Mental Health Champions: Why & How Juanita P Guerra Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
An Interview With Michelle Tennant Nicholson
Self-care is spend quality time with friends and family. There is nothing more uplifting than spending time with the people you love. These are the people you can cry with, laugh with and simply just be. Having an intimate group of people to share your highs and your lows with is an essential component of my self-care paradigm. Sometimes I’m with my people sharing a meal and other times we’re slamming bars at our box (Altafit gym). No matter what we’re doing I guarantee you that there’s nonstop laughter and laughter heals the Soul.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Juanita P. Guerra, PhD.
Dr. Guerra is a licensed clinical psychologist in NY with over 20 years of experience. She specializes in trauma and has worked for many years with social service departments and the NY Courts to champion the needs of children and their families. She is the author of “Mind Your Business: 6 Key Strategies Guaranteed to Help You Speak and Live Your Truth,” a transformational memoir where she shares her personal and clinical experience to show others how to be more self-aware and authentic and live a more empowered life. To learn more about Dr. Guerra please go to her website @drg.world.
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 a single parent home with an overwhelmed mother and three older brothers in an impoverished community in The Bronx. Our home life was both fun and chaotic. My brothers were funny, creative and entertaining; always making up games to pass the time. However, there was always an underlying tension between us all that readily erupted in bouts of violence, mostly between my brothers. As a child I lived in fear and confusion, knowing that at any moment a fight could ensue, but not knowing why. For a variety of reasons (poverty, sibling rivalry, substance abuse, abandonment, domestic violence, to name a few) my home life, my supposed safe place, was anything but safe. It was like walking in a minefield.
The community I lived in was no better. I was raised during the crack epidemic in a drug infested neighborhood. Substance abuse was rampant in our community, as was violence. No place seemed to be safe. Like any child reared in chaos I learned to adjust, and I became accustomed to the madness. I also learn to avoid the landmines and survival became my primary goal.
Fortunately, I found some good within the bad. I used school as my escape. Beginning in elementary school, I had the good fortune of having amazing teachers that took me under their wing so to speak. Throughout my childhood teachers guided me, mentored me, and more importantly, they “saw” me and my potential. Were it not for school and these amazing teachers, I don’t know that my life trajectory would have turned out as good as it did.
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?
When I first became a clinician, I had the fantasy that I would save the world by healing one person at a time. This has not really changed. What has changed is my focus. The field of psychology tends to focus on the pathology, on what’s wrong. It looks at the mental disease and diagnoses and while this is critical to an individual’s treatment, we can at times get caught up treating the disease and not the person. While I understood the need for a common language and understanding of mental disorders to effectively treat mental illness, I eventually came to realize that we were treating the disease, not the person, and that we were focusing on what’s wrong and working with peoples’ deficits and areas of weakness. Again, all of this is valid and necessary to appropriately treat people through the lens of the medical model and so for years I worked within this frame, and I believe I did good work.
But somewhere deep within me there was a feeling that I was putting out fires so to speak, and not necessarily addressing the cause of the fires. The clinical work began to feel formulaic and seemed to lack creativity. This led me to explore alternative treatments and expand my understanding of who we are as individuals. I soon gained a greater appreciation for the power of thinking and how our thoughts, negative or positive, impact our perceptions and behaviors. I slowly shifted how I viewed the individuals I worked with. The first major shift was that I stopped viewing the people I worked with as patients, and I began to see them as clients. I changed from seeing them through the lens of clinical psychopathology to a lens of humanity. I started viewing my clients as individuals that were simply trying their best to manage all their varied experiences. I helped my clients to see the “reality” of their experiences (the role others played, the roles they played, etc.) and I taught them to focus on their strengths and what they could effectively control and change. Self-awareness and self-empowerment became the focus of my work.
As I continued to work with my clients I never denied or minimized their negative experiences, and we addressed the clinical issues along the way. The difference in how we worked is that I now encouraged them to focus on the positive aspect of things and on what was within their power to change or control, versus perseverating on the negativity. People unfortunately tend to waste a lot of time and energy on what they cannot change or control. So I encouraged my clients to focus on what was working well in their lives and on what they wanted to do to grow and develop as individuals. This simple mind shift was powerful.
As time went on, I heard many clients say, “I just wanna be happy Dr. Guerra.” Thus, my work shifted to helping others define what happiness means to them and what it could potentially look like. I started focusing more on helping individuals learn to connect to their true selves so that they could define happiness in a manner that is specific and genuine to who they are. I learned that individuals were best served by learning to connect to their core selves, their inner world and what truly makes them happy. Once they could do this, then they could begin developing external goals intended to lead them towards their definition of happiness. I literally was moving towards the frame that happiness comes from within.
Thus, the evolution of the Mind Your Business initiative. In a world with so many distractions and so much pressure to be like everyone else or better, I started encouraging my clients to focus on themselves and to stop worrying about what everyone else was thinking or doing or saying. I began to encourage my clients to use their time and energy to turn within, to develop a deeper connection to their inner world and learn who they truly are, versus who they have been told they are by family, friends, or society. This shift in focus has been powerful. My goal now is to teach individuals how to focus on defining themselves in an authentic manner that has meaning and purpose for them. In some ways this process can feel like a rebirthing. Individuals literally learn to transform into the best possible version of themselves in the present moment. Part of the beauty of this process is understanding that humans are dynamic beings with an unlimited potential for growth. The realization that one has the power to define themselves time and again on their own terms is empowering and liberating; one just has to commit to continuously putting in the necessary time, energy and work to self-develop.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
When I was about 15 years old my mom and I got into a fight about something I was wearing or doing. Her biggest concern at the time was “what are the neighbors going to think?” This floored me because the neighbors didn’t like us, and we didn’t like them, so I pushed back saying “Who cares what they think?” This argument was the first time I openly defied my mother and stood up for what I believed in. At the time, I was confused. I couldn’t understand why my mom would care about the opinion of individuals she disliked or who were irrelevant in the grand scheme of our lives. This was the first time I really experienced the pressure people feel to acquiesce to the norm or to what was socially expected or acceptable. I just couldn’t understand why others’ thoughts or opinions mattered more than mine. For the record I didn’t give in. I stood my ground and felt so empowered doing so.
Clinically, I have come to understand that the same conflict I first experienced as an adolescent is a significant source of ongoing struggle for many people. Life forces us to be socially appropriate which is necessary for us to live like civilized humans. The problem is that we often get bombarded with pressure to act or behave in ways that don’t resonate with who we are at our core. We often feel immense pressure to be like everyone around us; to fit in and be accepted and be part of. The price we pay for acquiescing is an ever-growing distancing from our true selves that often results in a disconnect from our Essence, from who we are at a Soul level.
This then leads to an existential crisis where people feel lost and like life has no meaning or purpose. The purpose of the Mind Your Business initiative is to help individuals reconnect to their True selves. The goal is to help others remember who they were, before society/family/friends molded them into some warped version of themselves. If we can reconnect back to our core selves, then we can build our lives in a meaningful and authentic manner moving forward.
Many people 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?
The final trigger was the implosion of my marriage. When everything finally fell apart, I realized that in my effort to salvage my marriage and family I had given in to cultural and social pressures and expectations and I had lost myself. I had become some watered-down version of who I was at my core and was far removed from my true self. This realization was sadder than the actual loss of my marriage.
I remember feeling so much sadness and shame and thinking “How did I get here?” But even more so, I remember feeling disingenuous. I felt like a hypocrite because here I was telling my clients to live in their truth, and I wasn’t living in mine. I mean I was living my truth in some areas of my life, but not in others, like my marriage. I remember feeling like I was out of integrity and like I had sacrificed my truth and my happiness. I realized that the ultimate price I paid for staying in an unhealthy marriage was the loss of a connection to my true self. When I understood this, I decided that I would never again compromise my integrity to self or dim my light. This “Aha Moment” translated for me into the mantra “To thy own self be true” and into my desire to help others live in their truth.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
In the Fall/Winter of 2021 I made the decision to publish my book “Mind Your Business: 6 Key Strategies Guaranteed to Help You Speak and Live Your Truth” so I hired an editor to help me finalize it and I hired my social media team to help me develop my social media platform and presence. I entered 2022 super excited and feeling at the top of my game. I rode that wave until March when life hit me like a wrecking ball. First my 80 years old mom got sick, had to have open heart surgery, and almost died. Then I had to have surgery in April and right after my kids’ father had to have emergency brain surgery and almost died. I have never been more scared in my life. I grappled with intense fear and uncertainty like never before. I remember praying nonstop and using my faith to get me through this very difficult period.
As all of this was happening it wasn’t lost on me that while I was on the cusp of a major personal and professional breakthrough, life through me a series of curve balls. I felt like I was being tested; like the Universe was asking me how bad do you want this dream of helping the masses speak and live their truth? So, I continued to pray and in a heartfelt moment I made a video declaring my intention to move forward with my calling because the push on my heart to do this work was greater than the fear in my heart. In the moment that I made that video and then had it posted to my Instagram I let go and let God. I decided to simply follow my passion and my inner knowing and I had declared it to the world. That was a pretty defining moment for 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?
The first person that comes to mind is my Altafit gym owner and Coach Andrew Abt. We are very close and share openly. One day I casually told him that I wanted to do something bigger than simply being a psychologist and that I was writing a book and had some ideas. Several months later, he randomly calls me and tells me “I think you need to work with my branding guy.” This was the beginning of the Mind Your Business initiative and platform. I reached out to Fran Maestre. He is a branding genius. He put me through his investigative process and helped me to clearly formulate dr.G and show the world my passion and my vision. Both men continue, from the good of their hearts, to push me and motivate me to work more and be greater. I love them both so much and will forever be indebted to them.
I was also fortunate to have had many mentors along the way and some amazing teachers too. But Andrew and Fran are the force behind my being brave and living my dream.
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?
At a basic level I believe that ignorance is one of the reasons there’s still a stigma about mental illness. I think that a lot of people just don’t know enough about how the mind and psyche develop over time and how it impacts the way we operate and function. This lack of understanding often leads people to be judgmental and critical of those that struggle with mental illness. Unless you have directly experienced mental illness or have witnessed a loved one struggle with it, you have no real perspective of how painful, disorganizing or paralyzing it can be. It’s almost like you don’t know that you don’t know. Ignorance is like having blinders on. People and society need to take their blinders off, and they need to develop more compassion, kindness and understanding for those who struggle with mental illness.
The other factor that I believe is at play is straight up denial, avoidance and/or minimization. My clinical experience has taught me the unbelievable power of these basic and unsophisticated defense mechanisms. When people, individually or collectively, don’t understand something or don’t want to deal with a conflict that is presenting itself they often resort to denial, avoidance, or minimization. It is a lot easier to pretend something doesn’t exist or isn’t happening than it is to confront the problem head on and do something constructive to deal with it. The unfortunate reality is that people are lazy and complacent and don’t want to put in the necessary work to improve things. They convince themselves that it’s easier to deny, avoid or minimize whatever difficult situation is presenting itself. The problem is that these defense mechanisms only provide momentary relief and inevitably extend suffering. In the book, Conversations with God, there’s a passage that says something like “What you resist persists. What you look at disappears.” It took me a long time to fully comprehend this. This passage speaks clearly to the reality that avoiding things won’t make them go away; you must look at the situation in front of you and take some action to remedy it. Unfortunately, people and/or institutions often have a general resistance to working hard on things that we don’t really understand or that challenge, scare or overwhelm us.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
The reality is that everyone will struggle with some form of mental illness at some point in their lives; it’s inevitable. Life is filled with challenges and loss and conflicts that often makes us depressed or anxious. We all need to remember what it felt like when we were struggling in this way so that when we see a fellow human suffering in a similar manner, we can be more compassionate and understanding. As individuals we need to be supportive and kind when we know someone is struggling with mental illness. For individuals struggling with mental illness, simply knowing that another person sees your distress and wants to help is impactful. The best question anyone ever asked me when I was in distress was “What can I do to help?” While there is often very little another person can do to relieve one’s mental distress, the simple offer to help makes the person suffering feel less alone and cared for. There is great power in being kind and compassionate.
The same way that humans can be kinder and more compassionate, so can society. Society is nothing more than a collection of humans with certain beliefs and values. When we come together as a collect, we need to value one another and provide support at a large scale. We need to openly voice the importance of ongoing self-care at an emotional and psychological level; as much as we push the importance of physical care and well-being. To be honest, as a society we need to move away from focusing on vanity and looking good and move towards feeling good mentally. We are way too preoccupied with looking good at the expense of feeling good. It really shows how superficial and immature we are as a society. What’s the point of looking good if you feel miserable internally. Our society needs to look at itself and what it’s valuing and the unbelievable hurt this is causing so many people.
As for our government, I think they should provide mental health services to everyone. When I say mental health services, I am referring to something as simple as short term therapy to help someone overcome a crisis to helping someone effectively manage chronic mental illness and everything in between. Not everyone needs or benefits from traditional forms of therapy or medication. We need to assess individual needs and develop plans to treat the person in front of us. Our government should also provide mental health treatment at no cost to the individual. Mental illness is a disease that impacts everyone and the functioning of institutions and this inevitably results in a loss of revenue for businesses. From this perspective alone the government should be actively helping people. I think our government needs to prioritize humans and diminishing human suffering versus focusing on money, resources, or profits. This may sound naïve, but nothing is more important than the well-being of every human.
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?
There are some things are essential for my well-being and mental wellness. The first is sleep. I need a solid 7 hours of sleep, not 6, not 8. I’ve come to learn that 7 hours is perfect for me, so I make sure that no matter what time I got to sleep I get the cherished 7 hours I need to function well. As a rule of thumb, I go to bed between 9:30PM and 10:30PM. This is why I don’t like to be out late; it interferes with my sleep routine and messes up my entire energetic flow for the next day.
The second thing that is vital to me is my morning routine. I start my day by connecting to God. I give a prayer of Gratitude before I get out of bed, and I do a short (15–30 minutes) meditation to connect with my Higher Self. I need to feed my Soul first thing in the morning.
The third thing I do, which is also part of my morning ritual, is that I feed my Mind. I light some incense and a candle, and I enjoy a cup of coffee while I read something to stimulate my mind. Sometimes I read something spiritual, other times something educational. The point is to learn something new or review something and thereby reinforce my understanding of it.
The fourth thing I do to self-care is spend quality time with friends and family. There is nothing more uplifting than spending time with the people you love. These are the people you can cry with, laugh with and simply just be. Having an intimate group of people to share your highs and your lows with is an essential component of my self-care paradigm. Sometimes I’m with my people sharing a meal and other times we’re slamming bars at our box (Altafit gym). No matter what we’re doing I guarantee you that there’s nonstop laughter and laughter heals the Soul.
The fifth thing I do is twofold. First, I try to avoid negativity as much as possible. I avoid people, places and things that do not please my Soul, my core self. Negativity is toxic so I try to minimize things like the news or gossip or whatever I experience as unpleasing. I also laugh a lot. Laughing is literally my favorite thing to do. It brings joy to my life, and I feel like its infectious. I also think people sometimes take things too seriously and need a little levity in their lives. I believe laughter can be curative. That’s my kind of medicine.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
The most inspiring thing for me is witnessing the day-to-day suffering of my clients and then the relief they feel from doing the self-growth work and moving towards greater understanding of the self and their conflicts. I am also inspired when I teach. The bulk of my students are young adults and when they learn new concepts and/or a language for what they experience(d) and you see a light bulb go on, it’s a beautiful thing. They now have knowledge and tools that they can work with to improve themselves and their lives.
I am all about empowering the self and increasing self-awareness and consciousness. I often recommend books that have inspired me in the past and that I repeatedly reread like: Conversations With God, by Neale Walsh, You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay, The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, The Hero’s Journey, by Joseph Campbell, and The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz. These are classics for me that require occasional re-reading. More recently, I have read and re-read Chasing Excellence, by Ben Bergeron. Wow! This book is amazing. He breaks down how humans tend to be complacent and the importance of constantly building one’s character and working towards being your best self. I absolutely love this book!
I don’t really listen to a lot of podcasts. I get easily distracted. I take in information much better when I read.
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?
Don’t be a part of the problem. Be a part of the solution. People waste a lot of time and energy focusing on what’s wrong. I believe their time is better spent focusing on what’s right, focusing on what works and leads to improvement and better outcomes. To me it’s like a dominoes effect, one’s positivity and desire to make a difference leads to another person’s desire to make a difference and so on. I also like to think about it in terms of paying it forward. I do something good or kind for some people. They in turn do the same for more people and before you know it you have a wave of goodness spreading and making the world a better place.
How can our readers follow you online?
I have a website, @drg.world, Instagram, @mindyourbusiness_dr.g, and Facebook, @Dr.G.
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.