May is Mental Health Awareness Month and now, more than ever, it is important for us to take time to assess and address our mental health needs. To talk more about this, we sat down (virtually) with Dr. Aaron Rochlen, one of our faculty fellows at the RGK Center, for a discussion surrounding mental health and other personal and professional interests.
Dr. Rochlen is a mental health provider, researcher, and nonprofit professional. He is a professor of Counseling Psychology in the Department of Educational Psychology. His research focuses on men and masculinity, with a particular emphasis on masculinity, fathering, and help-seeking patterns. Dr. Rochlen’s practice, Walk Therapy Austin, integrates nature and movement with opportunities for creative reflection, insight, behavioral change. Dr. Rochlen is also founder or Soccer Assist, a nonprofit providing high-level soccer opportunities and spaces to play for under-served youth and communities.
Q: Tell me a little about why you chose to focus on the area you did—men's mental health. Why is this important to you?
A: I’ve been interested in men’s mental health and underutilization of counseling for a long time. Like most things, it came from a personal place. I was socialized in a way to see help-seeking as a sign of weakness. I learned that men should take care of problems by themselves. I’ve seen how this approach is far from effective in my own life and others, so the researcher in me wanted to learn about why this is and what we can do about it.
Q: What areas do you see men struggling with the most?
A: Men share most mental health problems with the general population—so depression, anxiety, substance abuse are big ones. Less diagnostically, common struggles are around intimacy, conflict with work and family, and finding balance. I also see a lot of men struggling with identity issues sometimes around fathering, trying to be different fathers for their children than they experienced growing up. We also talk a lot about relationships, key life decisions, and strategies for change.
Q: What inspired you to start Walk Therapy?
A: I’ve been interested for a long time in outside-the-box approaches to working with men—I even edited a book on the topic. What I’ve found in my practice is a lot of male clients struggle sitting in an office, not moving, just staring into a provider’s eyes. When I started walking with my clients, I found men became more comfortable; they opened up faster, and our work became more creative, and I found myself more focused and relaxed as a therapist. Metaphorically, I found it useful to be working on client’s issues in a common space—moving on a path together, side by side. We know that nature and exercise brings positive benefits, including mental health benefits. So fusing exercise, with nature, and therapy seemed like a no-brainer. Most people relate to how long walks can be an opportunity for reflection, insight, and change. Walk therapy is that with the benefits of an experienced psychologist along for the ride.
Q: What inspired you to start your nonprofit?
A: Soccer Assist also started from a personal place. We have a son who currently plays in the Austin FC professional academy, but started from more humble beginnings. When he was about eight, he was invited to play for an all-Hispanic team in East Austin called “Mini-Mexico.” Through this experience, he became a stronger more passionate player. But more importantly, he became friends with kids who had fewer opportunities than he had. He learned about privilege and this changed him in positive ways.
After a few years, we wanted to help some of those kids and families with more soccer opportunities. We believe in the power of sports connecting communities. Through connections at other soccer clubs, we started providing club and camp scholarships. We now have built a following through fun annual soccer parties. This led to other projects, including collaborations with the US Soccer Foundation and AustinFC to build soccer-specific mini-pitches. Our second court should be under construction soon!
Q: What message do you want to share for people during this time?
A: Obviously, we’re living in uncertain and scary times. With what’s going on in the world comes a lot of anxiety and other challenges. While people have rightfully prioritized their own physical health, it’s important to keep your mental health in check.
It’s also a strange time. People are nervous and scared, and want to do something. Yet most of us are being asked to stay home and do nothing. And a lot of struggles come with that paradox. For example, feelings of hopelessness, boredom, and isolation related to mental health challenges. It’s key to be aware of those factors and reach out for help, whether with peers, family, or professionals.
And most nonprofits and foundations, while they’re not front and center in the news these days, are also impacted. They might be struggling economically, but also with the conflict of how to keep their missions relevant. How do you stay on your donors’ and supporters’ radars while also respecting what’s going on with COVID-19? It’s a difficult balance and question.
Q: What can people do to support those in their life who might be struggling with their mental health?
A: Ask about it—and not in a “How is your mental health doing” kind of way, but rather, “How are you doing? How are you filling your days?”
Asking about peoples’ well-being helps people feel like connected even if you’re not physically present. It's important to know the signs of when someone might need professional help. These may include a lack of energy, extreme sadness, difficulty concentrating, substance use/abuse, or paranoia/anxiety. These could be signs of mental health struggles that may be exacerbated by the pandemic. Most therapists are open to doing some form of teletherapy.
Also, this can be a prime time for reflection and self-care—walking, eating healthy, sleeping, relaxing, and taking news breaks. There are ways of supporting people both in terms of being there for them and providing recommendations. Sometimes what seems like a simple recommendation for you may be a major insight for someone else.
Another issue is who we are spending time with during the pandemic. This can be one of those “grass is greener” situations. If you’re by yourself it can be rough, as you don’t have a lot of people to talk to. But it can also be tough for people who are married or living with others. Even when things are going well it’s tricky to spend all your time with the same people. We're used to our friends, colleagues, and neighbors being part of our daily social interactions and interpersonal needs. Cabin fever is real.
Q: What are some resources you think would be helpful for people to utilize right now?
A: For UT students, I definitely recommend using the UT Counseling and Mental Health Center. It’s open all summer, they’re doing Zoom sessions, and it’s free. Others in the community might check out Capital Area Mental Health for low-cost services. Psychology Today also has a great referral network for providers.
For more information about Dr. Rochlen’s practice, visit walktherapyaustin.com
To learn more about his nonprofit, visit soccerassist.org