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Prioritizing Mental Health in a Pandemic with Stellar Women Mary Mack & Kaylee Walstad

Blair Cohen

Let's be real: The past year has been tough. We have been in a pandemic for over a year, and that can take a toll on mental health. The uptick in vaccinations do bring a beacon of hope, and there is something to be said for light at the end of the tunnel. However, many of us are still struggling.

In honor of Mental Health Awareness, I joined the Stellar Women podcast as a co-host alongside Mary Rechtoris to talk about these issues in detail. We brought in the ever-fabulous duo from EDRM, Mary Mack and Kaylee Walstad, to discuss how they have navigated this past year and ways we can all help make mental health and wellness a priority for our peers and ourselves.

Mary Mack

Mary Mack

CEO & Chief Legal Officer

Kaylee Walstad

Kaylee Walstad

Chief Strategy Officer


Mary Rechtoris: Hey Stellar Women, fans. I'm your host, Mary Rechtoris.

Blair Heidenreich: And I'm your guest co-host, Blair Heidenreich, and I am so excited to be here. Stellar Women shines a light on leaders making their mark in tech.

MR: Thanks so much for joining Blair. Blair is filling in for Mila today as my co-host. Okay, let’s get to today’s guests. We are really, really pumped for today's dynamic duo to join us on podcast. We have Mary Mack, who has been on Stellar Women before, and we have Kaylee Walstad who is making her, I believe, first official appearance.

Kaylee Walstad: I’m more excited than you are.

Mary Mack: I'd say that's accurate.

KW: You guys are just rock stars and we love what you're doing.

MR: That means a lot coming from you both. We love to hear and we will take all compliments.

BH: Today, we're discussing an important topic to many of us in the industry: mental health. Before diving in, let’s go with the latest Stellar Women segment highlight of the week. This is a quick way to share something fun or eventful that happened to you either this week or the past weekend. I'll go first to get the ball rolling. I closed on a condo.

KW: Awesome!

BH: It’s wild. My husband and I painted two rooms and an entryway without any major fights. I was anticipating one. Mary, will you want to go ahead and tell us your highlight?

MM: I am half vaccinated.

MR: Mary, that's great! We talked about that a couple of weeks ago. Kaylee, you had just gotten vaccinated. And Mary, you and I were both looking for vaccinations.

MM: We were looking for appointments.

MR: Congratulations. I'm half vaccinated as well. So very exciting.

KW: Oh, that's great! Since our last conversation, you two didn't have appointments but wanted them. Isn’t it great what getting that first vaccine does for your mental health?

BH: Seriously. I found that, literally, my shoulders moved down.

KW: I didn't realize that I was maybe feeling a little down or a little just blue with life. Do you know what I mean? Oh my gosh, my whole family went and got their first vaccine and now we've all gotten our second one last week. But after that first one, I felt lighter. That light was so bright at the end of my tunnel.

MM: So the other thing, Blair, that you said—that your shoulders relaxed. And I don't know if you've ever done any Qigong, which are these exercises in this particular discipline. One of the commands is to relax your shoulders because there is so much tension in our shoulders.

BH: Kaylee, what’s your highlight of the week? I know that you said your family's vaccinated, but I want to give you a shout out if you have any other highlights you want to talk about.

KW: Getting our vaccines has enabled my family to gather once again. I'm in Minnesota, and last year my son and I turned our garage into a living room. The barbecue was open for business. We were together for like three hours eating food. Those very normal things that we take for granted. It made me feel normal.

MR: Today, I got a chance to take a break for a half hour and take my dog/child/soulmate to the park. We frolicked around.

BH: Let’s get right into it and go to the Qs Mary.

MR: Let’s start on a personal note. I think this is a very personal topic, mental health and talking about mental health and wellness. Why does this matter to you in terms of prioritizing and talking about mental health and wellness?

KW: We’re living through this pandemic that has lasted over a year and it’s been a year where it isn't just about COVID, right? We've had social unrest and issues and extreme weather and over 12 months of unprecedented events—I want to go back to precedented so badly. I think that going back to how we all felt after getting our first vaccine. Our stress levels are higher. They're not the same as they were pre-pandemic. Many of us don't realize that we're operating at this higher level of stress. Challenges sometimes seem way more challenging and some days are darker than other days. And we're in our four walls all the time, which is why, again, the first vaccine made us all feel lighter. I can get the hell out of my four walls. Being able to talk about that is really important and has been really important. Mary Mack, at the very beginning of the pandemic because she is brilliant and the queen of e-discovery, told me clearly that we have got to have a community support group and that we need to start it now. People are going to need a place to talk freely and safely and feel supported through this time. We're in our 58th week today. For over a year, every week we've had maybe somebody new join. We've had people who have never missed one of the 58 weeks. Every week has had its own culture every single week. People are in all kinds of different spaces. But everybody comes, everybody intently listens, and everybody encourages and offers support. I don't know what I would have done during this time. I didn't have that personal outlet. And I know that a lot of people don't have that. They don't have a safe space or place or person to share thoughts with regards to their own mental health. So I think that's why.

BH: Podcasting is obviously not a visual medium. But Mary and I looked like bobbleheads because our heads were nodding. I loved what, Kaylee, you said about wanting to get back to precedented times. It's like: I want to have an hour and or even a moment in a grocery store where I'm just like perusing the wines and the cheeses and not like looking like a hawk at someone wondering, Where is this person behind me? Have I done this? I really, really can't wait for precedented times.

MR: Mary, what about you?

MM: When I was going for the bar, there was this thing [they evaluated] called character and fitness. And, you know, as a result, a lot of the law students that I came up with, including myself, didn't take advantage of mental health treatment. There was a fear that the character and fitness [evaluation] would get into those records, which is a very real fear. And I think in some states it's still an accurate one. I really could have used some mental health [support]. My father passed during my first semester in law school. I didn't grieve that properly until years later when I did get some mental health assistance. So, the law has that look down your nose feeling, or makes it be something you could be blackballed over. Then, you’re in legal tech and tech is very binary. It's like, is it black? Is it white? There's very few shades of gray, although now that we're getting into AI, there are some shades of gray. But I think in the technology field, we tend to treat our bodies as mechanical objects without a repair cycle necessarily. So, knowing the difference and that mental health assistance can give [that support]. From a personal standpoint, I had come up in Chicago during the AIDS crisis. During that situation, especially early on, there was a lot of conflicting information. There wasn't a lot of government support and people basically had to piece things together themselves on how to behave, how to get themselves through the epidemic, as well as just normal things like who's going to bring the groceries and does somebody have somebody to look in on them? I feel like we needed to ... That's why we did our support groups and that's why I'm an advocate. Also, there are employee assistance programs and publicizing those and making sure that people know that there is some help whether you're somebody by yourself who needs checking in on or whether you're with a family that's crowding you out or crowding your thoughts. We all have our own different stressors and to have a place to deal with that, it's just the human and the right thing to do.

BH: I love how you brought up the AIDS epidemic. I wonder, if there were more support groups that were more open … Well, we've been seeing more openness with mental health and health in general. I just wonder how that would have altered the course of history, if you will. But Kaylee, have you seen any instances where a lack of understanding impacted you, or an individual you're close to?

KW: I think that both Mary and I have seen that which is why we want to talk about it. We want to have conversations that stimulate new conversations. The more people that we can have feel comfortable to say, “Yeah, I'm struggling,” or “Yes, I've struggled, and here's what I did. And this is what's helped me.” We've had weekly conversations like that with our support group, but we've also had conversations with people who really needed help that we couldn't support them. They needed more professional mental health and the encouragement that it's okay to say “I need that” and reach out and get it. And I think the employee assistance program is such a good one, like Mary brought up, that so many people have available to them immediately at no cost.

BH: You bring up such a good point about ending the stigma. There is just such a stigma around saying you need help. And those sessions can either help you pivot or open up a greater conversation about therapy in someone's life. For a lot of people, therapy has never been an option. So when someone's presented with an option, it opens up like a whole new world.

MR: I think society has come further than maybe a couple of generations ago, but not everybody knows a lot about mental health. Most people don't, and it can be viewed with incompetence. And that’s the last thing that an aspirational, young professional, or any professional, wants associated with them. So what do you advise for people who may be a little bit more reticent to talk about mental health, for fear that people might question their ability to succeed or thrive in a workplace?

KW: During this time of pandemic, everybody has struggled with anxiety at one point or another or even just mild depression or a lack of wanting to move. By that, I mean sincerely, like, “I don't want to get out of bed today.” Those types of things are situational for the pandemic. But I would say that because of this, a lot more people will have empathy and are more willing to have the discussion. You have to start somewhere. So who's your safe person? Find your safe person. Open up a conversation. They can join our community support group, reach out to Mary and me at our website here. It’s a safe place to have a conversation and have people intentionally listen and care. There are safe spaces and there are safe people. But you have to start by speaking up.

MM: It’s important to build up your network of safe people around you before you disclose to people that you don't know if they’re safe or not. If this is something you've never done and you don't know what your reaction will be, it’s important to have that nice net that will reflect back to you that you are a wonderful, healthy individual addressing your mental health needs. You are not something less than if somebody else doesn't know how to react. It's important to not randomly talk about it because you want to be mindful of your own mental health so that you don't take on more than you can bear.

MR: You should have safe people and build that rapport so that someone's reaction doesn't detriment you because you're worried that they might question your competence. We can't have faith in everyone so be very, I don’t want to say careful, but mindful about who you confide in and do that in a way you are comfortable with. We know that mental health impacts people of all different races, genders, sexual orientations. But there has been research that shows especially during this pandemic, women have been picking up a lot more of the burden of both work and household and they're kind of stretched to the limit. And I’ll find the exact study, but it compared men to women in terms of an increase in mental health and stress. It found that 27 percent of women reported an increase in challenges associated with mental illness, compared to only 10 percent of men. Throwing this at the group, what is your reaction to that? How can we encourage our male peers, family members, partners, or whomever to help us combat that for those who might be suffering from some of those challenges associated with the pandemic?

KW: I'll pick it up. I live with my 27-year-old son. At the beginning of the pandemic, I found myself making breakfast, lunch, and dinner over and over and over. And I would say that I’m so stressed out over all this cooking and meal planning. And I didn't realize how much of what we ate that I had outsourced to restaurants. Like, let’s meet up there. All of a sudden, all those options were shut down and I was the chief cook and bottle washer around here. So I said to my son, “It’s time to learn some life skills. We've got a really nice grill and I want you to learn how to grill.” And he picked that up. He watched all these YouTube videos. I'm not kidding you, a year later, he is phenomenal. I think it's having the discussion, like, “I'm really stressed out over this food problem.” We figured out ways to help alleviate the stress and not have it all be my burden. So, like, now he's learned how to grocery shop and he can actually go pick out a zucchini instead of a cucumber. It's a life skill that, if we weren't in the pandemic, he wouldn't have had the time or inclination to learn.

BH: What's your favorite thing that your son has made on the grill?

KW: He found this Texas guy, Kent Rollins, who's like a barbecue master. He ordered a hundred dollars’ worth of Rollins’s extra special seasonings. He made us burgers on the grill with the seasoning just the way that this Kent Rollins said to do it. It was like a great craft restaurant burger that I had missed. Do you know what I mean? I would say that's my most recent favorite. Good question.

BH: Mary, how do you think our male family members, friends, and colleagues can better support us during this time?

MR: Whether a man or woman, have those honest, direct conversations, right? Say, “I'm sick of taking out the trash and I'm getting resentful. Even though it might seem small and take 10 seconds, it really bothers me is that I'm always doing this task.” I feel like it's kind of like that article you wrote Burnt to a Crisp, where all these little things kind of build up within you. It might seem small at the time, but it festers, and we're not really having anywhere to release that energy. Be way more transparent and vulnerable with our family, friends, loved ones, and our coworkers. Say, “Hey. I'm struggling with this. Can you help me or do you mind picking up this project that came on my plate? I'm tapped to the limit, and I don't want to get any more burnt out or any more past my max.” So I think it's having those transparent conversations. I also think that the pandemic really exasperated some societal issues that women tend to take on a lot more of home life. So I'm hoping that this pandemic, with all the research and statistics that have come out, put a light on that. I did read a disheartening article that a lot of women are leaving the workforce or left the workforce in 2020 just because they couldn't keep up with both. And it was almost setting women as a group back because we were progressing so much [before this pandemic]. I hope it is not disheartening to see what the repercussions are from that.

MM: And it's going to be up to all of us to help women that want to come back into the workforce and [provide] safe childcare.

BH: Yes. My mom recently told me that she basically worked so that I could go to summer camp. And then I was like, I didn't know that it cost that much. Obviously doggie daycare is, you know, $30 a day. But when it comes to kids, it's different. Thank you so much for joining us, Mary and Kaylee. It's been amazing to be a guest podcast here, especially with such two amazing guests.

MR: It’s been so fun having you and Blair. You've been a fantastic co-host. It's always great to work with you and, listeners, we're going to keep exploring this topic. This was just one conversation. We want to continue talking about mental health and more importantly, resources and ways to ensure that everybody is mentally well and supporting one another. So if this is a Stellar Women/EDRM crossover, I'm not sure on the branding. We’ll figure that out later though. Later in May, there will be an episode coming out on the EDRM podcast to dive deeper and we will share a link to that once it is live, so please stay tuned. And with that, for Stellar Women, I’m Mary Rechtoris.

BH: And I’m Blair Heidenreich.

Both: Signing off.

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Blair Cohen is a brand program manager at Relativity, representing the company with enthusiasm, authenticity, and her flair for humor. When she isn't shining a light on women in tech via Stellar Women or cracking jokes on the main stage at Relativity Fest, you can find her running around Chicago finding the best places to eat with her dog, Goose.