Journalist Denise Brodey Has Been Working to Destigmatize Disability and Mental Health for Years. Now She’s Educating Others On Neurodiversity.

Name: Denise Brodey
Role: Founder, Rebel Talent, multimedia health journalist @Forbes, @psycom, @medshadow, @webmd 
Based in: Brookline (Boston), MASS
Age: 53
  • writer, editor, producer, author, and conveyer of healthy, helpful information
  • proud ADHD-er. I consider myself to be quirky—and I see that as a plus. 
  • honest person who tries to be as open minded as possible. If friends or family talk with me about their feelings, positive or negative, I respect and take seriously what they have to say, even if it’s tough to hear. 
  • mentor to neurodiverse people. I am proud to help others feel confident, get work and be successful every day. The older I get the more I value the kindness of others.
  • shoe-lover, sweet tooth, nerd, massive reader and dog-obsessed human and East Coaster

What are some mental health tips you can share with us that you actively lean on during the week to take care of yourself?

Make a list of jobs that will bring in money and jobs that are future possibilities. Create times on your calendar for both.

Stop watching television—it can lead you to mindless hours of wasted time. Listen to a quick news podcast (I listen to NPR, but focus on whatever you find gives you quick updates in a manner that you like.) For entertainment, find a series you’d like and watch. Watch 1 or 2 episodes at a time and you only eat up an hour—but feel refreshed or sufficiently entertained afterward. 

Or find a podcast series to listen to when you’re cleaning up or driving. If you choose a topic you like, you’ll be ‘doing business’ or ‘learning something new’ just by listening. 

You write a lot of professional content about mental health. At what point in your life did you begin taking on a more public role in advocating for people living with mental health and learning disability differences? What compelled you?

When my son was a pre-teen I realized that it was unfair to write about him—and it was his story to tell. Instead, I focused on my own story and wrote about myself on Medium first. I worried about the story before I posted it and then realized only about 30 strangers would read it. Find a place to write where you don’t do business and it’s easier to be real and confront your demons in a way that helps others. That place for me was not LinkedIn or Twitter or Facebook; it was Medium.

What are your thoughts on the words, wellness, wellbeing, and intersectionality? Terms liberally used, they’ve developed whole systems of meanings of their own, and some have begun to associate these terms negatively.  

Both of my adult children have taught me a lot about intersectionality—from what they learned in college and from their peers. My simple view may not meet everyone’s standards, but I can boil it down to this: people are complex, never assume anything about a person’s thoughts, experiences, feelings, gender and so on. For me, intersectionality means respecting that people are complex and seeing them as they want to be seen.  

I always want to call people what they want to be called, treat them with respect; and as a writer, I appreciate that language is changing and evolving. Wellness to me is an umbrella term used often in my experience in business settings. It’s an easy way to encapsulate all the things you may not want to or be able to talk about in depth comfortably, such as mental illness, chronic pain, creating a mind-body connection, having time for self-care… It’s not my favorite word but it does the job in a lot of situations. 

Neurodiversity references variability–differences in thought, expression, behavior, or processing, occurring from neurological and structural differences of the brain, and between 30-40% of the population is thought to be neurodiverse. When accommodating or responding to people struggling with mental health, a mental health disorder or acute mental illness, it’s really just a matter of accommodating people with more variability in their neurological makeup (e.g. Entrepreneur Tim Ferriss has talked about having bipolar depression, artists Mark Rothko and Paul Cézanne both had depression, and composer Philip Glass is not neurotypical). What is the biggest reason for why there exists a sizable population of people that are still hesitant to see the divergence in people’s mental health as a plausible occurrence vs being a dangerous aberration?

Change is difficult. Intersectionality is complicated.

How can one approach different cultures treating those struggling with their mental healths as being soft and not “fit”? That is a very prevalent thought in the Asian continent. 

I am not sure exactly what you mean here but I think cultural differences can be strong and ingrained early. They may not fit into a parent or grandparents’ vision of ‘tough’ ‘independent’ or ‘successful’ or ‘capable’ but they can become part of your lexicon. Every generation moves the needle, mostly by having uncomfortable conversations. Sometimes those conversations are healthy. When they are not, it’s best, in my experience, to back off and try again later. 

As a learning disability reporter who is dyslexic, dysgraphic, ADHD, and is prone to anxiety, have you yourself been subject to discrimination in the workplace when sharing these aspects of yourself?

There are no recent scenarios I can think of—and that’s because I am blunt, honest, truthful, forthcoming and at ease with who I am.  

Today, I know I am talented. I know what I must work harder at to be successful. I openly speak about finding a workaround or doing work in a way that others do not (For example, with headphones on or printing papers to proofread my work, I am better than working directly on screen, like some other writers.).  In the past, hiding my learning differences caused people to mock me, get angry, frustrated, even to bully me at work. It really stressed me out and affected my work. For me, and hopefully others, this type of behavior is waning, although some British studies show it is not. 

When struggling with poor mental health or a mental or neurological disorder, it’s hard to ask your manager for accommodations or flexibility. Times are changing however thanks to the unfortunate nature of the pandemic, and this being a need that can no longer be ignored by or take employers by surprise. What are some actionable steps an employee can take with their manager or HR to take care of their health and optimize their work in this regard?

I strongly suggest heading over to ASKJan.org: The Accommodations Network (https://askjan.org ) to look at work scenarios and how people have resolved them with ease and at barely any cost. There’s a huge range of topics and very realistic ways to approach the problem. 

Spotify, Google, and Starbucks have all amped up their wellness and mental health support in recent years, with Chief Mental Health Officer-Advisor roles becoming an active member in C-suite offices from 2018. What is one piece of feedback you’d give companies on how they can better shape their wellness-mental health programs?

Talk less, do more—and share the wins, no matter how small. Much of what you say can be forgotten but what you do and how your employees feel about it can really make a difference. It will allow others to feel comfortable talking about their own challenges or successes. 

Test the programs you are thinking about in a pilot program and talk about how a program worked, not how a program will work. 

Have you ever pursued therapy yourself? 

I have been in therapy—both marriage counseling and individual therapy. I am now doing group therapy, prompted by feeling very isolated during the pandemic. It’s been really eye-opening and helpful, knowing that many people are struggling and that the group of peers can come together to solve a problem with you. I am a big advocate of getting help to solve a problem – whether it is seeing a therapist for overall mental health or finding a coach to help you to reach your potential in specific areas of your job. I want to do my best and often see experts to help me reach for excellence in both my professional and personal life.  

Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give your younger self, what would it be?

Tell someone about what is on your mind—especially when you feel hurt or misunderstood. Wounds that I hid didn’t heal until I spoke about the issue with either the person who misunderstood me or a therapist, or wrote about it in a group. 

Also, I would tell myself to use humor sparingly. Overusing it can distract you and the person you are talking with from dealing with the issue. (Hint: My mom often used to say, “I can’t get a straight answer out of you.” That was her way of saying, “I am asking for honesty, and I am open to talking, but I see you are not.” 

 ADHD-ers like me joke around a lot when they get uncomfortable or don’t like conflict. Ultimately, it serves both people to use some humor to get started, but then get into a serious conversation that can be the catalyst for change or understanding.

Finally, laugh at yourself. My son is fond of saying “almost everything can be funny.” Yes, even a little gallows humor or Larry David curmudgeon-ness works. 

–DB, Founder, Rebel Talent, Elephants-everywhere.com. 

Interview and edited by Susan Yoomin Im

Denise Brodey writes about disabilities and health for Forbes.com, PSYCOM, and WebMD. She is also the author of The Elephant in the Playroom (Penguin), which tells the stories of 41 families raising kids with disabilities. For more, follow Denise on Linkedin.

For additional wellness resources, check out this resource page or get help through mental health advocacy and education non-profit Made of Millions’s resource directory here.

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