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Employment Services: Helping People with Mental Disabilities Find Rewarding Work

Celebrating National Career Development Month!

Work is an important part of every person’s life. For many adults, work makes up a significant portion of how we spend our time each day. It plays a key role in how we view and define ourselves, and it’s a primary factor of occupational wellness, one of the eight dimensions of wellness. Suffice it to say, rewarding work and a fulfilling career can have a large influence on a person’s mental health.

However, not everyone who wants to work can do so. Disabilities and impairments, whether they are physical or psychological, often pose significant barriers to employment for people who live with them. In addition to financial strains caused by unemployment, research has shown that people who are unemployed suffer from more mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety and distress, than those who are employed.

For these reasons, people who have disabilities can benefit greatly from services that help them find or return to gainful employment. These services may include vocational guidance and counseling, job placement assistance, or training and education, and they’re typically offered by government agencies in cooperation with local community health organizations.

Cummins Behavioral Health Systems is proud to be one such organization providing employment services in central Indiana. In celebration of National Career Development Month, we spoke with Jennifer Crooks, Cummins’ Director of Employment Services, to learn more.

Employment Services in a Nutshell

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"We've had tons and tons of success stories. It's wonderful to see people that have kept their job for a long period of time and are grateful that we assisted them," says Jennifer Crooks, BSW, Director of Employment Services at Cummins BHS.

So, what exactly are employment services, and how can someone go about receiving them? “Employment services here at Cummins include a lot of different things,” Jennifer says. “Life skills specialists, therapists, doctors, or anybody that works at Cummins can refer consumers for services. Some people just have the dream that they want to work one day, or that they want to get a job in a few years. Other people don’t ever want to work, they just want to volunteer. They want to do something meaningful to give back to the community.”

In order to be eligible for Cummins’ employment services, a person must have a mental disability or disorder that makes it difficult for them to work. Some common examples include generalized anxiety, social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, and schizoaffective disorder. The type and scope of services provided can vary widely from person to person, as Jennifer explains:

“It’s very consumer-driven. Some people want us there every step of the way and really need a lot of support once they start working. Other people just need us to help them write their résumé, submit applications and practice interviewing skills. It’s 100% their choice, and it’s a little bit different when you’re talking about a mental health disability as opposed to a physical or developmental disability. A lot of people don’t want that known to their employer, so if they work somewhere the public is allowed, we may go to their place of work to observe them, but their employer doesn’t have to know that’s what we’re doing.”

However, Cummins’ employment services aren’t reserved only for existing clients. Through a partnership with Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration, Cummins also assists individuals who are referred from outside the organization.

Cummins BHS and Indiana Vocational Rehabilitation Services

As mentioned above, many state and local governments have programs for assisting citizens with employment needs. In Indiana, this is done through the FSSA’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services, or VR. This program provides individualized services to help people with disabilities prepare for, obtain or retain employment. As part of the program, individuals seeking services through VR choose an employment provider, which could be Cummins BHS or another community healthcare provider.

“We provide services to consumers that come to us from VR,” Jennifer says. “If they’ve gone through the intake process and picked us as their employment specialist, we work through the VR process and help them figure out their vocational goals. We do a lot of job shadowing and situational assessments to help them get experience, and we support them as much as they want.”

In most cases, Cummins only accepts VR referrals whose primary disabilities are related to mental health. However, in counties where community healthcare resources are limited, Cummins sometimes provides employment services for people with physical or developmental challenges, such as deafness and autism. Jennifer reports that employment specialists receive additional training for assisting consumers in these situations.

Ultimately, the goal of employment services is to help people take their mental and occupational wellness into their own hands and find rewarding, personally fulfilling employment. According to Jennifer:

“Employment and vocation can be a huge piece of recovery for our consumers. It gives them something to do and to look forward to, interaction with other people, and the ability to have extra money and do things on a social basis. Really, we try to empower them. It’s not like we just find a job for them—they have to work at it. They see the hard work and the effort that they put into it, so it’s a lot more meaningful to them.”

If you’d like to learn more about the employment services that Cummins provides, including our free employment workshops, check out this video featuring Jennifer Crooks and Debbie Roman!

And if you enjoyed this post, you might also like our blog about the behavioral health benefits of volunteering. You can check it out below!

How Volunteering Bolsters Mental Health with Cummins’ Jennifer Crooks and Mental Health America’s Tammi Jessup

School Based Services

Michelle: “[We’re headed to] Austin, Texas, to the National Center for School Mental Health conference. It’s an organization sponsored by the University of Maryland. They really focus on school mental health services and schools partnering with community mental health centers to provide services in schools. So, we’re really excited about that.”

Jessica: “The title is ‘Invisible Backpacks: How Trauma Impacts Learning.’ And the reason that is very important is because we don’t always know what our students walk in with. In addition to just regular student concerns like finals or prom or college, there’s additional concerns. Maybe it’s ‘Am I going to eat today?’ or ‘Am I going to come home and my parents are home today?’ And we wouldn’t see those.”

Michelle: “I love the story that Jessica tells about when her three-year-old, Halie, actually saw the image of the little boy carrying the backpack to school. Can you tell that story?

Jessica: “Yeah. So, she saw the image and she goes, ‘Wow! It really looks like he’s carrying something really heavy, and he’s sweating, and the school’s really far away. It looks like it’s going to be really hard for him to get to school today.’ And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s exactly the whole point. Exactly.’ “

Michelle: “I think one of the important things is recognizing that it truly is a partnership. So, having a CMHC within your building does not eliminate any services. It really adds to the available services that are at the school, which is why the tier system is so important. So, we worked with Avon schools in particular to really develop how our services fit and line up with that tier. I’ll let Jessica talk a little bit about the tier system.”

Jessica: “So, the bottom tier is Tier One, which is school counselors. They handle the majority of the students in the building. And then Tier Two is something that’s kind of special to Avon, which is social workers. And then the Tier Three system is Cummins, which is the most intensive services. So, what’s fantastic is the student can go up the tier system, but then they can go back down. So, they can still have services after they complete services with us. They don’t have nothing, they still have those eyes on them and still have that support.”

Michelle: “In Hendricks County, we’re co-located in close to 30 schools now, which is amazing, throughout Avon, Brownsburg and Danville, all secondary and elementary schools. And so, we provide on-site behavioral health services for students and their families right there at the school. We’re also on-site to provide any emergency, high-risk assessments that any child might need, and also consultations to staff and administrators.
 
“Being co-located in the school, I think, helps to try and eliminate some of the stigma, because we’re really ingrained into the school community so we’re seen just as another partner, another entity of the school, really. So, a child being seen with one of our providers is just like seeing a staff member at the school. At the same time, you know, with administrators and school personnel, it’s also helpful for them to continue to understand how important services are to decrease that stigma, so that we can be that voice in the room that says, ‘You know, I think that Johnny isn’t a hot mess, I think Johnny really does have some behavioral concerns that stem from all of these generational things that have happened to him in his life.” And so, really to help them reframe and start a different conversation about how they are viewing the children in their system.

How Volunteering Bolsters Mental Health with Cummins’ Jennifer Crooks and Mental Health America’s Tammi Jessup

“You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give.” — Winston Churchill

Last year, 30.3% of adults in the U.S. volunteered, according to a study conducted by the Corporation for National and Community Services. That’s 77.34 million people. Collectively, Americans volunteered nearly 6.9 billion hours, and many more performed “informal” volunteering by supporting friends and family or doing favors for neighbors.

Volunteers are a tremendous asset for many organizations across the country, especially those that are not for profit. In fact, many charitable nonprofits have few paid employees and rely heavily on volunteers for daily operations. However, volunteering isn’t just beneficial for the people and organizations that receive help—it also leads to positive outcomes for those who give their time.

For starters, research has shown that older adults who volunteer or support others have lower mortality rates and report greater life satisfaction than those who do not volunteer. Among young people, volunteering has been linked to positive social development in terms of increased political awareness, greater belief that they can make a difference in their community, and greater confidence that they will succeed in higher education.

Most importantly, volunteerism is a protective factor that can help people avoid or mitigate mental health issues. We spoke with Jennifer Crooks, Cummins’ Director of Employment Services, and Tammi Jessup, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Hendricks County, to learn more about how volunteering can be beneficial for mental wellness.

Explaining Volunteerism through Role Theory

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As the Director of Employment Services at Cummins Behavioral Health Systems, Jennifer Crooks, BSW, often helps to find opportunities for clients who are interested in volunteering.

In the fields of preventative medicine and behavioral health, a protective factor is anything that decreases the chances of a negative health outcome. These may be resources, supports or coping skills that help people deal with stress more effectively, or they may be attributes that counteract risk factors for physical and mental health.

An abundance of psychological research has shown that volunteering is one such protective factor. For example, some studies have found that formal volunteering gives older adults a greater sense of purpose by mitigating “role-identity absences” in later life. According to Jennifer Crooks, this is also true for people who do not work. “Employment and vocation is a huge piece of the eight dimensions of wellness, and when we think about people who don’t have that piece in their life, volunteering can help them feel like they’re giving back to the community and that they’re part of the community,” she says.

The connection between volunteering and life satisfaction is explained by “role theory,” a concept from social psychology which states that a person’s social connections give meaning and purpose to their life. According to this theory, if a person has more social roles, they will feel a greater sense of purpose and be protected from isolation during difficult periods in life. By fostering meaningful, life-enriching social connections, volunteering can be beneficial for almost anyone’s mental well-being, as Jennifer explains: 

“Volunteering gives people purpose. If they can help another person or an animal, then they see the joy in that. If they’re recovering from a mental health issue, you’ll notice a difference in their recovery when they start getting out and being more engaged. It gives them something to look forward to, something that’s a positive in their life when negatives may be all they see sometimes.”

Volunteerism and Mental Health America of Hendricks County

"We're always looking for volunteers. We're a small staff, so there's always help that we can use and things that need to be done," says Tammi Jessup, Executive Director at Mental Health America of Hendricks County.

The positive effect that volunteering has on mental health is indisputable, and as we mentioned earlier, volunteer labor is indispensable to many well-meaning but under-funded organizations. However, the individuals and organizations that could most benefit from each other don’t always connect. This is something that Tammi Jessup of Mental Health America of Hendricks County witnesses on a regular basis:

“We have a support group for anyone with any kind of mental health condition, and I’ve talked about this with various people in the group for years. There are a wealth of opportunities for people to volunteer, whether they want to be around people or not be around people, or whether they want to work with animals, or whether they want office work. Whatever they want, there are so, so many places that would love to have volunteers.”

As a nonprofit itself, Mental Health America of Hendricks County (or MHAHC) depends on volunteer help to complete its mission of promoting mental wellness in the community. “We perform puppet shows for elementary school students, and we almost always need puppeteers because we need people who have availability during the school day. We have office work that can be done, we have landscaping work, and we have craft work for our wreaths that we sell at Christmastime,” Jessup says.

To make the experience as rewarding as possible, MHAHC does its best to give volunteers tasks that they enjoy and are well suited for. “We try to match the volunteering to a person’s interests and abilities and make it fun for them,” Jessup says.

Mental Health America of Hendricks County is in need of volunteers this month for its annual Christmas wreath fundraiser and holiday “Gift Lift” program! You can call the office at 317-272-0027 or email at mhahc.aa@gmail.com if you are interested in volunteering!

CBT vs. DBT: When Is Each Type of Therapy Most Effective?

When someone is struggling with a behavioral health issue, there are a variety of therapeutic models that can be used to treat it. Each type of therapy approaches the treatment process from a unique perspective, and they have strengths and weaknesses based on the individual being treated.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are two popular models for treating mental health disorders. You might notice that these models have very similar names, which sheds some light into how they’re related. DBT is a modified form of CBT, but its approach to treatment is distinct enough from CBT that the two models are usually considered unique.

Both CBT and DBT are supported by research that proves their effectiveness, and they can each be used to treat a variety of mental health issues. However, several important factors may influence which model a therapist uses to treat a client.

Dr. Aarika V. White is a staff psychologist at Cummins who has experience using both CBT and DBT in therapy. She points out that a person’s specific mental health condition as well as their personal factors can determine which model will be most effective in treatment.

What the Research Says

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Aarika V. White, Ph.D.

The most noteworthy difference between CBT and DBT is the kind of change they create for the client. CBT primarily helps clients recognize and change problematic patterns of thinking and behaving. By contrast, DBT primarily helps clients regulate intense emotions and improve interpersonal relationships through validation, acceptance and behavior change.

Because different mental health disorders affect cognition and behavior differently, the type of treatment that’s most effective for a given disorder also varies. This means that neither CBT nor DBT is the best option in all cases, as Dr. White explains with an anecdote. “For a long time, I thought DBT worked great for anxiety. Then I attended a conference on DBT, and the speaker shared that the research doesn’t support DBT for generalized anxiety disorder, at least not above and beyond anything else.”

For depression, anxiety, OCD, phobias and PTSD, research has shown that CBT tends to be the more effective treatment. For borderline personality disorder, self-harm behaviors and chronic suicidal ideation, DBT tends to be the better choice.

According to Dr. White, these differences are largely caused by the way each model creates change:

“In DBT, there’s not a heavy reliance on changing thoughts. There’s an implicit process that happens, so that as the client is mindful, as they’re more accepting, as they validate themselves and ask for validation, they start to change any resistance they may have. They start to be kinder to themselves, catastrophize less, ground themselves in reality and accept reality, but it’s not the active challenging process that happens with CBT.”

What the Client Says

Even when we know which therapeutic model is most effective for treating a disorder, it’s important to remember that every client is unique. Each individual who enters therapy brings with them “personal factors” like childhood experiences, education, personality, values, world views and cognitive biases.

Dr. White believes that every therapist should have a theoretical orientation (such as CBT, DBT, or another therapeutic model) from which they approach treatment. However, she also stresses that the interventions used with a particular client must be appropriate for their mental health condition and personal factors. “A therapist’s personal worldview should influence their theoretical orientation. That should influence what interventions they choose, but they also have to take into account the factors that the client brings into the room. For example, I always approach treatment from a DBT perspective, but I may not always apply DBT skills,” she says.

As an expert in behavioral health, the therapist’s job is to determine the best method of treating their client. This doesn’t mean the client should have no input in the process, though. In fact, research by the American Psychological Association found that clients are more successful in therapy if they can collaborate with their therapist and provide feedback about their treatment.

For this reason, client feedback should be used to inform treatment whenever possible. This might influence the therapist’s decision about which treatment model to use, or it could convince them to try a different model if their first choice isn’t yielding results. “I’ll always approach treatment from a DBT lens, but there might be a case where the individual hasn’t been responding to DBT or they tell me they don’t want DBT. Again, it kind of depends on what the client is bringing into therapy,” Dr. White says.

As a recipient of behavioral health care, you always have the right to discuss your treatment with your therapist or counselor. You can ask about the strengths and weaknesses of different therapeutic models, express your treatment preferences, and provide feedback about your treatment experience.

If you’re currently receiving treatment or are thinking about seeking treatment, ask your therapist if CBT, DBT, or another therapeutic model could be the best option for you!

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Want to learn about other behavioral health services provided by Cummins BHS? Read our articles on peer recovery services and dialectial behavior therapy below!

Peer Professionals Proving the Power of Vulnerability
Acceptance and Change: Dr. Aarika V. White on the Role of Validation in DBT

How Avon Community School Corporation and Cummins BHS Are Supporting Students’ Mental Health

The school years are an exciting period of learning and growth for children and teens. It’s a time for young people to develop the personal, academic and social skills they’ll need to be successful in life. However, it can also be a challenging time in terms of mental and emotional wellness.

As students progress through the grades, they’re faced with many new responsibilities, societal expectations and relationships to navigate. These environmental stressors can be overwhelming for some youth, commonly resulting in feelings of anxiety or depression. Additionally, roughly half of all mental disorders manifest by a person’s mid-teens, making the school-age years rife with potential mental health concerns.

For these reasons, it’s vital that children and teens have access to comprehensive behavioral health care. This includes education about important mental health topics, training in preventative coping skills, and one-on-one therapy and counseling. Interventions like these help youth build resiliency and lesson their risk for serious mental health conditions later in life.

Fortunately, some school systems are taking steps to provide these services in their curriculums and on their school grounds. One such case is Avon Community School Corporation (ACSC), which has partnered with Cummins Behavioral Health Systems to provide support for all its students. We spoke with Krista Fay, Mental Wellness Coordinator at ACSC, to learn more.

Social-Emotional Learning: A Foundation for Wellness

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"It's an exciting time. I think this is the beginning of a big shift toward integrative support," says Krista Fay, Mental Wellness Coordinator at ACSC.

Take a moment to think about everything children learn in school. You’ll probably think first about the various subjects they study in their classes: reading, writing, mathematics, history, world languages and the sciences, to name a few. However, the school environment also provides an opportunity for youth to learn many important “soft skills” that they’ll need to be successful in life.

“Those skills look like self-management, emotion regulation, social awareness, responsible decision making and time management,” Fay says. These all fall under the umbrella of social-emotional learning (or SEL), defined by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Social-emotional learning is often an informal, unguided process, but research has shown that teaching SEL alongside academics increases students’ potential to succeed in school and throughout their lives. That’s why Avon Community School Corporation is working to integrate Universal Social-Emotional Learning Curriculums into its schools. Starting this year, students are receiving instruction on essential SEL concepts, as Fay explains:

“We’re teaching students conflict resolution skills and some basic emotional regulation strategies. For example, we’re doing a lot of work with kindergartners on identifying emotions like anger. What’s the difference between annoyance, anger and rage? The size of your feeling. You can show a child three different sizes of blocks, and now they have context to represent how big their anger is. If it’s a little anger, they can do these things, and if it’s a medium or big anger, they can do these other things. It gives them a framework for identifying their feelings and recognizing the cues they produce in the body.”

Small Group and Individual Counseling: Additional Help for Those Who Need It

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Even with knowledge of social-emotional learning concepts and skills, there will always be children and teens who need additional support. ACSC partners with Cummins BHS to provide one-on-one counseling and therapy for students who have the greatest needs. This level of service allows for diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues within the school environment.

However, there’s a large divide between youth who need simple SEL lessons in the classroom and youth who need the support of individual therapy. ACSC is addressing this gap with its new Mental Wellness Team. “We hired four social workers, and they are providing small group services for kids. As counselors start to see mental health needs, they can refer to the social workers, and the social workers can put in a bumper level of support. For some kids, that may be enough to address their needs,” Fay says.

She continues,

“To be clear, we’re not diagnosing mental health needs through this program. We’re looking for how students are presenting in the learning environment. For example, a teacher or staff member may notice that a student appears upset or has expressed feeling worried about a particular subject or social situation. If we provide small group support with other kids who are experiencing the same thing, we have a better chance of getting them to recognize their emotions, regulate their behavior and apply wellness principles, which will help them be successful over a longer term.”

The benefit of providing all three tiers of service is a smoother transition from level to level. This is helpful when youth are moving up levels of service as much as when they’re moving down. “In the past, a student might have been very successful with Cummins—so successful that they discharged—and then when that support was gone, they struggled and had to immediately return to a high level of support. Now we have a way to walk-down services so that kids can not only maintain success, but also transfer those skills across lighter and lighter levels,” Fay says.

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Although Avon Community School Corporation’s new mental health services program is still in its infancy, Fay is excited and optimistic about the impact it will have on students’ well-being. Cummins BHS is proud to be a community mental health partner with Avon schools in this initiative!

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To learn more about how Cummins BHS is supporting mental health in schools and the community at large, read some of our other posts below!

How One Indianapolis Police Officer Is Fighting Teenage Substance Abuse
Building Connected, Healthy Communities: National Night Out 2019

Acceptance and Change: Dr. Aarika V. White on the Role of Validation in DBT

Taking action to improve our mental health can be difficult. On top of the emotional work needed to change our thoughts and behaviors, we might also struggle with the feeling that other people don’t understand us. We might feel like our family, our friends, and even our therapists only want to make us change and don’t actually accept us for who we are.

Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, is a type of psychological therapy that aims to counteract these feelings. Created by psychologist Dr. Marsha Linehan in the 1980s, DBT is a modified form of cognitive behavioral therapy that emphasizes the importance of both acceptance and change in the therapy process. In DBT sessions, clients work not only to change harmful thoughts and behaviors they may have, but also to accept the benefits of doing so.

Of course, it’s easier for someone to accept that they must change their behaviors if they feel accepted by others in turn. This is why validation is an important part of DBT. Early in her development of the model, Dr. Linehan discovered that her clients who were most resistant to therapy were also raised in environments that were highly invalidating.

To better understand the role that validation plays in DBT, we spoke with Dr. Aarika V. White, a psychologist at Cummins who uses DBT as her theoretical framework. She breaks validation into two main categories: validation from the therapist and self-validation from the client.

Accepting the Value of Therapy

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Aarika V. White, Ph.D.

One of the core tenets of DBT is that the client must accept that they need help. Uncooperative clients are unlikely to put in the emotional work that’s asked of them, which diminishes the effectiveness of treatment. The client must believe that therapy is the best option for them, and this is best achieved through validation.

According to Dr. White, validation is extremely important but sometimes misunderstood. “Sometimes people think giving validation means they have to tell the other person that they’re right,” she says. “That’s not what validation is. Validation is saying, ‘I can understand where you’re coming from. I can look at it from your point of view and see why you might have responded the way you responded, or why you might have had the interpretation you had.’ “

DBT aims to make the therapist an ally in the client’s treatment rather than an adversary. Using validation as a tool, the therapist builds trust with the client by acknowledging their thoughts and behaviors, but they also point out how changing these thoughts and behaviors can be beneficial. This dynamic can ultimately convince a resistant client to buy into treatment, as Dr. White explains:

“When you’re working with a client in a therapy setting, validation is one of the most important ways to ‘soften’ their attitude and get them in a headspace where they can hear what you’re trying to teach them. If a client comes in and they’re upset, angry or hurt because they’re not feeling validated, either by someone else or by the therapist, the skills work is not going to be effective because they’re not going to be able to hear what the therapist or the skills trainer is saying to them.”

Accepting the Value of Our Disorder

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Even a disorderly and chaotic painting can seem beautiful from the right perspective.

Validation is crucial not only for convincing the client to engage with therapy—it’s also necessary for helping them accept their mental disorder or condition.

Due to the stigma surrounding mental illness, people who have mental health issues may believe something is wrong with them. Therapy models that focus solely on changing behaviors can inadvertently increase feelings of shame and guilt among some clients. “This is why Dr. Linehan created DBT,” Dr. White says. “People were getting the message that they were flawed, because they were being told, ‘Change your thinking, change your behavior, and your life will get better.’ She realized she needed to help them understand that they are the way they are for a reason, and that’s not wrong. They have to be able to accept who they are and why they are that way, otherwise they’re going to spend all their energy fighting it.”

If the therapist validates a client’s experience about their mental health and also helps them reframe these thoughts more positively, they can begin to erode the stigma the client feels. This can counteract feelings of denial or self-pity that prevent clients from making therapeutic progress, ultimately increasing the chances that they will embrace change.

As Dr. White says, “That’s where validation turns to self-validation. When you can remove that layer of worry, shame, embarrassment, or whatever comes with the client’s condition, then you can start to see more effective change.”

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DBT skills training is one of the many services provided by Cummins Behavioral Health Systems. Our licensed therapists can help you with a variety of mental health needs, from psychiatric assessment to substance use treatment and crisis intervention. Please visit our services page to learn all the ways we can help!

Want to learn more coping skills for managing your mental health? Check out a few of our other posts below!

Dr. Ashleigh Woods Explains How—And Why—To Get a Good Night's Sleep
What Do Food Critics Know About Savoring Life?

What Do Food Critics Know About Savoring Life?

On first thought, professional food critics don’t necessarily strike us as experts in mental health. While there’s no denying that eating makes us feel good, this wouldn’t lead us to believe food critics know something about mental wellness that the rest of us don’t.

The average food critic probably doesn’t possess any special knowledge about psychology, but they are exceptionally skilled at the art of savoring. Consider everything they pay attention to when tasting a dish, as summarized by one food blog:

  • The visual appearance of the dish, such as the colors, shapes, and arrangement of the food
  • The smell of the dish, including how many individual aromas can be detected and how enticing they are
  • The complexity and balance of all the flavors present in the dish
  • The texture and temperature of the food, and how these enhance or detract from the eating experience

As you can see, a food critic approaches the task of eating differently than most people. When they eat, they are living entirely in the moment. They’re focused on appreciating every element of their food and getting as much enjoyment from it as possible. In this way, food critics are masters at savoring—a coping skill you can use to increase your own appreciation of life.

Finding More “Spice” in Everyday Life

We’ve all heard the adage that “variety is the spice of life,” and yes, psychological research has shown that people are happiest when they experience a wide variety of positive situations. But we can also increase our enjoyment of things that we do on a daily basis. Just like food critics, savoring helps us detect the “spices” that are already present in the “food” that is our lives.

Savoring is closely related to mindfulness, but it takes the idea of living in the present an extra step. When we savor an experience, we focus our attention on what makes it pleasurable. We pay attention to everything that’s happening in the moment, and then we take the time to relish all the ways it gives us satisfaction.

In his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson refers to a person’s ability to enjoy life as their level of “zestfulness.” Someone who’s high in zestfulness is naturally good at savoring life’s pleasant events. Although people typically operate at their baseline level of zestfulness, Dr. Johnson argues that we can raise our zest for life by practicing the skill of savoring.

So, how can we begin to develop our savoring abilities? It’s not difficult—all you’ll need is a pen and paper.

An Exercise for Increasing Zest

Here’s an exercise that Dr. Johnson recommends to help attune your savoring skills.

First, choose a simple, everyday pleasure that you enjoy. This could be anything you like to do as long as it allows for quiet contemplation. Some examples might be going for a walk, sitting outside on a nice day, reading a book, practicing an art or craft, or eating your favorite meal.

Next, as you are experiencing this pleasant activity or situation, focus your attention on everything that’s happening around you. What sights, sounds, smells and sensations do you notice? Concentrate also on what you’re thinking and feeling. Do you feel content? Relaxed? Amused? Inspired? Grateful? Let your mind linger on the positive sensations and emotions you experience.

After the experience is over, take out a journal or diary and write down what you noticed. Write about your thoughts, feelings and sensations as vividly as possible so that you almost relive them as you write, and notice how you feel while doing so. Does reimagining the experience that you’re savoring make you feel happier?

If we practice savoring and writing about one pleasant experience every day, we’ll find that there are many small things in our lives that we appreciate. Over time, we can increase our zestfulness and enjoyment of life for what it is, not what it could or might be—and we’ll learn a thing or two about how to be a good food critic in the process!

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Looking for more information to help you improve your mood and enjoy life? You might find these posts useful!

Wellness: What It Is and How to Achieve It
Training Ourselves to Be Optimists: Positive Psychology

Why Giving In to Anger Makes Us Dumber

“Anger dwells only in the bosom of fools.” — Albert Einstein

Everyone knows what it’s like to feel angry. Our heart beats faster. Our chest tightens. We become fixated on the person or thing that caused our anger, and we start thinking about how we can get even.

Anger is a natural human reaction to situations that we dislike, but it isn’t a very effective one. If we take a moment to think about the consequences of anger, we’ll realize that it rarely solves whatever problem provoked it. If we become angry about another person’s behavior, it probably won’t result in them changing that behavior. If we become angry about an unfavorable event that befalls us, our anger will do nothing to reverse what has happened.

What’s worse is that anger inhibits our ability to respond to the situation intelligently. Psychological studies have shown that people process information less thoroughly and judge others more harshly when they are angry. This can cause us to behave in ways that only perpetuate anger instead of addressing its cause.

In short, being angry makes us dumb. Fortunately, it’s possible to live without anger if we train our brains to respond to anger-inducing situations differently.

The Function of Anger, Then and Now

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In his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson suggests that anger is closely related to our instinctual “fight or flight” response. Anger is marked by physiological activity that prepares our body to fight off an aggressor, such as the release of adrenaline in our brain and increased blood flow to our muscles.

For our earliest ancestors, Dr. Johnson argues, anger was a useful emotion. It helped them confront or kill animals or other humans who posed a threat to their life. Anger’s natural intensification of “us vs. them” thinking also might have been useful for protecting the tribe during conflict, thereby increasing the individual’s chances of long-term survival.

However, the survival benefits of anger have been rendered mostly obsolete by modern civilization. Physical assault and murder are not acceptable in our society,  nor are they necessary for day-to-day survival. To solve interpersonal disputes today, we must use logic, reason and understanding—which is much harder to do when we feel angry.

So, how can we become better at relying on these higher-level problem solving skills? By changing our thought patterns to weaken anger’s control over us.

Rewiring Our Brains for Calm

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According to Dr. Johnson, anger is caused not only by what happens to us, but also by how we habitually think about these things. For example, if a stranger on the street makes a rude comment toward you, you can view it in one of two ways: as a personal attack on your character or as an outburst that reflects more on the speaker than on you. If you think about the situation in the first way, you are much more likely to become angered by it.

Fortunately, it’s possible to change our way of thinking so we’re less easily angered. The first step is to desensitize ourselves to our environmental “triggers.” Make a list of every situation you can think of that typically makes you angry, and then imagine these situations in your mind. As you picture each one, concentrate on taking slow, deep breaths and relaxing the muscles in your body. With practice, you’ll become much better at controlling your emotions and staying calm when confronted with these anger-inducing situations.

Once we’re desensitized to our anger triggers, we can work on reframing our thoughts about them. If we take some time to think about why we become angry, we’ll discover that it’s usually because we assume the worst intentions. Work on questioning these assumptions. Consider if there could be a positive intention behind the behavior, if there are compensating factors that make it more understandable, or if there might be a hidden benefit that comes out of the situation. In the above scenario, for example, you might consider that the rude person could simply be having a bad day. Alternatively, you might decide that their actions provide you with a good opportunity to practice compassion.

If we work on changing the way we think about situations that anger us, we’ll find in time that anger no longer controls us. This is the best way to help ourselves make smart, effective decisions in anger-inducing situations—instead of ineffective and dumb ones!

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Dr. Ashleigh Woods Explains How—and Why—to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

“The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.” — E. Joseph Cossman, American businessman and author

It’s hard to overstate the good that sleep does for the human body.

Sleep is our natural recovery period, when all of our bodily systems can recuperate and reenergize for continued use. It plays a pivotal role in the functioning of our endocrine and immune systems, and it’s essential for maintaining mood, memory and cognitive performance. Unfortunately, too many of us take for granted the benefits that sleep provides.

The average adult needs at least 7 hours of sleep every 24 hours. However, the CDC reported that 35.2% of all American adults did not meet this threshold in 2014. (In Indiana, rates of insufficient sleep surpassed the national average at 38.0–44.1 percent.) This is a worrying trend, because not getting enough sleep can lead to serious issues for physical and mental health.

To learn more about the connection between sleep and mental health, we spoke with Cummins psychologist Dr. Ashleigh Woods. Below, she explains some of the negative health consequences of chronic sleep deprivation and a few simple things we can all do to improve the quality of our sleep.

Dr. Ashleigh Woods on the Psychological Power of Sleep

Ashleigh Woods, Psy.D., HSPP, holds a degree in Clinical Psychology and is a staff psychologist at Cummins’ Indianapolis office. As part of her work, she helps clients who are struggling with insomnia and other sleep disorders.

“There’s a huge connection between mental health and sleep,” Dr. Woods says. “If you’re not getting enough sleep or good quality sleep, you’ll have a harder time managing your emotions, and you could have trouble focusing or thinking clearly. Let’s face it—everything is harder when you’re not well rested.”

In fact, research has shown that sleep deprivation is closely related with psychiatric disorders such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, schizophrenia and alcoholism. Many people who have these conditions experience difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep, and evidence suggests that chronic sleep deprivation may even contribute to the development of some of these disorders.

However, it’s possible to break the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation and psychological impairment if we make an effort to follow good sleep practices. In many cases, treating a sleep disorder can alleviate the symptoms of co-occurring mental health conditions.

Best Practices for Falling (and Staying) Asleep

So, what can we do to improve our sleep habits? For the average, healthy person, the simplest and most obvious solution is to get enough sleep each night. Most adults need at least 7 hours of sleep every day, but this number could be higher or lower based on your individual physiology. As a general rule, if you don’t feel sleepy during the day, especially when sitting quietly, then you are getting enough sleep.

But what about people who have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep? Fortunately, there are many interventions you can try for better sleep hygiene, as Dr. Woods explains:

“To get a good night’s sleep, be sure to use your bed for only sleep or sex. Reading or watching TV in bed keeps your brain active and makes your body associate your bed with wakefulness. Also be sure to create a good bed time routine to help your body wind down in the evening: limit screen time, use lamps instead of overhead lights, don’t drink caffeine past 2:00 p.m., limit alcohol and cigarette use before bed, and most importantly, add some relaxing activities to your evening, such as taking a warm bath or doing some gentle yoga stretches.”

Relaxation techniques such as autogenic training can also be helpful for falling asleep and promoting deep, restorative sleep. However, autogenic training should be performed with help from a mental health specialist before you try practicing it on your own.

For more tips and suggestions for healthy sleep habits, check out the following resources:

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Training Ourselves to be Optimists: Positive Psychology

“Remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet…Be curious. And however difficult life may seem, there is always something you can do and succeed at. It matters that you don’t just give up.” — Stephen Hawking, American physicist and author

Difficult life circumstances can contribute to mental illness, making hope of recovery seem unlikely. However, growing evidence shows that positive psychological attributes like optimism are associated with a longer and healthier life.

Optimism can be defined as the general expectation that good things will happen, or the belief that the future will be favorable because we can control important outcomes. This positive state of mind allows people in difficult professions to be more resilient when work becomes stressful, and leads to more fulfillment in life. Studies establishing the link between optimism and health beg the question: Is it possible to train ourselves to become optimistic?

Observing Depression in Dogs

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For starters, we know that it’s possible for people and animals to learn pessimism. In India, elephant trainers will tie up a baby elephant and let it struggle for days before it learns it is not strong enough to break the rope. This lesson stays with the animal long after it grows into a hulking adult. A fully grown elephant could easily break the rope and escape, but it never tries to do so.

These kinds of observations inspired formal experiments involving dogs who similarly stopped taking action, even when minimal effort on their part could prevent a painful electric shock. Dr. Martin Seligman was researching the causes of depression and pessimism in humans, and he demonstrated that these dogs had been conditioned to believe they had no hope of avoiding the pain they experienced. 

There was also some good news from these experiments: to Seligman’s surprise, some dogs were not dismayed so easily. As psychologist Dr. Lynn Johnson explains in his book Enjoy Life! Healing with Happiness, “What we learn from Seligman’s brilliant dog experiments is that suffering is separate from pain. We all feel pain. But how much does that pain bother us? How much must we suffer? It depends entirely on our own resiliency.”

Inspired by his findings, Seligman set out to determine what made some dogs more resilient. While we can only speculate about the inner workings of a dog’s mind, when something bad happens in our own lives, humans seek to explain it. Seligman and other researchers have identified three ways that humans do this: by making assumptions about how long pain will last (permanent/transient), whether we are responsible for it (personal/impersonal), and what areas of our life it affects (pervasive/local).

Relearning Optimism

In his book Learned Optimism, Seligman explains how pessimistic explanations lead to passivity and dejection while optimistic explanations lead to action and increased energy. Just as we can learn to view our stress response as helpful, we can learn to maintain positive emotions amidst negative events. However, it takes work. Seligman suggests looking at the link between our beliefs surrounding an adverse event and what we do in response to these beliefs. He argues that becoming aware of this link is the first step in changing our explanatory style.

Optimism fights depression. Seligman defines optimism as having three core tenants: 

  1. Good stuff lasts (bad stuff doesn’t)
  2. Good stuff is caused by me (bad stuff just happens)
  3. Good stuff spreads (bad stuff is isolated)

To practice bringing optimism to the forefront of one’s mind, Seligman recommends his “ABC” journaling exercise. In this exercise, a person records an Adverse event that happened to them, their Beliefs surrounding the event, and the Consequences of their actions based on those beliefs. 

You can try this exercise on your own. Whenever something bad happens to you over the next few days, write it down. These may be as small as, “I missed the bus,” or as large as, “My partner broke up with me.” Next, write down your beliefs about the event. Does it affect your life in the long-run? Is it your fault or someone else’s? Does it affect other areas of your life? Seligman says that activities like this can help us recognize our own reflexive feelings (like those of the shocked dogs) and change our actions in turn—hopefully allowing us to break free of ties that have seemed to bind us.

Cummins Behavioral Health Systems aims to inspire hope of recovery and to help those we serve achieve their goals and aspirations. Of course, self-talk is not the end. Problem solving, negotiating, and asserting yourself are also key to fighting depression. It all begins with these kinds of small steps, best attempted with help from a mental health professional.

Or, as Stephen Hawking once put it: 

“The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole both on the outside and possibly to another universe. So if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up—there’s a way out.”

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