Mental Health Champions: Why & How Angela Caldwell of The Caldwell Family Institute Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness
Have a thing. Be a triathlete, or do ceramics, or volunteer at the dog shelter. Have a thing that’s your thing that you do outside of work, and devote yourself to it. You would be astounded at the insights you can gain by regularly traveling outside of your work and family world. Mine’s tennis, and the more matches I play, the more I learn about the athlete’s approach to a problem. I’m shocked at how often I use my experiences on the court to see my way through a family’s issue.
As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Angela Caldwell.
Angela Caldwell, MA, LMFT is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She serves as founder and director of the Caldwell Family Institute in Los Angeles, specializing in family-based treatment. She is currently an adjunct professor at California State University Northridge, teaching systems theory and related courses.
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?
Sure! I actually claim roots in a few different places on the map, and coincidentally, they’re all places that value family as the core of someone’s identity. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee where most of my extended family still lives, so even though I was only there in my infancy, a lot of my love of country music and yes ma’aming comes from there, as well as that Southern sense of obligation to honor thy mother and father. But I grew up in El Paso, Texas, right on the Mexican border, so I was immersed in a bicultural way of life from the time I could walk. I imagine that the heavy Hispanic influence in El Paso has informed quite a lot of my viewpoint of the world, which I like to think is one of openness and acceptance of all kinds of people (because in El Paso, they can all exist at one dinner table). Lastly, my mother’s heritage is Italian, yet another culture that elevates “la famiglia,” and that part of my identity shows up in my cooking, yelling, and tolerance for clashing personalities. I always have to warn my clients that this Italian Tex Mex Southern girl loves people, but has trouble using an inside voice.
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?
Our passion is healing families. People have said that American society has moved away from community-minded family culture, and more toward individualism and “me-first” mindsets. I totally agree, and I’m totally heartbroken by it. I think we’ve started to lose our tethers to our home base, and we spend a lot of time trying to convince ourselves that this is okay, or even better for us. We justify estrangement by calling family members “toxic” or diagnosing them with a million disorders, and we misuse “self-care” and “boundaries” as rationale for cutting ties with parents or siblings. This is a distressing trend, because while there certainly are situations that call for cut-off, they are the rare exceptions. At CFI, we believe that a lot of the loneliness, depression, and sense of “lostness” we’re seeing today is fueled by life paths that appear to favor the individual, but actually promote isolation. We are trying to steer society back toward the home and family. We’re trying to retie family bonds and address old hurts that broke them in the first place. Most familial injuries can be healed with enough talking, and we’ve had a ton of success repairing broken family relationships and bringing family members back into one another’s lives.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
I started my career in therapy like most therapists — I was driven to effect positive change in people’s lives by some of my own traumatic experiences in the past. So I suppose my passion for therapy in the general sense of the word started there. But I was trained in a psychology culture that didn’t necessarily see the value in tight-knit families and the importance of familial bonds, and instead favored the will and desires of the individual. So when I first started, I found that I was indeed able to help an individual heal from various injuries and sometimes even actualize their dreams. But more and more, I noticed that this same individual moved further and further away from their origin family and started claiming a new “identified family” instead. In most cases, this only worked for a short time before they found themselves right back in the same dark place they started from, and ultimately I decided it was because we had prioritized wrong: self over family. About five years into my career, I decided that true happiness has to straddle the obligations of self and family, and that ended up being a defining moment for me. I did a 180 and switched from working primarily with individuals to working primarily with families. Now my goal with almost every family I sit with is to help them establish a way of being that ties them together as a unit while simultaneously promoting individual growth.
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?
I’d love to say that I had a warm and cozy life-changing moment of inspiration and drive, but the truth is that my anger simply reached a breaking point. (Enter my Italian side.) When I first started working with families, I wanted more training to hone my skills, and a community of like-minded therapists to bounce ideas off of. I started attending conferences that claimed to offer family therapy sessions, only to find out that nobody was offering anything past the beginner level family therapy that we all learned in grad school. I tried talking with other therapists who claimed to do family therapy, only to find out that they really work with individuals and meet with the family from time to time to give them an update. Rehabs advertised — even bragged — that they incorporated family therapy as a mandatory part of healing, and the more I investigated this, the more I found that to be false. (Most rehabs have a once-a-month Sunday where families sit down to hear what terrible people they are.) I was getting frustrated and, frankly, pissed that it was this hard to find a true family therapy community, so I started my own.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Three years after I started the institute, I had my first child. It was interesting to see how quickly the referrals dried up. It was as if the world had written me off as no longer a viable resource, even though I went back to work after a short maternity leave. Business was slow for a surprisingly long time, and when I attended a training about a year later, several of my colleagues reacted with shock that I was back to work. One of them said, “Oh wow! I just figured you’d be a mom now.” There was definitely a mixture of surprise and judgment that I was a career mother, and it took another six months or so for business to rev up to where it had been before I left. It was interesting to realize that even in a field full of therapists, the traditional notions of gender still guided assumptions about who should be running a business.
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?
Oh, tons. Dr. Louis Cozolino was an early mentor in my career. He advertises himself as a psychologist, but really he’s a perpetual student of the human condition. I tried to be a Xerox copy of him early on, because he simply does not allow psychology to be his only source of information about humans and their concerns. He’s interested in religion, philosophy, systems, corporations, and neuroscience, and it shows in his out-of-the-box thinking and unbelievable wisdom. I love that. My husband is the smartest person I know and is the picture of flexible thinking. He can look at a single situation forward, backwards, upside down, and probably in the fourth dimension, and constantly uses that superpower to challenge my default settings. I hate that. But he believes in me intensely and says so on a regular basis, so I forgive him for being smarter than me. My best friend is also a therapist, but she was an only child in a single-parent household, so we couldn’t have come from more different family backgrounds. We’ve had some of the deepest, most fascinating conversations about our differences and how they inform our views of family, and a ton of her perspectives have ended up in my speeches and trainings. She’s also the one sitting in the front row of every big step I take, so that she can applaud my success and tease me relentlessly over my mistakes. And then there’s my brother. That twerp keeps me more honest than anyone in my life. He knows me down to my DNA, so any attempt I make at being anything other than myself is called out in a matter of milliseconds.
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?
Stigma exists because the definition of “mental illness” is both culturally and professionally bound. In the Western world, the so-called professionals get to be the definers of mental illness, and they do it with lists of symptoms and behaviors that they have determined to be outside of their understanding of “normal.” But the truth is, there is no agreed-upon “normal.” In California, if you aren’t expressive and overtly emotional, you’re seen as closed off and possibly depressed. But in Texas, if you emote overtly, you’re seen as hysterical and weak. In Kansas, where my husband is from, emotionally expressive people are seen as selfish and obnoxious. So who’s right? Which one is normal? When mental health professionals show up and say that one or more of these is a mental illness, of course that’s not going to be well-received. Hence, the stigma.
To be honest, the stigma around mental illness doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers other people. I totally get why people are touchy around therapy and mental health, and I think it’s okay. Therapists often forget that we’re not the only game in town, and that we’re actually the latecomers to the healing party. Humans have been seeking help for thousands of years, and they’ve been getting better for thousands of years. What we call “depression” or “anxiety” simply has a different name in other circles, and people have been going to clergy, medicine men, family elders, psychics, oracles, doctors, sages, and alternative healers since the beginning of time. Just because 44 million Americans have a mental condition doesn’t mean we need to see 44 million Americans in therapy. There are a lot of ways to heal a mental condition, and we need to be more tolerant of those who choose other paths. Perhaps if we were more tolerant and less insisting, we wouldn’t see so much of a stigma.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Individuals, particularly family members, need to simply make more room for their mentally suffering loved ones. It’s not hard. Recognize that your loved one is in some trouble, and that it’s your job to forgive and lend a hand. And yes, it’s a burden. And yes, it has a negative impact on you. And yes, you’ll have to give some stuff up for a while. But you know what? Soon it’ll be your turn to suffer, and you’ll need to lean on your loved ones. Isn’t that the whole point of family?
Society is doing fine (with a minor exception). We’re seeing increased discourse around mental illness, and with that, increased understanding and tolerance. Schools and workplaces are allowing for mental health days, and self-care is on the rise. Mental health is a hot topic right now, which goes to show that society is becoming more interested in learning about and supporting those who suffer. The one thing we could lay off of is all the awareness nonsense. Mental health awareness days don’t really do anything except glamorize mental illness. Insisting that it’s “okay” to have mental illness isn’t helping anyone. Mental illness, like physical illness, is not okay. When we are mentally ill, we should seek help (from anyone we respect) and deal with it privately, just like physical illness. Encouraging people to come out to the public about their mental illness and normalizing it as perfectly fine isn’t helping us — on the contrary, it’s even more of a turn-off to people who don’t understand it in the first place.
As for the government, I’ve heard a lot of good ideas that I really like. I like the idea of making medication free for severe mental illness and addiction. I like the idea of getting rid of state-by-state licensure so that therapists can practice anywhere in the country, especially with the move toward more virtual therapy. It would be awesome to see the government pass family leave laws like they have in Sweden, where parents get a ton of time to make the impossible adjustment to having children. I have a feeling that if we had more family leave, we wouldn’t see as much post-partum depression, arguments over parenting, child abuse, or divorce after the first-born.
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?
- Have a thing. Be a triathlete, or do ceramics, or volunteer at the dog shelter. Have a thing that’s your thing that you do outside of work, and devote yourself to it. You would be astounded at the insights you can gain by regularly traveling outside of your work and family world. Mine’s tennis, and the more matches I play, the more I learn about the athlete’s approach to a problem. I’m shocked at how often I use my experiences on the court to see my way through a family’s issue.
- Get off your screens. Social media might be the devil, so limit your use strictly and severely. Stop working on your computer at a certain time every day, and turn off the television. The more screens we have on, the less likely we are to turn toward each other. I don’t know about you, but I need my husband and friends and children to look directly at me to feel seen, to feel important, and to feel respected.
- Get involved in your community. We are nothing without one another, and if the pandemic taught us anything, it was that. Attend the free concert in the park. Go to the local church or synagogue. Take a first-aid class at the community center. Participate in a beach cleanup. Without exposure to other people and their stories, you risk falling down your own dark rabbit hole and becoming convinced that no one’s life is more terrible than yours.
- Be around children. Have some of your own, or babysit for someone else’s. A child’s experience of the world throws your whole life into perspective. Children teach us what is truly important and show us how to let go of everything else. They remind us of our original selves and they speak the most naked truths. You’ll never know your truest strengths or most humbling weaknesses until you spend time with a child.
- Practice rituals. Put some kind of rhythm and cadence into your life with daily meditations, nightly dinners with your family, weekly trips to the beach, or annual holiday celebrations. Rituals are the quiet pulse in our lives — the moments we can predict, the moments we know by heart, and there’s something very soothing about knowing something by heart.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Mark Manson is a rockstar. I’m pretty sure his book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***,” is going down in history as one of the best life wilderness guides ever conceived in the history of mankind. I visit his website www.markmanson.net regularly, and laughingly applaud his practical and no-nonsense advice. My mentor, Lou Cozolino, wrote “The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy” and I read that about once a year. He sheds light on what exactly is happening in the brain during trauma, during healing moments between family members, and during therapy itself. And it’s remarkably down-to-earth and easy to read. Finally, at the risk of shameless plugging, I have to mention my husband’s book, “Saving Psychotherapy.” His book bravely tackles a sensitive topic in my field — why therapy is unpopular and what we should do about it. I love how brass tacks he is, and how he backs up his opinions with mountains of indisputable data. Reading his book makes me want to be better.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I love the Invisibilia podcast. Every episode teaches me something cool and extraordinary about this world, and opens my mind to yet another way of thinking about humans. My cousins recently turned me onto Hardcore History, and while I hate them for how long each episode is, I love them for introducing me to a man who understands history with the grace and wisdom of the Dalai Lama. Dan Carlin has opened my eyes to alternative perspectives that have completely changed the way I’ve understood entire sects of the human population.
You’re probably seeing a pattern here. Anything that offers me yet another viewpoint on the best way for humans to live their lives makes it to the top of my favorites list.
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?
It’s better than the alternatives. You could make a negative impact on the world, or no impact at all, so why not spend your time adding good things to the world? While focusing on yourself and your life and your dreams is nice for a while, it’s also a dead end to a midlife crisis or existential angst. Clients who sit on my couch feeling that life has nothing to offer are the same ones who offered nothing to the world. They spend all their time making their own lives better and completely miss the world around them. Eventually they find themselves empty inside, sometimes deeply guilty, for having left nothing of value to those around them. Don’t end up like that. Spend your life helping, cheering, comforting, cleaning up, doing favors, volunteering, and giving the world as much as you can of yourself. Those are the people that never end up on my couch.
How can our readers follow you online?
Youtube channel: How to Family (Angela Caldwell)
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Mental Health Champions: Why & How Angela Caldwell of The Caldwell Family Institute Is Helping To… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.