"During this time of COVID-19, those that have chronic illnesses or those that don't have chronic illnesses have to take care of their health, you have to think about how you're eating, how you're exercising, how you're drinking water, because we have to stay at our healthiest to be able to fight off a virus like this." - Dr. Rufus Tony Span
Shireen: Thank you, Dr. Spann and welcome to the Yumlish podcast.
Spann: Thank you for having me.
Shireen: Diving right in, I would love to talk to you about your personal story and journey into the mental health space.
Spann: Well, that's an interesting story. And I always tell people that sometimes you're not gonna believe how it happened. But since the age of seven, I knew I wanted to be a psychologist. Now that identity morphed over time, because I knew as a psychologist, it just seemed too stuffy. So I knew I wanted to be a helper, like if that was my identity, while my counterparts wanted to be firemen or policemen, I was like, I want to be a helper. And that just didn't seem cool to anybody. But it seemed cool to me. So from there, I was like, I'm gonna continue this journey. And I and I did so. And I think what also impacted my journey is that I saw a lot of my family members needing help. And so just that identity of me wanting to be there for them, but not understanding what that really meant, because they were going through stress distress, and many of them were undiagnosed. And particularly in my community, as African Americans, we will support and love people through their issues. But sometimes we're not truly getting them to the place of help and getting them diagnosed. And as I got older, as I got into school and different professions, particularly at Johns Hopkins, I became a clinical counselor. And that's where I really understood what it meant to diagnose and treat and support people of color. And that's really been my journey, where understanding who I am in my own body and helping my own people and being a helper that I am today.
Shireen: So with that, tell us a little bit about Henry health and in the focus that you have there. Thank you for asking that.
Spann: So for Henry health. The term Henry comes from Sherman James, his work that he did with hypertension, back in the 50s and 60s and thinking about what that looked like for people of color and hypertension. And so as a team, a part of the founding team, we came up with the name Henry health. And so Henry Health's journey even goes back prior to that, but I preface that, I started working with Kevin Danner, he's our CEO, and at the time in which I still have a clinical practice, and Kevin was searching for a therapist that just made sense for him. And he searched through two or three therapists before he got to me. And by time we started working together, he knew there was something different about my technique and my ability to get to his narrative. And so that technique comes from Johns Hopkins with Dr. Dee vines and looking at a multi-dimensional model. And from his experience, he felt like his outcomes just were a lot better and a lot greater than what he's experienced before. And I always tell people that that's because culture first like you are able to bring in your total identity into the session, and how helpful that is in treating an identified problem. And so Kevin was like, man, I need you on the team, I need you to be a part of Henry health. And I was like, sure, you know, I needed a platform, I needed something that helps to get the word out on how to dress culture and address my people. And that goes back to my beginning narrative as that young person that was thinking about how can I be that helper. And so since Henry helps inception, our identity was helping black men, particularly helping them through stages of one being undiagnosed going through treatment and outcomes. And we believe having culture first having an identity of working with black men can do a lot of culture shifting. And so Henry health is still standing on that premise, on making a lot of culture shifting for black men and wanting them to show up whole operate with joy and lifted power.
Shireen: When we, when we talk about health for black men, we know that things like chronic illnesses, like diabetes are prevalent within the black community, Hispanic teens and so forth. What is the correlation that you have seen between these chronic illnesses and mental health?
Spann: Well, I'm glad that you asked that because there's a predisposition, right, or preexisting factors that go along with that. However, when we think about the existence of what is the financial stress, if we think about family stress, we think about disparities and inequities within healthcare systems within communities, we're finding that there's several different variables that cause that to happen. And that's whereas particular people in the mental health field, the healthcare field, advocate supporters, we have to disaggregate that information, the data, we have to really dive in there and realize that people are suffering and what they're suffering from may not be generally known. Like, we have to go in there like Sherman James, and think about how or why is this hypertension being caused or needs to be examined? So thinking about some of the people who background on the team, so we have a lot of people that are in public health, we have several people that are in mental health. And that's where we have to marry our disciplines together and getting at what's going on within the Latinx community, what's going on, and the African American community what's going on and the Native American communities and really teach that data out again, because we know that with stress, depression, anxiety, trying to keep up with counterparts, imposter syndrome. There's particular lived identities that are just not known. To most people, or they're not really researched heavily, because sometimes researchers do not know how to dive into those narratives. But the reality is that what we think are some of the, the problems or the pre existing issues may not be what we're known, known to it, it could be something different. And that's where we have to get back in there and see what's going on. But when we think about some of the bigger overarching issues, it's really stress, stress of being an African American stress of being the Latin American stress of just being in a society where you're not really accepted, there's still a lot of prejudice and issues that you live through, as well as working through on a job or career. So there's a lot of preexisting issues that cause the issues of mental health, and well as changes of diet and eating.
Shireen: And so when you, when you dive into some of that, and we've seen in the past has been, there's also stress associated with having that chronic illness that has an impact and you know, causing anxiety and am I managing this right? Am I, can I do something better? How are you seeing that evolve in the community? What has been their response to that?
Spann: Good question, thinking about a lot of our eating habits, and just thinking about a lot of our daily day, day to day daily habits, I'd like to dive into that one. Historically, eating habits, particularly the system for African Americans, as I speak from my own personal narrative, a lot of our eating habits and how we survived and survival habits through historical trauma, through lived experiences, have been eating foods that were initially given to us or scraps that were given to us, and making a meal out of that, but then adding certain salts and sugars to kind of make it taste better. But in the long run, what does that mean when it talks about when we talk about diabetes, or chronic illnesses that come along with that. And then if we talk about the lived experiences against dealing with African Americans, I'm just, because of my lived experience, thinking about the stress, think about diabetes, think about hypertension. So these are chronic illnesses that do come along with that. And unfortunately, a lot of these chronic illnesses come from a lived experience historical trauma, traumatic stress that we're still incurring. And it's hard for us sometimes to tease away from that, because it's like, this is our daily meal. This is how we eat; this is part of our culture. And it's like, No, you don't have to put that much sugar in there, you do not have to put them with so I'm sure it'd be okay, if you put a tablespoon or less, or something like that in a bigger meal, right. But at the same time, if we're thinking about what it means to live in these issues of chronic stress or chronic hypertension, said, a lot of times we're not trying to get diagnosed, we're not trying to get supported, for the illnesses that we have. And I think that's where yummilicious and all these other companies are starting to think about how do we get into a place on dressing the issue, getting a support for that person to help them just like live through this? I think that's the important part that we have to start to do now, live through these experiences and talk about the experiences in a healthy way. Because I think the problem now is that there's more undiagnosed issues than diagnosed. And we have to get past that.
Shireen: So on top of that linger if we add the nervousness and anxiety that's coming through COVID-19, what are the implications that you're seeing the community today, just from that, and where do you see this sort of heading.
Spann: So there's a lot of preexisting issues, particularly for black men, as that, as Henry Health is at the forefront of that, and then pre existing issues for people of color, and not go across the spectrum, from all kinds of people. And so if we think about pre existing issues, these are pre existing issues, that one, some are not diagnosed at all, to some are diagnosed. And so when we think about the immune system, think about the central nervous system and think about the digestive system. And the impact on stress on that our anxiety, we think about the releasing of it in the system of glucose, or it is remaining in a high state or causal, and that remaining in a high state that's already eating out the organs, it's eating out the muscles, it's already causing us to have low immune systems. So unfortunately, when you have a virus like COVID-19, or you have a virus like the flu, what happens is that the body is already at a state where it's not appropriately able to fight what's entering the body. And so if we think about people that are undiagnosed, that may have diabetes, or that have chronic illnesses, they're already at a place of being at the expectancy of where the virus will affect them differently. And so that's where during this time of COVID-19, those that have chronic illnesses or those that don't have chronic illnesses have to take care of their health, you have to think about how you're eating, how you're exercising, how you're drinking water, because we have to stay at our healthiest to be able to fight off a virus like this. And I think for those that are already diagnosed with diabetes or with other chronic illnesses, have to stay on the regimen very closely. They have to maintain their immune system. And they also have to think about how they're socializing with other family members that may be in the house. Are the people because we need to keep the stress low, we need to keep the anxiety low. And we have to maintain that level of social distancing. But not social emotional distancing, right? There's a difference. But we have to make sure that we're caring for each other. But we have to make sure that we're caring for our health, because that's our first fight against this virus.
Shireen: There's, there's talk of a possible second wave hitting to the end of the year. I know just thinking about it personally, that causes me some anxiety, because life has changed, I mean, blessed. But still, life has certainly altered for what it was, you know, a month or two ago? How would you address this anxiety that is being caused by the second wave of service, inevitably another round of what we're going through right now? Possibly? What would you say to that?
Spann: I'd say what my mom says to me, and something that she's been saying for the last 36 years of my life. And I just think about how she's also been a really good guide for me to even be in this profession of mental health and support, she would say, you know, you hope for the best, but you prepare for the worst. Now, there is a silver lining in that saying, and there's also something that just is very looming. But as you prepare your mind for hoping that maybe the second wave is something where now that I have knowledge, I have information, I have a way to live through this. And I know how to prepare myself, that's really hoping for the best and a way of action and being in a prepared space, but at the same time preparing that this will come. And that through preparation, we'll be able to deal with this. So I know it's going to be anxiety provoking, I know it's not going to be easy, and it can be stressful. But if you prepare for something like that, the first time we were not prepared for this first wave, we are, we can be better prepared for the second wave. That's by preparing how you're going to eat during the second wave, how you're going to continue to socialize through social distancing, and a second wave, how you're going to prepare, how you run and get your food and how you're getting your food and eating healthy during this time. also thinking about how to make sure that you stay mentally healthy, how you stay physically healthy. The reality is that there's a possible high possibility that we will all be getting the virus at some point, and how our bodies will deal with it. But if our minds and our bodies are in the healthiest space that we can be, the way the infection will affect us will be different. But I always hope for the best and prepare for the worst. And I think preparation is what's going to help us the most, I think a prepared mind, a prepared heart and a prepared body will go through the second wave better than somebody that is not prepared at all.
Shireen: To some of the listeners out there who are dealing with those personally, are there any tips that you can provide to them that they can do today? Perhaps things that they can change about their day-to-day life? That you would impart on?
Spann: Yes. And that's where I love as a clinician, I love talking about not just a diagnosis, but I love talking about helping somebody and guiding somebody and then finding treatment that works best for them. And so there's tons of things that people can do. So if you're thinking about, Hey, I'm alone, I feel isolated, I feel reduced options. The reality is that maybe you can think about like, what are some other alternatives that I can do within my home? How do I create my home space to be as relaxing as possible? So that helps to reduce the stress and anxiety? How do I make contact with my family members checking on those that may have fallen sick, maybe those that are at an older population that may be more prone to getting the disease? In addition to that, if we think about the physical, there's tons of things that you can do in your house from yoga, you can do marching in place, walking up and down the stairs, you can actually go outside and think about using some mindful walking and thinking about your breath and as you're walking. But I think what we can do is just thinking about Total Wellness during this time, that includes your mind, your body and your spirit. And making sure that you're focusing on different techniques like yoga, like meditation, like breathing, focus on healthy eating, like you're eating, drinking eight glasses of eight ounces of eight glasses of water, thinking about making sure that you're eating fresh foods. In addition to that, when you think about your mind and reducing anxiety, you can count colors in your house, you can count to 10 if you need to count more, you count more if you need to think about being grateful or affirmations, all these things help to deal with the mind, the body and then the Spirit. The Spirit is really just being grateful and thinking about what is the self-advocacy, what is your higher power, and putting hope and faith in that and I think those are the things that we can do to keep a total wellbeing during this time. And really the body has to be at as optimal as much as we can because that helps for us to fight the virus in post COVID-19 that's a way of wellbeing in well lifestyle that we should be living anyways. So I'm hoping that during this time, if you take on new practices continue You continue on for the rest of your life, and that will make the difference.
Shireen: And so that leads me to how does, how does something like managing this anxiety turn into a long-term habit? Because it's nice to embrace it now that we have the time to embrace it now. But how do we convert this into long-term sustaining habit?
Spann: Well, that's what I do with, when I'm working with clients, particularly at my practice. And at Henry health, I'm looking at how do I get people to one take this as a daily habit, and continuing on? What I generally tell people is think about this mantra, just for today, I will focus on being grateful, just for today, I will not be worried. And so I don't want you to think about the next day, because that's the problem with anxiety, it's thinking too far into the future. I want you to think about just for today. And when you think about just for today, you can think about my eating habits just for today. I can think about not being worried just for today. I can think about being valued just for today. And so as you take this one day at a time, I'm hoping that these collective moments collective of days, will lead to a lifetime. But the reality is that we have to take it just for today. And so as you're in today, be present in the moment. So grounding yourself in the moment that helps to reduce anxiety, because we need to stop being so far into the future. And come back to the present moment. There's ways of doing that, through ways of breathing exercises, there's ways of doing that just by grounding yourself through different techniques, with reality as being focused on whatever you're doing. If that's working, if that's cooking, if that's being with your family members, I ask that you be present as much as you can in the moment and block out negative thoughts, block out attitudes that aren't helpful for you. And try to be present in the moment and think about being grateful, reducing anxiety, reducing worrying and being happy for the moments that we have.
Shireen: You know, when you're talking about having that positive attitude, I definitely like that, because one of the things that we see when we're working with people who has diabetes, the first, the first thing they'll tell us is, you know, this is it for life. This is what I have, this is it for life, nothing's going to change. You know, what would you say to someone who has that anxiety of this is the sentence for the rest of my life? I can't change it. What would you say to someone like that?
Spann: I would say that there are many people living through chronic illnesses, or illnesses that have no kind of diet and ability to stop the actual virus from being in their body for an example, HIV, overthinking about other lived experiences that have chronic diseases. And the main thing is that you're still alive, and that you will live through this. And as technology as other medicines get better, they will be there for you. But we have to remember that we have to live through that to be able to get to these moments. And so as you are living through it, some of that moment is just being grateful. And I know it's difficult because there's challenges with managing diabetes, there's challenges with managing HIV, there's challenges with managing a lot of chronic illnesses, but living through it being present, that you are still here being still present, that you are managing this. So grounding yourself and understanding that although you have this you are still alive, it is not your identity, you are not HIV, you are not diabetes, you are the person who you are, and you are managing through that you are living through that. And as you take that from the forefront of who you are as your identity as your being, remember that I still have family, I still have a career, I still have life, I can still have fun, I can still travel. And so remembering that your life is not over. You're just managing something else in your life that is now here until something else changes. But I think that's where we have to face the diagnosis. And that was something that my family didn't do. And I'm hoping that there's a shift in that as well for them. But even for the general public, if we get diagnosed, which is the first step and understanding what we're dealing with, we have to then think about how do we treat it and how do we manage it? And once we get it in a manageable space, we continue to live life, life is not over, you're just managing something in your life. And that does not have to be the forefront of your life.
Shireen: So with that, Dr. Spann, thank you so very much for your time. I would love for people to learn more about your work. How can people connect with you?
Spann: Okay, and I thank you for asking that. The last part is that I am with Henry health. I am the chief clinical officer. And so that's where a centering of my work goes with looking at culture first and how that's implemented within Henry health. If you're looking to connect with me, you can connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, those are the spaces that I hover in the most. And just to kind of tap into Henry Health a little bit more. We do have a campaign going on right now. It's hashtag coping with COVID. We do have webinar series that we're still promoting At this time, and we also have continued work. So we do have teletherapy that we're providing we will have group therapy. In addition to that, our app will be launching in mid to later part of this year. And so I think that's going to be exciting. So please look out for the app. We do welcome all although right now we're currently working with black men. That is not going to be our only focus, we will move into other genders groups, sexual orientation populations, but we believe if we can solve the problem with black men, we think we can solve the problem for others. So thank you for allowing me to say that and being a part of the podcast, this has been a great journey for me as well.
Shireen: Thank you.