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Youth are de-stigmatizing mental health

**You can read this post in my new website by clicking here.

This week is the 62nd annual Mental Health Week (May 6 – 12) organized by the Canadian Mental Health Association. This year’s focus is on youth. One of the goals of mental health professionals is to eradicate the stigma surrounding mental illness. In my opinion, I think today’s youth have a greater understanding and awareness of mental health issues than most adults did at their age. In fact, I think young people are doing a much better job at challenging the stigma around mental health than most adults.

Although adults are hesitant to discuss mental illnesses and the value of seeing a therapist, young people today are much more likely to talk about, and understand, the importance of good mental health.

Although adults are hesitant to discuss mental illnesses and the value of seeing a therapist, young people today are much more likely to talk about, and understand, the importance of good mental health.

A few years ago, I worked with a 12-year-old boy who actually told his parents that he wanted to see a counsellor. It was the first time that ever happened to me. Most children tell me their parents “made them come.” This case was different.

“So, what made you ask your parents that you wanted to see a counsellor?” I asked.

“Me and my friends were playing in the school yard at recess, and then I asked them what they do whenever they have problems. They said, ‘I just go see a counsellor.’ So, when I went home I told my mom that’s what I wanted to do.”

I just sat there with eyes wide open. I couldn’t believe what I just heard. “You and your friends were talking about counselling? In the schoolyard?” I asked incredulously.


“And you and your friends are 12?”

“Yeah. There a couple kids who are 11, but we’re all in Grade 5 or 6.”

“Wow,” I said in a slow, heavy voice. “That is really, really cool.”

Youth are challenging the stigma of mental health

Seriously. Can you remember talking about counselling when you were in grade 5 or 6? I don’t think I even heard the word “counsellor” until I was in high school. I think this speaks to how the conversations – the discourse of mental health – is slowly changing. We may think it’s not, but that’s because we’re only paying attention to the conversations adults are having (or not having). In offices, boardrooms, job sites, in those places, mental illness is still taboo and misunderstood. In the “grown-up world,” the de-stigmatization surrounding mental illness is happening slowly. In the young person’s world, though, it’s happening much more quickly.

With the horrific incidences of school shootings, the tragic consequences of cyber-bullying, we often forget that our youth are much closer to the consequences of mental illness than most adults are. They talk about it at school, they Tweet with experts, and they’ve become more knowledgeable about the signs and symptoms of mental health conditions than many adults I know. In the end, it’s our young people who are shaping the dialogue of mental illness for the next decade.

With that in mind, here are some things adults can do to support youth mental health, and to help in the de-stigmatization of mental illness.

  1. Remind yourself that there are many, many good youth whose deeds are leading to good mental health. A good friend of mine, Derrick Shirley, is currently riding his bicycle across Canada to raise awareness of youth who are making “Wow!” In fact, that’s the name of his campaign: “The Making ‘Wow’ Bike Tour.” Over the last several months, Derrick has been collecting stories of youth across the country who are making a difference in their communities. Their actions are fostering good mental health in others, and challenging negative stereotypes we may have about youth.
  2. Be the role model you want your child to be. If you want your children to be non-judgemental towards those with a mental illness, you need to be non-judgemental as well. Kids learn from watching and listening to you. How you talk about mental illness is how your children will talk about it.
  3. Warmth and caring go a long way to improving a child’s mental health. It’s easy to get frustrated and criticize an adolescent for what they’ve done wrong. However, reminding them that they’re still valued and loved is even more important. Teaching a young person to recognize and value their successes does wonders for nurturing positive mental health.
  4. Good mental health starts in good homes. About 70% of young adults who’ve experienced a mental illness say their symptoms started in early childhood (here’s a link to the article). If parents pay attention to their own mental health, they will be more in tune with their child’s mental health. By doing so, they are teaching their children to value the mental health needs of others.

Before we complain about the stigma surrounding mental illness, we need to consider how far we’ve come in eradicating that stigma, and how young people are helping us with that goal.

Hoping this bit of psychology helps with your mental and emotional health.

Fellow WordPress Bloggers…

I’ve migrated these entries to my new website, Psychology for Growth. I would love to hear your comments and likes!


Some useful Links related to this post:

You are not the illness

You may have an illness, but you are not the illness. This was an important lesson I learned from my first counselling supervisor, Katherine Stetson. During my master’s program in counselling psychology, I did an internship as an Adolescent and Family Therapist. One of my first assignments was to videotape and transcribe 10-minutes of an individual counselling session. My client was an adolescent male.

I was nervous as heck. What if I say something stupid?! What if he wants to talk about a serious issue that I know absolutely nothing about?! My supervisor will laugh and fail me! These are the kinds of thoughts that ran through my head. But once the session started, I felt really comfortable. We started off by talking about school, friendships, his family, and then his mother’s illness.

“Yeah, she’s got schiza…schi…what do you call that?”
“Is it schizophrenia?” I asked.
“Yeah! That’s it! She’s got that.”
“Oh,” I replied. “So, your mom’s a schizophrenic.”
“Yeah. Sometimes, it’s tough talking to her. She’s gotta take all these meds, and I think it’s tough for her sometimes.”

We talked about his family a bit longer. The session, I thought, turned out really well. As a therapist, I felt really proud of my ability to connect with my client on an emotional level. I was also proud of creating a supportive and safe environment where he was able to talk about some really painful things. This was no small feat. To use a baseball metaphor, I felt like I had just hit a home run.

Then, I showed the clip to my supervisor. She brought me back down to reality pretty quickly.

“Richard, did you just refer to your client’s mother as a schizophrenic?”
“Yes. She has schizophrenia.”
“Richard, she has schizophrenia, but she is not the schizophrenia. She is not the illness!”

I was silent. I didn’t say a word, and neither did she. My supervisor could tell that I was processing what she just said.

We may have an illness, but we are not the illness

We may have an illness, but we are not the illness

Have you ever had a fever or the flu? If someone were to ask what was wrong with you, would you reply with, “I’m flu,” or “I’m fever?” No. That doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t tell them that your identity was the illness. Instead, you would tell them that you had an illness. Yet, when we talk about mental or emotional issues, we often refer to ourselves as being the problem rather than having the problem. Here’s an example of what I mean.

I am bi-polar         vs.    I have bi-polar illness
I am depressed    vs.     I feel depressed, or “I have depression”
I am anxious        vs.     I feel anxious
I am AD/HD        vs.     I have AD/HD

Externalize your problem
Narrative Therapy is an approach to counselling that focuses on how we tell the story of our problems. One of the techniques used in Narrative Therapy is to externalize the problem. With this technique, the therapist helps the client see the problem as something external to who they are, rather than seeing the problem as their identity. Narrative therapy places a large emphasis on the discourse – the conversation – we have with ourselves and others about what might be ailing us.

In the examples above, the difference between the two statements was just one word (“Am” vs. “Have”). Yet, you can imagine the impact these words have on our unconscious thoughts and feelings. The point is, when you have an illness, it’s not who you are; it’s just something you have. It’s a part of your story, but it’s not your entire story. You and I are spiritual beings, and everyday we experience a wide range of thoughts, behaviours, and emotions. Sometimes, extreme emotions, thoughts, and behaviours can lead to illnesses (physical and/or mental). But, in the end, we are not the illness.

What have you noticed about the way people talk about depression, anxiety, or mental health in general? Share your comments below.

Hoping this bit of psychology helps in your personal growth….

If you want to change your mood, change your behaviour

One of the first theories that highlighted the relationship between thoughts and moods was cognitive theory, or CT. This theory was created by Dr. Aaron Beck back in the 1970’s. Beck noticed that all his depressed patients had similarities in how they viewed themselves, their world, and their future. Specifically, he noticed that depressed people all had a maladaptive way of thinking. Their biased thinking patterns also led to certain behaviours.

People with depression engage in behaviours consistent with how they feel and think.

People with depression engage in behaviours consistent with how they feel and think.

His observations and work formed the essence of what we know today as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, or CBT.

C = Cognitions. How you think about yourself, the world, and how you interpret the experiences you have.
B = Behaviours. A series of actions that are often a reflection of how we think.
T = Therapy. A modification of the Latin word therapia, which means “curing, healing.”

According to CBT, our feelings are the result of either our thoughts or behaviours – how we think and what we do, respectively. However, while a lot of attention is often given to the power of our thoughts, not as much attention is given to the power of our behaviours. Since the two elements are connected, changing one will, in theory, change the other. So, if you start by changing your thoughts, you’ll end up changing your behaviours. Conversely, if you change your behaviours, you’ll end up changing your thoughts. When one of these changes happen, you also end up changing how you feel. Here’s an example of what I mean.

“Sally” (not her real name) has been feeling pretty low in spirits for the last couple of weeks. She’s been losing interest in things she used to enjoy, she no longer talks to anyone, and she’s been eating more and more junk food. She also  finds herself staying in bed a lot longer than usual. Here are some of the thoughts she has throughout the day. As you read them, ask yourself how you think she feels when she tells herself these things.

“There’s no use getting out of bed. There’s nothing special happening in my life.”
“My life sucks. Nothing I do today will change the way I feel.”
“Today will just be like yesterday. Who cares whether or not I show up to work?”

By telling herself these things, how do you think she will feel? Probably depressed, lonely, and hopeless. If she feels depressed, lonely, and hopeless, how do you think she’ll behave? She’ll probably continue to stay in bed, leave her lights off, not talk to anyone, continue to eat junk foods, and essentially do nothing other than sleep.

There are two things Sally could do to change her depressed mood. One: She could challenge her thoughts and learn new ways for thinking in a more balanced way. Or two: She could start doing some behaviours that give her even the smallest amount of pleasure.

Depression is an incredibly debilitating illness. When you meet the clinical criteria for “Major Depressive Disorder,” it’s hard to think that anything will ever change. But, with time and hard work (and in some case, the right medications), a person can start improving their mood, even if only by a tiny bit.

One of the best things Sally could try to do is some sort of physical activity. This could be any kind of activity that gets her moving around and off her bed. Essentially, the goal is to have Sally engage in behaviours that are inconsistent with how she thinks and feels. Here are some examples:

  1. Getting up and putting on her favourite shirt
  2. Making a pot of coffee (or her favourite hot beverage)
  3. Going for a 5-minute walk
  4. Reading a book
  5. Taking a hot shower
  6. Watching a sitcom
  7. Pray
  8. Call a friend
  9. Eat a piece of fruit or vegetable
  10. Watch your favourite music videos

By changing her behaviours (even small ones), Sally would start building the momentum necessary for changing her thoughts, and ultimately, her mood.

So, the next time you find yourself thinking depressing thoughts, or feeling like you’re in low spirits, start doing something physical. Basically, try doing some sort of behaviour that is simple, gives you pleasure, and is opposite to how you’re feeling. By changing your behaviours, you will notice a small shift in your mood, and ultimately, you will notice a shift in your thoughts.

Hoping this little bit of psychology helps in your personal growth.

Here are some links on this topic:
Check out my previous post on Cognitive Dissonance
CBT in the treatment of anxiety
Here’s a little more on Behaviour Therapy

Update on new website and blog
I’ll be spending the next week or so building content for my new website. The new site will host information on my private practice, my blog posts, and other useful information. Basically, I’ll be combining everything all in one. Stay tuned…

“I’m always so hyper…I must be ADHD!”

Although I’ve never been formally diagnosed with ADD or ADHD (Attention-Deficit Disorder, with or without Hyperactivity), there are a lot of times when I think I fit all the criteria. In fact, many people believe they have ADHD simply because they get really excited and easily distracted. This creates the perception that ADHD is over-diagnosed. The truth is ADD or ADHD is only found in about 3% – 7% of school-aged children. So, in a classroom of about 25 – 30 kids, there will likely be only one child who meets the criteria for a diagnosis. Data on adults with ADD or ADHD is more limited.

It's easy to get distracted when you have ADHD

It’s easy to get distracted when you have ADHD

Thinking that someone may have ADHD when they really don’t raises two important points. First, just because someone meets some of the criteria for a particular disorder or problem does not mean they actually have that disorder. In other words, just because it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and talks like a duck, does NOT always mean it’s a duck.

Here are some of the problem symptoms of ADHD in adults. As you read them, ask yourself if you’ve ever experienced these same things.

  • Interpersonal relationship problems (e.g., “It seems like you never listen to me!” or “You’re always late!”)
  • Financial commitments (e.g. impulsively buying everything that catches their eye, overspending)
  • Occupational problems (e.g. difficulty being organized at work or school, unable to do just one project at a time, procrastinating on every project)
  • Anxiety (e.g. mind is always racing, difficulty focusing on the present moment)
  • Restless and difficulty sitting still

I have worked with clients who have displayed many of these symptoms, but did not have AD/HD. Instead, they may have suffered from depression, or an addiction issue, or they were living with an abusive partner and quietly suffering. In each of these circumstances, they manifested many of the symptoms of AD/HD . However, they were missing additional symptoms that could only be identified by a trained professional who is familiar with the diagnosis.

A second important point to know about AD/HD is that it’s an organic brain disorder, and NOT simply a way that people choose to behave. For decades, many believed that a child’s inability to pay attention was really a choice. For example, when a child was unable to sit still, or if they forgot to follow through with their chores, or when they seemed to have difficulty listening when spoken to, most parents believed it was a choice their child was making. “He’s choosing to ignore me!” is a comment I’ve heard from quite a few parents whose child lives with AD/HD. The truth is that their child is not trying to be disrespectful or defiant. It’s just that their brain won’t let them focus on only one thing at a time.

Today, there are effective medications and behavioural treatments that can make a huge difference in someone’s daily life. Here are some strategies that have been shown to be effective.

1.Exercise and spend time outdoors
2.Get plenty of sleep
3.Limit your sugar and caffeine intake
4.Develop structure and neat habits
5.Use an organizer or a To-Do list
6.Give yourself more time than you think you need
7.Set aside time for organization

By doing a bit of research and spending a few hours with the right health care professional, a person living with AD/HD can make significant changes in their life. Check out some of the links below to get you started.

The points I’d like to leave you with are, firstly, if you have the symptoms of a disorder, don’t be so sure you have that disorder. Secondly, in the case of AD/HD, a person’s hyperactivity or impulsivity is not always a reflection of how they are choosing to behave. In most cases, it’s just the way their brain works.

Hope this bit of psychology helps with your personal growth …

Here are some useful sites on the topic of ADD and ADHD

Help Guide on ADHD
Psych Central
Canadian Psychological Association (Fact Sheets)

SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT!! (Well it’s special to me, anyway)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been working on a new layout for my website and blog. The new site will be called “” and will give my blog posts a whole new look and feel. I also plan on being more interactive by using social media (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIN) to connect with my readers. I’ll keep you posted on the changes.

Keep sharing psychology…

Dr. Richard Amaral

Boundaries: What We Can Learn From Cats And Dogs

Just finished reading, “Boundaries: Where you End and I Begin” by Anne Katherine. In her book, Katherine makes some really good points about all the different types of boundaries and what they look like in different relationships. Katherine defines boundaries as “…a limit or edge that defines you as separate from others. A boundary is a limit that promotes integrity” (page 14).

Follow the link at the bottom for a Christian perspective on boundaries.

One of the things I thought was really creative was how Katherine used her dog and cat as metaphors for explaining “close” and “distant” boundaries, respectively. For example, her dog wants to be around her all the time. Wherever Katherine goes, her dog will stop what he’s doing and follow her, even if he was sound asleep. In this sense, her dog has close boundaries. Her cat, on the other hand, expresses distant boundaries. No matter what Katherine does, her cat will not stop what she’s doing. When Katherine enters the room, for example, the cat will just look at her, but she won’t move. She just lies there. Waiting. Staring. Purring. Unless they want something from you, a cat, for the most part, will ignore you. In many ways, people also set similar boundaries: they’re either far apart where you can’t even connect with them on a personal level, or they’re set too close and you can’t seem to keep them at a healthy distance.

There have been times when I have had to change my boundaries from “close” to “distant.” For example, I was once in a relationship where after a few months, I felt comfortable “letting my guard down” and started to move my boundary closer. Then, without any warning, this person began to say some hurtful things. I felt betrayed. From that point on, I kept very distant boundaries in my relationships. It must have taken me at least a year before I started to practice close boundaries again.

Here are some other lessons I took away from Katherine’s book:

  1. Our boundaries begin to develop right from infancy. From the time we are born, we rely on our caregivers to shape our first boundaries. Through them, we learn how close others are allowed to be relative to us, and how close we can be towards others. “Don’t talk to strangers,” is an example of how we need to keep a distant boundary with people we don’t know. “Make sure you kiss mommy good night” is an example of how we are taught to keep a close boundary with our parents.
  2. Boundaries can be physical, emotional, mental, sexual, or spiritual. Our skin is an example of a physical boundary. When it is scratched or broken (a physical injury) we can become ill through an infection. In the same way, when someone crosses our emotional boundary (for example, through verbal abuse), we are also harmed and become emotionally ill. The same thing happens through these other types of boundaries.
  3. Boundaries can be violated through excessive smothering or neglect. For example, some parents refuse to show any affection to their children. They come across as cold and distant. When this happens, a child’s emotional and physical boundaries are violated by this act of neglect. Some parents can also do the opposite and smother their children, never allowing them to fully experience natural consequences or physical distance. When this happens, children never learn to be independent. They also grow up feeling entitled to emotional or physical intimacy from their partners.
  4. Boundaries need to be flexible, yet hold their shape. If, for example, we are interacting with a stranger, then it’s important to have more rigidity in our boundary. Once we know the person and feel comfortable with them, it’s important that our boundary become more flexible. Knowing when, and with whom, to do this is an example of being emotionally and mentally healthy.

What have been some of your experiences with boundaries? How do you know when you need to change the boundary in a relationship with someone?

Hoping your relationships are filled with much knowledge, growth, and healthy boundaries….

Dr. Richard Amaral

Here are a couple of links related to this post:

Anne Katherine’s website. Here, you’ll find more information on the author of “Boundaries: Where you end and I begin” and some of her other works.

Image in this post. I just came across a blog by Mark Wilson where he provides a Christian perspective on boundaries. I really like this image above and enjoyed reading his post.

Another definition of personal boundary. I came across this website ( in my research for this post. It turned out to be a great find. Just enter “Personal Boundary” on the right as a search term on their website.

5 Ways Psychotherapy Can Improve Your Life

There’s only 1 day left in February. Do you know what’s associated with this month? Let me give you some options. February is….

1) Black History Month
2) Heart and Stroke Awareness Month
3) Psychology Month
4) All of the above

If you chose #4, you’re right!

Given that I’m a psychologist myself, and that my blog is about psychology and psycho-social health topics, I thought I would use this post to essentially talk about what psychologists do, and how visiting a psychologist for psychotherapy can be beneficial to your life.

Why see a psychologist?

Here are a few reasons why I think it’s beneficial to see a psychologist.

1. You gain a deeper understanding of yourself. Working with a psychologist who specializes in psychotherapy (talk therapy) will, over time, help you to gain insight into your behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. By doing so, you become aware of the things you need to change in order to feel better about yourself and your life. Psychologists provide you with space and opportunity to analyze and understand yourself better. This kick-starts the process of change and personal growth.

2. You learn skills and strategies for coping with some of life’s challenges. When people come to see me for psychotherapy, I have two goals. My first goal is to help them gain insight into the causes of why they may be behaving, thinking, or feeling the way they are. My second goal is to help them find solutions for what they are currently dealing with. Through a collaborative process, the client explores different ways of thinking, perceiving, and responding to their current challenges.

3. You get an opportunity to vent. Let’s face it: our friends and family members do not always want to hear about our problems. In fact, our families and friends may be contributing to some of our problems! Having someone who is objective, who doesn’t know you or judge you, allows you to take a step back, reflect, and let go of some of the heavy things that you may be carrying.

4. You get an opportunity to work on your relationship skills. When you visit a therapist for an hour, you are essentially walking into a room with a stranger, and telling them things you may have never told anyone else before in your life. This is a deeply personal and emotionally intimate experience. For people who have issues with trust, or issues with being vulnerable in a relationship, or for those who have had difficulties being honest in a relationship, visiting a psychotherapist is a perfect opportunity for you to finally work through those issues. Just by the very nature of you attending your sessions and talking, you are already moving towards an improvement in your relationship skills.

5. You get an objective opinion of what is troubling you. When a friend comes to you for advice, have you ever noticed that it seems easier to see what’s happening in their life than in your own life? Even though you may be in the exact same situation as your friend, do you find it impossible to follow the same advice you give them? This is a universal phenomenon. Everyone goes through it. Talking to a psychologist gives you the opportunity to talk about what’s been troubling YOU, and to hear feedback from someone who is more objective than the friends and family members in your life.

I’d love to hear about some of your experiences of participating in psychotherapy. How did it help you? What was the experience like? What did you learn about yourself? 

Hoping the next few weeks are filled with much knowledge and growth…

Useful links: – The Canadian Psychological Association is a great resource for information about psychology and related topics. Check out their “Psychology Works” fact sheets under the “PUBLIC” tab. – The American Psychological Association is another great place to get up-to-date information on a variety of topics for everyday living. – More useful information on psychology and mind-body health.

Emotional Eating – To lose weight, know your emotional state

With the winter holidays just a few weeks behind us, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how long it will take to burn off the calories from all the chocolates and other sweets I ate. Now, thinking about what I ate may not sound like a profound or meaningful activity. But, an upcoming report by the American Psychological Association on the topic of “emotional eating” is making me wonder how Christmas and New Year’s (two emotionally filled holidays) affected my eating habits.

People will often overeat to make themselves feel better.

People will often overeat to make themselves feel better.

This past September, the American Psychological Association (APA) collaborated with Consumer Reports National Research Centre and polled over 1,300 psychologists on the topic of weight loss. They wanted to know how psychologists dealt with their clients’ weight loss challenges and concerns. Almost half of psychologists (44%) said that if people understand the emotions and behaviours attached to eating, they would have more success in managing their weight. They also said that emotional eating was a major barrier to weight loss. I have found this to be the case in my own private practice, and even in my own life. Many times, when we feel certain emotions (e.g., stress, sadness, disappointment) we may turn to food as a way of lessening (or heightening) the intensity of these emotions. When we’re trying to problem-solve our way around these emotions, we may do so while eating unhealthy foods. Instead of working through them, we look towards food to help us cope with them.

A good friend of mine, Derrick Shirley, a psychotherapist specializing in weight management, has personal experience in dealing with the issue of emotions and weight loss. In his book, “The 400-pound Male Stripper,” he talks about his personal struggle of overcoming racial discrimination, and how eating became the way he dealt with these struggles. He credits two interventions as the primary reason for why he was successful at losing – and keeping off – over 200-pounds.

1) Keep a journal of your feelings and thoughts. Whenever you feel like binge-eating, take a few seconds to first write down what you are thinking and feeling. Through this process, we begin to identify the emotions that lead us to eat. Eventually, we gain more control over our eating habits.

2) Have a meal plan. A meal plan provides you with a structure and routine for what to eat and when. Essentially, having a meal plan eliminates the guesswork from having to decide what to eat. This also gives us more control over food choices.

These two strategies – recognizing the emotions behind eating, and having a set time and structure for what and when to eat – are typical of strategies used in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT also represents one of the approaches recommended by psychologists in the APA study. Learning to recognize the thoughts and emotions behind our eating, and then coming up with a set of behaviours to address these thoughts and emotions, helps people to achieve, and maintain, healthy eating choices.

What are some of the emotions that lead you to eat and what has worked for you?  I’d love to hear from you on this topic.

Links in this post:

APA summary article on Emotional Eating Survey***Click here to read the full article by the APA*** – psychotherapist and author who has worked with clients on weight management issues. for a free e-book on the topic of emotional eating

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