Michael Niyompong is the Chief Engagement Officer at the Mental Health Center of Denver. He establishes and experiments with the most effective ways of producing well-being for individuals, organizations, and communities. In this episode, he shares fascinating insights on the concrete and abstract ways to weave connection, ownership, and innovation to deliver larger-than-life results.
Episode Notes and Bio at uncoverthehuman.wearesiamo.com.
Credits: Raechel Sherwood for Original Score Composition.
YouTube Channel: Uncover The Human
Credits: Raechel Sherwood for Original Score Composition.
YouTube Channel: Uncover The Human
Alex: Welcome to Uncover the Human where every conversation revolves around enhancing all the connections in our lives.
Cristina: Whether that's with our families, co-workers or even ourselves.
Alex: When we can be our authentic selves, magic happens.
Cristina: This is Cristina Amigoni.
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Group: Authenticity means freedom.
Authenticity means going with your gut.
Authenticity is bringing 100% of yourself not just the parts you think people want to see, but all of you.
Being authentic means that you have integrity to yourself.
It's the way our intuition is whispering something deep-rooted and true.
Authenticity is when you truly know yourself. You remember and connect to who you were before others told you who you should be.
It's transparency, relatability, no frills, no makeup, just being.
Alex: Hello, and welcome back to this episode of Uncover the Human. This week, we are joined by Michael Niyompong. He comes to us from the Mental Health Center of Denver. He is the Chief Engagement Officer over there. And he has a lot to talk about well-being. Welcome to the podcast, Michael.
Michael: Thank you. It's a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Alex: So you are the Chief Engagement Officer. The Mental Health Center of Denver has a significant mission around well-being. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your journey into finding well-being and why that's been important in the work that you have found yourself doing now?
Michael: Yeah. Thanks, Alex, for that question. So as you mentioned, and I'm the Chief Engagement Officer at the Mental Health Center in Denver, and I've had the privilege, actually, throughout my career that I kind of fall into these opportunities, where somehow I've managed to set myself up for, from prior opportunities. And this is no different, where, unbeknownst to me, I think for a good decade or so in my adult life, I've been kind of this journey of well-being, of really trying to figure out what does it mean to me? How do I make myself happy? How do I keep myself well, and just how do I thrive? And so it all came together for me at the Mental Health Center of Denver, where I started here over three years ago and really was able to put, frankly, a label on this journey that I've been on around well-being. Because I think prior to this point, a lot of it was about just finding happiness and trying to find joy in life. And ultimately, that's what's well-being, right? How do we thrive and be happy in life?
Cristina: It definitely is. So how did you find that specifically? What was it about this job and this company?
Michael: Again, going back to I lived, somehow, this very, very blessed and privileged life where I have many, many mentors, friends, coaches, and family, who very much guide me through and have been with me through my entire journey, both personally and professionally. And so with this particular opportunity, I got connected to it through two different people actually. So one is my current boss, Dr. Carl Clark, who is our President and CEO here at the Mental Health Center in Denver. And so both Dr. Clark and I actually have the privilege of being Livingston fellows, which is actually a fellowship program that's administered by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation here in Colorado. And we met each other through that program. And so Dr. Clark was definitely one of the people I reached out to. This would have been roughly 2017, 2018 when I started to explore new opportunities, or my next opportunity, basically.
The other person that easily helped connect me with this opportunity, it was essentially my predecessor in the role here, Lydia Prado, who then was the Vice President of Strategic Community Partnerships, my former role here. And so I basically took over for her here as she continued her work in the community. So those two people, again, I consider friends, mentors, coaches, and one happens to be my current boss. And so that's how I got connected to the opportunity. And it's interesting, because as I look back at my prior opportunities, that's been kind of a similar way that I tend to come upon the next opportunity to rise again. So that's why I do underscore that I'm very blessed and privileged and lucky to have these mentors, friends and, coaches, right? Frankly, this network that I'm surrounded by that has, in a way, raised me within this community. So that's how I, yeah, found myself here. And so glad to be here.
Alex: That's a very supportive way to find your way into well-being work. And it's super interesting that you've now landed as Chief Engagement Officers. So not only have you been on your own journey of well-being, but it sounds like that's a mainstay of what you're doing with the Mental Health Center of Denver.
Alex: To help provide that for other people.
Michael: Mm-hmm, absolutely.
Alex: So what does that look like on a day-to-day? What goes into forming well-being for others?
Michael: I would say one of the things, one of the tenants I would say around well-being for us here at the Mental Health Center of Denver is that well-being is self-defined, right? And so what it looks like for me may look different for you. For me personally, I have found that well-being is very much about relationships, about the authentic and solid relationships that I have cultivated and maintained over the years and over my career. And so that really is what sustains me and makes me thrive and contributes to my well-being. That being said, certainly from a clinical perspective, we here at the Mental Health Center of Denver very much have and provide services to support the mental health and well-being of the communities. And so we do that through a broad array of services that we offer.
So I mentioned the clinical work. We have a lifespan of services that we offer. Services all the way from prenatal care, through the other end of the spectrum, senior care as well, and everything in between. And so the services that we offer are geared towards those specific populations. I don't want to go into too much detail around the clinical work, because I think for by and large, most people when they think about mental health, that's likely what most people think about when it comes to mental healthcare is kind of the clinical work or the therapeutic work that happens within clinical settings.
What I do want to highlight more is our work around addressing the social determinants of health, right? So those are more, like it sounds, social determinants. These are things like your education, your financial well-being, your access to food, access to housing. These other factors, these social factors, if you will, that really at the end of the day have a pretty significant impact on our well-being, right? When it comes to our health and well-being, it's not just about the clinical care that we receive, whether it be for mental or physical health, right? A lot of the social factors influence and impact that. We do a lot of work here at the Mental Health Center in Denver trying to address those social determinants. In fact, housing is one of the big service areas that we offer. We administer a lot of housing vouchers on behalf of various agencies here in the state and community. We also actually develop our own housing to provide housing for the people that we serve. The most recent project that we completed was actually on Federal and Iowa. It's called Sanderson Apartments, where we built 60 units, independent living. Well, not quite independent, but it's permanent supportive housing, basically, is what the technical term of it is called. But the idea is that we have housing where we surround it with the appropriate and supportive services to make sure that whoever we have in housing can stay in housing successfully, by making sure they have the services that they need, whether it’d be mental health services, or physical health services, or whatnot, but making sure they're connected to all the services to be supported and stay living in the community. And so housing is a perfect example of the work that we do, specific to that specific social factor.
Another area that I always like to highlight with respect to what we do at the Mental Health Center of Denver is actually around food and security. On one of our campuses, on the Dahlia Campus, which is actually in Northeast Park Hill, we actually have dedicated an entire acre of that particular campus to an urban farm. So it actually has a farm as well as a greenhouse. And the greenhouse itself is actually special in that it's an aquaponics greenhouse. And so for those of you who are not familiar with aquaponics, it's where we actually not only grow vegetables, but we're also growing fish in the greenhouse. It's actually a closed system where, essentially, within the ecosystem, if you think about it, it's using water. Water is a main ingredient, if you will, right? And the fish certainly are living and growing in the water. And the plants actually act as a filtration system, if you will, in filtering and cleaning the water, right? But at the same time, those nutrients, if you will, that the fish are providing, is what's feeding the plant.
We do that at the Dahlia Campus. And it was in recognition of and a clearly identified need within that community around food and security. In fact, not sure if you are familiar with the term food desert, right? The food desert is this idea that you don't have access to fresh food within a mile walking distance. Well, in Northeast Park Hill, we actually say that it's actually a food swamp, because not only can you not get access to fresh food, the only type of food you can get access to is actually fast food, right? So more toxic food, unhealthy food. We tend to call it a food swamp.
That has changed, definitely. That was the case I would say definitely about three to four years ago. But it was because of that identified need within that community that we said, “You know what? One of the ways that we, the Mental Health Center of Denver, are going to help address and solve this issue is by growing food in the community.” And that was then where the idea was born to really grow food. And in this case, we grow fresh vegetables, as well as fish for the protein side of food.
We worked directly with the community to make sure that that particular campus was from the very get-go informed by the community, right? In fact, it was so informed by the community that the community actually adopted the campus from the get-go. And a couple of really fun stories I like to share about the Dahlia Campus is that, one, the Dahlia Campus was actually named by the community. So we actually work with community stakeholders to name the campus itself. The community chose the name, the Dahlia Campus, for health and well-being, was the name that they chose. That's what the campus itself is called.
The other really cool story that I like to share is during construction. I'm sure for many of us, we’ve heard stories of construction site theft, right? Where supplies and materials tended, grow legs and walk away. I wouldn't be surprised perhaps right now during where we are around lumber and everything, given its shortage of how lumber might be one of those construction supplies and materials that tends to not stay where it was last left.
And so at the Dahlia Campus, because we worked with the community from the get-go, even before we broke ground, we never had any issues around theft during construction, right? I think that really speaks to how the community truly adopted that campus and felt like it was theirs from the very get-go. And when you talk about community, that's another piece where I think it is vital to well-being overall too in terms of it's essentially the collective relationship that we have that form the communities that we have that, again, ultimately attribute to our well-being.
I always like to highlight those programs in addition to the great clinical work that we do, because I think those are the programs that most people don't necessarily often think about when you think about the Mental Health Center of Denver, right? Even the educational programs that we run. We actually have, as another example, at the Dahlia Campus as well, we have what we call the Skyline Academy, where basically it's where we offer a day treatment program for children and students, right? These are typically students who need some additional support who aren't quite doing well in a regular classroom. They can come to us at our Skyline Academy to really receive the care and education they need, right?
And the goal very much for everyone we have at Skyline is to help them build coping mechanisms so that they can go back into a regular classroom, continuing their education there. That's yet another example. And then we have a lot of community programs where we're embedded in various schools, community centers, residential care facilities, and whatnot. That really is, I think, what I often like to highlight when it comes to well-being, right? Because sometimes people – I feel like that's basically a huge connection between mental health and well-being, because I think sometimes people don't quite make that connection, right? Well, what does mental health have to do with well-being? And it's like that is the connection, it is kind of these community supports that we can bring to link mental health to well-being.
Alex: I'd really love that. Just all of the programs, first of all, are fascinating. That's really incredibly interesting stuff. But I really also love the tie in between the two themes. When I asked you about well-being in the beginning, one of your first thoughts was about your mentorship, the people who've been around you, your community. And that's exactly what you've brought to the rest of it. And it’s, A) I think, also, I definitely was – I was kind of surprised myself, that was a great aspect of mental health as well as physical health that you don't think about. You think about even if you don't just go physical and you go like, “Well, there's also mental health and therapy,” like the focus is on the individual. And when you get that community feel, that's such a great way of just enhancing all of the pieces of life that end up informing well-being. And it's interesting, because that was the first thing you highlighted when you talked about your own personal journey towards well-being as well was the community you had to support you along the way.
Michael: Absolutely. One of the things that we talk about a lot internally here at the Mental Health Center of Denver is – the Mental Health Center of Denver is something that within the healthcare system is called a community mental health center, right? Distinguishable from, say, hospitals who might have psychiatric care, inpatient psychiatric care and whatnot. And there's a total of 17 community mental health centers in the state of Colorado that covers the entire state. And the thing that we say often internally here at the Mental Health Center of Denver is how do we make sure we don't forget the community part of community mental health center, right? That we don't just purely focus on mental health center, but that we remember that we are the community mental health center. And therefore, when we think about access to services, like how do people get access to our services? That's the number one place we start with. It also happens to be, unfortunately, probably the biggest barrier to just mental health in general, right? People just – Actually I’m going to flip that around and say we put up some significant barriers to people accessing services, right? Just because – I mean, the root cause of it, frankly, is because the healthcare system overall was not created to be patient-centered if you will, right? It is very payer-centered in a sense. How do we get paid? Right? The customer here is basically flipped. And because of that, unfortunately, what it means is access to health care just overall, whether it’d be physical or mental health, is very difficult just because the system is built not for the patient, but essentially a system built to get paid, essentially, right? We, unfortunately, then have a lot of barriers to access. And that's something that we think about often here.
My team in particular, we are the engagement communications team. And we essentially oversee all of our external relations work for the organization, as well as internal communications. And because we oversee all of our external relations, we tend to receive a lot of, frankly, those inquiries, where somebody might have not been able to figure out how to get access to care and whatnot. And so we feel a lot of those inquiries and get insight to a lot of those, unfortunately, negative experiences that people are having.
And one of the things that I often work with my team on is, with these negative experiences that people are having, how might we then work internally to fix those? And some of those are easier to fix than others, right? Like the to fix ones are definitely the ones where it's like, “Yep, that's federal requirements. We need XYZ, and we have to document all those things in order to get paid or whatnot.” Those are typically harder to fix. And then there's sometimes much easier things to fix where it's like, “Oh, yup, that is something our access team wasn't aware of. And that's easily fixed, where it's a minor fix within either maybe our interactive voice response system. The prompt was wrong. We need to fix that, or something.”
We certainly do our best to fix that. And then as a healthcare organization, we also have an advocate, patient advocate as well, who is also available for people. Both people who we serve, as well as just the general community, but primarily for people we serve who, once they're in already aren't having the best of experiences, the idea is that they have an advocate internally to help fix that. And obviously, our intention and our goal is never to make it difficult. But yeah, as a bigger healthcare system, sometimes there are some cracks that even we're not aware of, and some people fall into them. And we definitely get those people out of those cracks and try to patch those cracks up.
Cristina: It's really interesting that you mentioned access, because the whole time you were talking about access, I was thinking about a couple of things. One is when you talked about your journey into finding well-being and pursuing well-being, which I'm sure it's not a destination or end of the marathon medal like, “I found it. I'm done. On to the next.” It's just an everyday thing. But it's how your access to your coaches and mentors in the community has helped you with that. And I also think of how the opposite of well-being. So what causes the lack of well-being and the struggles with well-being? And the pandemic highlighted that. From a psychological and human point of view, it's really come up as isolation. So the lack of access, isolation due to the pandemic. But even before that, I mean, the rise in loneliness, the rise in feeling disconnected at work, and communities, and at home. And the real pandemic, if we want to say this, of the focus on the individual, as opposed to focus on how do we build a community? And how do we make sure that even in something as simple as a project or a team, people have access? Destroy the silos? Make sure that people can talk to each other freely, all these things that when you take them away, they cause a lot of problems.
Michael: It is interesting, right? Because I feel like I hear – So one thing that you said around technology is fascinating. I don't know that we have cracked the nut on this either. But one of the things that's interesting to me there is technology in and of itself to me seems like it could be both the problem and the solution, depending on how it's leveraged and used, right? So when you talk about isolation, for example, even before the pandemic, we already knew that social media, if overused and used in a way where you're much more comparing, if you will, and have kind of FOMO, right? If you're missing out and whatnot, that even prior to the pandemic, felt pretty isolating, right?
Imagine, and I'm sure we all experienced this, where we're scrolling through Facebook, and suddenly we're like, “Oh! My close friends had a dinner party, and I wasn't there.” So all of a sudden you're like, “Oh, I'm excluded.” So I think that has existed pre-pandemic, and I think it definitely got exacerbated in a way, because then not only were we still on Facebook, we were on Facebook more because now we're at home or isolated and don't have any other interactions for our own well-being. And so I think like everything else that was, frankly, broken within our society, like it got exacerbated and got spotlighted, right?
Another thing that I heard often was it's like we poured gasoline over everything and lit a match on it, and just everything was on fire. In some cases, literal dumpster fires, right? And so that side of technology. And then on the flip side, kind of even using – Let's just stick with the same technology, Facebook, right? Facebook allowed us to actually have video chats and video calls with one another. And so during this pandemic, even though we weren't able to safely be in-person with one another, it enabled us to still stay connected so that it wasn't just a voice, it wasn't just a chat, but we can actually see each other just like we are now on this zoom call, right? Have a conversation and whatnot.
I think that helped sustain us, perhaps, over the course of the pandemic. And at least for me, what I'm learning is it's still not a substitute for in-person gatherings, right? That as much as I can see you, I can read your body language and respond to all the cues, for me, there's still that in-person energy, right? Those vibes that we get from an experience in-person is still missing. And so for me, personally, what I found for my own well-being is when it was safe to do so. In fact, more recently, where we find ourselves as a community here in the Metro, in Denver, around our numbers are looking good in terms of vaccination rates, as well as positivity rates and all that. Well, I think at this point, most restrictions have been lifted, if not all of them. I suddenly found myself saying essentially yes to every single invitation I have to go out and be out, right? And then have my other problem return, “Oh, I now need to learn how to say no again, right? Because I did it, because I was so excited that, “Oh, I'm going to get to actually go have happy hour, or dinner, or lunch in-person with somebody else who I haven't only either seen in video or hear voice, and to do that again.” So to me that just goes back to underscoring, yeah, technology still isn't a substitute to me for in-person gatherings, right?
It'll be interesting. I think as technology evolves, where it takes us, right? We’ve been talking, I think, for a while now around like holograms and everything. So being able to have more 3D representations of us versus the 2D that we have now, right? And yet, that still doesn't answer the question of does that actually somehow also take care of the energy and the vibes that you would get in-person or not, right? So I think it'll be interesting as technology continues to evolve. I think it's not the total answer, but it does help during these times that we're going through.
Alex: That's a really good way of putting it, because I think that I definitely suffered from the same problem the second things started opening up. I was like, “Let's do it. Let's do everything.” And then you end up being like, “I'm exhausted. And I need to start saying no.”
Michael: Exactly, right? Yeah, you’re quickly reminded of, “Yeah, I learned this lesson I feel like a decade ago, and somehow I forgot it.” So let's relearn how to say no, and put up some boundaries.
Alex: So are there ways that that comes out in your work both within your team and with what you guys are doing in allowing people to form boundaries? Because access definitely makes sense. Get as much access as possible. But for that exact reason, we then fall into the other side of the coin, which is if there's so much access, how do you filter it? How do you figure out what's meaningful? How has that influenced what you guys are doing?
Michael: I think we ourselves – So I'll give this example. I'll start first internally, specifically to our team. But this is actually applicable to all of our teams across the Mental Health Center of Denver. So when you talk about access, the thing that comes to mind for me, because it's top of mind for me, is access to information. So when the pandemic happened. For us here, essentially, it was mid-March, Sunday night, Dr. Clark, our CEO, called or convened basically our crisis management team. And on Sunday night, essentially, we made the decision that we needed to essentially overnight go virtual as much as possible. There were services that we couldn't do virtually. So those were things like our pharmacy services, our residential care and whatnot. So those continued in-person. But for services that we could deliver virtually, we overnight just went virtual.
And what that meant for us, technologically speaking, was we were probably about a quarter of the way through rolling out Microsoft Teams. And, Cristina, you would appreciate this from a change management perspective, where we essentially threw that change management plan out the window and said, “Good luck, everybody,” and just turned it on for everybody, right? And then what we told everybody was, “You know what? We're going to be closed to services on Monday. So grab stuff from the office that you need. Go set it up at home. Open up Microsoft Teams. Play around with it and see what it's like. And then Tuesday, we'll start our services.”
And so, Tuesday, you can imagine – I think we had in the morning – Actually, it was Monday, Monday, when you're closed for services, we asked all staff to go ahead and join an all staff meeting on Teams. Again, like 75% of us weren't ever on Teams before. Never really been on camera, right? You can imagine everybody hopped on. No one was muted, nor even understood the concept of muting and unmuting and how videos work. It was rather hilarious reflecting back on it now where we were saying, “Oh, use mute. No, you're not muted.” Or when people were starting to speak, and they were still muted, all those things, right? All happened during that one call. So it was rather hilarious, frustrating probably when it was happening, but hilarious looking back at it now. That was one thing in terms of information.
And then, because Microsoft Teams also, for those familiar with Microsoft Teams, essentially has like a chat feature, right? Not too dissimilar from Slack. More real time, more open communication channels, which is different from email. Up till March we had been a very email-oriented organization, much like the rest of the world. And suddenly, we introduced another communication method into the mix in addition to video and audio. And so now, all of a sudden, we find ourselves having to look at more than one place for information, right? Where before it was like, “Oh, yeah, everything's in Outlook. I know how to search Outlook. It's probably in an email. Somebody probably sent an attachment. If it's not here, it's probably somewhere on our SharePoint. Great. I know how to use that.” And then, without any training or change management, we've turned on Teams, and you said, “Good luck. So then all of a sudden, it was now also on Teams. And now everybody was lost, because now we're like, “I have no idea where the information is. Where do we make announcements? Where do we make all staff announcements? Where do we post information,” right? So we were all in it together. And we were all in the sandbox together just trying to figure it all out.
I would say that over the course of the year, we certainly have gotten better at – Everybody I think has gotten more comfortable and understands more now, right? Just with being tossed into it without training of how all the technology works. And now we're in the process of really, I think, organizationally beginning to set some guidelines around where what type of information resides, right? So to try to minimize this feeling of, “I need to check everything and monitor both Outlook and Teams for information.” So that is probably the most top of mind example for me. And with respect to access, and sometimes too much information is a little bit overwhelming. And now we're beginning to try to clean that up, if you will.
I still have days where I'm still learning myself “Where the information is?” So probably my biggest thing right now that I’m amused with is now I have those moments where I remember having conversations. Some topic will come up or some issue will come up and then it will be like, “I already talked about this with somebody. But I have no idea who it was in which meeting? And I've had times where I've actually had to call Rita, my assistant, and just say, “Rita, I don't remember who I talked to about this. Could you help me remember?” And so Rita will go through my calendar, and it's like, “Was it this person? That person?” And so she'll search my email and all that.
It's an interesting challenge now that we have, because that has come up probably no fewer than three or four times a week for me now where somebody will ask me a question and I'll be like, “Yeah, I talked about that.” But I don't remember which meeting or with who. So it's a fascinating, I think, thing for us now that we're continuing to figure out.
You talked about access, I think we have access, but now internally anyway with this specific example, it's like we have access, but it's like information overload. And it's in an almost disorganized way, right? So then it's like we have access, but we don't know where it is anymore. So it's an interesting problem to solve internally.
I think, externally, flipping it completely around to the external side, and specifically to the community when we talk about access and access to services with us, the Mental Health center of Denver, it's definitely something I think that the pandemic, just like everything else, just like all the other inequities that the pandemic highlighted, it also highlighted the inequities around access to services. So for example, when we went to Telehealth services, we already knew that there are a significant portion of the people we serve who don't have access to equipment, let alone connectivity to support Telehealth. And so with that, the immediate term, we were able to mobilize quickly to get the devices into people's hands. We had WiFi devices internally that we use for staff where we quickly just said, “Yep, deploy those to people we serve so that we can actually connect them to Telehealth services.”
In the long term, we're very much thinking through all of those as we continue to innovate on various services that we have and that the community needs. And so there are a lot of lessons learned for sure, over this pandemic. And the thing that we are focused on as we move forward and figure out what this next normal is is really figuring out during this pandemic what are things that we learned that are good that we want to keep? And also, then what are things on the flip side of that? What are the things that we learned that we need to get rid of, or stop doing, or do better? It's been an interesting discussion, I think, internally with our staff, and also with a good conversation with the community, right? Really understanding what the community needs. What the people we serve would like to see. We do a lot of surveys. We try not to over survey, but it is important for us to hear from not only the community, but also the people we serve.
Even around Telehealth services and sort of what we call reentry, because we never closed. It's not so much about reopening. It's about reentering our physical buildings. Really trying to understand what the people we serve would like to see. Did they like Telehealth? Or would they like to come back in-person? Or do they want a hybrid? And even that word hybrid anymore is loaded.
Michael: Nobody knows what that is. But it's like it's the answer, right? It's hybrid.
Cristina: Yeah. You got to pivot to hybrid.
Michael: Yeah. What does that mean? Nobody knows.
Cristina: For the next normal. Then in that way we use all the phrases that have come out in the last 16 months.
Michael: Oh, yes. Yes.
Cristina: One of the things that we talked about in our previous conversations was how the challenge of being in the well-being service industry, and how the innate nature of the people that work in that kind of industry are that people really put others first and want to make sure that others are taken care of, and they have what they need. And it's the oxygen mask thing. It's much easier to think about who needs the oxygen mask. And let's put it on others first, then forget that we kind of need it as well. So how are some of the things that you individually and as an organization have you done to make sure that you're okay through all of this? Because the trauma wasn't just for the outside. It was for the inside as well.
Michael: Yeah. So a couple of things come to mind that I can highlight and share there is – So yeah, vicarious trauma is real, right? Whereas you are helping others, that you begin to absorb their trauma as well in a way, right. There are definitely clinical practices that are in place. And it takes a lot of discipline to kind of hold firm boundaries, as any clinician would to make sure that you try to minimize any sort of vicarious trauma you receive. However, despite all that, you might still experience those. And that's when, internally, what we do is we – And I'm not a clinician. I shouldn't say WE, but our clinicians help support one another through vicarious trauma, right. We have people internally who are very cognizant and aware of this, and we hope there is training and education and support that we offer each other and one another through these types of situations. That certainly, as you have mentioned, we've seen a huge rise, unfortunately, in vicarious trauma, because we're seeing a rise in the level of acuity that we're seeing in the people we serve, right? You can trace it back to what you mentioned earlier on isolation. Like that has definitely been an issue.
We are seeing a kind of rising level of acuity within the people we serve. And so that in turn impacts our clinicians. So much so, in fact, that we are seeing some of our clinicians just flat out say, in their way of protecting their own well-being saying, “I can't do this anymore. And I'm going to leave.” And to underscore that, it's not that they're leaving for any other job or any other organization. They're just saying, “I don't know what I'm doing next. I'm just leaving, because I can't do this right now anymore just because –” Yeah, that vicarious trauma and the level of acuity that we're experiencing right now. Unfortunately, that is something that we as not just the Mental Health center of Denver, but I think as a sector and as a society will need to figure out, because the workforce issue, like a lot of sectors, be it educational, or otherwise, in the mental health space, the workforce issue has been an issue of pre-pandemic. And it's been exacerbated even more now that we already have issues trying to fill our open positions, because frankly, there was not enough in the pipeline and to fill all the open positions that not just us but all mental health organizations have. And now we have this other issue of people are leaving earlier than we would anticipate because the level of acuity is so high.
It's an interesting challenge that even with all the support that we have in place for our own well-being here for our staff here. We're finding that it's still not enough to support the work. And so we do – In terms of kind of a standard practice, we very much encourage well-being for our own staff, right? Encouraging folks to take the time off, like that's a benefit that we provide everybody, paid time off. We encourage people to take those benefits and use those benefits. When I talk about PTO, we do hear from pockets of staff where, culturally, they don't feel comfortable taking the PTO, because maybe it's subliminally frowned upon or whatnot. And so that becomes like a cultural issue that we try to address to say that, “No. Our culture actually is to support each other's well-being. And so if you take PTO, supervisors and managers should absolutely support that.” And we actually try to model that behavior from, frankly, the top down. Dr. Clark will model that behavior from the top in terms of he will take his vacations. He will take time off, right? I would do the same. In fact, most recently, probably about a month ago, I just needed a day off. And I decided, as a way to model my behavior in my out of office – Specifically said, “Hey, I'm actually taking a mental health day.” So I basically said, “If you need help immediately, you can reach out to my assistant. But otherwise, I'm not checking anything.” And it was interesting that then I got one of – A peer executive in another health care organization got that out of office reply and actually commented on it and said, “You know what? Thanks for saying that. Because I need a mental health day myself. So I'm going to go now take my own mental health day.”
And I think that's the other thing, that we try to do here is really ask everybody to really model that behavior of what does it take to make sure that your own well-being is taken care of? Dr. Clark often says, “Don't forget to put yourself on your list. And so we often say that as well throughout the organization, is, “Yeah, as we have other people on the list, as we have other things on the list, just make sure that you're on that list.” So that's, I would say, at a high-level, and broadly how we help to encourage well-being with our own employees and staff at the Mental Health Center in Denver.
Cristina: That's really inspiring.
Alex: Yeah, I like that. That's definitely something we hear a lot, like the importance of having that modeled, especially when it comes to things like taking time off. Having that model from the top, because otherwise it feels like you're not, yeah, part of the culture, if you don't see the time-off being taken.
Alex: It's interesting to think about well-being then in terms of growth. Everybody has struggles in their job. Things they want to improve on. How do you balance helping people with well-being and helping people grow? Helping deliver, I don't want to call it criticism, but for lack of a better term, just guidance.
Michael: So I think the way that we approach well-being and growth is that it's one in the same, right? That it's not an either, or that it's a zero-sum game. It's like it's in order to grow, both personally and professionally, one of the skills that anybody has to master is maintaining your own well-being. I myself, frankly, prior to, I think, really dialing in my own well-being, and it's a continuing journey, right? Like I feel like with well-being, every time I think I've figured it out, it's like, “Oh, no. There's more to do.”
That being said, I've had my own. Like I would say probably about a decade ago I wasn't as focused on my own well-being, and ended up really working myself to the point where I was so stressed out that it manifested physically, right? Physically as in like, I remember, I was driving to the office one day, and my entire left arm just went numb, right? And that was a really, really scary moment for me, because I managed to get to the office. But then I sat there and thought, “This isn't good. Am I having a heart attack? Am I having a stroke? What's going on?” And so I went to see my doctor and everything turned out to be fine. But it was a wakeup call for me personally and say, “Okay, so whatever it is you're doing isn't working. So you need a reset here.” And that was frankly, again, my wake up call to say, “well-being is critical here for your own growth.” And so that is very much what we encourage and coach people around.
In fact, we actually infuse well-being, the principles of well-being, into what we call our catalytic coaching process. And actually if you Google catalytic coaching, you'll find out a lot more about it. But at a high-level, catalytic coaching, in contrast to performance review, is that it's much more about coaching people and looking forward, whereas performance review is looking back and grading, if you will, your performance. So we're not as much about that, but more about coaching you for your growth.
Within our catalytic coaching process, we actually have the tenants of well-being built-in. And so when we're asking questions around, “What goals do you have for yourself? Where would you like to professionally develop?” and whatnot, we're also asking you to rate your own well-being, because then that becomes the basis of discussion for you and your supervisor to have. So if on a scale of one to five, you rated your financial well-being at three, that prompts a discussion of, “Okay, well talk to me more about why are you feeling you're at a three for your financial well-being. Like are you feeling stressed out because you're behind on bills? Or what is it that's making you rate there?”
That is a very specific way, if you will, that we bake in well-being as part of the growth rate formula, that because you somehow focus on well-being doesn't mean that you're therefore going to stunt your growth or professional aspirations. It's like, no, it's quite the opposite, that you have to focus on your well-being in order to professionally grow and develop and thrive.
Alex: That's a fantastic answer. I love that. That's incredibly interesting.
Cristina: It definitely is.
Alex: Catalytic coaching you call it.
Cristina: We are definitely big fans, or anything that's not the traditional performance review system. As much as we all like to be graded on our past performances while we were there, so we kind of know what we did, but it would be nice to figure out what we can learn. And where do we want to go? Because that's really what we can work on. We can't change the past. So how about we get help in working on the future?
Michael: Mm-hmm. Yeah. When I got here – So this organization is the first place that I got introduced to the catalytic coaching process, because, Cristina, just like you said, I think everywhere else, I was part of the performance review process. And where, yeah, at the end of it, after all that, you got to score at the end of it. And that was your grade for the year. How well did you do? And so I get it.
And so for me, I remember when I started at the Mental Health Center of Denver, and Dr. Clark shared with me the process of catalytic coaching. Like, verbally, as I was listening to it, it's like, “Okay, that makes sense.” But I didn't really truly appreciate it until I went through the process, right? And at the end of it I was like, “Oh, so you don't give me an A, B, or C? Or you don't like give me a grade at all?” But I walked away with what I needed for this coming year. And also the other really cool thing is it's really aligned with for me with my personal and professional goals. That it's not just all about what are you doing for the organization? Like what are you going to do in order to advance the organization? That the organization recognizes that in order for the organization to advance, you have to advance. And so it's all intertwined in the same coaching process.
Cristina: Yeah, that was my exact thought, it's not really about what are you doing for the organization. It's what is your organization doing for you? Because without you, we don't exist. So if we take care of you, you take care of us.
Michael: Exactly, exactly. So, yeah, so we have that framework. And then, yeah, as you can imagine, some people get it more than others. And we continue to work on it. Like we are a learning organization, big on continuous improvement. And so we try to foster an environment where people aren't afraid to fail. Now, they're still – I’m sure, if you ask somebody, one of our staff, they'll be like, “No, I'm not allowed to fail.” I'm sure that that exists.
But, truly, I think from the top, we do foster an innovative environment where we want people to try, and then learn, and then pivot. So it's the same thing as failing fast, failing forward, right? We have infused design thinking into our organization, and continue to roll that out. The design thinking is actually foundational to our innovation technology labs. So it's how we innovate using technology to try to meet the ever growing demands around mental health services. So it truly is the way we try to operate. And we do have more work to do to infuse it even deeper into the organization if you will.
Cristina: Well, and I assume that's a journey. So again, it's not one of those, “We got there. Okay. Get the medal.”
Michael: Yeah, it is, right? Yeah. Right. Yeah. And we're relatively bigger – We have a thousand employees. So it does take a little from a change management perspective that you can appreciate. It takes a little bit – I mean, culture just takes time to influence to begin with. When you're as big as we are, yeah, definitely, and dispersed across 35 of our own sites and then as well as other community sites we are at, it takes some time.
Cristina: Well, this was a fantastic conversation. And I'm sure we could go on for hours and days on well-being and how to pursue it, build it, cultivate it, live it and all sorts of other things.
Alex: Yeah, I love the constant theme of just connections throughout this. My community coming together to own this, the communication to get it out to the full staff, to get it out to the community, and then the connection of just, “Hey, I want to help you grow. You help me grow.” I mean, that seems like a running through line of – It makes sense. We're such social creatures. It would make sense to really highlight that, grow everything else. It's a wonderful way of looking at it. I love that focus.
Michael: Exactly, exactly? Like human beings, right? We are innately social creatures. And I think sometimes we forget that, but it is what makes us thrive.
Cristina: It truly is. So you did mention that part of your pursuit and journey for well-being is to be able to be your best self, and show up as your best self, and live your best life. So one of the questions we always ask is what does authenticity mean to you?
Michael: Yeah. So speaking of journeys, I would say that that's yet always a never ending journey, which I have grown to appreciate, is the journey towards authenticity. And for me what that journey looks like is – Frankly, has been around discovering who my authentic self is. I'm sure like many of us, as we grow up, the society, family, other pressures. You're born your authentic self. When you come out of the womb, you're born your authentic self. And I think what ends up happening is as we get educated, as we get inculcated into society and whatnot, there are pressures that begin to kind of almost call away potentially what your authentic self is to form you into this image of what likely the most influential factor is thinks it should be. How should you talk? How should you dress? How you should – Or what you should be educated and what your profession should be?
For me, my continuing journey around authenticity that has been quite a rewarding one, frankly, has been continuing to almost peel back these layers and armors and whatnot that I've collected over the years of, “Okay, who is the true Michael here? Where is my true voice?” Lately, I've been referencing my 10 year old self like trying to really get to my 10 year old self, and who just because of how my journey – So 10 years old is a milestone for me, it was because I was sent from – Where I was living at the time was in Thailand with my parents. My parents sent me back to the US to live with my aunt and uncle to finish the rest of my education. So a 10 year old Michael is a pretty pivotal moment in my life, where we can unpack this all day and still take more time.
Essentially, 10 year old Michael, it was a milestone in my life where, essentially, it was when I left my childhood behind and grew up, essentially overnight. And so my journey more recently has been really trying to find that 10 year old Michael and remember what brought him joy, what brought me joy. Like what toys I like? What did I like to do? Who did I like to hang out with? How did I speak? How did I talk? What did I watch on TV, right? And so for me, this authenticity journey has been around rediscovering and kind of who I truly am. And almost integrating every part of me to my present self. And then being able to, frankly, show up anywhere with all of me, right? And not feel like, “Oh, in this room, I have to wear this jacket, because this part of me is not going to be welcome or whatnot.” But being able to say, “When you invite me, you’re going to get all of me, all the crazy side, all the fun side, all the quiet side, all of it, right?” And that to me is, to use your words and your brand, uncovering the human, right? That's truly been what I've been doing. Like I said, most recently, it's been this journey of reconnecting and rediscovering my 10 year old self.
Alex: Oh, that theme, getting back to it, like it was there before. You were born with it, rediscovering.
Michael: Yeah. And it's been a very rewarding journey.
Cristina: Yeah, like the acknowledgement of the fact that we are conditioned from the outside. And that once we go through the journey, and we get to a certain point of realizing what that is doing for us and others, it's like, yeah, you get all of me. And if you don't want all of me, then this is not the right room.
Michael: Right, and that, as harsh as that might sound, it's almost like, “Well then, that's probably your problem. Not mine.”
Cristina: Yeah. It’s true. It really is. Yeah.
Micheal: So yeah, it’s a continuing journey. And it's been a very rewarding one. And I look forward to continuing to rediscover and reconnect with my 10 year old self and other selves that somehow I probably don't even remember or know about that got conditioned away or stuffed into a closet, or a locker, or whatever, right? Yep, that part is not good. Don't come out, but hoping to welcome all of me out to say, “Yeah, come out and play.”
Cristina: Beautiful. So where can people find you, Michael?
Micheal: Yeah, obviously, at the Mental Health Center of Denver. But yeah, online, folks can connect with me certainly on Twitter. My Twitter handle is MikeNiyo. Same handle on LinkedIn as well. And I welcome any and all connections.
Cristina: Well, we know that those are important. So thank you for sharing this.
Alex: Thank you so much for doing this, Michael. It's really just fascinating all the work you get to do. I'm jealous. That's amazing. It's good stuff.
Michael: Well, thank you. Like I said, I'm very blessed and privileged to have the job that I do, and to love the job that I do, and the people that I'm surrounded by. And thank you to both of you for inviting me to share my story and to be here with you both.
Cristina: Thank you. And thank you, everybody, for listening.
Alex: Thank you.
Cristina: Thank you for listening to Uncover the Human, a Siamo podcast.
Alex Special thanks to our podcast operations wizard, Jake Lara; and our score creator, Rachel Sherwood.
Cristina: If you have enjoyed this episode, please share, review and subscribe. You can find our episodes wherever you listen to podcasts.
Alex: We would love to hear from you with feedback, topic ideas or questions. You can reach us at podcast wearesiamo.com, or at our website, wearesiamo.com, LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook. We Are Siamo is spelled W-E A-R-E S-I-A-M-O.
Cristina: Until next time, listen to yourself, listen to others and always uncover the human.
Vice President & Chief Engagement Officer Mental Health Center of Denver
With a strong penchant for social good, design, innovation and futurism, Michael Niyompong is Vice President and Chief Engagement Officer at the Mental Health Center of Denver (MHCD), a local and national model for innovative and effective community behavioral health care. In his role, Michael oversees the organization's philanthropy and fundraising; communications and marketing; external relations, community engagement and strategic partnerships; and public policy and advocacy
Prior to joining MHCD, Michael was Chief Operating Officer at Denver-based Clayton Early Learning. Michael was also Vice President at Rebound Solutions, a socially conscious firm specializing in strategy, change management and turn-around solutions and was Vice President of Technology and Facilities at Mile High United Way.
Michael earned his BS in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Colorado Boulder and his MBA in finance and MS in operations management from the Daniels College of Business at the University of Denver. During his tenure at Daniels, he served as the Co-President of the Daniels chapter of Net Impact, a worldwide nonprofit organization dedicated to using the power of business to improve the world through corporate social responsibility.
Michael volunteered with Project Angel Heart, delivering food to terminally-ill people in the community. He served on the founding board of the Academy of Urban Learning (AUL), a Denver Public School district charter school targeting at-risk, highly mobile youth and was elected Secretary of the AUL’s Board of Directors in 2005. The same year, Michael was appointed by then Mayor John Hickenlooper to serve on the Denver Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender (GLBT) Commission and was elected Vice Chair prior to completing his term in 2009.
In 2010, Michael traveled to Uganda and Rwanda to study innovative solutions to poverty and to understand the challenges and issues that distress developing countries. Later the same year, Michael served on the Information Technology Transition Committee for then Governor-elect John Hickenlooper.
Currently, Michael is active on the Library Commission for Denver Public Library, the Colorado State Leadership Council for Enterprise Community Partners and the Housing Advisory Committee at The Colorado Health Foundation. His prior service includes Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation, Colorado Nonprofit Development Center, Rocky Mountain PBS and Academy of Urban Learning.
Michael is a graduate of Leadership Denver Class of 2011 and in 2013 was recognized as one of Denver Business Journal’s Forty under 40. In 2016, Michael was selected as one of five Livingston Fellows by the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, and in 2017, Michael was part of the inaugural class of the Ascend Colorado Children and Families Fellowship at the Aspen Institute.
Michael is a Colorado native, born in Denver. He is fluent in both Thai and English. Because of his Thai heritage, growing up, Michael split his time between Bangkok, Thailand and Denver, Colorado. Today, Michael lives in Denver.