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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Hazel Navarro Of Human Heart Connection Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

An Interview With Michelle Tennant Nicholson

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

Hazel Navarro is a licensed psychotherapist, relationship wellness coach, and owner of Human Heart Connection LLC, a private practice specializing in helping leaders learn how to tame their anxiety, practice self-care, and improve their leadership skills. She is also a social worker, mom, Latina, and a leader who believes that every human being is worthy of dignity, respect, and kindness. She volunteers on the boards of nonprofit organizations where she uses her voice to advocate for more inclusive leadership.

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?

I grew up in an urban, immigrant, working class, neighborhood in Los Angeles, California. My parents came from Mexico to the United States in search of a better economic opportunities. My parents managed to raise a family of six on my dad’s truck driver’s salary. We had unconditional love, a modest home, and second-hand EVERYTHING. We recycled before recycling was trendy. I was a bilingual, bicultural, nerdy kid who earned straight A’s and felt an unrelenting pressure get into college to escape poverty. I had anxiety and had my first panic attack at age 7. Having no formal knowledge about childhood anxiety, my mom thought my feelings of dread, stomach distress and dizzy spells were signs of indigestion. So, she treated my symptoms with a teaspoon of baking soda, a hug, and some prayers.

On the bright side of all that stress, all those perfect grades meant I was the first in my family to go to college. I earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame, a Master of Social Work degree from Boston University and my clinical licenses (after 3,000 hours of supervision, continuing credit hours and two rigorous exams) from the states of Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Subsequently, I have spent my career teaching about and creating culturally accessible mental health and wellness programs in various inpatient and outpatient settings.

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?

Sure! I am trying to address the mental health needs of people in leadership positions. Being human, leaders are not immune to the very human conditions of anxiety, trauma, and depression. The symptoms may manifest as sleep difficulties, muscle aches, fatigue, low energy, feelings of hopelessness, or irritable behaviors. Their families or colleagues might notice but may be unwilling to address it with the leaders. Other leaders ARE aware of their symptoms but choose to ignore, “power through”, or try to hide them from others. Stressed out, mentally unhealthy leaders, however, risk making poor leadership decisions for their businesses, their clients, and their families. In short, they risk damaging their health and their relationships. At best, they may eventually burn out and quit or get fired from their leadership positions. At worst, they cause great harm to themselves and other people.

I am hoping to make leaders aware that they must practice self-awareness and seek help for their mental health.

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

During the pandemic, I encountered several leaders who were showing signs of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress. They were experiencing physical and emotional pain while trying to carry out the unrelenting duties of leading and taking care of others. I feared that we would begin to lose good leaders to burnout or worse.

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?

Yes. During the pandemic, I took up hiking. One day, as I stood atop a mountain, watching the clouds form beneath me and listening to the sounds of nature, I felt a calling to use my clinical skills to help leaders. From that vantage point, I saw that the world needs leaders to address their own mental health and wellbeing if they are to be effective at taking care of our most vulnerable people and our precious planet.

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

Yes! I named my company Human Heart Connection to emphasize the human qualities we all have and the connection we all need. My clients are amazing leaders who may have very impressive/intimidating titles at work. Yet, these leaders found themselves struggling under the strain of juggling leadership roles, work, and their own family responsibilities. They finally made the decision to prioritize their health and wellness. I’ve treated doctors, engineers, creatives, and entrepreneurs. The interesting thing is that each of these amazing humans are acknowledging that they are indeed humans, not robots or superheroes. In therapy, they have learned ways to nurture their energy, practice self-care, and find joy again. The biggest surprise, and humble honor, is that I got elected to serve on the board of a nonprofit where I had previously been employed. It’s under new leadership now that actively prioritizes the need to support the mental health, safety and wellness of the organizations’ leaders and front-line staff. So, in a sense, what goes around, comes around.

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?

I have been fortunate enough to have many mentors and cheerleaders. They are my parents, colleagues, clients, and other trailblazers who make sacrifices and lead by example to create new paths for themselves and others.

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?

Yes, there is still a huge stigma about mental illness. In many cultures, mental health is not very well understood. In leaders, there is often a deep fear of expressing vulnerability. They may also be worried about being labeled, mocked, or perceived as weak. The truth is that human leaders are not immune from human conditions. Anxiety, depression, and trauma sometimes comes with the territory of being human. On the other hand, people can seek help and learn ways to manage these symptoms. Hope, compassion, and healing are part of being human!

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

Individuals: Please take the time to learn about mental health. Take care of your mental, physical, social, and spiritual needs. Be kind to yourself and others. Seek professional help as necessary. If you are in crisis, please call 911 or go to your nearest hospital.

Society: We need more educational resources and public service announcements about mental health and wellness. I am encouraged that more primary care doctors are screening patients for anxiety and depression.

The government: I would hope to see more funding allocated for researching mental illness and mental wellness, especially among people of various cultures.

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. I practice deep breathing. It helps to calm and refuel my body. This is the technique: Inhale for the count of 4, hold for the count of 4, and exhale as if you are taking all the air out of a balloon. Repeat 5 times.
  2. I tend to my spiritual needs with the use of mindfulness, meditation, and prayer. I begin each morning and end each day with mindfulness and prayer. It helps to center me.
  3. I take care of my social needs by intentionally scheduling and spending time with fun and encouraging people! Life if more than just dreary obligations and stress! It’s okay to have fun! In fact, your health depends on it! I also volunteer to give back to communities in need.
  4. I go for daily mindful walks. Mindful strolling beats mindless scrolling.
  5. I practice gratitude and savoring the good moments of my life. This helps rewire my brain to balance my worry thoughts with experiences of joy.

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

Books: The Anxiety Workbook, DBT Skills Handouts and Worksheets

App: Ten Percent Happier App

Resources: www.mindfulleader.org; https://nami.org, https://www.samhsa.gov, https://www.nimh.nih.gov

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?

Take care of your mind, body, and spirit to become the type of leader that this world needs.

How can our readers follow you online?

LinkedIn: (99+) Hazel Navarro, LICSW | LinkedIn

YouTube: Kindness as a Leadership Skill — YouTube

Instagram: Hazel Navarro, LICSW (@hazel_navarro_) • Instagram photos and videos

Twitter: (20) Hazel Navarro, LICSW (@HazelNavarro_) / Twitter

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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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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