People who are seeking therapy often tell Carrie Miller they’re “inherently broken” or that “something is wrong” with them.
They don’t yet realize two things, says Miller, 40, clinic director of Ellie Mental Health in Bethesda. One is that the way they respond to stress is what may need improvement—not their brain or body. The other is that they’re not alone.
Ellie, a new Minnesota-based mental health clinic brand in the midst of a national expansion, uses creativity, humor and “authentic connection” to drive home those points. For Miller, that may mean disclosing something from her own life to help a client solve a problem, overcome adversity or make a transition—an approach not always embraced by the mental health field.
“A lot of times the first response when you open up and share something is, ‘That’s not appropriate’ or ‘That’s not professional,’ and I wholeheartedly disagree,” Miller says, referring to past supervisors, peers in the field and many master’s degree programs. “I just do what feels right. My clients know that I get where they’re coming from, that I’m not just some robotic therapist nodding her head and asking, ‘How does that make you feel?’ ”
Miller, a licensed clinical social worker, tries to normalize mental health treatment. After 22 years in social work and 13 years as a clinician, she joined Ellie, whose Bethesda location, the company’s first in Maryland, opened last fall. She says the goal is to break down barriers and stigma by making the therapeutic space feel more like visiting a friend’s house than walking into an “uptight, impersonal and intimidating” office.
That vibe is necessary for creating a safe, comfortable atmosphere in which to learn and grow, according to Miller, who has been in therapy for herself regularly since she was 18.
Miller says demystifying therapy is particularly important for communities wary of mental health treatment. People of color and immigrants, for instance, seek services less often due to historical and cultural factors, she says, adding that first responders, police officers and veterans often fear career repercussions for soliciting help because it may put their jobs at risk. Miller cites research pointing to barriers that prevent police officers from mental health assistance, for example, the stigma of being perceived as weak or incompetent, concerns about being labeled unfit for duty, and worry that accessing psychological support will hurt future career advancement. As a result, Ellie requires its therapists to earn continuing education credits in cultural awareness every other year.
Even so, that education only goes so far, which is why the staff of four in the Bethesda office is racially and ethnically diverse.
Says Miller: “You can educate yourself and be knowledgeable, but at the end of the day, if you don’t have some identification with [a] group, it can be hard to get buy-in.”
In her own words:
Connecting to the present moment
“I’ve used a popular app called Insight Timer since it came out years and years ago. If I feel like I’m not in control in some way, I turn to audio recordings I’ve bookmarked because they’re short—just one or two minutes of mindfulness. I use that app every morning when I wake up and every night before I go to bed.”
“I grew up with emotionally abusive people in my life, so I have firsthand experience of what it’s like to deal with depression, trauma and severe anxiety. I think that’s helped me be able to build a strong foundation and rapport with clients. I can legitimately say, ‘I know what you’re going through.’ ”
Putting it all out there
“Being vulnerable is incredibly challenging. It takes a lot of courage and a lot of strength. Over the years I’ve found it easier to be open and transparent about where I’ve come from. But when I’m sitting with someone not trained in this work, they’re afraid. They’re scared of what they don’t understand and tend to freeze up. They need to know it’s OK if they need to get help. We can’t go through life in silos, isolated.”
“I feel like things happen serendipitously, and the folks who end up in my space are going through some kind of chaos that I can relate to. I’m able to help them learn the tools and skills to make decisions, to understand that their reality is real, and how to move through life in a way that they feel empowered, autonomous and successful.”
“I love animals, and have three cats at home—Ruby, Queen Nefertiti (Neffie) and Cinnamon. I go on YouTube and watch funny animal videos and just laugh. That’s my comic relief. I’m on a couple of Facebook groups for cats; specifically, there’s one where you take a picture of your cat and they Photoshop it into a funny scene. It’s hysterical. I also love to read, crochet and hike in nature.”