Women In Wellness: Temple University’s Dr Stephany Coakley On The Five Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Help Support People’s Journey Towards Better Wellbeing

An Interview With Candice Georgiadis

Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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…Last but not least, sleep. I like to say that sleep touches everything. What I mean by that is when we do not have adequate rest, everything else is compromised — performance, relationships, mood, health, attention, creativity, I don’t think I need to go on. Sleep is just that important. When we sleep, our stress response shuts off, toxins that build up during waking hours are removed, and our brain consolidates information and memories from the day and files them away for use later.

As a part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Stephany C. Coakley.

Dr. Stephany C. Coakley is the Senior Associate Athletic Director for Mental Health, Wellness and Performance at Temple University, and the department’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion designee. In this role, she is responsible for ensuring that student-athletes, from 19 teams, have access to the mental wellness services that they need. As an experienced and certified mental performance consultant (CMPC), she is also the founder/director of Maximum Mental Training Associates and holds the title of Diversity and Inclusion Division Head for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology.

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?

I was born and raised in Nassau, Bahamas and knew from the age of 11 that I wanted to be a mental health professional. I was very specific actually, I wanted to be a child psychologist.

I had a fairly average childhood. Being from the Bahamas, I spent a lot of time outside with my friends and was pretty happy. It was probably around my preteen years that I started to experience changes in my mood, and I wondered what was going on. When I approached the adults in my life, I didn’t know it then, but they invalidated how I was feeling. I didn’t believe that they listened to what I was saying or tried to understand. I even asked if I could go to a psychologist. In my family that was virtually unheard of, so my request was met with a “you don’t need that.”

It was around that age when I developed a strong desire to help future generations of children and teenagers who needed the support, understanding and guidance that I wanted and didn’t get. I am glad that my 11-year-old self chose this career, now more than ever, as we continue to navigate the uncertainty and opportunity that we have experienced over the last 2 years.

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?

There are so many stories, it’s hard to decide which is the most interesting — but I will share this one.

When I was a baby therapist during my practicum and internship, I worked for a community mental health organization in West Philadelphia. The clients were often court mandated to attend counseling, which meant they were not extremely interested in attending sessions or participating while they were there. I was assigned a case and the client was an African-American young woman, about 15 years old — I will call her Rochelle. She was sent to counseling for truancy, and I later diagnosed her with a depressive disorder. She was also born with phocomelia, which means one of her limbs, in this case her arm, was shortened.

Rochelle would come every week for individual sessions and at first, she would respond as little as possible to the questions that I would ask. If you know anything about the therapeutic relationship, it usually involves a conversation. My client however, because she didn’t want to attend these sessions, said as little as possible. What I found interesting was that she came every week.

What I have learned in my career is that if people really don’t want to engage, they eventually stop coming. This client continued to come and continued to minimally participate. I don’t think I’ve ever had to work as hard to connect with a client, as I did with Rochelle. It seemed like forever, but eventually she started to open-up, and participate during the sessions. We were able to do meaningful work together, and I often wonder whatever happened to her.

This interaction early in my career taught me a great deal. First, it taught me that not everyone wants help, even when help is available. I also learned how valuable trust is for any meaningful work to be done. My client was guarded because she did not know me, therefore she did not trust me. She had to trust me for her to open-up. I’ve learned from many clients who are either forced to or voluntarily seek mental health services, that they have been repeatedly disappointed and hurt by people in their lives. My client wanted to know if she could rely on me to be there. Every week when she came for her sessions, I was there. Lastly, I learned that cultural competence and representation in the therapeutic realm matters. As a woman of color my client and I had shared experiences, and cultural identities which helped to make her feel more comfortable and understood.

Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I learned early in my career how important it is to take care of myself. As a helping professional, biting off more than you can chew is an occupational hazard. As a student, I can’t tell you how many jobs and internships I had. I had a full-time job, I went to graduate school full-time, and I had at least 3 part-time jobs/internships. I didn’t have a car at the time, which meant that I had to use public transportation.

Eventually I got a car and was able to drive to work, school and my internship. After working tirelessly, and getting a loan from a family friend, I was finally able to pay for my first car in cash. At the time, I didn’t know it, but I was burned out and exhausted. Honestly, how could I know that I was burnt out and exhausted? I had barely started my career. The very next day after driving my car off the lot, because I was so exhausted, I fell asleep on my way home from work and got into a car accident. It was 3:30 p.m. in the afternoon! Thankfully I was okay, and everybody else involved in the accident was okay. But it was a wake up call (pun intended).

It taught me an immensely valuable lesson that I frequently share — prioritizing everything else and neglecting yourself will cost you, and sometimes it can be very expensive. In my case, I repaired my car (which cost more than I paid for it) and added this lesson to my professional ethos. It is an ethical imperative that you take care of yourself first before you can be there to take care of others.

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?

A significant part of my work consists of educating individuals to prioritize their mental and physical health. Mental health literacy is essential. It should be incorporated as early as kindergarten and continue through high school. There is a saying, and I made it into a T-shirt for the student athletes I serve at Temple University, “Mental Health is Health, PERIOD.”

This helps people understand that the mind controls the body and that they will benefit tremendously by taking the time to engage in activities and behaviors that promote well-being. Examples of this include, practicing self-care, maintaining connections with family and friends in the community, engaging in regular physical activity, and getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night, or within a 24-hour period.

When we are all mentally well, our physical health, our performances, our relationships, our careers, and all other domains of our life are going to be strong. Prioritizing your mental well-being is a lifestyle. That’s my message.

Can you share your top five “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing? Please give an example or story for each.

1) Practicing self-care for a minimum of 30 minutes every day. Self-care involves doing something that you love to do and doing it just because you love to do it.

2) Practicing gratitude daily. This involves writing down at a minimum 3 things that you’re grateful for, and why you’re grateful for these 3 things. There is a book called “Thanks! How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier” by Robert Emmons, PhD that provides evidence for this practice.

3) Practicing small acts or random acts of kindness. It is said that when you help someone, it helps you. Science also supports that when you practice random acts of kindness, Cortisol (also known as the stress hormone) levels decrease.

4) Regular exercise. We know exercise has multiple benefits for health and well-being, including mood enhancing biochemicals like endorphins and serotonin, increased confidence and self-esteem, and better-quality sleep.

5) Last but not least, sleep. I like to say that sleep touches everything. What I mean by that is when we do not have adequate rest, everything else is compromised — performance, relationships, mood, health, attention, creativity, I don’t think I need to go on. Sleep is just that important. When we sleep, our stress response shuts off, toxins that build up during waking hours are removed, and our brain consolidates information and memories from the day and files them away for use later.

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

This is a great question. I would implement two policies. The first is an annual mental health check for everyone beginning at the age of 5. By doing so, we start to send the message very early that attention to your mental health is normal.

The second policy that I would implement would start in high school. I would require that everyone devote one week of the year to some sort of a wellness retreat. Because this concept would be new, it would be important to establish guidelines for what right looks like for a wellness retreat. We want to avoid the need for a retreat after the retreat.

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

  1. People with more experience don’t know everything.
  2. Trust your gut, and then do what you need to do.
  3. Fear is a natural response to the unknown, but if you want to achieve big goals you have to embrace the fear and know that it is temporary.
  4. The journey will have unexpected, sometimes unpleasant, detours; but things always work out the way they were meant to.
  5. A purpose-driven and values-driven life helps to eliminate self-doubt

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 what I have devoted my career to and is the cause that is dearest to me for many of the reasons that I mentioned before.

When we are mentally well, everything in our life is well because the mind controls the body.

What is the best way our readers can follow you online?

LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/stephany-coakley-she-her-hers-9324952

Twitter: @BAForceofNature

Instagram: @BAForceofNature

Thank you for these fantastic insights!

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Candice Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Candice Georgiadis is an active mother of three as well as a designer, founder, social media expert, and philanthropist.