Psychiatrist Dr. Jessica Clemons, virally popularized as “Dr. Jess,” wants you to know it’s alright to prioritize your mental health and communicate what you are feeling. Her merit has earned the respect of medical institutions and governmental organizations alike, but the love of her community is what grew Dr. Jess‘ evolving influence and entrepreneurial endeavors. “I’d love to see more Black folks take on this specialty,” she explained during our exclusive Mental Health Awareness Month interview.
While the medical professional champions safe spaces where her supporters can process their emotions, she understands who is historically underserved adequate treatment. So, Dr. Jess took matters into her own hands by creating cost-effective solutions, such as her #AskDrJess Q&A sessions on Instagram Live and numerous free-to-the-public, in-person #BeWell events alongside high-profile figures. At the center of each undertaking is a much-needed sense of humanity.
She aims to normalize visions of Black and POC communities collectively taking care of their headspace by directing them toward wellness options through her audiobook, mental health partnerships, and consistent online infographics. These distinctive engagements can be seen across her social media pages and beside meme quotes like “Mental illness is not a personal failure.”
Dr. Jess teaches her followers about therapy’s benefits and helps provide language for the moments that are difficult to articulate. REVOLT touched base with the mogul about not allowing negative experiences to reduce us, the importance of self-awareness, and identifying signs of depression and anxiety. Familiarize yourself with her brilliance below.
Among Black and POC communities, resilience is notably credited as a superpower. Why is empathy also necessary when discussing mental health?
Yes, I think empathy is really our ability to put ourselves in another’s shoes. When we talk about mental health, one of the important aspects is for us to be able to acknowledge what others are going through. A lot of the dialogue recently has been about how to support one another. [This is] especially true with recent high-profile losses due to suicide.
People are asking the question, ‘How can I support?’ Empathy is very important because it allows you to imagine what that person is going through. And by imagining the feelings and thoughts, we are better able to understand their experience. We can provide support from that angle.
What stigmas do you strive to eliminate through your practice?
The main stigma I am focusing on these days is getting in to seek help. I think this [has been my concentration] over the last four years since I have been using social media to get the word out. I use a lot of public platforms as well. I have been able to share the message about mental health. I am sort of demystifying what it means to see a therapist or psychiatrist.
I think we are in a good place as far as that conversation goes. So many people are being open about mental health conditions. We are talking about it as a community. We are able to acknowledge that someone is going through a difficult time or a mental health crisis.
Now, we are talking about the next step and getting in to seek treatment. That can still be difficult, especially for the Black community. Our rates are still very low compared to our white counterparts in reference to seeking mental health services. We often end up seeking mental health services when we are in crisis. And that is usually when people do not have a lot of options in terms of their treatment. So, I would like people to go in before that.
You inspire with your expertise and visibility. What is your hope for the future of psychiatry?
I’d love to see more Black folks take on this specialty. It is definitely not a glamorous field within medicine. I share my personal journey to becoming a psychiatrist. My family’s reaction to ‘I am going to go into psychiatry’ after four years of med school [was resistance]. I heard, ‘Why not go into cardiology or something else?’ and ‘Be a real doctor’ was sort of the reaction I received. Now, we are acknowledging more of this community in society.
We know how important it is to take care of our minds. We need more people who look like me and look like us to step in and provide care. It lends itself to understanding the community that you are working with. What I bring into the room as a Black psychiatrist is not only the hope that patients can relate but also that I understand the experience. I am a part of it. I want to see more of us.
What has therapy given you?
It gave me Dr. Jess (laughs)! I started therapy when I was feeling isolated during medical school. In my residency training, I developed anxiety for the first time. I struggled to find my voice — even though I was very proud of how I could always speak up and stand up for myself before that.
Anxiety and depression are often linked. Can you please explain some key differences between these conditions for those who might be acquainting themselves with unfamiliar emotions?
Absolutely! I will start with depression. I think that the main piece we think about is obviously the mood. A low mood. A depressed mood. I know it can be really challenging for Black people to identify with that emotion.
I often hear people sharing excuses or beliefs about why they should not feel that way. It may [sound like], ‘I have this’ or ‘This is going okay in my life, therefore I don’t feel that way.’ That is a hallmark. Whether it is boredom, sadness or depression, [the emotion is valid]. Feeling down is a big part of it.
With depression, I think one of the pieces is losing the ability to enjoy things. You are no longer engaging in the same way you were before. Let’s say you were once energetic and outgoing and never missed an event. This is not because you were masking depression. Interacting was your thing.
Depressive episodes also have other issues like not sleeping well. You may have insomnia, a lack of concentration or just a lack of energy. I picture someone being stuck to their mattress. Still, it comes in two folds.
With anxiety, a person can experience constant worry. I tend to call that a psychological component of anxiety. They are stuck in their heads. They may replay conversations from the day. Perhaps, they feel worried about what people thought about them in that conversation. They may think that they have made a mistake.
People with anxiety worry about many different things in their life, such as finances, health, their families or what is going on in the world. The big piece is that it is hard to stop the worry once it starts. These people really cannot control it once it begins. Even when we try to convince them, ‘Hey, everything is okay. We have a plan.’ It can be hard for them to stop anxiety.
The second piece with anxiety is that it can also be experienced through the body. I think about this a lot when I care for Black patients especially. Again, we may be cut off from the part that says, ‘Worry is something we can experience.’
There are issues like having an upset stomach or gastro and intestinal issues. They can come up when you are stressed. That may be an indication of anxiety, also dealing with panic.
Can you please expand on how this interconnects with panic?
[An example is] when you suddenly can’t catch your breath, and your heart is beating quickly. Suppose you feel like you need to escape. That can be an indication of panic. If you carry a lot of tension throughout your back and neck, this can signify an anxiety disorder. So, to your point, yes, depression and anxiety are linked.
It is not a surprise if someone comes in with anxiety and later shares depressive symptoms.
Can you identify common signs that someone may be suffering from anxiety?
Yes, a big aspect is that the person may need a constant sense of reassurance. This is especially true if they are dealing with psychological anxiety. They may have constant worry — thoughts that are stuck in a loop.
This can look like someone you just told, ‘It is okay.’ They prepared very well for their exam. They are probably going to pass the test. Before you know it, they might come back to you with expressions of their fear that they will fail the exam. Yet again, you find yourself reassuring them.
Also, if the person is incredibly apologetic, that is a sign. If they lead with ‘I’m sorry.’ This person may be worried that they will say something or have said something to upset you. If you see these things often, they can be indications.
The person may constantly complain about stomach or neck pain. These can also be indications of an anxiety disorder.
You have found a way to utilize social media positively. What behavioral suggestions do you have for those who acknowledge their online activity negatively affects their emotions?
Take a break! Social media will be here. I certainly don’t see it going anywhere (laughs). We have seen all the evidence that it is harming people. More specifically, we see things in the mental health of young people. We can see issues in adults as well.
Give yourself a window of time where you abstain from using the app. What I hear from people who have done that is that they report feeling less anxious. They are not priming themselves so much during their daily experiences with all the material circulating on social media. I also discourage being on every single platform. Find a couple that you like.
You do not need so many places that you are checking in.
Your emails say: “You are not your pain — you are love.” Can you please explain this mantra?
So, it developed when I was coming into this discovery of wanting to take what I learned as a psychiatrist and share it publicly. Dr. Jess came. It really is a reminder to people that [things get better]. When you are going through a difficult time, you can start to think that is who you are. You might think, ‘We are the negative things that happen to us. We are the depression. We are the trauma we have experienced.’
That is my reminder to people that we are not those things. We have access to healing by going to therapy or accepting psychiatric medication. It can be a spiritual journey you are going on. Whatever it is, you have access to something else. We are never the things that harmed us.
You’ve assisted innumerable others in maintaining their wellness during this pandemic. How do you prioritize yours?
Well, I take a lot of breaks. I am not as active on social media as I was before. I have a growing family. I am expecting another baby any day now.
Yes, a lot of it is about prioritizing self-care. So, I do not stay up late. I make sure I get enough rest. I try to eat a balanced diet. I make sure I go outside every day. I experience nature in some way. I talk about what I am going through with loved ones.
I try to keep that dialogue open when it comes to friends and family. I try to look for something that sparks joy every day. It is easy. I have the most adorable toddler (laughs). He brightens my and my husband’s day.
One of my favorite videos on your YouTube channel is titled “10 Simple Ways to Support A Loved One’s Mental Health.” How large a role does self-awareness play in showing up for others?
I believe it is a very important ability to have. Still, it is not something that everyone has access to. Some people are not psychologically minded and that is okay. But I think if you can be self-aware, it will often mean you can engage with people by also trying to be understanding of their experiences.
I am aware of how the energy feels when I am in a room with someone. If I think about depression, that might help me consider how to engage a person. This will help me offer support or ask questions to get more information about how they are doing. I am aware of what feelings they bring up to me.
It is also something you can develop in therapy. Therapy inspires the ability to acknowledge and recognize the feelings you have. It affects your mood and behavior. A lot of that work is helping people to become self-aware.
Some people may believe they do not have resources or access to therapy. Are there any directives or tips you can offer to first-timers or those seeking general solutions?
Absolutely! I have some of this in my audiobook, ‘Be Well: A Guide to Better Mental Health for All.’ I do want people to know where to start seeking help. I want them to know what to expect from the journey. I tell people to start with directories.
For example, Therapy for Black Girls is one. There is another organization called Therapy For Black Men. Look up available therapists. You can begin in your community that way. If you live in an area with an academic institution or educational hospital, they [likely have options].
For instance, if you live in New York, there is NYU, Columbia University, and Cornell University. Those hospitals have residency training programs. You can usually get access to therapy or mental health services at a reduced fee. Often it will be one hundred percent covered by insurance. The fees are that low.
Additionally, you can get creative around Google searches. Type in what you are looking for. If you are looking for a Black queer therapist in Manhattan, write that. Obviously, New York City has a lot of resources. More and more therapists and psychiatrists are beginning to create public platforms wherever you are located.
A search opens up an opportunity to see who identifies as such. Hopefully, this will enable pairing with someone you feel would be a good fit. Do not underutilize what you can find by not searching for exactly what you want. Also, if you have Medicaid or access to a public program, you can always contact your provider or source. There are always plenty of clinics that accept this. Do not be afraid to look at community health centers.
Lastly, there are options for anyone who does not have insurance if cost is an issue. When you find a therapist, most of them offer a ‘sliding scale.’ They can base the cost of a session on your income level. It can also be based on what you can afford to pay. You can call in advance.
In that first visit, we would be negotiating: ‘Here is what I can afford. Can we make this work?’ You will be surprised. A lot of therapists have room on their schedules. Because, again, the work they want to do involves helping as many people as they can. Don’t be afraid to have those conversations. If cost is an issue, you may find a solution once you find a physician.
What are a few go-to practices that may help readers extend mental health awareness for another 11 months?
I am all about self-care. Outside of this, if you are engaging with a therapist or a psychiatrist, like me, this [is a priority]. Self-care matters. There is evidence that if you engage in routine exercise, this can positively impact your overall mental health. This is especially effective if we are talking about mild depressive symptoms. It helps reduce that.
Further, things like yoga can be wonderful for anxiety. This is especially true for people who deal with physical symptoms. We have talked about panic and the shortness of breath that comes up when feeling anxious. Having those skills embedded can help. We learn how to breathe through those feelings and come out on the other side. Those are going to be invaluable in times of need.
There is a whole new area of psychiatry. It is called nutritional psychiatry. A few top doctors have public resources, such as books and websites. Please search nutritional psychiatry. They talk about different foods that people should be incorporating into their diet.
Every single day we can help our gut-brain axis. There is some connection there. Rest! When I do not sleep enough, I am irritable and cranky the next day (laughs). It is not good for anyone. If you are living on a deficit, imagine what that is doing to your ability to interact.
Prioritize good rest. Don’t be on your phone. Make sure you maintain that dialogue and relationship with the community. It is important, especially if you are trying to figure out if therapy is right for you. At least learn ways to seek help and get support from the people in your life. If you begin to manage those things over the next 11 months, you are on a wonderful track.
You are a mother, wife, psychiatrist and educator of many. What is the next big dream on your bucket list?
Oh, my goodness! I am really so into motherhood now. I think that is the main focus. If I think about my career goals, I certainly want to do more with young people. There is a crisis happening amongst young people. Hopefully, we can get greater awareness [concerning] what is happening to our youth throughout the country. Focusing on that while being a mom is my dream for the future.
Are there future happenings, “Cup of Optimism,” or “Be Well” events your supporters should look out for?
Certainly so! Part of what I have been pivoting toward is podcasting. So, I recently partnered with Facebook when they had live audio rooms. I have used that to get attention around the great things people do in their community. For example, I have had the opportunity to meet people who support young Black males whose fathers passed away untimely or were incarcerated.
I am also working with an organization called Son of a Saint. They are located in New Orleans. They work to get these children through grade school and into college. They have great success rates! I have also had the chance to talk to a colleague researching the use of psychedelics to treat those with treatment-resistant depression. We think about those who have tried to receive treatment for depression but have not found anything that works. It will probably be the next wave utilized in managing that disorder.
We are focusing more on using that medium, especially during the pandemic. COVID-19 threw off a lot of public work, such as the ‘Be Well’ events. Those conversations were always exciting. It was nice to have so many faces in one space, but what I am thinking about now is building up toward podcasting. So, people should look out for that.