Long before he co-founded the company that became Caliper Foods, Justin Singer learned to prioritize his own mental health—and to fight through the stigma of talking about it. Here, he shares lessons he’s learned along the way.
Was there a time in your life where you understood your mental health was just as important as your physical health?
My big moment came during my sophomore year of college. I had a week where I just didn’t sleep at all. I had terrible insomnia, and called my mom, crying. I just said, “I don’t want to feel like this anymore.” So I started talk and medication therapy, both of which I’ve continued ever since, off and on as needed. I continue it to this day.
I just said, “I don’t want to feel like this anymore.”
I’ve always looked at medication as a necessary (but not sufficient) part of my mental health regimen. It gets me to a place where talk therapy can work. But medication without talk therapy has never been helpful for me, nor has talk therapy without medication.
Do you ever say – “great, I’m all better now, I’m done!”
(Laughs) There’s no “I’m all better now!” There are better times and worse times, easy times and stressful times. For me, it’s about observing emotions and identifying red flags. I know things are going badly when I’m feeling emotions rather than observing them, or when I’m starting more books than I’m finishing. When those things happen, I know it’s time to see my therapist and talk some things through.
I know things are going badly when I’m feeling emotions rather than observing them, or starting more books than I’m finishing.
With mental health, it’s important to conceptualize it as a process, not an end state. Once you start addressing your mental health, good doctors will tell you very early on that the chemical side of things is really guess-and-check—that is, “we’ll try this for a couple weeks, and if it doesn’t work, we’ll maybe augment with something else and reassess.” These are not things with a quick fix (though a full night’s sleep comes close!); you can’t make a diagnosis and consider things solved. It’s a journey.
We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, and these past few months I’ve definitely not been my best self. This pandemic has basically broken everybody’s brain, at least a little, and that needs to be accepted for what it is. People shouldn’t feel alone in feeling badly, and it’s unreasonable to expect anyone to be at their best right now. We need to help each other work towards making progress rather than towards being “best.” I think it’s important to have things to look forward to, and we’ve got a very bright summer coming!
We need to help each other work towards making progress rather than towards being “best.”
You’ve faced a lot of life stresses co-founding a company, and dealing with the many uncertainties of an emerging industry. Has therapy been an anchor for you?
It’s been a requirement! The volatility of being a founder is extreme. Fortunately, the more great people we bring on board, the more that volatility gets shared amongst us, and consequently the less volatility lands on any individual. It was much worse when it was just the three of us (me, Jeremy, and Missy, Caliper’s co-founders) versus the world. But we know now that nothing is ever as bad as it seems and, importantly, nothing is ever as good as it seems either. It’s about finding comfort in balance.
I’ve always found that the key to my mental health has been the ability to see the world as it is—flawed, messy, and uncertain—and to find it beautiful and wonderful regardless. I’ve learned to live with uncertainty and with anxiety as companions to be embraced and managed, rather than shunned and ignored. It’s important to recognize troubling feelings. To say to yourself, “that’s a feeling of anxiety, it’s legit, it deserves to be there, but the magnitude of that feeling doesn’t match the facts, so I’m going to set it aside for a bit.” You acknowledge it, but you move on to other things.
The key to my mental health has been the ability to see the world as it is—flawed, messy, and uncertain—and to find it beautiful and wonderful regardless.
Do you have other outlets to help you manage anxiety?
I’ve used different tools at different points. It’s an ongoing process, because people are not static—the brain is the most complex organism known to man. In the past, I’ve found meditation helpful as part of the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) process—just reflecting and building awareness, and being present.
My number one issue has always been sleep. I can draw a very straight line between my mental state and the amount of sleep I’m getting. If I’m getting my eight hours, I’m in a decent state. If I’m not, that’s a pretty good indicator that things are going south.
I can draw a very straight line between my mental state and the amount of sleep I’m getting. If I’m getting my eight hours, I’m in a decent state. If I’m not, that’s a pretty good indicator that things are going south.
What do you do when that happens?
I’ve built a lot of tools for lulling myself to sleep. CBD helps me settle down, and there are certain songs that I have almost a Pavlovian response to when I play them in my head. CBT practices have been extremely helpful, too. But it’s also about not fighting it. Insomnia is one of those things that the more you fight it the worse it gets. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but the more you accept it, the more likely you are to get through it.
How do you stay on top of your mental health now?
My mental health stems from my relationships, especially with my wife and my kid. I can’t work as late as I necessarily would most days because their happiness—and their position in my life—is integral to my mental health. So I go home at 5 and I spend time with them. That’s a key piece of balance. Also, having open and honest communications with people around me as much as possible. It’s important not to let things fester, because bad thoughts tend to metastasize.
As a voice for the company, do you feel a responsibility to model mental health?
I don’t know if I can model it, but I definitely try to prioritize it! It’s less about modeling, more about accepting. Mental health means something different for everybody—it’s very much an evolving science. My role is to normalize the discussion and the acceptance. Having a mental issue isn’t a fault or a character flaw. It’s not always an illness either; sometimes it’s just exhaustion. But the point is to take mental issues as seriously as we take physical issues. Even though they don’t manifest themselves in the same way, they’re no less real.
The point is to take mental issues as seriously as we take physical issues. Even though they don’t manifest themselves in the same way, they’re no less real.
Is having mental health coverage for your employees a priority for you?
I’ve been thinking about this issue for a decade, honestly. In my first job out of grad school, I was put in charge of finding the insurance plans for a small group. My priority was to find a plan that fully covered mental health, and they just didn’t exist. I’m pretty sure they still don’t. That was a shame to learn then, and it’s a continuing shame today.
I hope for the day when mental health is covered the way that breaking your leg is covered, like diabetes is covered. Just as with physical health, there are acute episodes that demand acute treatment as well as chronic conditions that require ongoing management, and they both need to be addressed and covered.
I hope for the day when mental health is covered [by insurance] the way that breaking your leg is covered, like diabetes is covered.
Do you have any advice for people out there who might be struggling?
We all have our histories, and we all have things going on. Find your support groups—your friends, your family, your therapist—and be open to talking to them and working with them. The worst thing you can do is hide things from yourself and from others—especially someone you’re paying to help you work through it!
Therapy is hard. There are a lot of people who think just going there is the solution, but it takes engaging in therapy to make a difference. It’s not just writing a check and talking about what’s annoying you this week. It’s like exercise, in a way; you’re exercising your mind and working out with a trainer. You’re developing positive mental health habits and minimizing the impact of negative ones, and it’s that work that provides the foundation for continued balance.
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