Ep. 11: Dan Berstein of MH Mediate on Improving Communication Around Mental Health

Episode Overview

Dan Berstein is a mediator living with bipolar disorder and is the founder of MH Mediate, which provides resources to improve mental health communication through the use of conflict resolution principles. Dan has presented workshops at many national conferences and led MH Mediate trainings in over a dozen states. Past clients include conflict resolution professionals, government agencies, universities, mental health service providers, and other businesses, organizations, and individuals. 

This week on the podcast, Berstein joins host Rackham Karlsson in a dialogue about the use of mediation principles to facilitate communication regarding mental health and Berstein’s journey in developing this unique niche in the world of conflict resolution.

Key Takeaways

  • Individuals diagnosed with mental health disorders are often dismissed as ill and disempowered. The mediator’s role is to make sure their voices are heard.
  • Dispute resolution professionals who are inclined to screen out parties with mental health issues must instead focus on observable behaviors that might affect capacity and disrupt the mediation.
  • It is not the mediator’s job to determine appropriate treatment for mental health disorders or judge the individual’s treatment course. “The mediator’s job is to make sure that any individual who comes through the door feels empowered as they go through their conflict conversation.”
  • Accepting invitations to speak at public events gives an entrepreneur the opportunity to make new connections and grow his/her businesses. Berstein’s presentation at the ACR-GNY conference inspired the creation of MH Mediate, and subsequent speaking engagements have established new relationships and helped the organization flourish.

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Resources Mentioned

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Episode Transcript

Rackham:

Welcome to the ADR Initiative. This is the podcast where you’ll hear from successful mediators, arbitrators, collaborative law attorneys, coaches, and other alternative dispute resolution professionals about what they do, how they got here, and valuable lessons they’ve learned along the way. I'm your host, Rackham Karlsson. Today I'm talking with Dan Berstein. Dan is a mediator living with bipolar disorder and is the founder of MH Mediate, which provides resources to improve mental health communication through the use of conflict resolution principles. Dan has presented workshops at many national conferences and led MH Mediate trainings in over a dozen states. Past clients include conflict resolution professionals, government agencies, universities, mental health service providers, and other businesses, organizations, and individuals. Welcome to the show, Dan.

Dan:

Thanks for having me, Rackham.

Rackham:

It’s a pleasure. Now I want to start off by giving you a chance to flesh out some of the details there. Can you tell us a little bit more about what you do in your business today?

Dan:

Sure. I do work with conflict resolution and mental health, and that involves a lot of different clients and a few different services. First and foremost, I'm a mediator and I do mediation services. I also consult with people to help them improve how they communicate about mental health, so that means they might not be in a conflict that requires mediation but might be interested in changing their practices so that way they are more in line with the kinds of practices that are associated with conflict resolution. Maybe they want impartial practices, or they want to learn how to be more validating when they speak about things. And so I’ll speak with individuals and more often organizations about how to improve their mental health communication and improve their policies – and that’s consulting.

Then the main thing that I do is trainings, and these trainings are related to mental health and conflict resolution. They can be trainings such as teaching conflict resolution professionals how to work with people who have mental health needs, teaching other people how to work with people with mental health needs, teaching accessibility to disabilities and other needs – so that means having practices where when someone comes to your service whether it’s conflict resolution or something else, you want to make sure that your service works for people even if they have different abilities. Maybe they have some kind of impairment or just maybe they have different communication styles.

Then I also teach people about conflict resolution. So when I work in the world of mental health, I'm teaching them conflict resolution skills, and I teach everyone how to address challenging behaviors. A lot of times people are nervous to work with individuals with mental health histories because they think that that's going to lead to a challenging behavior, and that's a stigmatizing point of view but it's a common point of view. And what I’ve often found is these people who are nervous that someone with a mental health history is going to exhibit a challenging behavior actually don't have a good plan in place for that challenging behavior. If you're nervous that someone is going to be violent during a mediation session or someone might lack capacity to participate in mediation and because of that you're wary of working with someone with a mental issue, I'll ask you, “Well, what do you normally do when someone does do something violent or someone does have a capacity issue?” And usually these people don't have a plan in place. So I realized people are associating challenging behaviors with mental health, but really they just don't know what to do with challenging behaviors, and I’ve become a bit of an expert in addressing challenging behaviors. That's another topic that feeds into a lot of my trainings.

Rackham:

You know, one thing I really love about that is for many mediators, or just dispute resolution professionals in general… We’ll screen out mental health issues. We’ll say, “There are mental health issues in this case. I don't feel prepared,” or, “I don't feel like it's appropriate for me to handle this case,” and what you're saying is, “No, hang on a second. Let me give you some tools, some resources, some ways that you can handle these situations – so that you can see them as actually appropriate and things that you're prepared to handle.”

Dan:

Yes, that's right. I'll just add one clarification: When you're screening out parties because there's mental health issues, you’re screening them based on an identity characteristic. I have bipolar disorder. If you screen me out of a case because you know I have bipolar disorder, you don't really have a basis for screening me out besides the fact that you know I have this psychiatric disability, or whatever you want to call it. But really the reason you're doing the screening is because you're concerned about specific behaviors that could come up and disrupt the mediation in some way, and what you should be screening for is those behaviors.

There’s a lot of people with bipolar disorder, a lot of people with all sorts of mental health issues… More than you realize – one in five U.S. adults in a given year have some kind of diagnosable mental health issue. The question is: Are they telling you? And the answer is probably not because they don't want you to screen them out of services. That screening process is misplaced because it shouldn't be focused on whether or not someone has a mental health diagnosis, it should be focused on their observable behaviors which could be present with someone who has a mental health diagnosis, and it could be present in other parties who don't have any history of mental health issues but might have a history of the behaviors that you're trying to avoid.

So it's not just about making mediation or other processes work for someone with mental health issues, it’s also about this erroneous association that the problem lies with having a mental health issue. The problem is not that you have a mental health issue; the only problems are specific behaviors – and that needs to be separated.

Rackham:

That’s such a great perspective. Thank you. Can you tell us a little bit about how you ended up where you are today? How did you end up doing this work?

Dan:

Sure. I always wanted to start my own business. I was going to school at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, and I was starting my junior year of college. That's when I had my first manic episode. A manic episode is sort of the opposite of a depression; it's a huge influx of energy. People end up making a lot of sloppy decisions, become a little bit more impulsive, and I wound up being hospitalized for that episode. My life really changed from that point forward: I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and I started living life with a mental illness.

As much as I wanted to go back to working on the businesses I was trying to start, the startups I’d been working on with my friends, I found myself very drawn to the problems in the world of mental health. There are a lot of different areas where someone can do work in mental health. You could do research to find effective treatments, you could become an attorney and become a rights advocate on someone's behalf because they're being treated in a discriminatory fashion because of their mental illness. There’s so many different choices, but what I found was the way people were talking to one another was very disempowering. I thought, I wish there was a way to have better conversations about mental health. So I started looking into different ways to improve communication about mental health. I became an awareness speaker with the National Alliance of Mental Illness. I became very active in support groups in New York City – at the Mood Disorder Support Group of New York City – and I started looking for any opportunity I could find to speak about mental health and figure out ways to improve it.

That's how I came across my first mediation training. I went to a mediation training thinking, “Maybe there’s something I can learn here that I can apply when improving communication about mental health.” When I went to that mediation training, I was stunned because to me the role of the mediator, the role of a dispute resolution professional is the missing piece in the world of mental health – in the sense that the role of a mediator or dispute resolution professional is not to try to fix things, but to listen to everyone and make sure they all feel heard.

Now I mentioned I was at Wharton at the University Pennsylvania when I first got sick. I was used to people treating me with a lot of respect for whatever I had to say, and they treated me like I was smart. But the second I entered that psych ward, suddenly my voice was gone. At one point I asked one of the nurses in the hospital to comment on my future plans. I said, “What do you think Sam?” He said, “I think you're manic.” I was totally dismissed, and the problem that I've been trying to solve – I didn’t realize until that mediation training – was that I wasn't heard, and people weren’t being heard, and people weren’t having conversations because they were being dismissed as ill, and they were being disempowered.

I thought the role of the mediator – with a focus on self-determination, with a focus on listening to everyone, the focus on not giving advice, not trying to fix things, just being there to help people work out their own decisions – was so crucial and so missing in mental health that I started looking for ways to bridge the world of mediation and mental health. That is what began my career in MH Mediate and mental health mediation, and I’ve tried a number of different ways to improve how people talk about mental health using conflict resolution principles and processes.

Rackham:

How did you go about that? You do the mediation training, and then… Did you just – the next day – set up MH Mediate, and say here I am? Or what happened there?

Dan:

Actually, during my apprenticeship to become a mediator I started asking my mentor… She said something like, “Everyone needs to find their own niche in ADR,” and I said, “Maybe mental health, maybe mental illness could be my niche.” She said, “That's not appropriate for ADR.” Now at that time, people in the mediation community didn’t know that I have bipolar disorder. I had this history of working on these issues because I wasn't broadcasting it. I wasn’t keeping it a secret, but I wasn't telling everybody.

That was my first thinking about it, and then I wound up continuing to have conversations about it. I reached out to the New York City mediation listserv; Maria Hernandez created this Great listserv, since 2001, of New York City mediators. I started asking people what they knew about mental illness and mediation, and I found that people weren’t really touching it. Then I actually got connected to some folks who had received a grant from the Hewlett Foundation in early 2000’s to work on mental health and mediation. They had an organization called the Collaborative for Conflict Management and Mental Health, but they ran out of funding. They sent me all their resources, and I started hearing from different people… I just started saying, “Can you talk to me about the issues that you’ve been having about mental health and mediation?”

My big debut in the world of ADR was at the ACR-GNY conference. I proposed a workshop introducing mental illness and mediation. I did that workshop and prepared for that workshop. I did more research like what I'm talking about and suddenly, once I did that workshop, people all over the country were calling me asking to learn more about how to talk about mental health issues and mediation. That was the beginning and the origin of my work with MH Mediate.

Rackham:

One of the things I think it sounds like you did really well was… You mentioned the research, and it sounds like you're put in a lot of research. If you see an area where people are kind of pushing back or not really embracing it, just asking questions like, “Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you talking about mental health?” or, “Why does mental health make you nervous?” you can find a vocabulary to connect with what their concerns are, and then you can turn around and offer services that address those concerns.

Dan:

For me it was definitely driven by my own personal passion for this work as well. It wasn't like I just saw that there was this void that I wanted to fill – there happened to be a void and I did want to fill it – but I was driven to be persistent with my questions and find out more because I really genuinely cared and saw so much promise for mental health and mediation.

Rackham:

Sure. That’s the other piece, of course. You have to be authentic. I just came back from Clio Cloud Conference in Chicago, and Gary Vaynerchuk was there – I don't know if you know who he is – but he's a big social media marketing expert. One of the people in the audience said, “Well, you know, I do – I’m in this line of work, and I'm afraid to have a blog because people are going to see my true self, and I'm afraid to put myself out there like that.” But consistently the people who I see being successful and fulfilled in their careers are the ones who have found a way to be authentic and put themselves out there. Then people connect with that, and they say, “Yes, I want more of what you're putting out there.”

Dan:

Yes, I agree. Although I’ll just make one quick public service announcement about being private about having a mental illness. I made a decision a long time ago to be open and be public with the fact that I have bipolar disorder. But that’s not an easy decision, so when people in that line of work, people who have personal experiences with mental health, start debating whether or not they want to disclose and be open, I usually warn people that there are a lot of downsides to disclosing and there are a lot of rational reasons that someone might keep that a private situation to avoid stigmas that I give trainings to combat.

Rackham:

It sounds like you’ve had this passion, and you’ve built a business on it. Can you tell us about one big mistake that you made along the way? Something that you really learned from that went wrong?

Dan:

Sure. The biggest mistake I made was I put a lot of trust in the ADR community that mediators were living up to their principles, that mediators were able to stay impartial and focus on self-determination when they were encountering mental health issues. I assumed they were ready to take cases focused on mental health issues, and my goal initially was to introduce all the referral sources I knew from the world of mental health to the mediation centers I knew from the world of conflict resolution, and build those relationships and get pipelines going all around the country for people to take these kinds of cases. But what I learned was mediators weren’t ready because mediators are still people. Mediators have these stigmas that everybody has associated with mental health. There’s a lot of misinformation about mental health, so they needed more training.

I also realized what we were talking about earlier, that mediators might be screening out people with mental health issues. Within the profession, there’s some stigma associated with mental health. And I discovered that the source of that was because of the legal idea for the capacity to contract. If you’re an attorney and you’re forming a contract, you learn that someone with mental illness might not have capacity to participate in the contract. Now mediators will go through all their training, and they would be taught that they had an obligation to assess capacity, and the way to do this was to screen out people with mental health issues. So right away there was a bias amongst the ADR community against people with mental health issues that I had to address.

What I learned from that was that there was a need for more training. So I decided to start giving what I called at the time “cultural sensitivity trainings to mental illness” where I would share these ideas about different choices people have to make about mental health, different perspectives, different communities, how different professionals have different ideas, with the idea that a mediator would learn it’s not their job to try to fix a mental health problem, and it’s not their job to decide what’s the right way to treat a mental health problem, or to assume that someone is making a mistake if they’re not following clinical advice. The mediator’s job is to make sure that any individual who comes through the door feels empowered as they go through their conflict conversation. The sensitivity training was a starting point to get people ready to be empowering when they encountered people with mental health issues.

Rackham:

That’s great. Thank you. On the flip side of that coin, what do you consider one of your best business decisions to date?

Dan:

My best business decisions have always been to speak at public events. Right away I told you MH Mediate was born out of me speaking at that ACR-GNY conference. Before that, I had just been doing a lot of research about mental health and mediation, and at that conference I hosted an event, and I literally created MH Mediate so that way I had a way to follow up with people after that conference. Since then, any speaking event I’ve done has always brought me new connections, new relationships, and really helped my business.

Rackham:

That’s great. So getting yourself out there – public presentations, involvement in the community, and getting yourself known and building those contacts to build your business.

Dan:

Exactly.

Rackham:

That’s great. What’s one tool in your office, in your computer, or on your mobile device that you think every ADR professional should have in their toolbox?

Dan:

This is a very simple tool, but I don’t think everyone uses it. It’s Google Calendar. I have a Google account that I use for my email, and I also use for my calendar. And I really rely on that calendar to keep me organized. It’s very, very convenient. I have it set up to automatically email reminders when something is coming up. With all the different clients that I work for, and all the different types of trainings and services I offer, it’s easy to get lost. But having it all organized in that calendar makes it so simple.

Rackham:

Sometimes it is those simple tools that make the biggest difference. One of the nice things about Google Calendar (I use Google Calendar as well) is that if you want to build on it, there are lots of other services that integrate with it, so my scheduling service integrates with it, Clio – my practice management software – integrates with it. So you can have the data flowing through these different systems and be consistent across the board.

Dan:

It’s really great. Also, because I use Google for my email, any time I get an email that has a date, I can very quickly click a button and it’s added to my calendar. It automatically adds any hotel reservations; I travel a lot to give presentations or keynote conferences, and it’s all automatically updated whenever I have a train reservation, a hotel reservation… It’s really convenient.

Rackham:

Yes, absolutely. On the more low-tech side then, what’s one book that you consider essential for anyone providing ADR or related services?

Dan:

I’m just going to recommend the book that I recommend to everyone which is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin. I read that book, and I found it very inspiring. I think anyone who’s doing something entrepreneurial – reading about the way Ben Franklin had to do it and how things were for him hundreds of years ago… The thing that always strikes me is there’s a piece in there that excerpts, and it says something like: In Ben Franklin’s journal about a trip between America and England he said, “Oh, it was just a short trip, just one month.” And I think to myself, “Ben Franklin thought it was a short trip, for a month in a boat, to go between America and England. I can handle this train delay.” That’s the book I always recommend.

Rackham:

That’s such an interesting point. A train delay, or even a delay in some sort of business process or business development. A month can seem like a long time, but in the span of your business or in the span of your life, it really is relatively short. And it can get you a long way to be patient for that one month or even a year.

Dan:

That’s the book that I recommend. I also would recommend, if people are interested to learn more about what it’s like to have a mental illness, there are some good memoirs out there. One of the most famous ones is called An Unquiet Mind by Kay Redfield Jamison. There’s another one called The Center Cannot Hold by Elyn Saks. Those are books that might help people understand the perspective of someone living with a mental health issue. I could talk about so different many mental health-related books because there’s different books for different stakeholders, so there’s also books written by family members struggling to support someone they love. I figure I’ll just mention that because people listening to this might be interested in learning more about mental health.

Rackham:

Those are great recommendations. And if I’m not mistaken, Elyn Saks – she’s a professor of law living with schizophrenia, is that right?

Dan:

Correct.

Rackham:

I read that book. It’s really fantastic.

Dan:

There really are a lot of very talented people living with mental health issues, working in different ways to combat the stigma and improve how we have these kinds of conversations about mental health.

Rackham:

Great. Thank you for those recommendations. I’m going to add them to the show notes on the website. Thank you again. Now for those just starting out or looking to grow their ADR practices, what have you found to be the best way to bring in new clients?

Dan:

Well, the most powerful lesson I’ve learned about bringing in new clients is to change the language of any kind of pitch, or description of my services, or any kind of offering, based on the specific audience that I’m talking to. As we discussed at the beginning of the podcast, I’ve worked with a variety of different stakeholders in the world of mental health. Some people are looking to be ready in case someone comes in with a mental health issue, some other people are in mental health organizations and mental health issues are coming up all the time. So I really need to retailor every piece of content to each individual niche. And when I do that, I also need to think of it from their needs and their perspective rather than the language that I use for conflict resolution. Sometimes, I might not use the term “mediation.” I might not use the term “conflict resolution” because people don’t know what that means. What people really want is a way to, for instance, resolve their conflict. I might just say, “Hey, do you want help resolving a conflict?” without ever saying “mediation” or “conflict resolution.” It really depends on these audiences, and that’s the lesson that it took me a little while to pick up on, but it’s been really powerful to realize that when I’m communicating with someone, I’m not sending something generic out to everyone, but I’m tailoring it to that specific person.

Rackham:

That’s such great advice. Some people like to imagine personas, like a fictional person who you’re speaking to. When you’re putting together your message, whether it’s written or spoken, you’re imagining speaking to that specific person and asking yourself, “Does this resonate with that person? Is this something they’ll understand and connect with?” That’s great advice.

Dan:

Another extension of that is I spend most of my time when I speak to people asking them questions about themselves and what they’re interested in before I tell them the details of my different services. Because I have so many different options, I don’t want to overwhelm them with information that’s not relevant to them. I also want to learn what their needs are so I learn how to talk to them. So I ask a lot of questions more than I give information.

Rackham:

Yes, that’s a big piece too. You have to make it about them, right? Going back to Gary Vee, who did the presentation at Clio Cloud Conference, you have to start building a relationship first. You have to get to know them, and then make sure you are speaking to their specific interests and needs, and that you’ve built up a little bit of a relationship before you say, “Oh, by the way, here are my services. Do you want to buy something?”

Dan:

Right. The other thing I want to add on this point because it’s something that’s so funny to me… As conflict resolution professionals, we’re trained to be listeners, we’re trained to reflect, we’re trained to speak in the language of people who come to see us and help them through their own voice, rather than give them our voice. But then sometimes the way that we deliver services doesn’t match those values. The way that we deliver services might be based on our needs and based on this cookie cutter formula of how we talk about mediation and how we introduce it, and so the way you’re describing it is how do you build this relationship and attempt to make a sale, but I would argue that even if you’re not thinking about making the sale or not, just being a good practitioner, being someone who embodies the principles of conflict resolution and ADR and mediation – you should be doing that kind of listening. You should be making the person feel like the conversation is all about them and their needs because that’s what we do.

Rackham:

Live your principles.

Dan:

Exactly.

Rackham:

That’s great. Well, Dan, thank you so much for your time today. Before we go, what’s the best way for someone interested in your services to reach you?

Dan:

You can email me at dan@mhmediate.com. I encourage people to ask me any question they would like about mental health and conflict resolution. I will always answer, and if I don’t know the answer, I will look it up for you. So please contact me. Again, it’s dan@mhmediate.com.

Rackham:

Perfect. Thank you again, Dan.

Dan:

Thanks again for having me.

Rackham:

That’s today’s show. Thanks for listening. If you enjoyed the show, please leave a review on iTunes. You can find show notes for this episode, including links to any books and other resources mentioned at zephyrlaw.com/initiative. I have some more great guests lined up, so be sure to join me next time for another episode of The ADR Initiative.