Talking Mental Health with Dr. Jess

Psychiatrist Dr. Jessica Clemons spent years answering Instagram's questions about mental health. Now her Audible Original, ‘Be Well,’ acts as a resource and a guide for anyone looking for answers.

Note: Text has been edited and does not match audio exactly.

Rachael Xerri: I'm Audible Editor Rachael Xerri and today I'm speaking with Dr. Jessica Clemons, or "Dr. Jess" as she's known to all of her fans. Today we're going to talk about her Audible Original, Be Well. Dr. Jess is a board-certified psychiatrist who has recently been recognized by Forbes as a leader in mental health and wellness. Dr. Jess, welcome. I'm so excited to speak with you.

Dr. Jessica Clemons: Thank you so much for having me. I'm also excited to be in conversation with you today.

RX: So my first question for you is, what made you want to write this Audible Original now?

JC: I have to go back to the beginning of when I headed over to social media. So before Instagram became this really popular app, which it really is now—and there's a lot of resources available for people to learn about their mental health—but when I was using it, it really wasn't. And I found that I would share my story like a lot of people do on social media. They share their lives, they share the kind of work they do. At the time, I was a medical student and then resident in psychiatry. People were curious about not only what I did but what was going on with their mental health. And so out of that it just created this sort of need for people to have their questions about "Is this anxiety? Is this depression?" answered, and people trusted me to share that. I would use social media as a way to answer those questions and really connect.

But soon, it became overwhelming, right? People are asking all kinds of questions. And then I had this opportunity with Audible to create something that people can go to even when they're not able to get in touch with me right away, as a resource and a guide. So it's really the community of followers I had on social media, and still have, that inspired this book, and their questions and their eagerness to really understand what's going on in their lives and also to seek treatment. That inspired it.

RX: One of the many things that resonated with me about Be Well is that you also talk about your own experience of having anxiety, which is something that affects so many of us, myself included. How has your own experience with your mental health informed your work?

JC: One of the things that, hopefully, people will learn when they listen to Be Well is that anxiety is a very common mental health condition. In fact, it's one of the most common, and so that means it can affect anyone at any time in their life. I found that it really affected me during medical school. It was a time when the stakes were high, the pressure was on. There was an unrelenting need to perform and push myself to limits that I hadn't really pushed myself to before. And that's when I started to experience what I will talk about in this Audible Original, which is panic. It was occurring in settings that were otherwise relaxing, like I'm hanging out with my friends and my husband—we were dating at the time—and all of the sudden I felt my heart beating through my chest, and that wasn't normal, but I also, because of my medical background, knew that it wasn't really something wrong with my heart. There was something else going on.

"One in five US adults has a mental health condition or mental illness."

And so I think sharing that experience publicly not only has given me the space to acknowledge it and talk freely about it, but it's helped others along the way as well to recognize their own symptoms but also to see that you can be high achieving and have something like this occur. So in terms of how it informs my care, it allows me to really be able to understand when I'm sitting across from someone in-office what it is that they're experiencing—to be able to validate their feelings, to be able to acknowledge, maybe, the part of them that may be a little reluctant to say that this is anxiety.

I don't necessarily tell people "I've had anxiety too" in-office. I certainly don't do that. But I think I can speak to it. I can help the person to put a voice to that part of them. And I'll do that. I'll say, "Listen, I know that there might be a piece of you that feels like this can't be true." And then I'll normalize it with the data, with the fact that it is very common, and it's treatable, and we can get you back to where you were before, or even better if we can get this treatment going. So I think it just puts me in a place to really be able to relate to patients, but also to help them feel comfortable as they go through this journey. Because it is a journey that we're all in, particularly with mental health treatment.

RX: Thank you for sharing your experience and I think this is a great segue into this next question, which is, your book tackles mental health stigma, including anxiety and depression, but also around even what I would think of as even more stigmatized diagnoses such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and addiction, just to name a few. As someone who's had close relatives and loved ones with some of these diagnoses, I was really moved by how clearly you address the signs, symptoms, and treatment options, and I think it may be the first time I've listened to a book that made me feel like those diagnoses didn't have to be embarrassing or shameful. That's just speaking from my own experience. So my question for you is, did you know you were going to have that effect on your listeners when you set out to write Be Well?

JC: First of all, I'm very moved by your sharing, your experience and again, it really... It makes me feel good, knowing that this is the goal that I had in mind. And, you know, no, it wasn't. It wasn't something that I think I thought a lot about in terms of just... I didn't write this with the goal of, let's make this feel normal. I really tried to speak from a place of understanding the human condition and we're all vulnerable, and we can, at any moment, experience big change, and that can be big change like developing a mental health condition. I talk about examples, and they're composite stories of people who are living this every single day.

I tried to give that life, because we all really are sitting next to or engaging with people who, if they haven't gone through a mental health condition or had a diagnosis or had an experience, there's certainly someone in their family, right? One in five US adults has a mental health condition or mental illness. And in 2019, in fact, we actually saw a greater number in young people, 18–25. That generation is hopefully going to grow up with more comfort talking about their mental health. So it wasn't the intent, but I'm certainly glad to hear that that's what people are hopefully going to take away when they listen to this audiobook.

RX: Wow. One in five. That is so compelling to know that there are so many people out there who are struggling with maybe having a loved one who is struggling with mental health. What advice would you give to family members or caretakers whose loved ones might be struggling with mental illness?

JC: I think that we, first of all, have to be able to acknowledge as caregivers, as loved ones, that even though you yourself may not be in the throes of an active mental health condition, if you're certainly around someone who is or you're responsible for caring for them, it can have an impact on you as well. So a lot of what I tell people regardless of if they're experiencing a mental health condition or not, is that it's all about making sure that you prioritize caring for yourself. And that means doing things like the wellness stuff: eating well, getting enough rest, exercise. That's going to give people enough to sustain when things are stressful. I would say that's a priority.

And then secondly, I would say my hope is that if you're listening to this audiobook that you take away learning a bit about what it is that your loved one is going through. So educating yourself about what the mental health condition is, right? Knowing some of the details about it. Knowing a bit about what their treatment is like, and what that's going to do is help you to be able to understand some of the signs and recognize when it might be time to encourage them to talk more about something in particular with their therapist or psychiatrist or when it's time to maybe up the stakes a bit and encourage them to get help right away.

"When people listen to this audiobook, I feel like they're really listening to me share what I've learned and what I do in my practice as a psychiatrist."

What I really focus on is empathy. It's going to allow you to understand when it's difficult for them, and maybe you'll be able to develop skills to not react in an angry way if they're not behaving in the way that you like. Let's say their anxiety is making you frustrated because you can't cope with some of the things they're saying, but when you develop that empathy, the ability to put yourself in their shoes, my hope is that it will allow you to understand and help support them. It's all about taking care of yourself, but then arming yourself with the information you need to be able to support them.

RX: There have also been a number of celebrities who have spoken very openly about their mental health struggles, and you talk a bit about that in your book. How do you think the media and the internet have impacted conversations about mental health?

JC: One of the things that has been really great about social media is that it allows people to find a community. Prior to social media being this place where everyone goes, people would look for support groups, right? They would look for groups that maybe they could go to and find folks who had similar experiences or could relate to what they were going through. And that's not always easy to find. I still encourage people to look for support groups. But what social media and the media have done when people come forward and talk about their mental health condition is it's given people an example, and it's given people a community of other folks who they can recognize that, "You know what, they've gone through this as well."

A lot of what I would do in real life, when we could certainly engage in person more freely, is I would have interviews with different celebrities with this goal. I want people to see it's normal. You can still achieve a goal that you have. But sometimes it does take seeing really prominent or high-profile people so that people can start to feel normal, and it normalizes the experience so that they can talk about it and seek treatment. So I think social media and the media's particularly elevating this conversation has been really powerful, and I do think it's played a role in more people opening up about what they're going through.

RX: Speaking of celebrities and social media, you've gained quite a following online, and I can see why. I think you have such a soothing voice. Had anyone ever told you that you should be a voice actor or get into narration before you narrated Be Well?

JC: No. I have not had that come up, but it was so much fun to be able to narrate the words that I wrote. I think it was a fun experience, but, no, it hasn't come up before. 

RX: I'm glad to hear that you had fun narrating. What was the process like for you, narrating your own work?

JC: I was fortunate enough to have a director, and she and I got to speak a bit when I went into the studio and recorded. What was really nice was I could tell her a little bit about myself and the language and sort of preferred style, and so I think she was able to really understand that. Then when I went into the recording studio, I felt like a music artist. I was in the studio and had the headphones on and the engineer was there replaying my words. That was exciting.

But I loved that the director was able to comment on things in a way that helped me feel like the language was true to myself. And so when people listen to this audiobook, I feel like they're really listening to me share what I've learned and what I do in my practice as a psychiatrist. It feels very authentic and that was very important to me: that people will hear my words and my advice in an authentic way. It's something I would love to do again. Absolutely.

RX: There was so much information in Be Well. You covered such a broad range of topics. But was there anything else that you wanted to talk about that you feel you didn't get to?

JC: You know, with the pandemic there are certainly more areas that I want to be able to focus in on talking about—really the impact of stress that people are under, particularly with both the sort of chaos that people are experiencing right now in the world and also the uncertainty. And then the fact that people's lives have really shifted over from being able to move about freely to now thinking a lot about what's next. Obviously I wish I could've spent more time on that. We cover some of it, but this audiobook was written well before and recorded during this time. But I wish I can focus more on that.

The other piece that I hope that maybe I could talk more about, maybe in a follow-up to this, is more about social media. I've been recognized as sort of using it in this way, and I spoke to this earlier, that more people are using social media, more psychiatrists and therapists, and it's really grown, and I think it's because of work that I've done and other folks like me. But we also know there's a negative side to social media, and so I want to be able to spend more time with that. We touch on that in this audiobook, but certainly there's so much more that we have to uncover, because young people are really experiencing a rise in mental health conditions and some negative outcomes, and I think social media might be impacting or affecting those numbers.

RX: With that in mind, where do you hope the conversation about mental health goes in the future? Are you hopeful for the future of mental health care?

JC: I am. I'm very much hopeful. Who would've thought that we would be talking about mental health so openly and freely? I have to remind myself that this was just a few years of this kind of work and it's already, I think, caused big changes in how we talk about mental health. And it's not just me. There are many people who are advocating and who have been advocating well before this. But social media just really took it off with how widespread these conversations can occur.

My hope is that the conversations shift from the challenges within individuals, like stigma or not going to see psychiatrists or therapists, to where people can go. And that's a lot of what I spend time on now these days when I'm talking about mental health, is how to shift these conversations to, "Now that you're interested, where can you get care?" And also, there are a lot of people who are interested in this line of work, and so I'm also advocating and encouraging people who come from underrepresented groups—women, people of color—you can become a therapist, and there are people who are looking for therapists that come from diverse backgrounds. I'm hoping more conversations will shift to that. Absolutely, it's time.

RX: Dr. Jess, thank you so much for speaking with me today. For anyone listening in, you can find Be Well by Dr. Jessica Clemons on Audible.

JC: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

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