pretend none of it ever happened.

The stigma and shame will continue for as long as impacted individuals are not willing to educate themselves and be the first to speak candidly about their, or their loved one’s, condition. With understanding comes compassion — both for the ill person and others who become collateral damage. Only then can the generational shame begin to heal — one person, and one family at a time.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

KEITH: Have empathy and compassion. Really see people for who they are and see yourself in them. We share the same struggles and problems, but we create separation with others by creating exclusive groups. Society and government are created when individuals come together.

If we as individuals can nurture our empathy and compassion for others, reaching out to others before they are in a mental health crisis, we can better support everyone. If we have individuals in government who are empathetic and compassionate, then we can develop programs that are available to those in need. It needs to be holistic to those suffering with the most severe mental health issues, providing medical care, housing, food and emotional comfort. These are the basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy. How can anyone heal if they don’t have those basics?

BETH: We believe the government has a responsibility to support mental health in some way — especially for the veterans who have served our country. But there should be a bigger conversation to normalize the stigma toward the 1 in 5 people who live with a diagnosed mental illness. There should also be prevention programs, like when P.E. became a standard part of school curriculum. Proactive education and methods to assess and address risk factors could help avoid so many extreme crisis situations.

I would like to see a country-wide campaign in schools, starting with educating students in elementary grades. One key message could feature the similarity between heart conditions and brain conditions. You can’t see either from the outside. They are both “invisible” illnesses that need to be treated for a healthy life.

The funding would need to include a broad awareness campaign with similar intensity to the “Just say no” [to drugs] effort in the 1980s. Candidly, that effort was challenged by its lack of quantifiable impact. (Although it totally worked on me!) But with the significant advancements in marketing channels and measurement techniques, a modern campaign could be much more effective and measurable.

Now, relevant messaging could be customized by age and/or awareness levels, with appropriate complexities delivered to each targeted audience. And the impact could be tracked more frequently, then optimized in real-time for more effective, sustainable changes in improved attitudes and cultural indicators.

I would love to see a mental health “movement” follow the fast-paced trajectory in society as gay rights accomplished between 1988 and 2018. The culture shift around gay rights and marriage is the fastest moving cultural shift in America that changed deeply-held attitudes of bias toward a particular group.

In 1988, America’s General Social Survey asked about gay marriage for the first time. At that time, less than 12 percent of respondents agreed that gay people should have the right to marry. However, in 2018, 68 percent of those surveyed said yes, gay couples should have that right. Many other common biases are not projected to reach neutrality (non-bias) for another 50–120 years, and they’ve already been “being addressed” longer.

I’d like to dive deeper than the NPR story I heard, so we can plan and deliver a similar impact on mental health education in the next 30 years.

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?

  1. Human & animal support

KEITH: I have found so much joy and happiness working at the Zoo. I’m in a group of really inclusive and supportive coworkers, which I’ve never had. I’m outside most of the day, talking with guests and I’m constantly learning new things. I’m having good and deep conversations, not just surface level talks and that’s something I need.

2. Observe your inner dialogue.

BETH: First, is it helping or hurting? Is it even true, or just my perception? Challenge my own thinking — is it coming from my vulnerable, loving true self or my over-protective false self and our innate negativity bias since birth? Explore other ways to reframe my thinking coming from a place of self-compassion.

3. Quiet time to reflect and self-soothe, (e.g. journaling, yoga, meditation, reading, personal reflection)

KEITH: Journaling is really helpful for me. I like to write things down, whether it’s something that happened during the day, or just something I’m thinking about. There have been several times I have sent my journal entry to my therapist. I’m still not always comfortable saying things out loud, but I can send it in writing and then we talk about it.

4. Patience, persistence, and practice.

BETH: Expect slip-ups and setbacks. Be gentle and loving toward yourself when those happen. Understand that it takes longer to unlearn patterns of behavior than it took to learn them in the first place. Stay focused on your intention of healing. Accept that it never happens as smoothly or quickly as anyone would like.

5. Medication and therapy.

KEITH: While medication may not help everyone, we’ve each found that antidepressants help us maintain a clearer perspective to address normal life conflicts more healthfully. But medication alone is not ideal. Establishing a consistent therapy schedule is just as important. Be your own best advocate by taking responsibility to prepare for your sessions. Come prepared with topics and questions to discuss. Actively ask for “homework” to continue learning between sessions.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

KEITH: Any book by Thich Nhat Hanh. He has wonderful teachings and insight on communication and mindfulness.

The documentary about Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” Fred Rogers was an amazing person who understood how to communicate with children, creating a real connection with each child. The same techniques work with adults!

The “Ten Percent Happier” podcast with Dan Harris. He has introduced me to a lot of new people working to help people with their mental health.

“The Hidden Brain” with Shankar Vadanthan. He talks about how our unconscious brain works and how it affects our behavior sometimes without our awareness, also he has the most pleasant voice!

BETH: I have always been a mental health champion, but I am constantly inspired by many individuals and organizations. First, I absolutely agree with the ones Keith mentioned. Especially Fred Rogers. Here are three more.

I love Brené Brown’s pragmatic, entertaining presentation delivery about topics like vulnerability and shame research. Recently, I was inspired even more by her TV series about understanding emotions.

Dr. Greg Hudnall is the founder of Hope Squad. This organization is a peer-to-peer support resource that starts conversations early about suicide prevention. They’ve recognized the extreme need for this topic to be addressed in junior high and high school. And now they’ve extended their curriculum to include elementary school levels as well.

Luis Gallardo, founder and president of the World Happiness Foundation, hosts annual events at the UN’s University of Peace in Costa Rica. I met Luis and many other inspirational leaders when I presented at the conference, Gross Global Happiness, in early 2020. I was lucky enough to be paired with Luis on a few of the weekend’s activities. His exceptional efforts, combined with his humble nature, continues to inspire me.

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?

KEITH: No one person can be enough to change the world, but if each person does a little bit, then there will be an impact we can see. Do whatever you can that you feel strongly about.

BETH: For most people, it feels more natural to give compassion and love to others. But society and our global culture would improve if each of us learns to give these gifts to ourselves, too. Your inner dialogue and how you treat yourself is the most important factor in how you perceive your quality of life. The good news is that with patience, persistence, and practice, you can actively change your inner dialogue to gift yourself more compassion and positivity.

How can our readers follow you online?

Our main website is neugroove.com, but we have also released our new children’s book through makingfriendswithfeelings.com.

You can connect with us on social media @neugroove, and for more profound and personal musings, our substack site is https://neugroove.substack.com/.

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.

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Michelle Tennant Nicholson
Authority Magazine

A “Givefluencer,” Chief Creative Officer of Wasabi Publicity, Inc., Creator of WriteTheTrauma.org