Women In Wellness: Ann Russo Of AMR Therapy and Support Services On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

An Interview With Wanda Malhotra

Wanda Malhotra
Authority Magazine

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Stop Pathologizing Yourself Based on Social Media:

Alex spent hours scrolling through social media, resonating with posts about mental health struggles. Convinced they had every disorder they read about; Alex’s anxiety spiked. After seeking professional help, they learned to use social media mindfully, consuming content without self-diagnosing, leading to a healthier online experience and reduced anxiety.

Today, more than ever, wellness is at the forefront of societal discussions. From mental health to physical well-being, women are making significant strides in bringing about change, introducing innovative solutions, and setting new standards. Despite facing unique challenges, they break barriers, inspire communities, and are reshaping the very definition of health and wellness. In this series called women in wellness we are talking to women doctors, nurses, nutritionists, therapists, fitness trainers, researchers, health experts, coaches, and other wellness professionals to share their stories and insights. As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Ann Russo, LCSW, MA.Theology.

Ann Russo is the trailblazing founder of AMR Therapy, where she merges her sharp wit with profound compassion to challenge and reshape mental health discourse, focusing on queer communities, sex positivity, and the nuanced intersection of religion and sexuality. With over two decades of experience, her approach is both refreshingly direct and deeply empathetic, making complex issues accessible. Russo’s dedication to creating inclusive and affirming spaces is not just her profession — it’s her passion, leading the charge in advocating for a more open, understanding, and diverse conversation about mental health.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to “get to know you” better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

My backstory is interwoven with threads of personal and familial queerness, mental health advocacy, and a relentless pursuit of social justice. I grew up in a home where my dad and his partner, along with my mom and younger sister, formed a unique family unit — a queer family in the ’80s and ’90s when the world outside often demanded silence and secrecy. Yet, within the walls of our home, we thrived on open discussions about mental health, social justice, sex positivity and queerness long before it was part of the public discourse, because these issues were personal, imprinted in my DNA and daily experiences.

The journey towards self-acceptance and advocacy was not just mine alone; it was a path I walked alongside my r father. Our collective emergence from the confines of the closet in my teen years wasn’t just a step into the light; it was a profound leap into authenticity that shaped my approach to everything that followed. This transition, though fraught with the fear of judgment, taught me the immeasurable value of authenticity and the power of living one’s truth. As I navigated the complexities of my own queer identity, I found my voice as an advocate — starting the first gay-straight alliance at my high school, marching in pride parades, and standing up for queer rights — human rights whenever I had the chance. My activism wasn’t optional; it was a necessity, as natural to me as breathing, born from the advocacy that was a silent byproduct of my family’s existence.

My fascination with religion’s nuances led me down a path of theological study, seeking a place within faith communities for people like me, as I had sadly only seen hatred and anger from religious communities. I explored Christianity in great detail both scholarly and interpersonally. I consistently found that mental health was the common thread in these conversations — a thread that pulled me toward a greater calling in mental health advocacy.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? What were the main lessons or takeaways from that story?

Since the inception of my career, many instances have left indelible marks, but the most poignant was undoubtedly my role as a mental health first responder following the Las Vegas shooting. The transformed Strip, from its lively vibrancy to a profound silence. As I looked up to see the curtains of the shooter’s room flapping in the wind where a window no longer existed, was a haunting a horrible reminder of what unfolded just hours earlier. As I walked into the hotel, I saw signs of fear so primal, it was heart-wrenching — someone had been so terrified they went to the bathroom right on the marble floor. It was a powerful reminder that trauma isn’t just a story to be told; it’s a visceral, physical reaction that can leave you feeling scared and alone in the most profound ways. These experiences underscored a profound truth: mental health professionals are not just clinical bystanders but empathetic participants in the human condition.

The subsequent months were a journey through the shadowed valleys of the human psyche, working closely with survivors whose lives were forever altered, who could never return to the people they were before. The magnitude of such a crisis on mental health cannot be overstated, and the work that followed was as much about navigating the labyrinth of trauma as it was about the resilience of the human spirit. This chapter of my career reinforced some hard truths about the mental health profession. We often find ourselves on the frontlines of human suffering, bearing witness to the depth of pain and the heights of human endurance. The primary lesson I carried forward from this time was the profound need for empathy — both for those we serve and for ourselves as providers. I learned that healing is not a return to an old self that trauma has rendered unreachable, but the construction of a new self, with a foundation built on the understanding, support, and compassion that we can offer as therapists.

The necessity of self-care became not just a professional practice but a personal creed. I had to acknowledge the secondary trauma that comes with the role we play and give myself the space to process, to grieve, and to heal. My work with survivors has taught me that while we cannot erase the events that scar us, we can walk alongside each other towards recovery, finding strength in shared vulnerability.

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about a mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I made plenty of mistakes learning the intricacies of this profession. Yet, there was an umbrella mistake that I think could resonate with new providers. Early on, I shied away from clients dealing with severe depression and suicidal ideation, not fully understanding that my discomfort was a natural part of the learning process. This hesitation was a disservice to both my growth and the support I could offer. It’s a delicate balance that all mental health professionals must learn to navigate fully engaging with the difficult aspects of our clients’ experiences while also acknowledging and attending to our own emotional responses.

Simultaneously, I was learning another critical lesson about the importance of self-care. The intense, daily exposure to others’ trauma made me intimately familiar with the signs of burnout — a condition I had initially underestimated. This taught me that to be present for my clients, I must also maintain my well-being. It is a dual responsibility that requires a balanced approach: deep empathy for others and an equally deep commitment to self-preservation.

These early missteps, particularly my tendency to withdraw from discomfort and my initial disregard for the creeping onset of burnout, were in fact critical learning moments. They taught me that the strength of a mental health provider lies not in an unattainable ideal of being impervious to pain, but in the very human capacity to face it, understand it, and care for oneself through it. This balanced approach — this understanding that we must hold space for our clients as well as for ourselves — is what I hope to impart to those new to our field. It’s about finding harmony between the professional commitment to others and the personal commitment to oneself, ensuring that we can sustain our ability to bring light to those in their darkest moments.

Let’s jump to our main focus. When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?

In the realm of health and wellness, my work is fundamentally about expanding the boundaries of inclusion and understanding. By specializing in the intersection of mental health with queer identities and the complexities of intersections. I’m not just addressing individual wellness; I’m striving to shift cultural narratives and create broader systemic change.

My efforts at AMR Therapy extend beyond the therapy room. Since 2018, I pioneered remote therapy services, recognizing the necessity for accessible mental health care. This decision to go remote was about committing to a sliding scale model that could open doors for those often left out of the conversation — people for whom traditional therapy might be out of reach due to financial, geographical, or social barriers. AMR has served almost 2000 clients and have an active client load of almost 300 people. We have grown from just me to over a dozen therapists. AMR Therapy has been about more than inclusion; it’s been about creating equity in mental health access. We’ve seen firsthand that when people are provided with care that acknowledges and respects their unique challenges and identities, the impact goes beyond the individual. It reverberates through communities, fostering a culture where mental health care is seen as a right, not a privilege, and where the diversity of human experience is not just recognized but celebrated.

Moreover, my role as a consultant and educator equips other mental health professionals with the tools and perspectives necessary to serve diverse populations with sensitivity and effectiveness. The training courses I create are designed to fill gaps in traditional mental health education, ensuring that the next generation of therapists can better support their clients, regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or religious beliefs.

By amplifying the importance of sex positivity and challenging outdated or harmful societal norms, I contribute to a more open dialogue around wellness. This, I believe, empowers individuals to seek help without stigma, encourages self-acceptance, and ultimately leads to more robust, community-wide health.

The impact of this work is multifaceted: It’s about the individual lives transformed through therapy and support, the mental health professionals who expand their competency and compassion, and the societal shift toward greater acceptance and understanding of mental health challenges within queer communities and beyond. Each of these aspects contributes to a larger vision of wellness — one that is inclusive, informed, and unapologetically affirming of every person’s right to mental and emotional well-being.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?

1 . Stop Pathologizing Yourself Based on Social Media:

Alex spent hours scrolling through social media, resonating with posts about mental health struggles. Convinced they had every disorder they read about; Alex’s anxiety spiked. After seeking professional help, they learned to use social media mindfully, consuming content without self-diagnosing, leading to a healthier online experience and reduced anxiety.

2 . Prioritize Mental Health as Essential Maintenance:

Jamie, a millennial graphic designer, who initially viewed therapy the way many of us view flossing — helpful, sure, but only necessary occasionally. After a high-stress project led to a period of burnout, Jamie had an epiphany. Therapy, they realized, wasn’t just for moments of crisis, but was akin to the regular check-ups with a doctor, a consistent part of maintaining overall health. They started scheduling regular appointments, not because something was wrong, but to keep things right.

3 . Define Clear and Measurable Goals:

Sam dreamt of “making it big” as a content creator but felt directionless. They learned to set specific targets, like gaining a certain number of followers monthly, which provided a sense of accomplishment and direction. This approach turned a nebulous dream into a ladder of achievable steps, giving Sam a clearer path to success.

4 . Embrace Emotions and Thoughts While Managing Behaviors:

Taylor often felt swamped by emotions and reacted hastily, especially in digital communication. After a heated text exchange led to a lost friendship, Taylor began to process feelings through journaling before responding to messages. This pause allowed for thoughtful responses and maintained relationships, showing the power of self-regulation.

5 . Align Decisions with Your Values:

Linda was torn between a high-paying job and work that aligned with her passion for social justice. By clarifying her values, she could make a decision that felt authentic and fulfilling, choosing a career path that truly resonated with her personal ethics and morals.

If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?

If I had the opportunity to launch a movement that would enhance wellness on a global scale, I would draw inspiration from a pivotal experience in my sophomore year of high school. Participating in the Human Relations Camp was a game-changer for me. It brought students from varied schools and diverse backgrounds together, confronting prejudices and breaking down barriers in a way that was nothing short of amazing.

Building on that transformative experience, I would create “Empathy Without Borders: Dignity and Wellness for All.” This movement would weave the fabric of empathy and compassion into the daily lives of people around the world, irrespective of their identities. It would champion the cause of universal dignity, underscoring the right of every person to live with respect, to have their needs met, and to experience the warmth of understanding without the chill of judgment.

At the heart of the movement would be global empathy education, where learning to understand each other isn’t optional but essential. We would advocate for legislation that enshrines the rights of all individuals to access mental health care without the sting of discrimination, ensuring that biases do not prevent anyone from seeking help. Through compassionate outreach, we would build bridges between diverse communities, cultivating a world where differences are celebrated.

The movement would also focus on creating inclusive support networks that provide targeted resources to meet the specific challenges faced by marginalized groups. In delivering mental health services, we would uphold the dignity of every individual, acknowledging the inherent worth of each person seeking support.

“Empathy Without Borders” would not just be about understanding one another; it would be about actively supporting each other’s right to wellness, building a global community that honors the mental and emotional health of every individual. It’s a vision of a world where empathy extends beyond our own lives and reaches into the hearts of others, fostering a society that nurtures wellbeing in its fullest sense.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

Mistakes Are Part of the Growth Process: I wish someone had told me that mistakes aren’t just inevitable, they are valuable. Each misstep I’ve taken has been a lesson in disguise, teaching me more about myself and how to navigate the complex world of therapy and business. These lessons have shaped me into a more resilient and adaptable therapist and entrepreneur.

The Workload Is Immense, But So Are the Rewards: Starting out, I underestimated the sheer volume of work that goes into building a business. There’s a misconception that passion makes the process effortless, but the truth is, it takes hard graft. However, the emotional rewards — seeing clients flourish, fostering a supportive community, and breaking down barriers — are profoundly fulfilling.

Resilience Will Become Your Superpower: There were times when the odds seemed insurmountable, and doubt crept in. I wish I’d known that I would find the strength and creativity to overcome those challenges. Resilience isn’t just about bouncing back; it’s about pushing forward, even when the path ahead is unclear.

Stand on the Shoulders of Giants: Early in my career, I was eager to innovate and carve my own path, sometimes overlooking the wisdom of those who came before me. I wish I had understood the value of leaning on the experience of the giants in the field of mental health — the pioneers who laid the groundwork for what we do today. Their insights are invaluable, and their guidance can help avoid common pitfalls.

Acknowledge the Power of Individual Impact: Early in my career, I wish I had grasped that the role of a therapist isn’t to ‘fix’ everyone, but to guide and support. It’s easy to feel like you’re not doing enough, especially when faced with the sheer scale of need. Yet, it’s vital to recognize that by making a positive change in one person’s life, you set off a ripple effect. That individual’s growth can influence their community and beyond.

Sustainability, veganism, mental health, and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?

Mental health is the cause closest to my heart. While I deeply value sustainability, veganism, and environmental activism, my life’s work is dedicated to nurturing psychological wellbeing. My passion stems from the belief that mental health is the bedrock of a functional and flourishing society. When individuals are mentally healthy, they can make more informed, empathetic, and sustainable choices, which in turn benefits the environment and society at large.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of mental health support. It not only changes individual lives but can also have a generational impact. Good mental health strengthens communities, enhances resilience, and fosters the kind of empathy and creativity that can drive change in other critical areas, including environmental and social justice issues.

In my practice, I often find that when people begin to heal mentally and emotionally, they become more engaged in other causes close to their hearts. They’re better equipped to advocate for the planet and all its inhabitants with the same compassion and vigor they’ve learned to apply to themselves. Therefore, by prioritizing mental health, we’re indirectly supporting a multitude of other causes, making it the most integral and far-reaching of all my interests.

What is the best way for our readers to further follow your work online?

Ann Russo

https://www.linkedin.com/in/annrussolcsw/

https://www.instagram.com/annrussolcsw

https://www.facebook.com/annrussolcsw.ma

https://twitter.com/AnnRussoLCSW

AMR Therapy and Support Services

www.amrtherapy.com

https://www.instagram.com/amr_therapy/

Thank you for these fantastic insights! We wish you continued success and good health.

About the Interviewer: Wanda Malhotra is a wellness entrepreneur, lifestyle journalist, and the CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living. CMB empowers individuals with educational resources and vetted products to help them make informed choices. Passionate about social causes like environmental preservation and animal welfare, Wanda writes about clean beauty, wellness, nutrition, social impact and sustainability, simplifying wellness with curated resources. Join Wanda and the Crunchy Mama Box community in embracing a healthier, more sustainable lifestyle at CrunchyMamaBox.com.

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Wanda Malhotra
Authority Magazine

Wellness Entrepreneur, Lifestyle Journalist, and CEO of Crunchy Mama Box, a mission-driven platform promoting conscious living.