Mental Health Champions: Why & How Kristi Coppa of Wondergrade Is Helping To Champion Mental…

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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Kristi Coppa of Wondergrade Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

Tell yourself a story: This is one of Brene Brown’s nuggets of wisdom. She says to be wary and mindful of the story you tell yourself. Sometimes you tell yourself a story that isn’t true. My daughter might come home from soccer practice and say, “I’m terrible at soccer,” because she didn’t score a goal. That’s a story she’s telling herself that probably isn’t true. Instead we can talk about the game and tell ourselves a story about the game that feels better and is also true. “Remember when you passed the ball to your teammate?” I might remind her. “Then she scored the goal. Your team scored a goal because of your work as part of a team. That means that not only are you great at soccer but, more importantly, you are a great friend to your teammate and a great member of the team.”

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Kristi Coppa..

Kristi Coppa is a mother of two, a kids mindfulness teacher, speaker, writer, and former nurse. Kristi is also the founder of Wondergrade, a digital health and education company that helps families build skills for increased emotional well-being. Through creating content kids love and empowering parents to teach it, Kristi intends to help create a kinder, more resilient, and compassionate next generation.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up as the youngest of three girls in Portland, Oregon. My family was active, loved to hike, bike, swim, and be outside as much as possible. We traveled a lot, and most of my childhood memories are of fun family outings, like camping trips or day trips to the beach. I also had the privilege of growing up with my large extended family, whom all lived in town. I had dozens of first cousins who lived in my neighborhood, and because of that, I never lacked a playmate. My family was loud, expressive, and full of life, especially the gang of aunties who always had something silly planned or some gossip to share. I was loved as a child, so it felt hard and confusing when I started noticing anxiety. In my head, my excessive worries didn’t fit and, therefore, should be ignored or pushed down, which I will talk more about a little later.

You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?

Wondergrade is an organization that helps families promote mental wellness by helping caregivers build skills along with their kids that promote emotional well-being. When we say “caregiver,” we mean parents, grandparents, extended families, teachers, nannies — anyone who takes care of children. These skills are meant to help you and your children understand feelings, handle emotions, and strengthen relationships.

We found that many adults did not grow up learning or practicing these skills and, while they wanted their children to have the opportunity to have mental wellness, did not know how to model or teach mindfulness, calm-down strategies, or emotional regulation. We have compiled research-backed age-appropriate activities for families to learn together that can be easily incorporated into busy daily routines and accessed during moments of calm or stress.

There is a mental health crisis in our society, only exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic and social stresses. Unfortunately, the systems in place are not enough to combat the rising cases of anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns our children are facing. We need to be able to address mental health concerns at home to support the work our healthcare system is attempting to do to treat our children.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

When I was a child, I had anxiety, but I wasn’t diagnosed. I thought something was wrong with me, that I was broken, and I felt ashamed. I would worry all night, feel like I had to be perfect, and feel incredible amounts of stress. As I grew older, I did seek mental health care only when my body began to become affected by this stress. Even then, the stigma of being “less than perfect” kept me from fully integrating mental health care into my life.

After I became a parent, I struggled with postpartum depression and anxiety but had a hard time asking for help, thinking admitting I needed it meant I wasn’t a good mom. I began to have panic attacks when my second daughter was born, and I knew I had to take care of my family by taking care of myself. I became an advocate for maternal mental health care.

When my eldest daughter was three, she was diagnosed with anxiety, and I saw some of the strategies I learned in my own therapy and yoga practices being adapted for her by her therapist. Simultaneously, I saw how effective yoga and mindfulness were in her preschool class. I put the two pieces together and became a children’s yoga and mindfulness coach. At first, I thought that would be enough: teaching in-person classes to kids in my community.

Then, with the help of my tech-savvy husband, Wondergrade was born. We created a website and then an app that incorporates yoga, mindfulness, and meditation, adapted for children, to help kids calm down, relax, and regulate their big feelings. My kids loved the activities in the app and as I began to share the program, other families found it helpful, too. Now, I know I have found something to be passionate about that makes me feel that I am helping my family and my community.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions but never manifest them. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

When I first started making content for what would become Wondergrade, I didn’t share it with anyone, not even my own mother. I was worried that people would see it and think it was a waste of time and resources to create something of my own when I could be taking care of my family or going back to my first profession, nursing, an objectively helpful calling.

However, I wouldn’t say there was a specific “Aha” moment that made me do it, but one day, I must have felt just brave enough because I announced my company on Instagram. I wasn’t sure what would happen. Would people make fun of me? Or would there be crickets? But the response was overwhelmingly positive and supportive. More importantly, I found that Wondergrade was a product parent wanted, that they were perhaps even desperate for. Parents all over had been in quarantine, trying to keep kids and themselves sane in the face of “unprecedented” challenges. A cute, game-like app that could help them learn skills to help name, cope with, and manage big, sometimes scary feelings is exactly what families needed after the last few years. So, while there wasn’t an “Aha” to step up and do it, once I did it, the “Aha” was that I should absolutely keep going and keep doing it.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Less than a year after we launched Wondergrade and we were just gaining momentum, I was diagnosed with a rare chronic leukemia. Turns out my exhaustion was due to more than just building a company during a pandemic while schooling two young kids at home! With medical professionals giving me conflicting advice about treatment and prognosis, my family decided to get a professional opinion from the world expert on this specific type of leukemia. The only problem was he was in Virginia and we were in Oregon. Since my immune system was too weak to fly during a pandemic, we decided to take our two kids and dog on what became a six-week cross-country road trip. We were able to stay in our safe family pod in an RV where we slept, and we were able to enjoy being outdoors together all across the country.

Some of my friends, I think, thought this was the worst idea ever, and I think it could have possibly gone horribly wrong, but the experience brought my family closer together. Sure, we bickered occasionally. Driving a giant RV certainly can bring out the worst in two married people, and being with your kids 100% of the time isn’t always perfect, but spending that quality time together and knowing it was a precious time in the face of scary health news meant that we appreciated each other and had experiences we would never have had in our everyday lives. It was a lesson in mindfulness in the end because it helped me live in the present moment, appreciate the love and attachment I had, and manage big, often overwhelming feelings.

My health crisis meant we had to pause some of our big development plans for the company, and it was difficult to refocus ourselves as kids started going back to school. Fortunately, my prognosis was good, and I’m in remission. I was able to keep working on my passion project and take on a new co-founder, Cindy Hovington, a neuroscientist and parenting advocate who brings a whole new perspective to the company. Having something so huge happened in my personal life could have spelled the end of my professional project, but instead, it helped me reframe my vision for how to move the company forward.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

My biggest cheerleader is my husband and former business partner, John. When I first became interested in yoga and mindfulness for kids, John was the one who told me he had never seen me light up the way I did when I talked about helping kids and encouraged me to pursue it. When I had the idea to turn the activities into an app, he agreed to build the app. When, along the road to building the company and getting it off the ground from our garage during the pandemic, I consistently told myself and him that I was a fraud and was going to just quit and throw in the towel, he kept telling me not to give up and that I had more to offer than I thought I did. Obviously, his technical abilities are the reason Wondergrade is what it is today and looks the way it looks, but it’s also why it exists outside of my imagination. We have two daughters, one dog, one cat, and one Wondergrade.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

Just because all these people have a mental illness doesn’t mean they talk about it. I had mental illness for as long as I can remember but didn’t talk about it for thirty years. Even once people are diagnosed, they often don’t want to talk about it for fear of judgment from others.

The stigma is real, and it can be for good reason. People can be judged based on their diagnosis. Insurance companies can deny you coverage. Certain professions, often some in our government, can deny you employment. This is an unjust practice, but it’s true. I’ll talk more about this in the next question.

That being said, most of the time, the stigma is unfounded. People stigmatize mental illness because they don’t understand it. They see it portrayed on TV or in movies a certain way and form a judgment. They don’t know what it feels like because people don’t talk about it.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

When they feel safe and supported, individuals with mental illness should speak about it with honesty and transparency. Talking about what it feels like to have anxiety might help someone else recognize anxiety in themselves and get some help.

Individuals who do not have mental illness can be supportive and non-judgemental to those who do. They can be curious instead of jumping to a conclusion. They can educate themselves on the topic or ask their loved ones to help point them in the direction of resources.

Society is a broad term. The media should make a point to stay away from saying “mental illness” is the cause of all crimes and from glorifying it in the news. In fictional media like movies and TV, there should be sensitivity to mental illness and an attention to accuracy.

The government can provide more resources. People should not be punished or lose out on opportunities because of a history of mental illness, especially if that history is disclosed because they sought treatment.

What are your 5 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

  1. Notice and name the feeling. Practice being mindful of what feelings really feel like in my body and the bodily sensations I feel. Accurately name that feeling. The first time I was asked to teach my content in a live class, I had all sorts of imposter syndrome. I thought I would be laughed out of the room, that people would realize I was actually not the expert they thought I was, and everyone would ask for their money back. It was also a goal I had achieved after years of work. Real people, real kids, and parents were paying good money to learn from me. It was mind-boggling to me. I remember driving to my first class and feeling the common tight chest and fluttery tummy of anxiety. Since I have done so much mindfulness work with recognizing sensations in my body, I could feel it instantly. I also knew that this was the exact thing I felt when I was excited. I said out loud to myself, “I am feeling a little nervous and also really excited.” This helped me re-frame the feelings and got me into a more positive state. The class was a huge hit, and I loved every minute of sharing my work with families. With the reminder that my body was feeling excited, I was able to start with a positive mindset and use that energy for good instead of feeling like I was trying to stop the anxiety.
  2. Thoughts are not facts: Whether due to my biology or upbringing, I have always struggled with feeling not good enough. I think that no matter how hard I try, it still won’t be enough. I decided to combat this thought and replace it with the truth that I am worthy and enough no matter what I do or don’t do. To help me visualize and practice this, I bought two little plants. One of them represented the truth that I was enough. The other was representative of the thought that I wasn’t good enough. Every morning, I took time to bring mindful awareness to my thoughts. I would meditate on the truth that I was worthy and enough, then I would water that plant. After some time, the worthy plant began to grow and flourish, and the not-worthy plant started to shrivel and die. My thoughts also followed this pattern. This was an incredibly impactful practice for me and something I think of often. I still feel unworthy, ALL the time, but I can pause and remember my little plant thriving and remind myself of the power of talking back to your thoughts.
  3. Practice self-compassion: When my daughter was first diagnosed with anxiety, I felt like I had done something wrong as a mom. Maybe I didn’t provide her with a safe feeling when she was an infant. Maybe my husband and I fought too much in front of her, maybe I ate something wrong in pregnancy. Self-compassion practice helped me move through these difficult and destructive thoughts and feelings. I spent quite a bit of time in self-compassion when my daughter was struggling. I practiced recognizing that the feelings of inadequacy I had were real and many people had similar feelings in these situations. I was far from alone in what I was feeling. I also practiced giving myself the love and care I needed to get through the difficult time. This led me to be more available and open to all she was going through and thus opened me up to getting her the resources she needed.
  4. Growth mindset: A growth mindset is not something that comes naturally to me so this has been an intentional practice. One thing I have practiced through my entrepreneurship journey is rephrasing my sentences by adding “yet” to the end. If I felt like something was impossible, instead of saying, ”I can’t do this,” I would say (yes, awkwardly out loud), “I can’t do this yet.” It trained my brain to look at hard situations as growth opportunities and helped me power through the many setbacks I encountered as I tried to launch my business.
  5. Tell yourself a story: This is one of Brene Brown’s nuggets of wisdom. She says to be wary and mindful of the story you tell yourself. Sometimes you tell yourself a story that isn’t true. My daughter might come home from soccer practice and say, “I’m terrible at soccer,” because she didn’t score a goal. That’s a story she’s telling herself that probably isn’t true. Instead we can talk about the game and tell ourselves a story about the game that feels better and is also true. “Remember when you passed the ball to your teammate?” I might remind her. “Then she scored the goal. Your team scored a goal because of your work as part of a team. That means that not only are you great at soccer but, more importantly, you are a great friend to your teammate and a great member of the team.”

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Brene Brown — Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly

Glennon Doyle — We Can Do Hard Things (podcast)

Kristin Neff — her work on self-compassion (book: Self-Compassion)

Curious Neuron– her IG and podcast

Whole Brain Child — Recognizing how young this starts, how our brains are wired, what impact we can have on our kids.

If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

When I followed my passion, I felt guilty at first for doing something “for myself,” but my company and my passion was all about helping other people. When you do something that makes a positive impact on your environment or society, and it’s something you’re passionate about, it doesn’t feel like work, and the fact that I felt guilty for enjoying my work so much speaks to the fulfillment I was having. Never before had I been fulfilled by “work.” But by doing something that really meant something to me and my community, I was able to help others by making a positive impact on their lives, but I was also able to find my own happiness as well.

How can our readers follow you online?

On Instagram: @wondergrade

On Facebook: Wondergrade

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Kristi Coppa of Wondergrade Is Helping To Champion Mental… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.