Fotis Georgiadis
Aug 13 · 8 min read

I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Risa Stein. In 1993, Dr. Stein received her PhD in clinical pediatric and health psychology from the University of Memphis. Although she has worked with Department of Defense members and veterans as well as individuals and families from all walks of life, for the past 20 years, Dr. Stein has taught psychology at the undergraduate level. Over the past 25 years she’s authored over 60 professional peer-reviewed manuscripts, presentations, book chapters, and treatment manuals. She has also been featured and quoted in outlets including Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, and Psychology Today. Currently, Risa is completing coursework toward an Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership. Dr. Stein has served as a faculty sponsor to her university’s chapters of Active Minds and University Innovation Fellows. In her role as creativity, innovation, and design thinking consultant, Risa has worked with a variety of universities, think tanks, and nonprofit agencies. When she’s not actively engaged in teaching and growing her nonprofit organization, GenuineU, Risa enjoys cocooning in bed and watching Netflix with her husband of 27 years and their two hypoallergenic dogs.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have wanted to be a psychologist since I was about 5 years old. I have an uncle who is an experimental psychologist. At the time, he had an animal lab and I thought being able to work with monkeys would be great fun. Over time, as I delved deeper into understanding human behavior, my areas of focus in psychology morphed. I began researching delinquent offenders in graduate school and then shifted my focus to obesity and tobacco research. Several years back I became fascinated with design thinking, innovation, and creativity. While my focus has shifted over time, I have always wanted to improve the lives of others through psychology and teaching.

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?

Likely the number of individuals who suffer from mental health challenges and do not reach the threshold for diagnosis or never present for services despite significant challenges, is even higher. So, it makes very little sense that such great stigma should still prevail. Nevertheless, it is a dark cloud hanging over our society and most others. The reasons for this are numerous. First, the history of mental illness and our attribution of it to evil spirits or weak constitution still color our perceptions of it despite these notions being grossly outdated. Second, the media often pair mental illness with senseless acts of violence. This creates a perception of those with mental illness being scary, volatile, or unpredictable. Third, our society places great value on being independent, competent and in always in control. Admitting we need help or aid in any way is often frowned upon and viewed as weakness. Hence, there are many forces at play that work to ensure people who experience mental health challenges believe they are at fault, weak or inferior, and likely to be misunderstood.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

When we hear from our peers that they have experienced something akin to what we are experiencing, it validates us. It argues against the messages we receive that what we are going through others won’t understand and will look-down upon us for. GenuineU works to destigmatize mental health challenges in a couple of ways. First, the videos on the site are real, regular people. They share their mental health stories to let others know that they are not scary people, or weak, or at fault for what they experience.

In addition, with every video posted to GenuineU the myth that an individual is alone is diminished. Our tagline — We’re all in this together — is intended to demonstrate comfort with one another and the recognition that we share similarities that serve as the basis for human connection. Until we gain a sense of interpersonal connection, we continue to perpetuate the isolation and stigma surrounding mental illness.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

Yes. In 2015, my son was a 2nd year software engineering student at Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York. At the time he was experiencing challenges with depression and anxiety. Thankfully, he was comfortable sharing his struggles with my and my husband. Still, the thought of him suffering kept me awake at night. In February of 2015, a student from RIT drowned himself in an icy Rochester lake. This young man was the son of a well-known ESPN writer and the headlines associated with his disappearance and suicide were highly visible. With the weight of my son’s difficulties on my mind, I felt this young man’s parent’s pain quite exquisitely.

Then, late in the summer of 2015, I created and hosted a workshop for high school students focused on creating ways to address mental health challenges among their cohort. The insights I gleaned from this group were both highly dismaying and instructive. The perspective and potential approaches they shared helped me view my students and consider means of addressing their challenges in ways I had not previously considered.

During this same time, I was working with the University Innovation Fellows program sponsored by EpiCenter. Along with a couple students, we attended a conference at the renown Stanford d.School. My ability to apply design thinking principles to the challenge of mental health stigma was vastly improved. I gained further insights after joining with a student to establish a chapter of Active Minds on my campus. Through Active Minds, I began to recognize the many students invested in mental health advocacy.

Unfortunately, during the fall semester of that same year, for the first time, I had two wonderful, intelligent, and caring students drop out of college for inpatient psychiatric stays. The heft of the year weighed very heavily on me. In the intervening time I worked to better understand the student experience, the pain points they confronted in addressing their challenges, and potential approaches to fill the gaps and address the oversights.

GenuineU was developed after I gained an additional understanding of business and entrepreneurship through the work in which I engaged en route to earning my Master’s degree in Organizational Leadership. The aim of is to help address what I eventually came to see as three primary oversights in addressing students’ mental health needs.

1. Students frequently are not comfortable seeking mental health services. And, unfortunately, finding someone to relate to in an anonymous fashion can be very challenging.

2. Students who have learned to effectively cope with their mental health challenges have few uncomplicated and safe means of providing validation, support, and encouragement to their peers. This is particularly dismaying subsequent to a campus tragedy when students may desire to provide a more personal level of comfort to their peers.

3. Starting a conversation around mental health with an individual one is concerned about is typically very awkward.

On GenU, students with lived mental health experience can post videos and blog posts about their mental health journeys, so other students who feel alone and suffer quietly, can anonymously gain a sense of support. In addition, through our Send a Note of Support feature, anyone can input an individual’s email and the site will generate a note letting the recipient know that someone sees them and cares. I also came to realize how important it would be to ensure that students felt safe sharing their videos. For this reason, there is no capacity to “like” or comment on videos and notes of support are sent from the site to the recipient so the sender remains anonymous and there is no capacity to alter the message.

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

Ideally, individuals would share their struggles more openly. But, I recognize this still involves a measure of trepidation. Until we reach a tipping point where more people are comfortable doing so than are not, however, we won’t note a societal shift. Society, for their part, must cease linking mental health challenges to personal failings and violence. We must begin to view coping and mental health experiences as a spectrum. No one experiences a singular psychological state at all times. Variability is normal and we must extend our compassion and understanding to a broader range of human experiences.

The government and large corporations could recognize the need for mental health days just as they do for days of work missed due to physical illness. Insurance should include interventions for mental health on par with physical health. To continue treating each separately is unfounded and counterproductive to both.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

There are numerous approaches to promote well-being and mental wellness. Some that work for me, in particular, include getting out in nature for a hike, ensuring I attain adequate sleep, practicing kindness and compassion with others, engaging in my own rational-emotive discourse and “owning” the way I am prone to upset myself at times, engaging in an night time ritual of relaxation prior to bedtime, and maintaining lists to help me feel increasingly organized and in control.

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

I have a difficult time focusing on podcasts. I do enjoy listening to the people I admire being interviewed by Tim Ferriss. I also really love TED talks. But, there are far too many I love to even start a top five list.

My all-time favorite self-help book is How to Stubbornly Refuse to Make Yourself Miserable About Anything, Yes Anything by the late great Dr. Albert Ellis. This book and training with Dr. Ellis created a more beneficial change in my life than anything else ever has. The other book that really resounded with me is Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. Maintaining a façade of invulnerability created many difficulties in my life. I’ve found I’ve been far more creative and productive since taking her advice to heart.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Fotis Georgiadis

Written by

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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