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Building Better Mental Health

We recently interviewed Dr. Laura Bryan, EAP Director with McLaughlin Young Group, which offers AgChoice’s Member Assistance Program. Dr. Bryan discussed Building Better Mental Health, sharing her perspectives on the impacts of the pandemic and offering strategies to encourage good mental health.





We often hear about the importance of mental health but might not be sure what it entails. Help our listeners understand what it means when we talk about mental health and why is good mental health important?

Your mental health covers a lot of different parts of you. It includes your feelings, your thoughts, and your behaviors. It's just a lot of what makes you, and that's why it's important to take care of your mental health.

It's what most people notice when their mental health is suffering. You might say or think to yourself, I just don't feel like me, or I don't understand why I'm thinking or feeling or acting this way. Or sometimes it's other people who are close to you might say, you don't seem like yourself, or you've really changed.

Good mental health is important because it helps you become the person you want to be, or at least making strides in that direction. Without good mental health, that journey is really sabotaged.

So if you think about taking care of your mental health, just like you do caring for your physical health, or at least you know you should take care of your physical health. Just like with physical health, it's not really a one and done thing. It's a process, it's a lifelong endeavor. And just like with physical health, it is easier to manage and to improve if you catch problems early.

Mental health means taking care of yourself. For example, being aware of what you take in. Like, are you imbibing toxic messages that other people give you or maybe that you're giving yourself, or are you exposing yourself constantly to sad news and bad news?

It means getting enough positivity in your life. For example, being around people who really know you and who appreciate you and validate you. Are you taking in messages of gratitude and perseverance? It means seeing things as they are. You don't always have to be fine, but also still having those dreams about what could be.

It means doing things that are good for you, even when you don't feel like it. For example, pushing yourself to go out with friends and be social, or for some people it's going to mean not filling your life with constantly being busy. Now, while we're talking about mental self-care, I would also encourage you to think about your physical health as well, because mental and physical health are inextricably linked and they really affect each other. So let's say you regularly eat a lot of junk food, which then leads to negative thoughts about yourself. And then those thoughts lead to feelings that then lead to cravings for more salt and fat. So if you find yourself in a cycle like that, it's important that you talk to friends or a doctor or a therapist about how to change that cycle to use it to your advantage. So for example, regular exercise helps improve your mood and being in a positive mood makes it more likely that you'll exercise.

Dr. Bryan, I think it’s fair to say that all of us have been through a lot over the last year and a half. Could you share any information about trends on mental health throughout the pandemic? More specifically, have you seen any changes recently as we now seem to be through the worst of the pandemic?

I hope you're right about that being through the worst of it, for sure. And I know it's been said repeatedly, but it is important to really keep in mind that none of us have ever experienced anything like this pandemic. So do not expect yourself to do this well. An event that negatively affects the entire population, albeit in different ways and to varying extremes, but everybody's been affected for such an extended period of time. This is known to us. And if there is one thing human beings as a species don't like, it is the unknown. We like the predictable, and we like to feel like we're in control and this pandemic, plus all the societal and political unrest, has really challenged those preferences. And so understandably, we've responded in ways that aren't always helpful.

Some of us isolate, separate ourselves from other people, and that whole mandated social distancing thing did not help that tendency. Some people, to cope, turn to substances. And some people lash out. Mental health surveys have repeatedly shown that anxiety and depression are at levels we have never seen before. People are calling our services more than ever before for issues like stress and anxiety and depression, as well as concerns about their relationships and their children. This remote schooling and social distancing have been especially hard on children who are some of the most powerless members of our society. People are angry and they're tired and they are at the end of their rope. But on the positive side, especially as restrictions lifted and more people got vaccinated and the COVID numbers really started going down, we became hopeful that the worst was over. Plus of course the weather got warmer and we were able to get out and to be with each other.

I think that having that space to take up rest may made us realize how tired we are. We were pushing and pushing and pushing and all of a sudden it was like, wow, we've been doing this for a long time.

My hope, and I think it is possible, is that people will be able to continue moving forward to finding positives where they can and taking care of themselves when things are tough. But the message I really want to send right now is I want everybody to know that whether things go up or down and they will, because that's life, you don't have to go through it alone. That's a big part of the reason for the MAP, Membership Assistance Program.

What practical tips do you recommend to our listeners to combat negative thoughts and encourage good mental health?

I really do appreciate this question and I want to preface it by saying the things I'm going to say sound very simple. And I just want you to know, I understand that there's the saying of it and then there's the doing of it and it's the doing of it that's actually harder. But by the same token, this is not rocket science, right? A lot of it is intuitively you already knew this, you understand this, and maybe it's just that extra push that you need. So that's where the MAP might be helpful too.

But this idea about combating negative thoughts is actually a really good place to start. Trying to notice your negative thoughts, particularly those that you have about yourself, for example, you might think I should never lose my temper with my spouse, or I sound like an idiot when I speak up in meetings. Words like “should”, “always”, and “idiot”, are strong indicators that you are talking negatively to yourself, but when you notice those thoughts, tell yourself to stop. You might even say it out loud, say something like stop calling yourself an idiot, and then check in with yourself and try to reflect on how you're feeling, what's bubbling up inside you or what just happened around you to bring up that thought. And I'm going to talk in a minute about what to do next, after you do that reflection and thought that thought. But first I want to point out that in order for this to work for you, you have to be aware of your negative messages. That can be really hard to do for yourself. You might have heard it so much that you don't even realize you're doing it.

You might need somebody that you trust to tell you the truth. Ask yourself if you have people, or at least one person, that you can count on to do that. Sometimes it's actually easier to do it with somebody that you don't know well. You can hear things, for example, from a therapist, that you just can't hear from your friend or your partner. So after you identify and challenge the negative thought, replace that thought with one of gratitude. To pull yourself out of a negative spiral, you might focus on how grateful you are for your spouse or that you're thankful that you have coworkers who will bail you out if you get into a tailspin in anything. Focusing on gratitude helps refocus your attention on what you do have. So that's not only a decrease of the negative, but focusing on the positive makes you feel more able to then tackle the negative. And that creates a positive cycle.

I also encourage people to look into mindfulness, which is the most recent fad of the day. I know it can seem intimidating or far-fetched at first, but when you get to looking into it, it's again, not really all that complicated. It's the doing of it that's really where it all happened. It's just basically a way to keep yourself focused and not so subject to the winds of change, which these days we know would have been particularly strong and kind of dirty.

Mindfulness involves focusing on your breathing, which is handy as a prop, because you always have it with you, you can't leave your breath out. But when we're anxious or upset, we tend to breathe shallowly, which sends a message, a signal to our bodies that we're under threat. Remember our bodies and our minds are inextricably linked. So if you can breathe more deeply and more slowly, even for a minute or two, you can start sending signals of safety and confidence to your body. And it doesn't fix anything, I understand that, but it does make you more able to think clearly and not be as reactive.

As we conclude, are there any other thoughts you would like to share with our listeners?

I do. I just have a couple of things I want to say about asking for help. I understand for some people, that is really going to be the big hurdle, that admitting that you're having problems with your mental health means that you're crazy or something's broken about you or something's wrong with you, or that you're weak. And I hope what you've heard from me today is that especially right now, many people experienced mental health issues from anxiety and depression to relationship issues and parenting concerns. So remember, it is anything that has to do with your thoughts and your feelings and your actions, and the sooner that you address those issues, the more likely it is that you're going to have a good outcome and be able to get back to you more quickly. It actually takes more strength to reach out. Stuffing and ignoring is what doesn't solve anything, and indeed, often makes things worse.

A colleague once said to me, feelings buried alive never die. And I have certainly found that to be true, personally and professionally. So if you think you might try therapy, the membership assistance program is actually a great, really low barrier way to test things out. For one thing, there's no cost and we help you get connected to a licensed mental health professional. We do all the research for you. And I know you're going to be talking about the Membership Assistance Program in a minute, so I won't go into it much more. I just want to remind people about what I said earlier about it taking a lot of strength and integrity to reach out for help, and that it's better to do it sooner than later.

About AgChoice’s Member Assistance Program:

The Member Assistance Program (MAP) is available for customers and their families 24/7, 365 where a licensed, experienced clinician will help assess issues over the phone. Referrals can be made to local providers who offer sessions in-person or virtual. Reasons to use the MAP include concerns related to marriage, parenting, stress, depression, work, alcohol, drug use, abuse and grief or as a preventative measure. Online resources are also available for legal services, financial services, seminars, relocation center and a searchable database for providers. To get started using the Member Assistance Program, visit

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