The Health Diaries

How This Popular Psychiatrist Uses Instagram to Fight Mental Health Stigma

‘When a black person is getting treated for a mental illness, it’s usually in an emergency room setting.’

There are many ways to live a healthy life. The Health Diaries is a weekly series about the habits that keep notable people living well.

TThey call her Dr. Jess. She’s a psychiatrist completing her residency at NYU, and she has a big mission: to bust mental health stigma.

Jessica Clemons, MD, first found her niche on Instagram a few years ago when she started asking her followers basic questions about mental health: Did they want to know more about how to combat anxiety? What about depression? She got dozens of positive responses and decided to use her platform to educate the public, especially people of color. She started by sharing stories from her own life and offering weekly Q&As on Instagram Live. Today, Dr. Jess — who boasts more than 50,600 followers on Instagram alone — organizes community-based mental health talks in New York City. A few months ago, she was featured in a live therapy show on VH1 called In Session Live With Dr. Jess. She also recently hosted a wellness talk about normalizing mental health with rapper A$AP Ferg.

Dr. Jess shares with Medium her daily routine, her passion for community, and her obsession with using social media to amplify important stories.

I wake up around 7 a.m. most days. I usually rely on my alarm, but if I’m really well-rested, I’ll wake up naturally. The first thing I do when I wake up is kiss my husband. Then I check my email and social media on my phone right away. I wish I could start my mornings with meditation instead, but I’m still working on that. I have some of my clearest thoughts in the morning.

I go about my normal morning routine after that. I shower, and I condition my hair. I’m a curly girl, so I try to get that styled. Then I use a gentle facial cleanser without fragrance in it, and I figure out what I’m going to wear that day. I grab a book and set out my headphones for my 45-minute commute from Brooklyn into Manhattan. Right now I’m completing my residency in psychiatry at New York University (NYU), so I’m working a normal schedule at the hospital from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. most days, but I used to work night shift, which made it really hard to keep a routine.

On my way to work, I usually stop to buy a bagel and a coffee for breakfast. My personal philosophy about food is that I eat what makes me feel good. I grew up in the South, but in New York, a lot of Southern food is considered unhealthy. However, I still eat Southern breakfasts on Sundays, with grits, biscuits, and eggs. During the week, I try to eat healthy at the hospital where I work. I’ll choose things like salmon and salad from the cafeteria. If I want a hearty meal, they have a great pasta bar. I believe in moderation, so I listen to my body: I’m the person who doesn’t clear all the food off my plate, because I only eat until I’m full. I also take a multivitamin here or there, but honestly, I’m just so busy that it’s hard to remember to take vitamins most of the time. Doctors are the worst patients! We are so good at caring for other people, but we often put ourselves last.

As far as exercise goes, I drink a lot of water and walk a lot. I usually do yoga three times per week, because it’s great for stress relief and flexibility. But because residency is really busy, it’s hard to make time for much else.

One important thing in my health routine is that I go to therapy every week. It’s a great way to process the events that have come up for me that week, and it gives me an outlet outside of my husband to talk about challenging things. I also find meditation helpful for learning how to be in the moment, and I practice mindfulness, which means I try to enjoy the moment and not overdo or overstress anything.

I also surround myself with loving people. I have a lot of great friendships and relationships. We have dinner with friends multiple times per week, and my philosophy is just to be in the moment and appreciate life, to make memories and build connections with people. If I’m having fun, I’ll stay out until midnight. Otherwise, I try to be in bed by 10 p.m.

As a resident, work-life balance is always a struggle, but I think it’s incredibly important to work toward. When I’m having challenges at work, my personal life (especially my relationships) helps to relieve my stress and keep me motivated. When I talk to a patient in therapy, I always ask what they’re doing for work, play, and relationships. It’s so important to be well rounded; you can’t just have everything invested in work. It’s not sustainable.

I use my social media accounts to educate people about mental health topics like these. For example, I’ll talk on Instagram Live about what to do in toxic spaces or how to thrive at work. I also offer community-based talks with local artists or people who have huge platforms. I ask them to talk about their lives and what they have achieved despite difficulties; I want to encourage people to pursue their dreams despite struggles. The New York State Office of Mental Health recently reached out to me about supporting these talks, so I’m excited about that.

For me, Instagram has been a positive force. Before I used it to promote mental wellness, I was finding people who were like-minded on the app, and it provided a safe space for me. If you’re worried about its impact on your mental health, you should unfollow accounts that make you feel bad about yourself. Personally, I try to curate what I want to take in. I also want people come to my page for information about mental health and balanced living, so I talk about being a resident, my marriage, and psychiatry. I try to be really intentional in my wording: I keep things uplifting, but I keep it real, too.

We’ve got to reduce mental health stigma so people can seek help. It could be therapy, it could be medication, or it could be a combination of the two. But suffering alone is not going to get things moving in the right direction. I always say: Do things to help keep you generally balanced, like exercising and engaging in meditation to help you notice your thoughts and not get stuck on them. That’s a good place to start.

I write essays, test products & produce content marketing for brands. I’m also a career coach for freelancers and the co-host of The Writers’ Co-op podcast.

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