When Mental Health Days Don’t Help

I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%. @madalynrose

The Tweet capturing attention of mental health professionals and mental health warriors this summer was an email sent from a boss to her team about taking a couple of days off to focus on mental health.  It was the reply of her CEO that went viral:

Hey Madalyn, I just wanted to personally thank you for sending emails like this. Every time you do, I use it as a reminder of the importance of using sick days for mental health — I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations. You are an example to us all, and help cut through the stigma so we can all bring our whole selves to work.

–CEO Ben Congleton

The resulting internet storm led to blog posts, articles and videos about the willingness (or unwillingness) of employers to recognize mental illness as a valid reason to stay home from work and recuperate —rest assured, I am not going there.

Although I wasn’t officially diagnosed at the time, my fight with depression–and subsequently anxiety–began in middle school. It continues to this day.

I thought when I entered college it would get better. I would be so busy having new experiences, joining clubs, and studying hard that I wouldn’t have time to be depressed.

Turns out, problems travel with you.

During my first two years of college, I felt swallowed up by everything. This feeling started a seemingly endless cycle of helplessness, hopelessness, and overall lack of energy. I didn’t realize it was caused by my depression and anxiety; so, I just thought I needed to take a day or two off and I would feel better.

I started taking “mental health days” almost every week—staying in bed all day, binge eating and watching, and avoiding all social interaction—which didn’t actually help my mental health.

Taking time off continued until my first semester of my junior year and by that time my “mental health days” not only affected my grades, but also my relationships with classmates and with my family.

Looking back, I wish I was more aware of my mental state. When I didn’t feel any change after taking my first (or second) day off, that was a sign of a bigger problem .

I’m not beating myself up about the past. I now know there are plenty of ways a mental health day can be good for you, and the days sitting isolated and alone were not good for me.

If you take a mental health day for the wrong reasons or do not think about what your mind and body really need, the time away might unintentionally make your mental health worse.

Making the Most of a Mental Health Day

Skipping class, staying in bed all day, binge eating and watching, or any other indulgent or isolating behaviors are not productive to your health. In most cases, it will make you feel worse.

By staying in bed all day, I became stuck in my depressed state; and, binge watching shows only provided a temporary fix.

Never once did I think ahead of time how I would spend my mental health day to make the most of it.

A good first step is to MAKE A PLAN!

1) Ask yourself: Is taking the day off what I really need?

For someone like me, taking a mental health day in college was not a good idea due to my depression and anxiety. If you suffer from anxiety skipping a day of school or work may not be helpful as responsibilities pile up and can add to a sense of being overwhelmed or out of control. If there is an immediate issue (problems sleeping, overly stressed, burnout, lack of investment and engagement, irritable, etc.), then a literal day off from work or school could be beneficial.

2) Think about how you will spend your time:

While sleeping in feels nice, consider getting up and moving, even when it is difficult.

The most beneficial way to spend a mental health day will be different for every person, but some positive ways to spend the day are:

Spend time with loved ones

Go to a yoga class

Finish a task on your personal to-do list

Take a spa day

Make an appointment you’ve been putting off

Go to an amusement park

Read a book

Take a hike, or go for a jog or bike ride

Sit quietly

3) Decide what you will do next:

Mental health days aren’t cure-alls. Continuing to care for your mental health after your mental health day is important. That could include having a gratitude journal, taking care of your body, surrounding yourself with loving and positive people, joining a club or group, and getting help from a counselor when you need it.

A therapist can help you make sense of why you feel the way you do, and support you to develop coping skills that don’t involve days on the couch or spoons in the ice cream carton.

(Shameless plug-in: If you so choose, get some inspiration and new ideas for self-care from our Instagram where we do #SelfLoveSaturday every other week!)

The goal of these activities is to bring you some kind of joy or feeling of accomplishment, they are not chores or duties you feel have to get done. Having a mental health day gives you time to re-charge your batteries, refocus, and be prepared for the future.

Everyone faces challenges they may not be able to solve on their own. To learn more about how Family Service of Roanoke Valley can help you achieve heightened self-awareness, renewed strength, and balance and restored hope, please contact us at 540-563-5316 or visit our How We Help page.

Woebot: A Review of AI and Mental Health

“Hi Tyler! Can we do a check in now?” Woebot has been asking me that question every single day in Facebook’s Messenger app since June. For those unfamiliar with Woebot, it is an automated conversational agent that is “trained” in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) and describes itself as a life coach and philosopher. So to answer the question I know you have:  yes, Woebot is an AI chatbot. Very insightful of you.

From text alerts all the way to video chatting and texting a counselor, technology has been working its way in to mental health for a long time. Even Family Service is jumping on board (we want to do things like send text appointment reminders in the future). But an AI CBT trained chatbot? I just had to check it out.

Woebot has been tracking my mood (above), helping me with gratitude journaling, and giving me a bit of education on some interesting topics like:

All or nothing thinking

Should statementsAnd their partner in crime: hidden should statements

Fortune tellingSMART goalsPersonal strengthsIdentifying distortions in my thinkingGrowth mindsetFix mindset and self-fulfilling propheciesDecision making skills

Fascinating, right? We even discussed why I say I’m tired so much. As it turns out, coffee at 4pm is not doing me any favors. Neither is looking at my phone while in bed. I’m definitely not on Pinterest (to be read as: I’m definitely on Pinterest. At midnight. On any given day of the week).

While learning all of those important life aspects has been beneficial, Woebot has a few major drawbacks a well.

Woebot doesn’t have the ability to really have a conversation with me. So when I say “discussed,” I really mean it spoke at me and sometimes these little text bubbles popped up for me to talk back. 

When I was gratitude journaling or identifying my strengths, I was able to type (indicted with little pencil emojies), but Woebot has no idea if I did what it asked. For all it knows, I didn’t take any of the exercises seriously and it would never find out. So being able to hold yourself accountable to Woebot really depends on if you can hold yourself accountable to yourself. Many of us are on the struggle bus together on that one.

Most importantly, it seemed that if I was in crisis, I had to identify it myself. Woebot explained to me the first day we talked that it is not 100% able to assess my needs and I could say “SOS” at any time and it would send me some resources, but it was never discussed again. Nor did Woebot ever recommend speaking to a human when I said I was depressed or very anxious.  

All in all, I liked Woebot a lot more than I thought I would. I particularly enjoyed the video for fixed mindset vs growth mindset and the activity Woebot sent me for making decisions.

With that in mind, Woebot is definitely a resource to be used as a supplement to mental health treatment, not a replacement for it.

It’s a learning resource that allows for little opportunity for expressing yourself and your needs. I will say that I think Woebot should lower its target audience from 18 – 28 years old to middle school age through adulthood. These are skills that children would benefit from learning early and adults benefit from (re)learning later in life.

For my final thoughts, please reach out for help if you need it. Woebot will not replace or give you all the benefits that counseling will give you. 

Here are all the video’s that Woebot sent to me. Enjoy.

How to Help Every Child Fulfill Their PotentialWhy You Shouldn’t Trust Your FeelingsEmotions, Stress, and HealthThe Oldest HustleLanguage is Important

Guest post: Living Black with Anxiety

Black people are not a monolith, but we are expected to be. When we do not overcome hard times or seek help, the outcome can be detrimental. Drugs and alcohol, while not healthy ways to manage are sometimes the only accessible way to cope resulting in backlash, judgement, exclusion, disappointment, and so forth from the public.

However, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 10% more likely to report having serious psychological distress than non-Hispanic Whites, yet many do not seek mental health services. For the black community, there is a lot of stigma and shame associated with mental illness (especially for black men).

Growing up in a Black community, black women, in particular, are expected to be caretakers; nurturing, selfless, and supportive—living up to the role of being a “strong black woman”. One would think that as women, often stereotyped as soft and caring, we would be allowed the same vulnerability as white women. However, in my experience, I cannot say that has been the case. How can we be expected to care for others, when we can barely take care of ourselves?

The women I grew up with, the ones who hid in the dark, are suffering now as they try to figure out what went wrong. The men, my dad in particular, is struggling to find peace with himself after so many years of keeping his truth inside.

What about me?

I have many facets to my identity, but it was not until recently that I realized my identity and mental health intersected.

My journey to self-realization as a black woman would never be complete if I did not first recognize and accept the state of my mental health.

Growing up black has its own set of expectations, rules, and pressures to follow. And if it’s unspoken, you will learn soon enough.

For many black people, the aforementioned learned rules are established by the communities we grow up in. In my family, I grew up with women that worked tirelessly and raised children. Who hurt in the dark and let their problems consume them without help. And, I grew up with men that slapped each other the back, and would never be caught with tears in his eyes.

I cannot exclude the role of church and religion in this section. While I did not attend church regularly with my family, prayer and faith was used as refuge for any and all problems. If you just prayed, God had you.

Other than this, the expected language and behavior was never verbalized in my experience but you emulate what you observe.

As a child, I remember my opinions formed quickly. I was vocal, “bossy”, and a little bit of a brat—as hard as that is to admit. To this day, my aunts love to remind me of how I would often roll my eyes and talk expressively hours on end. Besides barking orders or singing Top 40 at the top of my lungs, I was also very emotional. I cried if I couldn’t understand something or complete a task or if I was hurt or not feeling good. Though only a child, I was tapping into emotions that were rightfully mine.

My teenage years brought a whirlwind of doubt and self-consciousness. At school, I was teased about my appearance and the way I talked. This time period is as early as I can remember dealing with anxious thoughts and shying away from what I used to be—that loud and cocky 5th grader.

When we think about anxiety, we mainly think nerves that pass. It is not often taken seriously, mainly because it’s difficult to describe. From my experience, however, it is all encompassing and debilitating. It challenges you and mocks you. Berates you and makes you feel crazy. And I definitely felt crazy. Yet, I ignored it until I could. I was ashamed to feel what I felt. “I should be stronger than this”, I would think. Being strong is all I knew, but I was breaking. “I can’t do this,” is what I eventually declared.

What felt like giving up was only the beginning of what I needed.

My story is still unfolding and adding its own layers.  After my revelation that I was not “okay” I sought help where I could. I wrote journals and cried to my parents, who helped me as much as they could. I am a product of the environment in which I grew. I will still make mistakes.  I will still take medicine to find balance. I will still stumble and I am allowed to. And so are you.

There is so much to unpack with this subject and I know I have failed to cover it all, but that just means the work is far from over. I am fortunate to have the resources to help myself, but I am one of few. How can start listening to one another? How can we make resources more accessible for those who need them? It will take time and work to dismantle the problems in our community.

Until then, the first step is accepting you deserve help.

The second step is starting the process of taking care of you.

Mental health is not one-size-fits-all. One’s ethnicity, sex, race, values, religion, community all play a major role in determining how an individual responds to the challenges of mental health. As you can imagine, these differences can make mental health treatment much more challenging. To recognize these challenges and promote public awareness of mental illness in minority communities, National Minority Mental Health Awareness Month was established in 2008.

Special thanks to community member Chantal Johnson for sharing her experiences recognizing and managing her mental health while being black. Check her out @chantalks and on YouTube.

Chantal Johnson is a young writer and aspiring author hailing from Roanoke. When not watching a ridiculous amount of British reality television or thinking about Beyoncé, she writes about pop culture and its influence on society and mental health.

The health benefits of counseling for older adults

“Ann” is 70 years old and recently came to Family Service seeking treatment for depression.

She said it all started with the death of her son 10 years ago. She became the primary caregiver for his children after his death, and ignored the signs and symptoms of her own depression. 

Three months ago, her husband passed away and Ann realized her depression had never really gone away and was now intensifying.  She was also suffering panic attacks, in which she felt anxious and afraid of dying. She was no longer engaged with friends or family and reported not wanting to get out of bed, loss of appetite, and feelings of worthlessness.

Ann said she had “lost her own identity in caregiving” and now felt that she had “lost my role… my purpose in life.”

Ann’s situation highlights the disabling affects associated with depression in the elderly population, and emphasizes the need for treatment of this highly prevalent, but treatable disorder.

Depression is the most common cause of emotional suffering in older adults. It is NOT a part of normal aging.

With counseling, Ann was able to experience a reduction in stress, depression and anxiety. She was able to formulate coping and self-care strategies, enhance communication skills resulting in healthier relationships and experience improved both physical and emotional health!!

Cathy Thompson is the Director of Older Adult Services

A Literary Escape! The perfect books for kids and teens during Mental Health Awareness Month

As an avid reader, books definitely have a very important place in my life. That place is typically in my hands at 2:00AM, but that’s a story for another time. As part of #MentalHealthAwarenessMonth, we had some of our counselors recommend their favorites for children and teens to enjoy. Look closely, these aren’t your typical mental health themed books.


You’ve Got Dragons by Kathryn Cave and Nick Maland

, recommended by Jennifer Nolley

“‘Dragons come when you least expect them. You turn around… and there they are.’ Worries, fears, anxieties… they are all dragons and they sneak up on most of us at one time or another. Lots of people get them. Even really really good people get them. And sometimes they are hard to get rid of. So what can a young boy with a bad case of the dragons do?”

You’ve Got Dragons is all about how to address anxiety and worry, giving kids coping skills to deal with those feelings.


Blueloon by Julia Cook

, recommended by Jennifer Nolley

“I’m a blueloon. I’m supposed to be a regular balloon, but I’m just not having fun like the others. I’m kinda dull, and I’m kinda flat. My string is tied up in knots. I have a case of the blues…that’s why I’m a blueloon. I’ve felt like this for weeks!”

Depression is normally thought of something for adults, but children can have it too. This book shows them what it all means (as they might not understand depression), and how friends can help them “bounce back.”


The Invisible String by Patrice Karst

, recommended by Frannie Gaeta

“’That’s impossible,’ said twins Jeremy & Liza after their Mom told them they’re all connected by this thing called an Invisible String. “What kind of string?” They asked with a puzzled look to which Mom replied, “An Invisible String made of love.” That’s where the story begins.”

Overcoming the fear of loneliness or separation can be hard for anyone, this books helps  with an children can easily identify and remember how to cope with such hard emotions.


Rabbityness by Jo Empsan

, recommended by Frannie Gaeta

“Rabbit enjoys doing rabbity things, but he also loves un-rabbity things! When Rabbit suddenly disappears, no one knows where he has gone. His friends are desolate. But, as it turns out, Rabbit has left behind some very special gifts for them, to help them discover their own unrabbity talents!”

Rabbityness celebrates individuality and encourages the creativity in everyone while positively introduces children to dealing with loss of any kind.


The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf

, recommendation from Melissa Hays-Smith

Ferdinand is the world’s most peaceful–and–beloved little bull. While all of the other bulls snort, leap, and butt their heads, Ferdinand is content to just sit and smell the flowers under his favorite cork tree.

This classic has been around for 80 years, but the lessons are timeless. Teaching kids about individuality, critical thinking skills, and how to accept how you are.

You might be thinking that I said these were books for teens as well as children. As promised, here are some of my personal favorite YA books that deal with mental health.


The Rest of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness

This is one of my favorite reads. It takes a completely different look at what happens to those people who aren’t fighting zombies or whatever is trying to end the world. With a close look at dysfunctional families, eating disorders, and general mental health, it’s definitely worth a read this month. ADDED BONUS: includes LGBTQ relationships because diversity is important!


I Made You Up by Francesca Zappia

As someone who does not suffer from schizophrenia, this really opened my eyes to how different it is compared to the stories we normally hear about this condition. I fell in love with the unreliability of our narrator, Alex. Everything you think you know… you don’t.


Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

The movie is coming out this month, so read this one soon! As sappy as the trailer may seem, love literally does save Maddy’s life, but love is also what did her in. Confused? Read it.


13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher

Okay, I know this is everywhere. We wrote about it too. Even if you already binged the show, read the book! It’s a whirlwind of feels and there are just enough differences that it will feel new. Come on, I know you loved it enough to go through it again.

What is the connection between counseling and eating disorders?

“What you get the patient to tell you

is worth much more than what you tell the patient.”

Counseling—especially through asking the right questions and practicing therapeutic listening skills—can save the life of someone struggling with an eating disorder.

Daryl Smith-Oswald, RD, LD, LLC, tells us in Today’s Dietitian article “Insights From Eating Disorder Counseling,” about a client who described her relationship with her “best friend,” cookies and ice cream.

The girl said she got excited about her best friend every night, but felt disgusted after each binge.

The counselor asked the client what she would do if a human friend made her feel that way. “I would probably dump her!” the client responded.

What a wonderful opportunity to discuss changes after such a power-packed statement.

February 26-March 4 is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, Family Service of Roanoke Valley wants you to know the connection between mental health and eating disorders.

A person suffering from bulimia, binge eating disorder, or anorexia may be suffering from depression or another mental illness.

Those struggling with an eating disorder can find the support they need.At the heart of treatment and recovery is the person’s support system—whether it’s family, friends, a counselor, a dietitian, or a combination as unique as each individual’s needs.

In the Today’s Dietitian article, five dietitians discuss one major life lesson each they learned working with clients who have eating disorders. 

Each “lesson learned” provides a new angle for how to work with a person suffering from an eating disorder.

Check out the original article and let us know what you think with a comment below!

Take care of yourself this holiday season

This is a good thing to keep in mind this holiday season! Our families may have lots of expectations they place on us, and coming home for the holidays can be stressful for everyone.

Remember that the most important person you have to please with the decisions you make is yourself.

Your family means well, but they all have their own ideas about what is important, and you probably can’t satisfy all of them. Concentrate on what you need to do to be happy, and don’t worry about what anyone else says.

Happy Holidays!

Holidays Can Be Hard!

Holidays can be hard! Our expectations are based on movies and media where we see perfect families having the most wonderful meals, wearing the most wonderful clothes, playing football on the lawn and we think this year… this year that’s my family!

I was interviewed on WFXR this week to talk about this very topic! Check it out here.

Basically…if Aunt Mabel is still asking whether you are engaged or not, or Grandpa believes the last good President was Herbert Hoover…it’s time to prepare yourself!!

In some 12 step programs, they use the acronym: HALT, which stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired.  If you are any of these, Aunt Mabel might just be too much to bear. So, take time to stop, breathe, and take care of yourself — and you will be better able to handle your relatives and manage yourself!

Other suggestions:

1) You probably know your relatives and which ones will be the most challenging for you to handle. We can’t change them but we can change what we expect. We can adjust and adapt and remember that when the holiday is over, our real life is waiting and whatever happens around the Thanksgiving table won’t change that.


peaking of adjusting, we can adjust our physical position, keep moving… if Auntie is irritating, note that you haven’t seen Cousin Tom in a long time and you really must catch up with him and get moving away from your irritating Auntie. When Cousin starts in on politics, move on to someone else…

Don’t personalize it: your family probably cares about you but that doesn’t mean they get you. Whatever is most offensive to you is probably coming from their own issues or they are just being careless with their words and not noticing how offended you are.

Be realistic if you know this is going to be a chore, prepare yourself. Think of it as business, not pleasure. (If you are wrong-YAY) but if you are right you won’t be let down!

Plan a Friendsgiving or personal reward like a hike in order to get your own needs met!

Let it be… you can do lots of things but until you walked a mile in their shoes, you just don’t know why people act the way they do. So let it be, laugh it off, change the subject…

Be generous of spirit and plan to spread cheer (even if they don’t act they deserve it!) and maybe my friend was right, and you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar! Just don’t expect to have this cheer returned!

Set the stage: Say, “I know we are all tired of the election and what is going on in the media so I propose we choose to talk about something else. I want to put a collection together of everyone’s favorite holiday memories, so when we talk that’s what I’ll be asking.” Or say, “I know we all want to share our opinions of the latest election. I am going to put on the timer for 15 minutes… when it buzzes, we can move to the table (or to the next stage of the holiday) but let’s promise we won’t talk about politics. Instead, maybe we can share what we hope to be thankful for next year.”

Focus on what you share-football teams, reading, movies, music, etc…

Get active: go hiking, play touch football, take a bike ride…

Mind your manners as my grandmother would say…be polite, be kind, be quiet!!!

Practice self-care: whatever this means to you. My introverted daughter takes time outs and disappears to her room every couple of hours. Take a book, practice yoga, journal, take a bath, run, bike, walk, go to the mall.

Don’t overeat or drink too much.

If all else fails… have a get-away plan. Transportation and an excuse for taking a moment (or more) to yourself.

Holiday suggestions with kids:

If you are traveling-buy something new to do in the car or on the plane… new book, new game, new movie etc…

Try to keep as close to your normal routine as possible

Advocate for your kids… this is not the time to force them to eat all of their brussel sprouts if they normally live on chicken nuggets… (or is that just my kid?) Speak up to other family members about your rules and expectations if they are different from your other family members.

Plan activities but don’t overdo; plan downtime; provide outdoor time and physical activity; do something with just your own nuclear family (hike, movie, mall, etc.)

Give your children an assignment: ask them to find out everyone’s first Thanksgiving memory or favorite Thanksgiving food; let them make the placemats, name cards, napkin rings, center piece or help make the pies… so they feel a part of this whole festivity!

Remember kids are kids… they will melt down at inconvenient times. They will punch their sister in from of everyone. Deal with it all as privately as possible! Don’t give in to embarrassment because everyone’s kids have done it even if your sister in law pretends hers didn’t. Don’t shame your kids but also don’t let them off the hook. Think about what happened and remember that sometimes kids need consequences but sometimes they need to sleep or eat or play or to be hugged!!!