Mental Health Champions: Why & How Dr Lisa Hunter Romanelli of The REACH Institute Is Helping To…

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Mental Health Champions: Why & How Dr Lisa Hunter Romanelli of The REACH Institute Is Helping To Champion Mental Wellness

If you don’t try who will? Everybody can contribute. Your contribution is important — no matter how big or small it is. I encourage people to take action, instead of just admiring the problem. Do something! Sometimes that something may have a big impact. But even if it doesn’t, the action in and of itself has value and is contributing to positive change.

As a part of our series about Mental Health Champions helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Lisa Hunter Romanelli.

Lisa Hunter Romanelli, Ph.D. is the CEO of The REACH Institute, a nonprofit organization that trains primary care providers, therapists, and health care institutions in evidence-based therapies for child and adult mental health issues. Dr. Romanelli is also a licensed clinical psychologist with expertise in cognitive behavioral therapy for children and adults. Prior to REACH, she was an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and the Director of School-Based Mental Health Programs at the Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health. Dr. Romanelli has been with The REACH Institute since 2007.

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’m the middle child of a Haitian mom and Black American dad. My mom immigrated to the US as an adult, learned English, and worked as a clerk before meeting my dad, a Navy man from Alabama, in New York City. I was born in the city and lived there until my parents, older sister, baby brother, and I moved to central New Jersey when I was 5 years old. I was fortunate to have a very stable and loving upbringing. My mom was a stay-at-home mom, completely devoted to caring for her family. My dad’s job, as the captain of an oil barge, kept him away from home two weeks a month, but he was very present in my life. Both of my parents were supportive and caring. Although they did not have the privilege of attending college, they always emphasized the value of education to my siblings and me.

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?

The REACH Institute is a nonprofit organization focused on ensuring that the most effective, scientifically proven mental health care reaches all children and families. There’s been a lot of talk lately about the national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. Some statistics suggest that youth mental health difficulties likely doubled during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, the rates of mental health problems among children were high, with approximately 20% of children having a diagnosable mental health condition. Unfortunately, the vast majority of children needing mental health care don’t get it because there simply aren’t enough clinicians. Since 2006, REACH has been working to increase access to child mental health care by empowering primary care providers, therapists, school personnel, and parents to know and use the most effective methods for identifying and addressing children’s emotional and behavioral health challenges. Our flagship program provides teaching and ongoing coaching in the diagnosis and treatment of common youth mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and ADHD, to pediatricians and other primary care providers. Over 5,000 providers have completed that program and they report it has really transformed their practices.

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

When I was in high school, my mom suffered an episode of depression. That was my first exposure to mental health problems, and I was terrified. Learning as much as possible about depression was one of the ways I coped. This was before the age of Google, so I went to the library and read as many books as I could find about depression and its treatment. Thankfully, my mom was fortunate enough to get treated for her depression and eventually recovered, but my interest in mental health continued. In college, I majored in psychology and loved it so much that I decided to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. Research, academia, and private practice are some of the career paths available to clinical psychologists with a Ph.D. pursue. As I was going through graduate school, I knew that I wanted to help children and families by providing them with effective therapy, but I also realized that as a therapist, there was a finite number of children I could work with as patients. I wanted to figure out a way to have a greater impact on children with mental health issues. Now, through REACH, I’m doing that.

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?

Prior to joining REACH, I was part of the Child Psychiatry Department at Columbia University and worked with Dr. Peter S. Jensen, REACH’s founder, and the chairman of our Board, at Columbia’s Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health. While at Columbia, Peter developed the vision for The REACH Institute. He recognized the need for closing the gap between mental health science and practice by empowering more non-mental health providers, like pediatricians, to understand and address mental health issues within the scope of their practices. When Peter decided to leave Columbia to start REACH, he asked me to come along, that was my aha moment. I thought, “Do I continue to work in the comfortable academic setting that I know and enjoy, or do I take a leap of faith and join a start-up nonprofit to try to have a larger impact on children’s mental health? Coincidentally, the opportunity to join REACH came soon after I had my first child, my daughter, Sofia. Becoming a mom made me even more committed to making a difference in children’s mental health and gave me the courage to take the leap of faith to join REACH.

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

COVID changed the game for REACH. Prior to the pandemic, REACH delivered all of our training programs in person. Our staff and faculty traveled all the time. When COVID hit, we had to quickly transform our interactive, hands-on training to Zoom. I was so nervous when we offered our first virtual course. Would people sit through a weekend of training online? Would it be as interactive and interesting? As the training began, I started to feel some relief as I noticed that participants were engaged, and they stayed through the whole training. We received positive feedback about that training and throughout the pandemic healthcare providers and organizations continued to request training. In fact, between 2020 -2021, we delivered more trainings to primary care providers then we had in any prior years.

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 parents were my biggest cheerleaders early on and throughout my life. Professionally speaking, my graduate school advisor, Dr. Maurice Elias, and REACH’s founder, Dr. Peter Jensen, have been great mentors. Maurice taught me a lot about social-emotional learning and how teachers and schools can support the emotional well-being of children, a topic that still interests me today. I met Peter in 2000 when he hired me to work with him at Columbia University’s Center for the Advancement of Children’s Mental Health. He’s a visionary leader who is passionate about children’s mental health. Over the years he’s encouraged me to articulate my vision for REACH and given me increasingly more responsibility for the organization. In 2018, I became REACH’s CEO.

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?

I think the stigma persists because of a lack of understanding about mental illness and discomfort talking about it. This contributes to a fear of mental illnesses and an inclination to distance ourselves from people who suffer from them. Increasing everyone’s knowledge about mental illness would go a long way in reducing stigma.

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

At the individual level, I think it is really important to listen to someone who is suffering from mental illness and provide support by acknowledging what they’re feeling and expressing hope that they will feel better. Often times, when someone tells us they are struggling with depression, anxiety, or some other mental health concern, there is a strong urge to offer solutions to fix the problem as quickly as possible because it makes us uncomfortable to know someone else is hurting. But sometimes the best that we can do is listen to that person’s experience, let them know that you hear them, and you have confidence that things will get better. Once you’ve listened, you can then ask how you can help.

As a society, we need to expand the mental health work force by building the capacity of non-mental health professionals to increase their knowledge and comfort in identifying and addressing mental health within the scope of their work. One way REACH is doing this is by training as many pediatric providers as we can in our Patient-Centered Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care (PPP) Program. We offer this training ourselves, but to have a greater impact our goal is train health organizations and hospital systems across the country to deliver our PPP Program to their providers. We’ve had particular success with this train-the-trainer model in Virginia. Initially, individual health systems engaged REACH for PPP trainings. Then, the Virginia Mental Health Access Program (VMAP) engaged in our train-the-trainer program. Now, VMAP is a REACH licensee and with our support, they are offering PPP training to pediatric providers throughout Virginia.

On the government level, there have been several positive actions, like passage of the Restoring Hope for Mental Health and Well-Being Act of 2022 and allocation of nearly $300 million in federal funding for the expansion of school-based mental health services. In addition to these initiatives, I’d like to see more funding directed towards what REACH focuses on which is increasing access by expanding the workforce.

If we continue viewing mental health treatment as only within the domain of psychiatry, psychology, and social work, we’re not going to get very far because there aren’t enough people in those professions to meet the need. We must expand the workforce beyond those groups.

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?

My top 5 strategies, in no particular order are sleep, fun, family, gratitude, and faith. I try to stick to a regular sleep schedule to make sure I get enough rest and can start each day at my best. Building in fun, pleasurable activities throughout the day is really important. These activities don’t have to be fun with a capital “F” that require a lot of planning and money. Any fun activity, no matter how small or quick can make a big difference. For example, my boys recently got into playing ping pong. They like to have tournaments amongst themselves. So, I make time to play a round of ping pong with them when I can. I find spending time with family is also good for my wellbeing. We regularly eat dinner together and use that time to check-in, share stories about our day, and laugh. My husband and I go on long walks together with our dog, Gravy, and any of our kids who want to come along. I’m so grateful for my family and cultivating gratitude is another important strategy for me. No matter how stressful my day may be, I make an effort to acknowledge and appreciate what is going well in my life. My last strategy is faith. I grew up Catholic and practicing my faith by attending mass gives me an opportunity to reflect and connect with others.

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

REACH is focused on evidence-based mental health, so I regularly read the latest mental health treatment research. It’s exciting to learn about new developments in the field and how they can help children and families. I also enjoy reading memoirs by people who’ve suffered from mental health issues and how they managed it. I find it so inspiring. Some of my favorite memoirs include ‘An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness,’ by Kay Redfield Jamison and ‘The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression’, by Andrew Solomon. There are so many professional organizations that offer helpful resources for mental health including the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT), National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), just to name a few.

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?

If you don’t try who will? Everybody can contribute. Your contribution is important — no matter how big or small it is. I encourage people to take action, instead of just admiring the problem. Do something! Sometimes that something may have a big impact. But even if it doesn’t, the action in and of itself has value and is contributing to positive change.

How can our readers follow you online?

To learn more about The REACH Institute, visit our website, You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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

Mental Health Champions: Why & How Dr Lisa Hunter Romanelli of The REACH 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.