Forging a path to positive mental health
8 February 2021 at 8:17 am
As the CEO of Smiling Mind, Dr Addie Wootten is leading the charge on providing accessible mindfulness skills and tips to millions of Australians. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
A clinical psychologist by trade, Wootten has spent most of her career in hospitals, working alongside and supporting people with cancer.
Having used mindfulness practices with clients for many years, when the chance to work with mental health and mindfulness NFP Smiling Mind arose she jumped at the opportunity.
Through the Smiling Mind app, which has been downloaded by 5.4 million Australians, the organisation offers simple mindfulness strategies that are proven to lead to better attention, memory, regulation of emotions and self awareness.
The organisation also provides resources and educational tools that have been adopted by one in three educators across the country.
In 2020, when pandemic-related stressors really took their toll on many people’s mental health and wellbeing, Wootten was at the forefront of listening to the Smiling Mind community, pivoting the charity’s activities to best serve the people who needed it the most.
In this week’s Changemaker, she discusses her journey into the charity space, how she keeps grounded in times of turmoil, and what inspires her leadership.
What drew you to the role at Smiling Mind?
I’m a clinical psychologist and have spent most of my career working in hospitals with people who were going through and having treatment for cancer. And that experience had a really big impact on me, from a personal and professional point of view, in that I realised that there are lots of things in life that happen to us that we don’t plan for. They’re very unexpected and they are quite transformative and life-changing. We all go through those things in our life at some point, some of us many times in life. And working with different people, I could see that they were different ways that people responded to those really big life-changing events. And so that led me down a pathway of thinking about things that led me down a path towards Smiling Mind.
The first was exploring mindfulness and the concept of learning how to deal with life situations, the things that life throws at us, without reacting and responding or feeling overwhelmed. So how do some people navigate those big challenges in a way that actually helps them make sense of what’s happening while others really struggle and fight against it?
The second piece that I was really interested in as a clinician was the fact that not many people actually wanted to come and talk to me. Obviously, I didn’t take that personally because there is still a huge stigma around talking to a psychologist and seeking help. So I started dabbling and exploring how we could use technology to help people start to process and learn about new ways of thinking and look after their mental health. I basically started building tech platforms that were designed to support people, particularly people that [were] a bit reluctant to come and talk to a psychologist. I actually started recommending Smiling Mind to my clients, and I was fortunate enough to connect with one of the Smiling Mind founders, Jane Martino and there was this really nice synergy between bringing my clinical work into a more of a start-up environment. It happened that they were looking for a CEO at the time, and so I jumped at the opportunity.
What kind of impact do you want to have as CEO of Smiling Mind?
The thing that excited me in terms of impact is the potential to reach so many people. As a clinician, you work one-on-one with someone over a period of time, and that’s extremely powerful and a huge privilege, but there’s only so many people that you can work with in any one week, or year, and so the exciting thing was how do we take that experience out of the consulting room and bring it to life through technology. The scale of people that we can reach is just phenomenal in comparison.
It’s also about starting early and helping people build their strengths and their positive approaches to mental health. We’re really trying to help people think differently about their mental health and have a good relationship with it. That means embracing our foibles and our flaws and our really down days, but also working on ourselves and being open to improving ourselves and trying different approaches to look after our mental health.
Last year, being the year that it was, mental health was definitely a big topic of conversation. How did you respond and adapt to the needs of people during such a tough time?
It was a really challenging time for our team because we were also dealing with everything that was going on, but we really tried to follow the cues of the community and respond as quickly as we could. Luckily for us, technology was there. We already had the app available and a whole range of other resources digitally, and that was amazing that we were able to help people straight away. We supported almost a million people last year and we had ridiculous numbers in terms of increased demand. We held true to the programs that we were running, but we were fortunate to be able to pivot and run all our schools or workplace programs online instead of face-to-face.
We launched a podcast called Thrive Inside, and that was really trying to be as authentic and real as we possibly could be as we moved through that first stage of lockdown. It was just me talking to people about their mental health experiences and how they were coping. And we did that with the smell of an oily rag, it was me in my spare room with a doona over my head, but it worked and we got into the top five Health and Wellbeing podcasts in Australia. So we really tried to break it down into really practical things that people could use, entirely in response to what people were asking us for. We couldn’t do everything, unfortunately, but we tried our hardest.
What is something that you draw inspiration from to lead Smiling Mind?
My inspiration comes from the real experience of people using our program. Every time we design things and develop new programs, it really is about taking a step back and thinking about the people that we’re there to support. And then I think that’s probably come from my experience of talking to people quite personally for a long time in my clinical work.
We’re a pretty flat structure and a pretty small team, and so we all get our hands dirty, we all get involved in everything and that really keeps us close to the reason why we do what we do.
And what advice do you have for others wanting to create a positive social impact?
It’s about listening. Listening to what people are saying, rather than thinking that you have all of the answers. There are some buzzwords out there like co-design and things like that, and while they are very important, I think that sometimes all they are are buzzwords and we forget what they mean. And it really does mean if you want to make social change, you have to listen and you have to think about the fact that at Smiling Mind for instance, we are here to meet a need that isn’t being met at the moment and to help people change or live differently.
It’s not all about us as an organisation or as an individual, it’s about the people that we’re here to help. And then when you listen, you can leverage that message if you hear it enough. I don’t mean leverage in a narcissistic way, but how do you bring people together collectively to help you drive that change? Because nothing can be done as one individual, you need to make sure that you’re connecting with other people and inspiring that change.