Michael Castanon Of Alter Behavioral Health: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I Was First Diagnosed With Mental Illness

An Interview With Stephanie Greer


Be patient with yourself and with the process. This is critical. There isn’t a perfect script or formula. Everyone has their unique path, and it takes time to find the path that works for you, so be patient.

Navigating the complexities of mental illness can be a solitary and daunting path for many. The initial diagnosis often comes with a deluge of emotions, confusion, and an overwhelming sense of uncertainty about the future. It is a pivotal moment where guidance and wisdom from those who have walked this path before can make a significant difference. As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Castanon.

Michael Castanon is a passionate advocate for accessible and effective mental health care. As the founder and CEO of Alter Behavioral Health, Mindfuli, and BeWellLine, he has dedicated his career to developing innovative treatment models that address the diverse needs of individuals struggling with addiction and mental health challenges. Driven by a deep empathy and a firm belief in the potential for recovery, Michael has spearheaded groundbreaking initiatives that bridge the gap between traditional therapy and cutting-edge digital health solutions. He is a vocal champion for improved access to mental healthcare, particularly for underserved communities. His efforts have been instrumental in raising awareness about the critical need for comprehensive addiction treatment programs and dismantling the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! We really appreciate the courage it takes to publicly share your story. Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your childhood backstory?

Thank you for the opportunity to share my journey; I genuinely hope that it provides comfort and inspiration to those who have experienced a tumultuous past, assuring them that there is hope for a brighter future. This is why I serve as CEO of Alter Behavioral Health and founded Mindfuli.

In what sometimes feels like it is now a past life, I was a high-performing banking executive and I later discovered that the relentless pursuit of achievement stemmed from slow self-esteem; a mindset tied directly to childhood trauma. During the earlier years of my life, I had come to realize I couldn’t look for outside help and instead hung on to an inner “grit,” with the mindset that no matter what, I would survive. I carried this mindset through my life as a child and young adult, and made it my mission to become “worthy,” and looked to my work as validation of this.

Reflecting on my journey, it’s evident that discovering the right therapy not only enhanced my quality of life and deepened my connections but also ignited a passion to propel the mental health system into the future. As I navigated the system personally, I identified numerous gaps and concerns that, drawing from my Fortune 100 experience, I believed could be effectively addressed. It was through my own experience as a “customer” within the mental health system that I gained clarity on the specific needs of those seeking care and how these needs could be more effectively met.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“People don’t care what you know until they first know that you care.” This is a big driver for me, and often a guidepost that informs the way I go about living my life. It’s something I wish I had received more of when first seeking mental health care. Similar to the golden rule, it’s about living with integrity and morals; virtues that are no longer easily found. If more people embraced this mindset, just think about what we could do for the people who are suffering and in need. It’s really about letting people know they are worthy, they have value, they are important, they are heard, and that you care for them. This shift could radically change somebody’s life.

Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you share what your journey with mental illness has been like? Can you share the moment you first realized what you were experiencing was a mental illness, and how that initial understanding evolved with time?

I struggled with mental illness for many years before getting help, going through different seasons including one where I was even unsheltered at one point. While I became adept at compartmentalizing and distancing myself from my past, the internal wounds and persistent negative self-talk continued to plague me. This relentless replay loop led me to grasp onto various unhealthy coping mechanisms, as do many in these situations. However, at some point, I rediscovered the “inner grit” that had aided my survival years ago and made a firm commitment to undertake the challenging work necessary to lead a purposeful life.

I believe that deep within each of us, we know the truth that we are made for a purpose. It was this faint yet resolute truth that proved louder than the incessant negative replay loop, giving me the strength needed to forge ahead. After suppressing the trauma I endured for so long, I finally decided to confront everything in my 40s, embarking on a journey where I witnessed firsthand the transformative power of the right therapy in reshaping a person’s life.

Was there a turning point for you when things started to change for the better? Can you please share a story?

As I mentioned, I was incessantly bombarded with negative narratives about my identity and future due to my past. The persistent deluge of worthlessness enveloped me entirely. However, the pivotal moment arrived when I recognized the falsehood in those narratives, rejecting the lie I had been fed for far too long. I made a conscious choice to dwell in the truth of my authentic self, embracing the person I truly was and had the potential to become. Shedding the weight of that destructive lie allowed me to break free from the constraints holding me back from my intended purpose. Through a transformative shift in mindset that embraced my inherent worth, I discovered hope and a renewed sense of purpose. I transformed into the person I was always meant to be.

Who are some of the people in your life who have been on this journey with you? How have they either helped you or made things harder?

Embarking on this transformative journey has been far from easy, yet my wife and children have been unwavering pillars of support at every turn. Change, however, is not a swift process. Healing, enlightenment, elevation, and transformation demand time and patience. My wife, in particular, has been a beacon of truth in my life, fearlessly entering the spaces that needed healthy confrontation and offering unconditional love — an empowering force that propelled me forward.

To those grappling with mental health challenges, it’s crucial to recognize that your family cares deeply about you. Progress toward growth, healing, and well-being is a commendable trajectory, even if mistakes occur along the way. Acknowledge that this journey of growth is not a linear path; it’s a nuanced process with ups and downs. Sometimes, those within your circle might inadvertently be affected by the ongoing changes. Grant yourself the grace to see growth as a dynamic journey, as progress is often marked by twists and turns. Your family, your unwavering support system, will notice the overall trajectory of improvement and growth, appreciating your efforts.

The potential for profound change emerges when individuals commit to doing the necessary work and extend support to others navigating their unique journeys.

How did your personal relationships and social interactions shift following your diagnosis, and what advice would you give to others navigating similar changes?

Cultivating genuine self-acceptance serves as the cornerstone for fostering powerful and meaningful connections with those around you. The more we can be comfortable in our own skin, the more we can foster authentic connections with others, enabling us to relate on a deeper level.

Translating the empathy and compassion I nurtured within myself into my interactions with others has not only changed how I interact with the world but also my role as a leader. Adopting this new mindset has unleashed my capacity to support and uplift those around me, fostering their growth and elevation.

What are 5 things you learned from your journey that you think other people navigating life with mental illness would benefit from knowing?

The 5 things that come straight from the heart are:

  1. Be patient with yourself and with the process. This is critical. There isn’t a perfect script or formula. Everyone has their unique path, and it takes time to find the path that works for you, so be patient.
  2. Don’t allow shame a foothold. In your outlook of yourself and your experience, let go of any temptation to entertain shame. Only leave room for self-compassion.
  3. There is power in human connection. Find good people that you trust to be your confidants. This will be a small circle, but the power of human connection is undeniable. It is important to note that you should share this connection with your therapist. Once you find that trusted, empathetic, and confidential connection, the safe space to share vulnerabilities and to embark on the journey of transformation in a meaningful way truly begins.
  4. Your past will not define your future. Don’t let an ugly past hold you back from a beautiful future. Believe it or not, that past is going to create a future that never would have been possible without an experience without having lived it; first, you have to unpack the past. You have to turn the past upside down and use it for good.
  5. Self-growth is a lifelong journey. Growth and change are achievable, but it is a lifelong journey. There are steps every day that lead you towards the path of development, and that’s a very good thing. It makes each day valuable in itself. If you keep your mental health and well-being front and center, you can accept it and yourself, especially if you have a moment or two where you stumble. Don’t be judgemental or ashamed, the journey will take you to great places.

How has living with mental illness affected your relationships, both romantic and platonic? Any advice for others who are navigating relationships while managing the condition?

Emerging from a place of deep wounds and suffering, individuals often seek relationships as a means to alleviate their pain. There’s a tendency to place unrealistic expectations on these connections, hoping they will magically resolve all our problems and provide healing. However, it’s crucial to understand that relationships, when approached thoughtfully, are not meant to be a cure-all. Instead, they are designed to mutually elevate and foster growth.

To cultivate healthy relationships, it’s imperative to come from a place of secure attachment. Addressing and working through any insecurities related to attachment styles is essential. While it’s normal to experience moments of insecurity, it’s crucial to actively navigate and overcome them. This process allows individuals to establish secure connections, ensuring that relationships unfold healthily and functionally.

Reflecting on your journey, what do you believe are the common misconceptions about mental illness that could be dispelled to support newly diagnosed individuals better?

One of the biggest misconceptions that needs debunking is the idea that there’s something inherently wrong with an individual experiencing mental health challenges.

I would contend that, to varying degrees, we all find ourselves somewhere along the spectrum of mental health issues, emphasizing our shared humanity. Recognizing and embracing this collective reality allows us, as a society, to confront and address mental health challenges more effectively, steering away from the stigma that often accompanies such misconceptions.

Furthermore, it’s important to dispel the notion that a doctor or a pill serves as the sole solution to mental health concerns. While seeking professional help is valuable, true healing goes beyond this single aspect. The answers we seek often lie within ourselves, waiting to be acknowledged and addressed.

I came across a profound insight a few years ago stating that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” I think more broadly that part of what ails us in society is that we are supposed to be hyper-connected, but instead, we have become hyper-isolated. Recognizing our innate need to be part of something greater than ourselves, we must prioritize fostering healthy connections with others, acknowledging that genuine connections are integral to our well-being, and extend beyond the confines of medical interventions.

What strategies or practices have you found most effective for managing your mental health, and how did you tailor them to fit your unique circumstances?

For me, the practice of being present holds profound significance. Especially as someone who is a go-getter and can tend to drift away in thoughts of the future and of the past. Acknowledging that I can easily spend too much time dwelling outside the present, I’ve developed a newfound appreciation for actively practicing presence.

In this practice, I’ve discovered a sense of wonderment that transforms each moment into a precious gift. Drawing inspiration from the Greek concepts of Cairos and Kairos, I’ve learned that Kairos, a unique and opportune moment, often emerges through heightened awareness in the present. Delving into the essence of time becomes an enriching exploration, unlocking a different dimension of being. Leading with this awareness and intention in every moment has brought about a profound transformation, emphasizing the beauty of fully experiencing each moment in its entirety.

Looking back, what is one thing you would tell your past self in the wake of your diagnosis, and what message of hope can you offer to those who are just starting to come to terms with their mental illness?

I would tell myself “It’s okay.”

It’s okay that you endured what you did. It’s okay to carry feelings of shame, confusion, and not knowing how to cope. It’s okay to grapple with emotions of inadequacy, anger, and hopelessness. It’s okay to feel like you don’t belong or that you’re lost. Acknowledge all of it, instead of trying to conceal it, because every bit of it is valid. Now, let’s deal with all that instead of trying to hide it.

Like many who’ve faced trauma, I burdened myself with an overwhelming sense of shame. Leaving those experiences behind doesn’t come with an immediate understanding that it’s okay. One of the most profound gifts I granted myself was undergoing eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, a mental health treatment that involves specific eye movements while you process traumatic memories.

During this therapeutic space, I confronted my younger self, and the experience was nothing short of extraordinary. Witnessing that vulnerable child, all I yearned to convey was, “It’s okay. You will be okay.”

Are there any books, podcasts, or other resources that have helped you understand or manage your condition better?

“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Victor E. Frankl is a must-read for me.

A lot of people in psychology and psychotherapy recommend this book and it is a must-read for me that has been a valuable resource in shaping my mindset. Also, anything by Brené Brown. I’m a big fan of hers.

Finding a spiritual practice has also been transformative. I encourage others to find whatever that practice may look like for themselves and lean into that.

Podcasts, like Alter’d Life, are also really important since they share the message of the power of human connection. It’s powerful how one life can impact another and great things can happen as a result for anybody willing to participate in the process of positive change.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)

It’s difficult to choose but I’d have to say Malcolm Gladwell. I admire the depth of his thinking. How he takes traditional subject matter and helps shift to a more scientific, analytical approach to rethinking and retelling the story. I think he is brilliant and would love to meet him and pick his brain to see how he would tackle the big problems that society is dealing with. And how we could work together to assemble to best and brightest minds to overcome these challenges.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can find me on LinkedIn and on Alter Behavioral Health’s website, as well as on the Alter’d Life podcast, which focuses on the power of human connection and relationships.

Thank you for your time and thoughtful answers. I know many people will gain so much from hearing this.

About The Interviewer: Stephanie Greer, PhD is the Co-founder and CEO of Akin Mental Health — a company dedicated to guiding families on their journey supporting a loved one with mental health challenges like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe depression. Stephanie is passionate about this topic from her own personal experience growing up with a mother who struggled with bipolar 1 disorder and found a path forward to overcome the obstacles and live well. Stephanie’s professional experience includes a PhD in neuroscience as well as design research roles at Hopelab and Apple. Stephanie brings this personal passion together with her world class science and technology background to support families across the US in their personal journey’s supporting loved ones with mental illness. To learn more about how Akin Mental Health is supporting families, visit us at akinmh.com.



Stephanie Greer, CEO of Akin Mental Health
Authority Magazine

Stephanie earned her PhD in neuroscience from UC Berkeley and uses her knowledge of the brain to translate insights from science into actionable tech products