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Health and Wellness at the Austen Riggs Center – An Interview with Dr. Heather Churchill

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Dr. Churchill is the health and wellness coordinator and a graduating Fellow, recently appointed to the positions of staff psychologist and associate director of the Therapeutic Community Program

Q: How did you become involved in health and wellness at the Austen Riggs Center?

Heather Churchill, PsyD, Fellow in PsychologyDr. Heather Churchill:  Health and wellness was a personal interest of mine starting in high school and was a big part of my own life up through most of graduate school. Then, during my internship year in graduate school at a state psychiatric hospital in Utah, I was immersed in a Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) treatment setting and learned about mindfulness and how to help patients, particularly patients with affective regulation issues, learn more about just sitting and being. Working with them to be aware of what's going on inside of them rather than acting or getting rid of their feelings in various problematic ways was really powerful.

I came to Riggs hoping that I could use what I learned about DBT in some practical and meaningful ways. For example, I’ve worked with patients in a “coping skills” group to develop an interpersonal skills and emotion regulation manual, which they have found helpful. I’ve also been interested, from a psychoanalytic perspective, in very early infant-mother/infant-primary-caregiver relationships and in the ways that those influence a child’s formation of their sense of self and their sense of their body. We work with patients in psychotherapy to help them understand their bodies and the ways their relationship to their bodies are often formed in early infant relationships. I think mindfulness, meditation, contemplative practices, yoga, exercise, and diet are all ways to help patients understand and better listen to their bodies, and to communicate more deeply with their bodies.

When the opportunity to coordinate the health and wellness program became available, I saw it as a way for me to take my evolving interest in health and wellness over the years—moving from a personal interest to an interest in Dialectical Behavior Therapy to an interest in a psychoanalytic approach to contemplative practices—to the next step.

Q: What health and wellness activities are available to patients at Riggs?

HC: It ebbs and flows based on what patients want and need at a given time, but there are a few standings offerings of the program, including:

  • twice-weekly yoga classes with a certified yoga instructor;
  • yoga nidra classes two-to-three times a week with a member of our Therapeutic Community Program (TCP) staff, Ellen Broderick, who is a certified instructor and is in the process of training others;
  • morning walks with nursing staff members;
  • personal training opportunities with Eileen Duane, TCP staff member and fitness instructor
  • access to a registered dietician, Melanie Seserman, who works with patients around mindful eating; and
  • a weekly coping skills group that is built around a core of mindfulness.

The Health and Wellness Program at the Austen Riggs Center provides our patients with avenues for improving their physical health, and for reducing stress.

Q: What has the reaction of staff and patients been to the health and wellness offerings?

HC: The reaction has been very positive. It's been exciting to feel how much energy, enthusiasm, and openness there is around health and wellness at Riggs, particularly as it relates to the more contemplative practices. I've been trying to work at getting the program more in the mind of clinical staff, in the sense that it could be useful adjunctive treatment for their patients. And the patients themselves are expressing interest and participating; it is synergistic in some ways with what patients are working at in their individual therapy and many have adopted it or are trying to find ways to incorporate more of it into their lives. That has included patients taking the initiative to explore the many health and wellness offerings in or near the Berkshire County community, beyond the structure provided at Riggs. 

Q: What are your hopes for health and wellness offerings at Riggs in the future?

HC: I would love if more of our clinical staff felt comfortable using mindfulness practices as a tool in a variety of contexts. What's so nice about mindfulness practices is how versatile they are; you can use them a group, in one-on-one settings, and patients can use them themselves once they learn the skills. The more people who feel confident in offering these practices to a patient who's in distress, the better—it is another tool patients can put in their toolbox. I'm hoping to get more people trained in mindfulness practices and maybe increase the frequency of some of the yoga classes; having these practices more in the mind of staff and patients will hopefully lead to greater utilization for those who think it would be a good fit. 

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