By Erica Boniface, Bonfils-Stanton Foundation Staff

When we celebrated New Year’s Eve and welcomed in 2020, we had no idea what the year was quickly going to bring to us – the global COVID-19 health pandemic. When it first started, the events seem to be a blur as things happened quickly. One day we’re looking at throw blankets at TJ Maxx and grocery shopping without a worry in the world. The next? Well, we all know what happened next.

Schools closed. Masks were required. Large gatherings were banned. Businesses were closed. And people were getting very sick from COVID-19.

We had to learn a new way of life overnight. In January 2020, wearing a mask would have been an odd way to grocery shop. By August 2020, people have a collection of masks hanging from their rearview mirrors.

But something that isn’t as talked about is people’s mental health during all this – and how important mental health is as we survive a public health crisis. We wanted to check in with 2008 Livingston Fellow Dr. Carl Clark since he’s the current President & CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver.

We knew he’d offer amazing insight and tips on the pandemic from a mental health perspective – and he sure delivered. But we had no idea we were going to find our new favorite food blog along the way – that’s right, Dr. Clark is an avid foodie. Read our full interview with Dr. Clark below:

Bonfils-Stanton Foundation: Hi Dr. Clark, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. We imagine you’re particularly busy at the Mental Health Center of Denver now more than ever due to the pandemic. Tell us how much has changed for you since COVID-19 crisis began.

Dr. Carl Clark: I was in denial like a lot of people at the beginning of the pandemic. We were following the spread of the virus with a small risk team at the Mental Health Center of Denver. On March 11th, I called this a crisis and engaged our crisis management team to take action.

We thought getting together once a week would be about right. That was a Wednesday, and on Saturday I went snowboarding at Mary Jane. This is called denial. The next day, the ski areas closed because of COVID-19. I called my team together that day and we decided to move most of our services to remote. We would be open as usual on Monday and go virtual on Tuesday. It was a big lift and it all happened very quickly, but without a doubt, the staff was amazing and handled it better than I can ever explain.

However, going remote for a mental health facility has many challenges as some of our services cannot be done online – such as our residential service, pharmacy, primary care, walk-in clinic, mobile crisis, and co-responders. We had to find PPE to protect the people we serve and our staff who continued face-to-face services. We learned a lot very quickly.

When a disaster occurs like this pandemic, anxiety and depression increase, drinking increases, use of substances increase, domestic violence and child abuse increase. The demand for our services has increased.

The Mental Health Center of Denver’s goal was to make sure people could continue to get the services they needed in a healthy and safe way. The social isolation has impacted the people we serve and ourselves. We organized information on our website as to what people can do to help themselves during a time like this. It is very gratifying to see people get the help they need. Compassion burnout easily happens for many people including healthcare workers. Loving kindness meditation helps restore our capacity for compassion and prevents burnout. Making sure our staff has what they need has been our priority.

BSF: You’ve dedicated your career to mental health. Tell us about your day-to-day role as the President & CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver.

Dr. Clark: I have a lot of biases – one is that the brain is the most important organ in the body, two is that emotional health is at the basis of all health and three the science of well-being is available to all of us.

My day-to-day work is around how to connect with other people in an extraordinary way that contributes to their overall well-being. I love the science of what goes right with the brain and knowing that the better your well-being is the better the well-being will be for all those you come in contact with. Daily, my role is thinking about how we power the pursuit of well-being for everyone. This includes the people we serve, our staff and those we interact with in the community.

As a leader, I learned to hire people that are smarter than me, who know things I do not know and to create an environment where we can deeply imagine a better world.  I have also learned to ask better questions.

BSF: You’re an alumni Livingston Fellow from the Class of 2008. How did the program influence your leadership skills that you still utilize for your job today?

Dr. Clark: I have learned a lot though the Livingston Fellowship. The best part is listening to other Fellows about their journeys and lives. Having time to deeply listen has helped me in all my responsibilities. The thing that makes us uniquely human is our imagination and coming together to imagine things that never existed before. The Fellowship is rich with imaginative people – and it is so much fun to come together and imagine a better world.

BSF: Let’s talk a bit more about living through a pandemic. What are some tips you have for folks who may be struggling with their mental health as we navigate through such a difficult time?

Dr. Clark: First, know that the pandemic has impacted the well-being of everyone. We have all experienced losses and are grieving the loss of doing things our usual way. And learning about how to keep ourselves safe and healthy with COVID-19 is stressful. So, I would offer a couple of things:

For something to be stressful, three things need to be present – one is that we have a physiologic reaction to the what’s going on – our blood pressure goes up, heart rate increases and the like. This alone is not enough to call something stressful because we have similar reactions when we are excited about something we like.

The second element is that we would avoid this situation if we could.

The third element is that we do not feel like we have any control over what is happening. When we are feeling stressed it is our body’s way of letting us know that we are worried about something that is important to us. Our stress response is in our amygdala part of our brain, our fight or flight response. When we acknowledge that we are stressed, the stress moves from our amygdala (our reactive part of the brain) to our frontal lobes where we do problem solving. Stress comes in two forms, stress that we can do something about and stress that is more hypothetical that we do not have control over.

A tip I can give quickly is figure out what you are stressed about, then determine if you can gain any control over the stress, if you can then do it. An example is when we had to learn how to get groceries at the beginning of the pandemic. The stress was not wanting to contract the virus and having to learn how to avoid catching the virus. We learned about washing hands, not touching our face, wearing a mask, etc.  We gained control and over time the stress of this is less. If the stress is hypothetical, like what if I die from COVID-19, then we want to think about all the things we would like to happen if that is the case. I want my family taken care of and I want my affairs in order. So even when we are dealing with hypothetical situations, we can still address what we want.

I do recommend that people pick a time of day to be stressed. This sounds odd but it does several things. When you pick a time of day to worry, it allows your brain to let it go until that time comes around. Pick a time of day when you are good at problem solving. So, if it is 4 pm each day, then use that time to think through your stress and what you can do about it. People take different amounts of time. It can be as little as 15 minutes or more. If you live with someone, some people like talking about their stress together. Facing your stress straight on is healthy and helpful.

BSF: Once the pandemic is finally behind us, what are some things you’re looking forward to doing?

Dr. Clark: I love the arts and miss deeply going to exhibits, theatre and dance. We love having dinner parties once a month, and those have been on-hold until we can safely be together around our dinner table.

BSF: Do you think, in a way, that living through a pandemic has the ability to bring out the best in people?

Dr. Clark: When disasters occur, our human instinct is to gather together and help one another out. This pandemic has required us to be apart instead of coming together. It goes against our instinct. We each have become deeply aware that we are in fact social beings. Great creativity has come from this. How to be together while keeping a physical distance? We have had time to think about what really makes us happy. Helping one another has risen to the top for many.

Such as helping each other out, being more grateful for little things, creating more empathy between one another.

BSF: To close out – what is your favorite hobby when you’re off the clock?

Dr. Clark: Several favorite things, cycling, hiking, snowboarding, growing orchids and cooking. My partner Mark and I have been cooking something new every day for over 10 years.

We have a blog where we post what we cook and rate the food, you can read it at Denverlifewithcarlandmark.blogspot.com.

The blog started while visiting my family in Oklahoma. I grew up with lots of fried food and I’m not such a fan of that style now. We had just watched the movie “Julie and Julia” so in the context of a culinary wasteland, I wanted to cook something new every day for a year. We started that and have never stopped.