Interview with Psychologist Dr. Anne Miller Morris for Mental Health Awareness Month

Anne Morris with Kids

May is mental health awareness month. For more than 65 years, people have come together every May to raise mental health awareness in the mass public. Today, we are reducing the taboo surrounding mental health and offering increased amounts of support to those who experience mental health challenges.

This May of 2020, mental health is a particularly potent topic as the world experiences the global pandemic. There are many things that are difficult about this time, and awareness of fostering mental health is now more important than ever. Find helpful tips to cope with anxiety with Dr. Cassidy Liland here.

To help raise awareness around mental health, we spoke to licensed psychologist Dr. Anne Miller Morris about her practice and the tools she offers to deal with depression and anxiety during these turbulent times.

Dr. Morris has a private practice in Texas, where she works with adolescents and adults, specializing in treating anxiety and depression — and everything that goes along with these (parenting, loss, grief, etc.) She uses a treatment called cognitive behavioral therapy, a practice that looks at the behaviors and cognitions one has and uses tools to manage and change them.

Q: What led you to psychology and your current practice?

A: It’s quite bizarre actually. Beginning in 8th grade, I started working at an aquarium in Florida and forever thought I was going to be a marine biologist. When I got to Vanderbilt, this was still my plan. I took Psych 101 my freshmen year because I thought it was a great parallel to marine biology — of training and behavior and understanding what makes animals tick — and I found it so fascinating, I got a doctorate in it.

Q: What does your current practice look like?

A: I began my own private practice in 2013. I work primarily with clients who have anxiety and depression, and the treatment I use is called cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Q: What exactly is cognitive behavioral therapy?

A: Well, we look at the cognitions or the thoughts we have and we look at the behaviors we have. We look at those that are healthy for us and work to increase those. We also look at the ones that are not so helpful for us, and we teach different tools to manage and change those.

I love it because it’s so skills-based and tools-based. So many of the principles taught in this therapy are important past the point of crisis.

Q: What are some tools you can offer for dealing with depression and anxiety during these odd and turbulent times?

A: First, establish some sense of routine and control. There’s so much happening around us that we don’t have control over — people are getting sick, stats, news, media. One of the most distressing things about this time is that we don’t have very much say-so in our lives. Maintaining some sense of structure and control will help. Whether that’s about keeping up a strict daily routine or just working at the same time every day, you’ll see a difference.

Also, get outside, exercise, garden, and sleep! All of these are so correlated with mental health — always and especially now. Sleep is actually really related to immunity, so I talk a lot about sleep with my clients.

Lastly, I suggest a lot of mindfulness. It’s so easy to think down the road when things might be unstable, but that’s not helpful. Mindfulness is based on being in the present moment and being able to practice gratitude for the now — the very moment that we do have control over. Gardening is a great way to practice mindfulness and gratitude.

Q: How do you stay grounded day-to-day?

A: I wasn’t kidding about getting outside — especially if you have young children. For me and my family, the good days are the days we spend the most time outside where the kids can run around and we all get some fresh air.

Otherwise, I practice a lot of gratitude with myself and my children. We talk or draw pictures about what we’re thankful for. My sons are actually keeping a gratitude journal right now — and they’re really good at it! I recommend being super specific about what you’re grateful for. Whether it’s the latte you had this morning or that you talked to a friend for 20 minutes, the things that are most helpful are the small things.

Q: You mentioned getting outside…How is nature and/or gardening a tool for supporting mental health (if it is)?

A: It’s definitely helpful — and this is for several reasons in particular. First, the whole idea of nurturing and having responsibility for something is great for establishing self-worth. I love the Gardenuity hashtag #IGrewThat. My children have loved Gardenuity gardens. Over half of our peppers didn’t make it to full ripeness last year, but they were so proud of them. There’s purpose and pride in nurturing something.

Gardening also involves a whole growth mindset. It’s the attitude of learning something new, learning from mistakes, and understanding what we can do next time. You may not have control over x, y, or z, but you do have control over watering your garden.

I think, too, there’s a community aspect. You can connect with others through gardening. We actually have a neighbor down the street who has a beautiful flower bed and, after the pandemic begun, he messaged the whole neighborhood to cut some flowers and take them home.

Q: Any last words?

There’s a huge sense of general helplessness and isolation nowadays. All of this has been just so disorienting for everybody, but we’re not alone. The whole world is going through the exact same thing at the exact same time (to varying degrees obviously, but nonetheless).

I think being proactive and taking care of ourselves and our mental health will affect this whole time for us.

For more information on mental health awareness month, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

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