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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Dr Creshelle Nash of Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

Physical activity is one of my favorite ways to improve my overall health. During the pandemic, I got really into cardio-boxing! However, exercise comes in all forms, and it’s not just about playing or participating in a sport — it doesn’t have to be intimidating! Finding ways to get our bodies moving, like walking from the farthest parking spot to the store, pulling stubborn weeds in our garden or deciding to take the stairs instead of the elevator quickly add up to the recommended 30 minutes a day we need.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Creshelle Nash.

Creshelle Nash, M.D., M.P.H., C.H.I.E., serves as Medical Director for Health Equity and Public Programs at Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield. She leads the company’s efforts to address health disparities in Arkansas and supports the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association on its National Health Equity Strategy.

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?

Born and raised in Arkansas, I lived my early years in a small town called Texarkana. Despite their economic status, my parents Bobby Joe and Geraldine worked hard to provide me endless opportunity even while growing up with a physical challenge.

I wore a brace on my left leg to correct a limp caused by a tight heel cord. I remember walking down the hallway in that special shoe with the metal pieces that came up to my knee and will never forget how the kids looked at me differently — I felt like I didn’t belong. Growing up in the region I did, being a person of color who was provided rare opportunity to excel was considered unusual.

I worked hard to overcome the biases experienced in my childhood. I attended medical school, where I saw how people were treated differently in healthcare — students of color, patients of color, doctors of color, everybody. It was like an undercurrent, everywhere, and I didn’t have words to put on it until I started to study it as a profession. Now I understand it to be race-based bias, both implicit (sometimes explicit) and systemic. These biases are what I’m trying to eliminate in my work to advance heath equity.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

Events of the past few years have increased the stress in our daily lives and highlighted the numerous behavioral and mental health problems affecting our nation. As a health insurer that strives to be a lifelong “health partner,” we took it upon ourselves to get to the root of these systemic inequities and build supports for all Arkansans in need.

Under the leadership of my colleague, Executive Director Rebecca Pittillo, the Blue and You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas invested $5.29 million in state programs that connect Arkansans to much needed behavioral and emotional health services. Some of those services include the UAMS Health AR ConnectNow platform, which is a phone hotline available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to help Arkansans connect with mental health professionals. Recognizing that emotional health challenges are more common than ever on high school and college campuses, we’re also supporting the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Arkansas to raise mental health awareness and advocate for students who need help.

This is the largest investment in the 20-year history of our foundation and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield knows that by supporting these services, we are investing in a culture where people feel empowered to get the help they need.

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

I was born prematurely in rural Arkansas in 1968, the same year Dr. King was killed. Hospitals had mostly been desegregated at that time, but care was still starkly different, and I was ultimately given a 50/50 chance of survival. Later as a teenager, I remember finding and reading a report on my dad’s bookshelf about health and infant mortality. That prompted me to look closer at the mortality rate for births in Miller County where I was born. It was really bad, and still is really bad, especially in communities of color. In fact, in Arkansas, which has the third highest maternal death rate in the nation, black women account for 71 percent of maternal deaths. That learning became the sentinel moment for me to pursue healthcare as a profession, and what catalyzed my passion for health equity.

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?

While growing up in rural Arkansas, there was a lack of conversation surrounding mental health awareness. If you were experiencing mental health problems, you were encouraged to deal with your struggles privately and keep it in the family. This mindset still exists.

Over the past two years, the rate of people in Arkansas and the United States suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidal thoughts has skyrocketed, especially among young adults between the ages of 18 and 24. As the pandemic raged, and as the country began a vocal narrative around a new social and justice reckoning, we began to clearly see the gaps that needed to be filled in health delivery in our state. We as insurers have a part to play in resolving these issues.

The “aha moment” for me was witnessing and hearing from rural and minority residents and providers facing insurmountable barriers to accessing mental health services. Right now Arkansas’ suicide rate is above average compared to other states, and the suicide rate in the African American community in Arkansas has doubled in recent years. I believe that correlates with stigma, the lack of education and conversation surrounding mental health problems, as well as a lack of resources in local communities. As a native Arkansan, I believe it is my responsibility to show Arkansans there are additional alternatives to addressing mental health problems, assisting in creating an environment where people feel seen, and raising awareness about culturally appropriate resources to promote overall wellness.

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

In my role, I lead the company’s efforts to address health disparities in Arkansas and support the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association on its recently launched National Health Equity Strategy.

From the outset, I was very clear with my colleagues that we needed to meet people and communities where they were and understand what they need. Leadership is more about knowing how to listen than anything else and being humble enough to admit you don’t know it all.

One example that has now become an integral part of how we operate as a company is our engagement with the Arkansas Black Mayors Association. We’re meeting with amazing African American women who serve as mayors of their towns. We hear about healthcare (both medical and behavioral) access challenges in local communities, but we’re also hearing about basic needs in these conversations, like lack of clean water or adequate transportation. This amplified the fact that when we are talking about improving the health of communities, we must also give special attention to those who are at the greatest risk of poor health based on social determinants that impact their ability to be healthy.

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?

The best advice I ever received from my lifelong cheerleader and mentor was: “it’s not about you.” That simple phrase imparted on me by my father reminds me there is so much beyond our own lives happening in the world. Truly, deep down, it’s about what you are trying to do and who you are trying to help — our friends, family, and neighbors in need. This advice has shaped my belief that we must always be thinking upstream. By strengthening communities and working side by side with community leaders and providers, we change the trajectory of the state’s health and move closer to long-term health outcomes improvement.

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?

Until recently, mental health was a very taboo topic. Many who struggle with mental health challenges don’t talk about it because of fear, shame, or judgment, which adds to the stigma that people must cope alone. The African American community in particular finds it very challenging to discuss mental health issues. According to NAMI, “63% of Black people believe that a mental health condition is a sign of personal weakness,” and that they would rather seek support through their faith versus a medical professional.

Even though mental health awareness has increased, behaviors aren’t going to change overnight. People continue to think, “my challenges aren’t worthy of support,” or “I’ll reach out for help if things get worse.” People experiencing mental health conditions often report facing rejection, bullying, and discrimination, making their journey to recovery longer and more difficult.

Part of the Blue and You Foundation’s goal is to erase the stigma surrounding mental health because the effects are detrimental to our nation. Encouraging people to begin and engage with conversations about the importance of mental health and the resources available will help us move one step closer to eradicating mental health stigmas — in Arkansas and beyond.

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

It’s important we consider the interplay between these three groups you mention, because we can’t do this alone. For individuals, I encourage each one of us to listen to and acknowledge what our loved ones are going through. It is easy to judge and make assumptions about people’s lives and compare struggles. However, a powerful partnership is created when people reach out for help and are met with someone who listens and supports with an open mind.

By sharing resources and investing in behavioral health support systems, communities can begin to move that needle. You can join Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield on this journey to “Normalize the Conversation” by visiting our resource page at NormalizeTheConversation.com.

The National Institute for Health Care Management (NIHCM) Foundation estimates that 37% of the U.S. population lives in a mental health professional shortage area. That means more than a third of the country is without access to this critically important care. Because we can support and lead our state, we are continually thinking about how we can work together with legislators to make mental health resources widely known and readily available. This will require public and private collaboration to expand the mental health workforce, and ultimately close the access gap in the parts of the state and Delta region experiencing provider shortages and poorer health outcomes.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

When it comes to your personal health and wellbeing, it’s important that you find what’s right for YOU! While these strategies may not work for all, I’ve found overtime that they work best for me.

  • Physical activity is one of my favorite ways to improve my overall health. During the pandemic, I got really into cardio-boxing! However, exercise comes in all forms, and it’s not just about playing or participating in a sport — it doesn’t have to be intimidating! Finding ways to get our bodies moving, like walking from the farthest parking spot to the store, pulling stubborn weeds in our garden or deciding to take the stairs instead of the elevator quickly add up to the recommended 30 minutes a day we need.
  • Cooking is another way I enjoy promoting my own wellbeing. According to an interview with counselors published in the Wall Street Journal, cooking helps “soothe stress, build self-esteem and curb negative thinking by focusing the mind on following a recipe.” I love to take my mind off a hard week by spending a Saturday smoking meat in my backyard smoker and sharing with my loved ones.
  • Carving out time for adequate sleep is a cornerstone of my wellness routine. Sleep restores the mind and body and helps us show up as our full selves each day.
  • Prayer and meditation have also helped improve my mental wellness. When I find myself burning out or hitting a wall, I stop and take a deep breath to let feelings pass, then think critically to find the learning opportunity. I start each morning with a cup of coffee and reading scripture. When my mind feels nourished, so does my body.
  • Lastly, I’d like to recommend spending time with those in your support network. I find spending quality time with friends and family is nourishing to the soul. Whether it’s catching up or laughing over an old memory, relying on loved ones for their connection and support is a core tenant of my wellbeing strategy.

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

One podcast that I believe is a great resource is The Happiness Lab, created by Dr. Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor. This podcast debunks the myth that happiness is dependent on good jobs, lots of money, and fancy vacations. Each episode helps listeners redefine what happiness means to them.

Related to challenges Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield is working to tackle, we’ve collaborated with University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Health on the AR ConnectNow toll-free hotline. It’s a comprehensive behavioral health treatment helpline created to provide care to all Arkansans dealing with a variety of mental health issues, from substance use disorders to mental health concerns ranging from anxiety and depression to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Arkansans can access this resource virtually and by telephone, dialing 800–482–9921 to get help when they need it — no referral or insurance necessary. I’m excited about this resource because I can already see the benefit it will provide to our community, where stigma often stands in the way of getting help.

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?

It takes courage to look out at your community and decide to be a force for good. Throughout my life, I’ve learned that the best things are earned through dogged dedication to something you believe in. I want to acknowledge that having a goal and producing change isn’t going to be a linear path. There are going to be mistakes, failures and achievements that come together to allow for learning and growth. However, I look for the spots of joy in the journey and am continually rewarded when I put myself forward to serve others.

Witnessing first-hand the challenges our communities and state are facing related to mental health, substance use disorder, and other systemic health disparities, I knew where Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, as a lifelong health partner, needed to evolve. Helping Arkansans get the support they need to prosper is one of my proudest achievements, and that sense of community and change is a feeling others should strive for.

How can our readers follow you online?

Readers can follow me on LinkedIn. For more information on Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield and our behavioral health resources, please visit https://hub.arkansasbluecross.com/normalize-the-conversation/.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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In-depth Interviews with Authorities in Business, Pop Culture, Wellness, Social Impact, and Tech. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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Yitzi Weiner

Yitzi Weiner

A “Positive” Influencer, Founder & Editor of Authority Magazine, CEO of Thought Leader Incubator

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