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Communications to Power Mental Health

There’s a superhero origin story in all of us. We’re convinced of it. But it’s not the story you might think — learning how to fly, or figuring out how to lift cars over our heads. No, the real superhero story is the story we each carry in our hearts that reminds us of the first time we learned compassion, the first time we learned how to feel for another human being, and the first time we learned to love unconditionally.

This week, we present Schroeder Stribling, President, and CEO of Mental Health America. She’s with us to talk about mental health, the narrative we’ve written around it as a society, and why it’s time to get serious and teach one another to approach trauma with compassion. Along the way, you’re going to hear Schroeder’s superhero origin story. We hope it triggers something for you that reminds you of your own.

Because we contend that it’s only by reminding one another — and ourselves — of our ability to love that we’ll be able to reduce barriers and increase access to mental health care that is increasingly critical to so many of us. Achieving practical, boots-on-the-ground success in meeting the mental health needs of our peers, colleagues, and strangers alike will require us to believe in our ability to bring change to their lives and our own in so doing.

Schroeder is an incredibly powerful individual and if you have never crossed her path, we’re thrilled to be the show to do it for you today. Our deepest thanks to Schroeder Stribling for her time and friendship.

Episode Transcript

Schroeder Stribling:
When we think about trauma, we really want to open that wide tent with not only inclusivity, but with compassion for whatever people have been through. Understanding that every story is unique, every story is important. And that while we are each unique, in our collectivity we can find commonality. And that’s where there’s power, and that’s where there’s power for change.

Carrie Fox:
Hi there and welcome to the Mission Forward podcast, where each week we bring you a thought-provoking and perspective shifting conversation on the power of communications. I’m Carrie Fox, your host and CEO of Mission Partners, a social impact communications firm and Certified B Corporation. And that was the voice of Schroeder Stribling, President and CEO of Mental Health America, who joined me recently to talk about mental health, the narrative we’ve created as a society around it, and why it is time for a new frame. Schroeder has a compelling personal story and a remarkable spirit. She sees what’s possible and then helps to make that happen. And when it comes to reducing barriers, increasing access, and educating the masses on mental health issues, I can’t think of anyone more inspiring than Schroeder. This is a great conversation with some very real and practical insights relevant at a personal and a professional level. I hope you enjoy it and I will see you on the flip side.
I cannot think of any better way to spend the next little bit of my day than with you, my dear friend. And for those of you who are tuning in today, we have Schroeder Stribling, the President and CEO of Mental Health America. Schroeder is a lifelong social justice advocate who has spent her career leading and supporting organizations of deep purpose, those addressing issues of mental health, of homelessness, poverty, and racial injustice. Prior to joining Mental Health America, which is still a relatively new role for Schroeder, she was the CEO at N Street Village, which is where I got to meet her. And dare I say, fall in love with her, and have been inspired by her clear sense of values as a person and a leader. And I am lucky enough to call also a friend. So Schroeder, as we get into this conversation, I’m going to give some grounding first and then I’m going to turn this over to you.
So as you know, on this season’s show, we are digging into communications as a power skill. And indeed, you and I know it is a power skill, right? As someone who has often been the spokesperson, whether formally or informally, you know the power that a message and a messenger, like yourself, plays in moving a mission forward. But also in advancing equity, and seeing injustices and being able to do something about those injustices. There will be time and space for that in the next part of this conversation. But first, I want you to tell me and the folks listening, how you came to do this deeply meaningful purpose work that you do today.

Schroeder Stribling:
Well, first of all, Carrie, thank you for the introduction to be on this podcast with you. And thank you for your lifelong friendship. I can’t help myself, but start by saying that I too can’t imagine a nicer way to spend the afternoon than with you in conversation. And you have been an inspiration to me. And as a younger person doing purpose driven work, you’ve also been a reminder to me to listen to the future. And I’m really just grateful for our friendship and to know you. So thank you for the question. And you know that I can’t resist the invitation to tell a story, so I’ll tell you a story about how I came to do this work. And the first little thing I want to tell you is really the punchline. So if you’ll indulge me, I’ll go farther than that in story.
So the punchline is a story about when I was a troubled teenager, I was spending an afternoon complaining, I’m sure in very good teenage fashion, to a science teacher who is a mentor of mine. And after she listened to me for a while, she looked at me and she said, “You know, need to go and help someone else.” And after that, I went to volunteer for Special Olympics, and my job was to be a volunteer hugger. Which meant that you stood at the end of these tracks or other events that the athletes were coming off of with your arms open, and they just ran into your arms, and you and hugged each other. And what, of course, I really came to realize is the person being hugged was also me, and that my science teacher was quite right. This was a strong prescription for healing and wellbeing.
So I think back on that lesson, and I understand how relevant it is to the whole course of my life and my career. And I came into my career pathway in a direct line from my own painful experiences, not unlike many other people. A bit of deeper background. I had family experiences that were painful. I had a strained relationship with my biological father, who himself struggled with depression and substance use issues. And he and my mother had divorced when I was quite young. And he came out of the closet, as we used to say, to live in his authentic truth as a gay man.
He was a Methodist minister from a very evangelical family, a long line of preachers. And even as he was able to claim his own truth, he was really racked with shame and guilt, which compounded and exacerbated all of those struggles. So his circumstances and suffering were hard to witness. And he had painful episodes, including going to jail and attempting suicide. And ultimately, he became homeless and died of AIDS at the very young age of 48. And we were close in his final years. And I did my 20 year old best to take care of him as he was dying.
And I know now that there was trauma in all this for me too. And if we think of trauma as anything that overwhelms our age appropriate ability to absorb the emotional shock of an event, there was plenty of that for me. And add to the plot that is a teenager, I was just becoming aware of my own queer identity as well. So I can look back and trace my own struggles with trauma and anxiety to these circumstances. And I have struggled with anxiety throughout my life. I remember vividly the first time I ever had a panic attack, when I was 15 and standing in my father’s apartment. And it was a very frightening moment. And ever since then, anxiety in different shapes and sizes has been a part of my life, sometimes causing a whirlwind of pain and many times staying in abeyance. And I’m very fortunate to have a loving family. And I’ve always had access to the help and resources that I’ve needed that have enabled me to live in my own recovery.
So I think of this purpose work path that I found has really been all about following that punchline, following the advice of my science teacher. I first got active in the AIDS movement in the 1980s, and activism was a balm for many of us, for the anger and sorrow that we were living through at that time. And then I went into social work. First working in inpatient psychiatry in an old, now closed, state hospital in Massachusetts. And then ultimately moving into leadership in social missions. And being of service has been a great driver of healing in my own life. And importantly, over the years, I too have been moved and educated and changed by the stories of others, and have felt commonality with them, and have related to them in some way. And so I think my communication and leadership impulse has been to turn that into a sharing of a sense of commonality, so that we can move together in shared purpose and in shared motivation for social progress and social healing. So that’s how I came to be here.

Carrie Fox:
So not having ever heard the story of your science teacher and your volunteer position to hug at the finish line, so much more makes sense, Schroeder, about how I think about you in an arms wide open kind of approach to really hard problems. And that the empathy you bring to your work is both informed by so much of the experiences of your own life, but also truly this ability to see someone coming towards that finish line. And perhaps they’re struggling along the way or perhaps they’re just, they’re ready to be met and welcomed. And I still remember you saying, at N Street Village, that N Street Village is really good at welcome, really good at hospitality. And that is you, right? That is so deeply you.
I hope that we can touch on one thing that wasn’t in the prompts I gave you to think about, but is really informed by what you said to me on trauma and the role that trauma has played in your life, but your work. We have just started, at Mission Partners, to explore what it looks like to have a trauma informed approach, to formalizing that and actualizing that as we think about communications.
So as you get into how you think about your own work as a communicator, and even thinking about the deep education that you’ve had hasn’t been communication specifically, but it certainly, gosh, seems to translate into how you show up as an effective communicator. So I’m curious how you’ve leaned on communications and how you’ve pulled in some of those elements of trauma informed approach to help move some of these complicated messages forward, that you have over the years.

Schroeder Stribling:
Well, that’s an interesting, I mean, you’re raising an interesting question about focusing on trauma. And one of the things that I’m really curious about these days is our collective understanding of trauma and our collective definition, if you will, of lived experience. I mean, I really have come to believe that trauma is a very pervasive fact of life for most people. I mean, if you take my definition, that it’s anything that overwhelms your age appropriate ability to absorb a shock, which one of us hasn’t had some experience like that to some degree. Some obviously much more significant than others. But it’s fairly universal.
And especially in this moment of collective crisis recovery that we’re in, and when there’s been so much trauma, and so much grief, and so many people in pain, and so much lived experience, I’m really interested in opening a wide tent for people to enter this understanding of lived experience. That they are, back to your point, that their story is welcome here. That your lived experience is welcome here. And when we think about trauma, we really want to open that wide tent with not only inclusivity, but with compassion for whatever people have been through, understanding that every story is unique, every story is important. And that while we are each unique, in our collectivity we can find commonality. And that’s where there’s power, and that’s where there’s power for change.

Carrie Fox:
Yeah. And that’s also, I think, where there’s power for action. That if someone is hearing a message that feels disconnected or inauthentic, it’s not likely that that person is going to be moved to take an action. Whereas if you, as the leader, or I, as the leader, start by saying, “Some days are really hard for me.” Now, I’m speaking from my personal experience. Some days I feel so overwhelmed that I don’t know where I’m going to go next.
And normalizing that, making that an open source of conversation in our business or in our work, how that actually then allows the work to happen at a deeper level. Because we start to see that we all are just doing our best to show up with whatever we bring us into that day. But that there is a difference, certainly, in, I think, how we communicate today versus how we communicated just a few short years ago of what is acceptable, allowable, whatever the words you want to say, appropriate in a workplace. That starting where you are sometimes is the best place to start. But being clear as a communicator and setting that tone feels really important in these days.

Schroeder Stribling:
Very important. And I think you touched on something that has always been true, but perhaps is being highlighted by the moment we’re in, which is that leadership requires us to show up with authenticity, openness, and vulnerability. And that that’s, we are in a changing world, which I actually think is both the bad news and the good news. And I have hope for where we’ll go with this changing world. But you’re right, that it does put a different emphasis on how we communicate and how we welcome connection.

Carrie Fox:
How have these few years changed you as a communicator, Schroeder? As someone who already was so open, and transparent, and arms wide open, what have you found to be really effective in how you communicate, post COVID, post pandemic, or still intra COVID, intra pandemic?

Schroeder Stribling:
Yeah, it’s probably easier in some way, or more sensible from my experience, to tell you about how the past two years have changed. I’ve been changed, in terms of this job change, role change that I’ve made. Because communicating in a social mission as a leader, where I’m really representing the stories of others versus communicating from Mental Health America where the audience and the message and the need for what you’re doing with communication, both in relationship and in the exchange of information, is a different thing. And yet still requires that fundamental openness and authenticity, if not moreso than ever. In part because I’m no longer the vessel or the vehicle for the stories of others. Here, my story will matter too. And leading with openness and authenticity about my story matters, and that’s a change for me. So I’m getting used to it.
I really learned so many powerful lessons, so many powerful lessons about communicating when I was at N Street Village, where I felt privileged to be just a member of the community. I mean, I had a job there, I was the CEO, but mostly I was a member of a community. And that was just such a gift. And I learned so much from so many people there. And one of the things I learned there was that sometimes being an effective messenger is actually about getting out of the way, and setting the stage in the right conditions for someone else to carry the message. So for instance, when, you know this, that I quickly learned at N Street Village that when I would be giving a tour to say a major funder, which was a pretty common experience, my job was to get out of the way because the community belonged to the women that lived there and the women that were being served with what N Street Village had to offer.
So I would be the sidekick to one of the residents who would give a first person, direct account of their experience. And it was a joy to watch. And one of my favorite moments is, when I was giving a tour, and Cheryl, who was one of our residents… We were being visited by Valerie Jarrett during the Obama administration, and it was a wonderful moment. And I was, Cheryl Barnes was taking Valerie on a tour, and I was long as her sidekick, and it was just the three of us. And we wound up sitting upstairs in one of the recovery housing living rooms for a personal chat for a minute.
And Cheryl, who was, herself, just a fount of hospitality, was telling Valerie all about N Street Village, and telling her how she was so glad to meet her, and she was so glad to meet the many people who came to visit N Street Village. And that what she had learned, said Cheryl to Valerie, is that there a lot of people who have big jobs and big titles, but at the end of the day, they’re just people just like her. It was a beautiful moment. And Valerie met the moment with equal grace, I have to say.

Carrie Fox:
I love that story. And there was something that you said as you were sharing it about how every story matters. Your story matters. And now in the new role that you have, how your story is showing up a little more presently to support the advancement of the mission, and, dare I say, and I’ll be curious how you discuss this, but a mental health crisis that we are in and how we navigate through it. How we understand it. And why your story matters in that way, right now so much. How do you think about the time that we’re in?

Schroeder Stribling:
I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re in a crisis, a national crisis. And that mental health is a big part of it, and that our mental health is a big part of it. I believe, in some ways, that… However, this is a maybe contrarian view, slightly. Maybe not to the field. But we’re not going to therapy our way out of this crisis, nor do I think we should. I don’t believe that everyone who is struggling needs to find a therapist. And I know some do, and we have a workforce shortage, and those are real issues. So I don’t want to belittle those.
But I also think we’re in a crisis of this national soul in some way. And we need to understand how, first of all, what it is that we do to promote our wellbeing in the first place. How do we build resilience in ourselves, in our communities, in our families? How do we build networks of communal help and support that assist us from getting into an even deeper, deeper crisis?
Back to your point, however, about why my story matters, and what to do with it here, this is really a new workout for me at Mental Health America. And I will be honest in saying that I’m just getting used to it. There are new audiences, new standard ways of communicating. The world of policy and research has a language of its own, and conversation that I’m just getting familiarized with. But my gut tells me that my leadership communication has to start from a place of my own personal authenticity and vulnerability. Not at all because it’s about me, but because it’s an opportunity to swing the door wide open to freedom from stigma and shame for everyone.
We all have a mental health story just as we all have health stories. The time we broke our wrist. The time we got COVID or a cancer diagnosis. None of us will move through our lifetime without some experience of our physical health and some experience of our mental health. And when we say health, we really ought to mean health. So one of the language issues I worry about is that we use the term mental health as if it were something that only encompassed bad experiences. Whereas it composed to health, whereas we understand our health can be sometimes positive and sometimes not so good. Same is true with mental health. And when we say the word health, I think we ought to mean it. So I’m interested in using, finding alternatives like mental ill health and we’re feeling ill.

Carrie Fox:
I appreciate that a lot. Because I’m thinking back to some work I did a few years ago with a group called the Youth Mental Health Network, and they talked about how we all have physical health just as we all have mental health, and just as you need to exercise your body, you need to exercise your mind to keep those things strong and healthy. But what I’m realizing now, reflecting on that work and listening to you, is that there wasn’t an understanding for how you talk about mental health when it’s not healthy, when it’s not strong.

Schroeder Stribling:
Right.

Carrie Fox:
Right. You can say, as you’ve just said, I have a broken wrist. I have a headache. There’s an understanding of the language that we use to explain when we are not physically feeling well. But is there a limitation or a gap in how we presently talk about when we are experiencing mental ill health? And I love that phrase that you’ve just used.

Schroeder Stribling:
Yeah, I think you’ve just named it. I think that’s absolutely true. That we need to, if we are going to really integrate our concepts here, if we are going to believe that mental health is health, which is true, then we need to meld this idea that when we say the word health, that’s what we’re talking about. And so when we are ill physically, when we’re ill mentally, that’s different than when we’re mentally healthy or when we’re physically healthy, or we’re feel feeling mentally strong or mentally fit, or physically strong or physically fit.

Carrie Fox:
That, to me, feels like it could be a game changer in so many ways. In how we individually manage, through the time, to have the, coming from a pure communication standpoint, having the language and the lexicon to explain and understand how we’re feeling. It’s such an important part of then, going back to what you said a few moments ago, being able then to do something about it, to take action, to engage in community conversation, to understand what those steps are. It’s one step to remove or reduce stigma. It’s another step to understand what’s next.

Schroeder Stribling:
Yes, I think that’s really true. I also think that if we made the collective cognitive shift to really understanding that mental health is health, that it would become obvious that we need to take a public health approach just as we do with physical health. That we need to focus on prevention. That just as we have made such strides to the point where kids know to eat their fruits and veggies, or other preventive health measures that have been positive. What are the parallels for mental health? What are the public health measures that we would also take? What is it that we want to know? What are the skills for success in interpersonal relationships and emotional self-regulation that we want to promote to grow healthy individuals? I think it would be obvious to us that we needed to think in those public health ways.

Carrie Fox:
I’d be remiss if I don’t say that Mission Partners is a Mental Health America Bell Seal winner for our commitment to mental health. And as I listen to you, and reflect back on what that process was like for us, as a company, to go through that process. How much of the framework that Mental Health America has created to support organizations like mine, but also individuals, in developing a practice around mental health, having some of that structure and framework and questions that we can ask. How are we… If any business listening right now, any business owner or leader is saying that they have a commitment to mental health, what is that actually looking like in the workplace? So all of the different ways that individuals and organizations can support this collective shift. It requires all of us to play a role in getting there.

Schroeder Stribling:
And first of all, I would be remiss in not congratulating Mission Partners for being a Bell Seal awardee. I was really thrilled about that. I’m so glad you’re doing that. And I’m so glad for the many businesses that have come on board to seek the Bell Seal Award, and to commit to mentally healthy workplaces. I mean, this is one way that we reach people, first of all, at population scale. If we’re working through the workforce where so many people are touched, where we spend so much of our time and our days, and where our relationships are so important. So to have organizations and companies taking this seriously, and taking this on, and understanding what it means to be a mentally healthy workplace, whether that’s anything from visual cues in the environment that signal that… You know how we used to have the visual cues for this is a welcoming space for LGBTQ.

Carrie Fox:
Yes.

Schroeder Stribling:
Whatever it is that we do with the environment to our conversations. A lot of our research says that the person to whom someone directly reports, if that person is open about mental health, if that person is open to conversations, maybe invites a conversation, or is open about their personal experience, that really matters to people.
So the benefits matter as well, certainly. Offering mental health days, why wouldn’t we have mental health days? I mean, if our body is sick, mental health is health, if our body’s sick, if our emotions are sick that day, then we need a day off for restoration and recovery. That’s important in the way that we support ourselves in our workplace. To other policy issues, the policy issues on our end for the workforce, they’re operational issues, like making sure that your mental health, your insurance is actually working for people who are seeking mental health services. You’re buying insurance for a lot of people. Is that network adequate? Are there enough therapists on the rolls? Are your employees, who seek mental healthcare through what the package that you’re purchasing, able to get the services they need in a timely fashion? All of that stuff really matters. And I am inspired to see how many workplaces are really, really taking this on.

Carrie Fox:
Well, I think, as we come to the end already, I’ve got one more question for you, but I do want to go back to where we started first. Which is we talked about that great story you shared about your arms wide open giving hugs, and then moved into you talking about how important your story is, in this moment, now as the leader of Mental Health America. And that really feels like an important point to hold on to, in that addressing issues of mental health and mental illness really do require the top of an organization to play a role in making that change.
There are certain issues and movements that really have been ground up right, from grassroots to grass tops. But this one is, it really requires the leader of the organization to set the tone, to open arms wide open for how we think about setting up a workplace and supporting individuals in their physical and mental wellbeing. And certainly you being, now, at the helm of Mental Health America gives us a lot to look forward to, for what is possible in this big tent that you previewed at the top. How we can all be in that big tent, with you, in this vision for what the future can look like.

Schroeder Stribling:
No, I was just going to just really relate to that and say that Mental Health America was founded by a leader with lived experience in 1909. A man named Clifford Beers who had been in an old psychiatric state hospital, and suffered all of the inhumane treatment that one would in 1909. And then what made it, found a strong recovery for himself, and found a purpose and passion around the issue of deinstitutionalization. And that is our origin story. So we have been led by lived experience from the beginning at Mental Health America, and it continues to be something that we think is enormously important. Again, not because it’s about the leader, but because it’s about opening the tent.

Carrie Fox:
We all have mental health. We all have lived experience. And that’s the other piece I will really take away from you today, that everyone’s lived experience matters.

Schroeder Stribling:
Yes, indeed.

Carrie Fox:
Parting thoughts, Schroeder, what has you feeling hopeful about the future?

Schroeder Stribling:
Well, I think I was hinting at it just a moment ago. Which is that in this time, and I want to go back and say, to your question, that I don’t think I was emphatic enough in saying that we are in a crisis. And our mental wellbeing is an issue, is a part of that crisis. We are not in a mentally healthy place collectively. I know it’s different for everyone, but collectively we are in need of recovery from crisis.
But the crisis is big, of the last couple of years. It’s not just the pandemic, civil uprisings, mass shootings, the new reckoning with racial justice. The depths of despair have skyrocketed. A lot is changing. There’s seismic change in our world. And I think that is both the bad news and the good news. I think it’s an enormously painful time, but if we navigate through it well, which will require us to find those points of connections and relatability and connectivity, another reason to open the tent and open ourselves to one another, if we navigate well, stigma will lessen as is happening. And we will be forced to innovate. We’ll be forced to make a new story for ourselves. And I think that is the good news.
And back to my point about watching you, as a young person, and what you’ve been able to do for purpose and social good in the world, and watching my children, it is a reminder to look to the young people and look to the future for new ideas. And be willing to follow them. Be ready to follow them.

Carrie Fox:
Yeah. Well, I will be happy to be called a young person any day. Many days I do not feel like one.

Schroeder Stribling:
We’re both older now, I realize.

Carrie Fox:
But that I appreciate. And you know what, in terms of the hopefulness and the pain that so many of us are experiencing in many, many different ways right now, there can be joy on the other side of that pain. And that’s also what I hear, and always remember, when I listen to you.

Schroeder Stribling:
Not only can there be joy, there can be joy, there is, recovery is absolutely possible for every single person who seeks it. And there is, yes, there’s joy. And there is hope.

Carrie Fox:
With that, Schroeder, thank you so much. What an honor to talk with you today, and always so wonderful to be in your company.

Schroeder Stribling:
Likewise, my friend, likewise.

Carrie Fox:
And already that brings us to the end of another episode of Mission Forward. Thanks for tuning in today. If you are stewing on what we discussed here today, or if you heard something that’s going to stick with you, drop me a line at [email protected] and let me know what’s got you thinking. And if you have thoughts for where we should go in future shows, I would love to hear that too. Mission Forward is produced with the support of Sadie Lockhart in association with TruStory FM. Engineering by Pete Wright. If your podcast app allows for ratings and reviews, I hope you will consider doing just that for this show. But the best thing you can do to support Mission Forward is simply share the show with a friend or colleague. Thanks for your support, and we’ll see you next time.

This season, we are taking you on a journey to meet ten people influencing and shaping how we communicate at scale for social change. From advertising executives to coalition directors, news editors, campaign managers, and authors, they're all people who are shaping and challenging the deep power of communication. If you’re working to become a more inclusive and thoughtful communicator, there’s nothing holding you back—except you.

Carrie Fox

Carrie Fox is the founder and CEO of Mission Partners, a woman-owned strategic communications firm and Certified B Corporation that guides high-potential nonprofits, foundations, and socially responsible corporations in realizing their greatest social impact. Since launching her first firm in 2004, she has guided hundreds of organizations around the world to lead with purpose, fueling organizations and their missions forward in new and more impactful ways.