Mental Health Champions: Why & How Rebekah Roulier Of Doc Wayne Youth Services Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
An Interview With Michelle Tennant Nicholson
Move Every Day — For me, this is number one. It’s challenging for me to maintain my well-being without movement. My ideal movement scenarios are outdoors and in nature. A twenty-minute walk makes the most significant difference of all of my strategies.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Rebekah Roulier, LMHC.
Rebekah Roulier, LMHC is a nonprofit executive leader and licensed mental health clinician who focuses on driving innovation and social impact in the global mental health and youth sports communities. She serves as the Deputy Director of Doc Wayne Youth Services, a Boston-based nonprofit that leads the field of sport-based therapy and seeks to address emotional, behavioral, traumatic, racial, gender, and cultural-based barriers by providing equitable access to better mental health for all. A former two-sport NCAA Division 1 athlete and college coach, mother of four young children, and community leader Rebekah is highly attuned to the impact of her mental wellness and experiences of joy and connection on her professional work and life fulfillment.
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 Billerica, MA, USA, proudly the home of Major League Baseball stars Tommy Glavin and Gary DiSarcina. I grew up learning to live up to my town’s reputation for not only churning out athletes but being gritty, resourceful, and never giving up on and off the fields and courts. In 2004, Sports Illustrated named Billerica one of its top 50 towns for sports and recreation in its 50th-anniversary edition, reinforcing everything I was taught growing up. In Billerica, I spent my time playing backyard sports with my brother, Tim, until past dark and my best friends in organized youth leagues. I was the daughter of two classic “helpers” and non-traditional entrepreneurs. My father was a pastor who planted a church and painstakingly grew it like a small business every step of the way. My mother was a lifelong educator and youth and children’s minister. Together, in partnership, they moved their ministry forward, centered around “loving people,” as they liked to say. Their loving on people was frequently mixed with conversations about risks and rewards related to church finance and the stressors of purchasing a new building or the opportunity to invest in domestic and foreign missions.
My childhood home was safe and homey and included people coming and going who my parents were helping on occasion and who also tremendously cared about my brother and me. These experiences blurred the lines positively around what defined biological family versus community. One of my most salient memories was that my parents held deep supportive spaces for others in our home, specifically around the kitchen table, and they did so with humor and kindness. I grew up believing that talking about feelings like sadness, despair, loss, happiness, and situations like job loss, death, marriage, divorce, and poverty, were normal to be had at one’s kitchen table with others. Many nights, I sat hidden in the stairwell, listening in on the stories and conversations. I didn’t always understand the complex emotions and situations, but I knew there was an opening for a chat. Other situations unfolded in front of me. For example, we had a few expecting mothers living in our home with us at one point who had unstable housing situations. Once they were settled in and comfortable, my mother would prank them (as she did with everyone we knew) to keep them laughing and keep life’s hardships in perspective. There could be many storylines from my childhood, but sports, supporting others, and entrepreneurship have carried through as threads into adulthood.
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?
I aim to expand the scope of what therapy looks like and who has access to services through sport-based therapy. These goals are especially timely as the youth mental health crisis across the U.S. and the globe continues. Adults, coaches, and youth development professionals must have the tools and community network necessary to support the young people they work with. Sport can connect people and build community in unprecedented ways. Significant systemic issues create barriers to equitable access to effective mental health care.
At Doc Wayne, we challenge this in a few ways. We utilize evidence-based frameworks such as DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) and ARC (Attachment, Regulation, and Competency), trauma-informed best practices, and social-emotional learning skills, all through the power of sport. In Boston, where we’re based, we work with parents, schools, and community organizations to provide our clinician-led curricula at over 25 sites. Through the training and workshops from the Champions Network™, the reach and impact of sport-based therapy have been amplified. My goal for the Champions Network™ was to increase access and empower others to prioritize mental health. With the understanding that mental wellness is a human right, Doc Wayne allows me to do the work to address those needs on a global scale.
As a result, Doc Wayne will be able to serve the needs of the individual child, family, and school here in Boston while also professionalizing the field of sport-based therapy and providing an engaging and equitable solution to the youth mental health crisis globally.
The process is just as important as the results. I’m hopeful that as we build this initiative, we will provide meaningful opportunities for staff engagement in this journey, and sport-based therapy, as a field, will be created by a diverse cohort of professionals that challenges traditional psychotherapy’s history.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
Of course. My childhood and passion for sports and helping others set me on the right track to do this unique work, but there were two other inflection points.
As a college athlete, there was a time when I was struggling and was referred to see a mental health clinician. While the clinician was well-trained and caring, I didn’t experience the positive results many people do from traditional talk therapy. Specifically, I struggled to feel regulated enough to process the verbal conversation. The place I did find comfort was with my track and field coach, who provided me with additional one-on-one practice time and the opportunity to share whatever I was comfortable with. Whatever I shared, in whatever way, was always met with validation. My coach’s assurance was mixed in with small athletic coaching tips here and there, which normalized my experience and kept me practicing and moving forward.
As I transitioned into athletic coaching, I strived to support my athletes holistically. As a coach early in my career, a turning point was when two of my athletes separately shared their mental health struggles with me in confidence. In retrospect, as a trained clinician, I now know their symptoms were significant. Both athletes went on to receive professional support, and I was ultimately able to navigate these situations. At the time, I felt like an inadequate coach who needed additional training, and I was fearful I would fail them. I returned to graduate school to seek out additional sport psychology and mental health training. These two stories have fuelled my passion for creating mental health programming that’s engaging, sport-, based, and joy-filled. I also frequently think back to my experience as a coach who was sought out for mental health support when building out the Champions Network™. Coaches often are trusted for support but need additional resources and tools.
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?
I was fortunate enough to be hired by Susan Wayne, the founder of Doc Wayne, in 2011 and step into growing and building the community-based service side of Doc Wayne in Boston. However, in 2020 when the COVID-19 public health pandemic devastated the world, that “Aha Moment” came when it was time to step up in another way. The moment came when athletic coaches started calling from other areas of the world after googling “sport” and “mental health” in March 2020, asking for guidance and support. Many shared that their local communities had been shut down, they could not see their athletes, they could only communicate via What’s App, and coaches and athletes were suffering from mental health concerns. As more calls, emails, and messages came in, I wanted to respond in a thoughtful way while also being cognizant of worldwide differences in time zones, cultures, and mental health infrastructures. Our team launched a free webinar series named “Kids and COVID” as one of our solutions. I knew the need was great during our first webinar when a significant partner of ours tried to register for the webinar five minutes prior and was locked out as there were no more open spaces on our new Zoom webinar account. This webinar series took on a life of its own, and after a few months, our leadership team sat down, looked at the human results and impact, and the 17K views for a small organization, and knew we had to act. I also knew I could personally offer people timely support, which has always fueled my fire as a professional.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
To share a short story, I was walking through an affordable housing complex years ago and was stopped by a distressed mother who was jogging after me. Out of breath, she asked, “Are you one of those blue-shirt people.” Our team members at Doc Wayne wear blue shirts with “COACH” across the back. Surprised, I said, “Yes. Is everything OK?” She responded, saying, “I need your help.” She went on to detail her child’s grief, loss, and the repercussions, which led to mental health concerns and her daughter not feeling safe and welcome in her after-school program. She shared that the director of the after-school program had recently passed away, and her daughter wasn’t comfortable attending any longer. She mentioned she had to go to work and was trying all she could to make her daughter feel comfortable returning to the program and feeling safe and cared for. The mother and daughter had met a few of our Doc Wayne team members who partnered with the after-school program for mental health support the previous day, and she thought her daughter might be willing to walk in with me given the similar shirt, which felt comforting.
For me, it was a reminder that you never know when you’ll be called upon and that providing someone with mental health support looks, sounds, and feels like such a wide variety of things for different people. There are opportunities everywhere to play a role.
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?
When I think about all of the people that have contributed to where I am, how I think about leadership, and those who have supported me along the way, I often think about a mosaic. I’ve taken gems and bits of magic from many exceptional individuals who have generously offered their time to me throughout my life, personally and professionally.
Here are a few snapshots as I struggled to pick just one, given their significant influence.
In meeting with a male mentor who has supported me for several years, he reached out to several female executive leaders and requested meetings on my behalf. In this way, he utilized his platform and power to support me in gaining more insight and mentorship, specifically around gendered leadership. These meetings were valuable in asking pointed questions and seeing the wide breadth of ways women lead in action.
This same mentor increased my confidence in my problem-solving abilities and refined how I mentored others when I presented a complex scenario to him. Rather than sharing his perspective and answering, he asked me a series of questions. He explained that he was sure I instinctively knew the correct answer, but leadership is often more about asking the right questions rather than knowing the answers.
Last, I’ve carried this learning from a mentor coach with me for almost two decades because it made such an impact. I played many sports as an athlete, but my primary sport was soccer, where I played goalkeeper. The goalkeeping position is known for leadership, communication, and providing direction and guidance to the other players on the team for strategic reasons, given the position can see the “bigger picture” standing behind your team. I was called up to play for a team that was faster, stronger, and years older when their goalkeeper became injured. I still remember the sheer difference between their shots on goal. While skills-wise I was performing, my coach pulled me aside and said, “I need you to lead.” I shared my self-doubt and desire not to “rock the boat” with much older players. My coach clarified that leadership should not be competitive or solely based on seniority but responsive to the needs of the team and group.
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?
Stigma is one of the more complex social factors surrounding mental health. Perpetuating factors of social sigma include the lack of widespread education about mental health and well-being, especially at young ages. Paired with this lack of education for young people is little or no training for the adults who support them. For example, many teachers, coaches, or others in emotionally supportive roles are not provided with essential mental health or well-being training. Conversely, they frequently must complete first aid or concussion training, which are necessary and warranted. Still, equivalent mental wellness training would provide a more knowledgeable education and social-emotional learning system for our children to be supported as they begin understanding and navigating their world. As they understand their world, their conceptualizations of stigmatized topics are furthered. In addition, the media’s coverage of mental health has largely been negative and, in many scenarios, portrays those dealing with challenging circumstances to be violent. The negative language used in media and society, such as “crazy,” “disturbed,” and “unstable,” also contribute to stigma. Often due to social stigma, those with mental health concerns internalize stigma and believe many of the messages that society sends them, which deepens the impact.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
As a collective, we should think about mental health as a spectrum that can change from day to day and moment to moment for individuals and communities rather than the dichotomy of being either mentally ill or not. In comparing this thought process to physical health, people are often asked, “how are you feeling?” and answers widely vary depending on if you slept poorly, have a cold, are feeling energized after a good meal, or just finished an invigorating workout. Mental health is something that everyone has that, when trending towards the more challenging end for some time, presents itself as mental illness.
- Individuals can support this holistic approach to wellness and mental health and help those struggling with complex and challenging thoughts, behaviors, and emotions by being good listeners. While listening, do your best to remain calm and show support. Offering the opportunity to all people in your life to share things with you without judgment makes a positive difference. Asking questions and not making assumptions can further open conversations. Additionally, you can educate yourself on mental health and wellness and aspire to be an advocate to educate those around you. Modeling mental health and well-being to those around you by caring for your body and mind supports the wider community, especially young people. Being aware of professional resources in your community is beneficial if you can provide the information to a community member.
- Society has the opportunity to provide community and belonging to people when it’s at its best. At its worst, it can ostracize, stigmatize, exclude, and hate. A reformed society, inclusive of differences regarding mental health, is structured to be trauma-informed and uplifting of the well-being of others daily. Daily support from society would entail reconfiguring norms and expectations and accountability structures related to othering.
- The government must give parity through equal insurance coverage, access, reimbursement rates, and provider compensation for mental and physical illness. If viewed as equal and interrelated, many systemic challenges, including mental health provider shortages and challenges finding an affordable, accessible provider, would improve. Government entities can best support people by constructing continuums of services that allow easy entry points and allow community members to access appropriate levels of care quickly and efficiently. For all, but youth specifically, including mental health services that are engaging and fun will produce meaningful results. Additionally, the federal government should launch public health messaging campaigns around mental health and wellness behaviors that take notes from the historic antismoking campaigns to improve health.
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?
As a mom of four young children, including a set of one-year-old twins, and a professional with a busy relational-focused career, I get this question a lot. While a great deal of research is available on well-being and strategies that are known to be effective, it can also be quite personal. I share my five strategies with the lens that well-being is not one size fits all, nor is it the same across cultures.
The strategies I prefer feel controllable, realistic, and attainable to me. For example, while attaining quality sleep is a well-known promoter of well-being in this stage of life, it is not something I can control, given caregiving responsibilities, so I have not included it. I want to acknowledge that having the opportunity to consider one’s well-being and practice these strategies is a privilege that some do not have.
- Move Every Day — For me, this is number one. It’s challenging for me to maintain my well-being without movement. My ideal movement scenarios are outdoors and in nature. A twenty-minute walk makes the most significant difference of all of my strategies.
- Not every day is “game day”…pace yourself — I try to utilize my background as an athlete and perspective on performance for good and remind myself that not every day is game day. My family and team need me daily to be stable and productive, and I need to be emotionally well. Therefore, I look for moments for physical and emotional rest and take them. There are also some significant “game days” and truly some “championships” to be won personally and professionally, and on those days, I want to be at my peak. Peaking at the right moments requires me to care for myself skillfully.
- Practice makes better — Every day, I make an effort to integrate mental skills (deep breathing, positive self-talk, shifting my mindset, or mental imagery into my day-to-day). In the beginning, it was difficult mental work; now, it is second nature most of the time. I’ve found that this prepares me for more stressful moments and builds a positive mindset and energy, and I become better and using my skills when I need them most. Note that I am not aiming for “practice makes perfect” because perfection is not my goal.
- Build Your Team — The power of human connection was confirmed for many of us during the COVID-19 public health crisis. The group of people with whom we socialize, lean on and work day to day matters. Building a team of people around you that you can call on and be authentic when you need support is essential. It is also uplifting and fulfilling to support others in that way.
- Choose something for you, practice autonomy — This may sound simple, but given all the demands on time, I make sure to choose at least one thing I’d like to do for myself every day. These choices are not grand self-care; some days, it might be something I’d like to do to push my career forward; some days, I use this time to check off a “to do,” and some days, it can be as simple as I’d like to drive the long way, enjoy a smoothie, or sit in the sun. Don’t let a day go by that you can’t recall flexing your autonomy and living your life.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
A few favorite books for adults, young people, and children:
The Light We Carry, Michelle Obama
Beautiful Oops! Barney Saltzberg (Children’s Book)
Wolfpack (Also available in Young Reader’s Edition) by Abby Wambach
The Well of Being, A Children’s Book for Adults by Jean-Pierre Weill.
My favorite podcasts are “Snacks” with Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams and “The Players’ Pod” with Kelley O’Hara. Both are about the real-life stories of female athletes as they navigate life, soccer, and complex challenges and advocate for equality. They provide me inspiration by way of being a light-hearted break from mental health conversations to increase my well-being.
I also enjoy “Breakdown” with Mayim Bialik, which breaks down mental health.
Regarding resources, I always suggest professional mental health providers, especially those who practice in a way that resonates with you and meets your needs specifically. For me, that is body-based work for others that may be another type of alternative practice. Here are a few resources:
InnoPsych — A directory of therapists of color, along with content written by and for people of color.
Psychology Today — A directory of therapists and mental health professionals, with search filters by location, language, insurance, presenting needs, and more.
National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network — A healing justice organization committed to transforming mental health for queer and trans people of color (QTPoC). It features a directory of therapists by geographic region.
Directory of Play Therapists — List of providers maintained by the Association for Play Therapists.
I’d also encourage you to consider yourself as your greatest resource. In shifting your mindset to you as your greatest resource, investing in building self-awareness (your knowledge of yourself) and understanding what works best for you in coping with life.
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?
In today’s busy world, many people struggle to find meaning, and their well-being suffers. Gandhi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose it in the service of others.”
How can our readers follow you online?
Readers can follow me on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/rebekahconwayroulier/
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.