Advocating for Mental Health and Recovery
Episode

Jay Shifman, Mental Health Advocate, Founder, and Host of Choose Your Struggle

Advocating for Mental Health and Recovery

Mental health struggles are common among people, and many resources are available for those struggling.

 

In this episode of Everyone Hates Healthcare, Michael Swartz has a thorough conversation with Jay Shifman, a mental health advocate, founder, and host of Choose Your Struggle, where he is working towards ending the stigma around issues of addiction and mental health. Jay was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder when he was a teenager and was put on a medication he didn’t need, severely impacting his mental health, and leading him to develop an addiction and attempt suicide repeatedly. After five years of recovery, Jay decided to use his voice and his experience to help others who might need support around their mental health, substance misuse, or recovery. He shares his story and some insights on the work that he does with Choose Your Struggle, discussing mental health issues and available resources for those in need.

 

Tune in to learn from Jay’s journey with mental health and addiction and why mental health is an important issue to keep in check!

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Advocating for Mental Health and Recovery

About Jay Shifman:

Jay Shifman is an open book. A vulnerable storyteller and stigma-destroying speaker, podcaster, and event host, Jay’s story of struggle is familiar to the millions of people the world over who also struggle with issues of mental health, substance misuse, and addiction. The survivor of two suicide attempts and an overdose and now in long-term recovery, it is Jay’s mission to encourage difficult conversations and honest education concerning these and similar struggles.

Jay founded his company, Choose Your Struggle, in 2015 with two distinct goals: ending stigma and promoting honest and fact-based education around the topics of Mental Health, Substance Misuse & Recovery, and Drug Use & Policy. A fervent believer in radical honesty and the simple fact that neither struggle nor recovery should be treated as a one-size fits all experience, Jay uses his voice, and his platforms to educate, entertain, and empower.

Holding a BA in Psychology from Northern Kentucky University and with over a decade of lived and professional experience in the field, Jay has put in numerous hours of independent learning acquiring certifications in mental health, substance misuse and addiction, and drug policy. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, Lauren, and their dog, Nell.

 

EHH_Jay Shiffman: Audio automatically transcribed by Sonix

EHH_Jay Shiffman: this mp3 audio file was automatically transcribed by Sonix with the best speech-to-text algorithms. This transcript may contain errors.

Everyone Hates Healthcare Intro:
For many people today, healthcare feels like we’re behind enemy lines. The system is geared to take care of us. But why do we feel like we’re in it alone? Everyday stories are a powerful way to shine light on the gaps that make it feel this way. I’d like to welcome you to Everyone Hates Healthcare, where we bring you real people’s healthcare stories unfiltered. And now your host, Michael Swartz.

Michael Swartz:
Hey, everybody. Michael Swartz here, and I want to welcome you back to the show. Today we have Jay Shifman. Jay is passionate about issues of addiction and mental health. A speaker, writer, consultant, coach, advocate and the host of the popular Choose Your Struggle podcast, Jay lives intentionally around seeing the realization of his dream to end the stigma around issues of addiction and mental health. Jay works with individuals and organizations to make a real change in how they approach, act on and talk about mental health and addiction. Jay’s own story of struggle is familiar to the millions of people all over the world who also struggle with issues of mental health, substance misuse, and addiction. Now, in long-term recovery, it is Jay’s mission to encourage the difficult conversations and honest education concerning these and similar struggles. Holding a BA in psychology from Northern Kentucky University, Jay currently lives with his wife, Lauren, and their dog on Daniel Island, South Carolina. Jay, welcome to the podcast. Very excited to be speaking with you.

Jay Shifman:
Well, thank you. It’s great to be with you. Clearly, you have a bit older of a, I sent you the old bio because I have moved since then. I now live in Philadelphia. But other than that.

Michael Swartz:
Oh, Philadelphia.

Jay Shifman:
Yes.

Michael Swartz:
Great city. I’m a big Eagles fan so.

Jay Shifman:
Are you from the area?

Michael Swartz:
Yeah, right outside of Philly, in Westchester. But I moved to Florida when I was about ten, and my mother wouldn’t let me live in the house if I wasn’t an Eagles flyer, Sixers Phillies fan. So I’m sure, you know, living there.

Jay Shifman:
I understand the fandom.

Michael Swartz:
So, Jay, I’d love for you to give us a little background on yourself. And how did you end up in, being this expert in addiction?

Jay Shifman:
Well, it was one of those things I didn’t set out to be. I can tell you that, you know, I didn’t wake up at 23 going, you know, I think I’m going to develop an addiction now. It was a slow, creeping of struggling with substance misuse and then eventually addiction. My struggles all come from a misdiagnosis in my teenage years that led to a therapist putting me on medication I didn’t need, and you know, as we know, when people are taking prescriptions they don’t need, bad things can happen, and I developed that issue of misuse and eventually an issue of addiction. So that’s where I found myself in my early twenties and decided at that point that I was done, I had no hope, and attempted suicide twice in a two-day span and survived an overdose. The next six months, saw me spend three weeks in a lockdown unit and three months in a long-term care facility, what we would have called a mental institution 50 years ago. And it was there that I finally realized, you know, this diagnosis that I have, I don’t recognize the experience of other people who also have this diagnosis. However, I recognize the experience of those people struggling with addiction, and making obviously, a much longer story short, I checked myself out, went through almost four months of detox until in the spring of 2010, I finally had nothing left in my system and that’s when I set about rebuilding my health in my life.

Michael Swartz:
Incredible. So what was the point that you felt yourself, like in the early years, was there a point in time where you realized that you had this addiction?

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, so the moment that I really knew actually came, more in hindsight, you know, as I was sort of saying, I had this misdiagnosis and while I knew that the drugs were having a negative effect, my therapist said I needed them. My therapist said that they, you know, the right answer wasn’t getting off the drugs, but finding the right combination, the right dosage, all that kind of stuff. So I knew in the summer, spring and summer of 2009 that I had hit this low point. By then, I was very familiar with the effects of withdrawal. You know, I knew that I could not stop physically taking these medications. I knew that when, I had been taught and then now was being reinforced by my brain that whenever anything went wrong in my life, the right answer was to race for these medications. So I knew that there were these negative effects, but I didn’t associate that with addiction because, like I said, I had a therapist in my ear telling me that this was, I don’t know if he would say, he would have said normal, but he at least would have said that, you know, the drugs aren’t the problem.

Michael Swartz:
And that’s a tough position because you’re sitting there, the therapist is telling you you need these. Like, if you could go back, how would you have went about that? Like if somebody is on medications, like how do you know? I mean, you’re not a doctor.

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, I would say that the answer to that is something that I say a lot. And I’ll give you this example. When my aunt, who is fantastically in remission from cancer, was going through her battle against cancer, every step of the way, she got second, third, fourth, fifth opinions, and that included whether or not to get surgeries, different treatments. When it comes to mental health, the estimates are that over 80%, some say as high as 90% of people trust one doctor’s opinion. So that certainly was true for me. My therapist, who I trusted, my family trusted, multiple of my other brothers went to see him as well, when he said I had these different issues of mental health, the ones that we really obviously now are questioning, there’s the main diagnosis of bipolar disorder, which I did not have, when he said that I had that we trusted him. And the right answer should be, in the mental health world, getting a diagnosis as heavy as bipolar is someone telling you in the physical world that you have cancer. I mean, this is a serious diagnosis. And you should say to that person, that is just a very heavy thing. Thank you for your thoughts here, I’m going to go talk to somebody else. And you know, if they agree with this diagnosis, I’ll be back and we’ll continue working. But people don’t do that because they’re afraid of hurting their therapist’s feelings, or what if they reject me, and all this kind of stuff, which is absurd. We need to put ourselves first, we need to be advocates for ourselves.

Michael Swartz:
No question. And I think with things like Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, some of these, people with a platform coming out and speaking about mental health, it’s starting to really take away the stigma that I’m sure was, like, are you seeing a difference mental health today compared to mental health when you were going through your experience?

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, without a doubt. I think that, you know, we are at a point now that talking about these things is much more accepted, much more open, and I would actually challenge other people in the community. There’s time to think about what’s next. Let me give you an example. In the fall of 2020, no, would that have been last year? I mean, with COVID, man, everything is just, you know, it’s a soup of time. But during one of the debates, the presidential debates, Trump famously called out Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, who is very famously in recovery. And I was in an extreme minority of the community that thought that Joe’s response wasn’t good enough, in which he said, I love my son despite his struggles. Now, here’s where I struggle with this entire situation. If our expectations are so low that a father saying on national TV that he loves his son, who struggled with addiction is praiseworthy, I just won’t accept that. I won’t accept that that is good enough. You know what I mean? And so my call at that time was don’t celebrate this. This guy is vying to be and eventually became the most powerful man in the entire world, and he very famously wrote a couple of the laws that have absolutely destroyed communities over drug use. For him to say he loves his son is nowhere close to being enough. How about I love my son, I’ve learned a lot since I first took public office in the seventies, and I now recognize that some of those laws we wrote were harmful. That is what I’m looking for. But just celebrating him for acknowledging a love for his son is just to me, disappointing. So to answer your question, yes, we’ve come a long way and I’m ready for us to take the next step. I’m ready for us to say, great, let’s keep having these conversations. But the reason that the two stated goals for my company, Choose Your Struggle, are ending stigma and promoting honest and fact-based education around mental health, substance misuse and recovery, and drug use and policy is because once you break that stigma down, if you do not, then go ahead and educate, if you do not, then replace that hate, which, as I say, you cannot hate up close. So once you break that stigma down, if you don’t replace that with honesty and fact-based education, that wall will come right back up, and what will flood to take its place? Negative biases and facts not based on reality. So that’s where you get a lot of these organizations who are doing incredible work to end stigma, but then they go off of outdated education when people do ask them questions because that’s not a thing they do, they don’t educate. And so if someone presses them, they’ll give the same old tired BS we hear all the time, and that’s why we need people in this space, we need people doing this work to, yes, of course, be vulnerable, yes, of course, speak your truth, but then be ready to educate once you’re moving past that.

Michael Swartz:
I think what you’re you’re setting out is incredibly powerful. I mean, you don’t hear many people speaking like you are, right, right now. So speaking of your company, when did you decide to create Choose Your Struggle? Like, take us after you know, you get through recovery. What made the light bulb go off?

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, look, man, I wish I could tell you that like, that in 2010, I entered recovery and went, great, now it’s time to talk. That’s just not how that worked. We have this false idea, mostly because of movies and TV and the like that just getting into recovery is then, you throw up your hands and the victory banner, and yay, I win. That could not be farther from the truth. I took a solid five years to really recover. And what I mean by that is, when I got off the medication, the first thing I did was sort of start learning my body again. You know, yes, I struggled with this addiction to pills, does that mean I can’t drink alcohol safely? Does that mean I can’t use cannabis safely? And both those things think were no’s because I am from the Midwest and if struggling with misuse issue of an alcohol in that area is a problem, when, you know, whiskey flows like water in that place. And also as a firm believer in cannabis, I am thankful that I can smoke a CBD joint and not need to smoke ten or something, which is, makes sense because cannabis is not literally addictive. So I was learning those things about myself and also allowing my brain, my body, my maturity, all of that to catch up with itself. And I accomplished that right around 2015, I started feeling comfortable. I started feeling content, in control of my life. I felt ready to start talking about this. And that’s the year that a buddy of mine who runs a storytelling organization in my hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio, he asked if I would tell my story on stage. I said no multiple times, and then I finally said yes at his behest, told my story, and that launched me in this direction, that was election night of 2015. So here I am six years later, doing this full-time. I left my career behind in 2019 to take this work full-time. And I, honestly, the sort of underlying reason for all of this is that I believe as a guy with incredible privilege in this world, I live in the wealthiest country in the world, I’m a white male, I come from means, I have a family that loves me and supports me. If I can’t risk this all by speaking these truths and being the one who puts my voice out there, then I have no right to celebrate this recovery, right? I have this privilege of safety nets that most people don’t have, and that means that I have to be willing to risk whatever BS is out there to be the one with a voice.

Michael Swartz:
And we need more people that are as real as you are in terms of the way you talk about things. It’s just, your point about people kind of just like throwing these things under the table, just sugarcoating it. So talk a little bit about your recovery. You said it took you five years. How did you go through the recovery? Did you have anybody helping you through? Like, take us a little bit through that.

Jay Shifman:
Well, I appreciate the kind words. And you’re right, the sugarcoating is an issue. I like to joke a lot. I used to live in South Carolina, in Charleston, to be near my wife’s family. And there’s a saying down there, bless your heart, which is the sort of, go screw yourself, of the South. And I was told that so often in a couple of years I lived in the South that my dog thought it was my name, but, so I’m with you on this speaking out part. But yes, no, I did not go AA, and so because of that, I didn’t have a community, so to speak, and I am not in any way saying that that was the right move. Not to AA part, I mean, yes, there are great things about AA, there’s a lot of negative about AA, but the community piece is peerless, it’s unparalleled. Me, personally, because my struggle was prescription pills, I was recovering first in Arizona in just a small town outside of Sedona where the only recovery community was AA. I didn’t fit in, and so because of that, I never got into AA. But the people that were there for me were my grandmother, who let me go through detox in her house outside of Sedona, Arizona. She was my biggest support. And then as I got healthier and healthier, it was the people in my life who sort of just let me live and let me grow. You know, I’m very thankful for my first real relationship as an adult. I was not the best person in the world at that time. You know, we were both young, but at the same time she was very patient and supportive. And that was very helpful for me, that my friends and family who, I would jump from one thing to another, I moved to New York City to be a writer for a while and then moved back to Cincinnati to go back into the nonprofit world. And so I was jumping around a lot just trying to find my footing and figure out who I was, and having people around who were very supportive of me was something that I am very thankful for.

Michael Swartz:
So what tips, what insight would you have if somebody is going through recovery? I think your point that it’s not like, oh, you recover, you’re clean and it’s the celebration, that it’s a long process. So what would be your tips, your insight for people that are going through this? And maybe they don’t have much family, maybe they don’t have the greatest support group. What would you tell them?

Jay Shifman:
Well, I would say, number one, to be patient with themselves amongst everything else. You know, probably three, while I was still going through detox, actually, like a month after I moved to Arizona to go through detox in my grandmother’s home, my grandfather, who I loved very much, wasn’t quite on the same page with what was going on in my life and, you know, was an old school guy and really, truly believed that I needed to kind of get a job and all that kind of stuff, right? And I did, and I lasted a week. I couldn’t do it, I physically couldn’t do it. I’m, mentally I was going through detox, you know, and I’m very thankful, and my grandmother was like, if he says he can’t do this, then let’s support him. But at the same time, that could have been a really easy give-up moment for me, you know, of like I failed at this sort of menial job that my grandfather wanted me to do. And that means I’m worthless. I don’t know, some kind of other BS, but I was patient with myself. I allowed myself to take the steps I needed when I was ready to go back to school. I started with community college because I had failed out of two schools already during my struggle with addiction. And so I, to be quite honest with you, even though I went to a private school growing up, there was a lot expected of me. I took so much pride in like getting A’s at this community college because it was me doing this alone. It was like me relearning how to be an adult and how to be a person in the world. And so I found joy in like learning who I was and developing new skills and discovering new things about myself in the world and was, I guess the right way to put it would be that I didn’t care about what other people thought, right? I mean, again, here I was, this guy coming from one of the nicest private schools in the entire state of Ohio. And I’m at this, you know, what a lot of people will look down on in terms of a community college, and I couldn’t care less. I was so proud of myself for getting these A’s. So there was a lot of that, trusting myself, being proud of myself, and recognizing that I was rebuilding, and that every step, every positive step was worthy of celebration.

Michael Swartz:
Enjoying the journey.

Jay Shifman:
Yes, that’s exactly right.

Michael Swartz:
Powerful, powerful stuff. And about your community college choice. Look, going to any sort of university is expensive. And I think more and more people are looking at community college and saying like, hey, this makes a lot of sense, even if they can go to another school. So I don’t think there’s any, I think the stigma of community college is going away, too.

Jay Shifman:
I’m with you, and by the way, you know, I guess to further clarify that point, it was more about the people that I grew up around and not me. You know, I honestly, now that I’ve been in recovery and I, you know, built this career, I’ve been invited to speak at high schools and every other speaker is like, you got to go to college. And I’m always the guy that’s like, you do you, you know? If you are like, you know, what I want to be is a plumber and I want to be the best damn plumber there’s ever been. Hell, yeah! Be the best damn, like, do your thing. Who cares what other people think about your job choices and all that, right? And you know, that extends to jobs like this one. When I started this work, when I took it full time in 2019, you know, even last year, there were people in my life who were still asking me or behind my back occasionally to my wife, like, is he going to get a real job, you know? So like, there’s going to be people that look down on you no matter what you do. So screw them, do what’s going to make you happy.

Michael Swartz:
And I think that is great advice for anybody. Do what you’re passionate about because it’s so much easier. I mean, think of like the old days, like parents, your parents, it was like you go to college, you get a degree, you get a high-paying job, and you just live that office life over and over and over. Well, today, do what you’re passionate about. So I think that’s just great advice for anybody.

Jay Shifman:
I couldn’t agree more. You know, I’ve got a friend who runs a podcast called I’m the Villain, and she had a guest on not long ago who was talking about our generation, millennials, and the younger generations butting heads with their parents, baby boomers when it comes to work. And just, there just is this inability by baby boomers to understand why millennials feel the way, and Gen Z is about work. And he was explaining it as, well, you have to understand that the way that they worked and the kind of environment that they went to work in literally does not exist. But they don’t know that because either they’re retired or they’re the highest ranks of these offices and they don’t know what goes on in the lower levels every day. So this idea, as you just said, you make it into an organization, you kind of slave away for 30 years and you retire with a watch and a handshake and a pension, that doesn’t exist anymore, but they don’t know that because they don’t they don’t work the way they used to.

Michael Swartz:
There are people getting paid millions of dollars right now to take pictures on Instagram, to stream video games. You know, when your parents used to say, you got to stop playing video games, you can only play it so much. Like, people are making millions doing this. Like people want experience, especially the millennials and Gen Z-ers.

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, I agree with you. And I also agree that, I should say I promote this idea that we need to change the way that we think about success when it comes to work. You know, I mean, I’m a great example. I used to have a job. I worked in nonprofit fundraising and then politics. So and we’re going to talk about politics here for a second that, I got paid really well. I was invited, you know, I couldn’t leave my house looking disheveled because I might bump into the mayor, like that was a very real thing, and it wasn’t healthy. By all definitions, I was incredibly successful, but I was overworked, I was stressed out. I didn’t, I liked my job, but I wasn’t fulfilled by my job. And now I make significantly less money, and yet I would say by a billion to one, I am more successful because I am doing something that actually has meaning to me. I’m doing something that I believe has meaning to the world. I am doing something that leaves me fulfilled and I am happy. And all of that in my mind is more important, as long as you can keep a roof over your head and food on your table, that’s the most important thing.

Michael Swartz:
You only live once and you can’t bring that money to the grave. You can give it to your family. But I think it’s so, so crucial that you are passionate, you’re fulfilled, you enjoy what you’re doing. Because, you know, if you go to work hating it, if you look to, I can’t wait till Friday and then you hate Sunday nights, like, you might have to think about what you actually want to do.

Jay Shifman:
I couldn’t agree more.

Michael Swartz:
So tell us a little bit more about your company, Choose your Struggle. I know you have a podcast, but what does the company do? Who can go to them? Give us some insight into that.

Jay Shifman:
Yep, so I am the founder of this organization. I am also the host and producer of our podcast. I am the host of multiple storytelling events, but the organization as a whole is myself and two other people. We have a strategist who does our design work and a lot of the work with other, sort of outward-facing work, and I have a writer who is working on a book with me right now, and the main things are the podcast and the storytelling events. We also do some consulting work, mostly around how organizations, specifically nonprofits, can engage healthy ways with mental health and substance misuse and addiction communities, and especially in their own community. I work with other organizations like Recovery Housing units and recovery organizations to talk about things like mindfulness and recovery, and that’s incredibly, incredibly fulfilling. And then because of the podcast, I was able to start a podcast network that now is on its way to hosting hopefully five shows by January 1st of 2022, which are all around ending stigma and helping break down the walls and educate on important topics. So it’s sort of a wide-ranging organization that really focuses around, like I said, the two twin missions of ending stigma and promoting honest and fact-based education around mental health, substance misuse and recovery, and drug use and policy, and a lot of that is me doing this. It’s chatting with amazing people, inviting people to reach out, and saying, look, I have a role with my organization, my employees know this, that we will never walk away from an engagement because of price. If you and I are talking and the event or the work sounds fulfilling and you say, look, this is all we can afford, I’m going to say, great, let’s make it happen. Even, my interest, as I just sort of said a minute ago, puts price not anywhere in our top five in terms of motivators. So this is very important to me that we make these changes and that we make sure that the people who deserve help get the help they deserve. So if you’re interested in working with us in some capacity, please reach out and know that we will make it happen, we’ll figure it out.

Michael Swartz:
And I think your twin missions, the ending the stigma, and the education, so important, so crucial. Let’s look at like current events right now, like celebrities coming out, Mike Phelps, all these athletes, who would you say do you look at out there right now that you think is doing just the best job or give us those couple of people that you think are doing so much for ending the stigma? Besides yourself because you are doing a hell of a job. Who do you see, I mean, we just had the Olympics and we saw things, but what’s your thought?

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, so obviously Simone Biles was incredible. In the Olympics, there was another Olympian named Raven Sanders, who I’ve actually had the chance to chat with, really wonderful shot putter. Don’t quote me on that, but I’m like 99% sure, shot putter who is amazing. Sha’carri Richardson, fantastic advocate. But in terms of the broader work, there’s a couple of people in her shadow, Kevin Love, staying in the sports world is fantastic about this, always very vulnerable and open. But sort of moving away from sports, there’s a guy that everyone should know if you don’t know him already by the name of Dr. Carl Hart. He is a researcher from Columbia who has transcended the higher education sphere and has become a bit of a late-night talk show guest and that kind of stuff. I’ll say there’s a couple of reasons that he’s incredible. Number one, he’s a Columbian doctor, but he’s also a beautiful-looking black man with dreads. And that already throws a lot of people through a loop because they don’t think of that when they think of Columbian professor or professor from Columbia. And number two is he is an active drug user and he’s open about that. And he talks about how, you know, look, all of these stigmas, all of these lies that you’ve been told about drugs are wrong. And I’m literally walking proof, here I am the top of my profession and I am a drug user and he’s a drug researcher, and so obviously he would know. So he’s a guy that I really, really love, one of my heroes, Doctor Carl Hart. Another name that people should know about if they do not already, is a guy that I look up to, and his name is Dr. Adi Jaffe. When I entered recovery, as I said a minute ago, I had to learn, you know, is it okay if I drink alcohol? Is it okay if I smoke pot? Like that kind of stuff. And Dr. Jaffe is a guy who, also a Ph.D., he now runs his own program, used to run a treatment center, but he is in recovery but not sober and is very open about this, gets a lot of backlash. He went through the AA community, they kind of kicked him out for saying a lot of these things. So really impressive guy when it comes to helping end stigma and promoting honest, in fact, based education. So I really, really love him for that. And these are a little bit more nerdy, I think, than the average person would look into, but they are people that I admire.

Michael Swartz:
No, and I think their stories, it’s the stigma breaking of the stigma. You know, it’s, stereotypes in our world is, like people think about things because it’s been thought of that way for years and years. So just hearing those stories and them getting out there and telling it how it is, is definitely something that I know myself, and I’m sure a lot of the listeners will probably be on Google later today looking them up.

Jay Shifman:
Awesome, I would definitely suggest you do that. You know, and in fact, listeners, if you’re interested in reading more about these subjects, one of my partners from my work is Bookshop. Incredible, fantastic organization, they give back to local bookstores and people like me for supporting them. But I have a page on Bookshop where you can look at some of these books. If you go to well, I’ll make sure you have the links and all that kind of stuff to put in the show notes, but, definitely, and/or find me on social media. You know, search for Jay Shifman or Choose Your Struggle anywhere. And I look, if you reach out to me and say, hey, I want some recommendations on good books to read, you’re going to regret that because they’re going to get so many that you’re going to be like, well, this guy ever shut up? But I would recommend it because I, you know, I’m paced to read about 40 books this year, of which probably half nonfiction books about the topics like mental health and drug use. So if you’re interested in that, I’ve read them all. I am also, you know, because I have my own show, Choose Your Struggle, I’ve interviewed some incredible authors, and this is very new, I actually have not announced this on another podcast yet, so you’re getting a scoop here. I’m joining the host list for the new Books Network, which is an incredible podcast network that has, I think, 26 shows, all of them focusing on new books in different subjects, And I am joining the list of two or three other hosts that will be doing their show on drugs, addiction, and recovery. So I’ll be talking to even more incredible authors on those topics in the months to come. And, you know, if you are a big book person, because I like reading on a lot of topics, but my wife is like I, you know, reads like 60, 70 books a year. She subscribes to four or five of those different shows because she’s always interested in new books coming out. So definitely recommend checking out the new books network.

Michael Swartz:
That’s awesome and congratulations. But speaking of books, let’s rattle off your top five books right now.

Jay Shifman:
Oh, man. You mean like, of all time or like, recently?

Michael Swartz:
Whatever your top five, it could be all-time, But five books that if listeners are readers, I know I am, but top five books you’d recommend. Doesn’t have to be about mental health, it could be just top five.

Jay Shifman:
All right, so number one, I am, if I’m reading fiction, the odds are that it’s either Star Wars. I’m a big Star Wars guy. I read all of the books in that world, but I can’t recommend one over the other. They’re all just wonderful. Or Kurt Vonnegut, big, big Kurt Vonnegut fan. I have a Kurt Vonnegut quote tattooed on my arm. And I will say it is a little bit of a stereotype, but Slaughterhouse-Five is absolutely one of the greatest classics of American literature. So check out Slaughterhouse-Five if you have not read that yet, so that’s number one. I would say number two, I mentioned a couple of the writers that I really like, but here’s another one. His name is Johann Hari. He wrote a book called Chasing the Scream, which in my opinion, is the best book about drug use and drug policy ever written. He is a best seller, New York Times guy, so to check that out, Chasing the Scream, that would be number two. Number three, one of the other books that really influenced me when I got into this work is a book called In the Realm of Hungry Ghost by a doctor named Gabor Giamatti, who works with people experiencing homelessness in Canada. Really fantastic book, helping people change the way they view drug use and addiction specifically. So check that out, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. Number four, you know, this one has been one of my favorites since I was a kid. I also have a quote tattooed on my arm. That would be Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I have Don’t Panic across from the Slaughterhouse-Five quote. So if you’ve not read Hitchhiker’s Guide, it’s delightfully absurd. They always say, they keep trying to make it in the movies and stuff, doesn’t always work because it’s just absurd, but the book is wonderful, so I would say that one. And then there’s also, this is out of left field, I am a giant Beatles fan. I have here comes the sun tattooed across my feet. My wife and I walked down the aisle to that song as well as another, All You Need is Love. And there was a book written, oh man, probably five, ten years ago now called Just the Beatles. And it’s about a thousand pages of literally everything you’d ever want to know about the Beatles, and that’s one that I reread probably every 2 to 3 years because I enjoy it that much.

Michael Swartz:
That is a great and well-rounded top five, I’ll tell you that much.

Jay Shifman:
Thank you.

Michael Swartz:
Yeah, so favorite Beatles song.

Jay Shifman:
Oh, man, so I know a lot of people would be like, That’s so hard. No, there’s a very easy answer, and it’s A Day In The Life. A Day In The Life is one of the, if not the most perfect song ever created. It is up there, and I would say While My Guitar Gently Weeps is not far behind.

Michael Swartz:
Incredible. So bringing it back to people, any of the listeners that are sitting here listening, maybe they have their own struggles, what would your advice be to them to, you brought up earlier that having that support system, having those people around, is Choose Your Struggle, a place that they can go? Is there other organizations that you recommend?

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, that’s a great question and one I always like to talk about whenever I’m interviewed. So you’ve heard from my story that I reached a point that I hope most people don’t, and that is where I decided that there was nobody who really cared if I lived or died, that there was no hope left, and so I attempted suicide twice in two days. I made a mistake that a lot of people who struggle with their mental health do, and that is thinking that there’s nobody who wants to be there or who wants to care about you, that is always not true. And here’s the thing is obviously, rationally, we all know that because we all know those stories, or maybe we ourselves have lost people to suicide. And of course, there’s so much regret and so much hurt and so much pain, but in that moment where you are feeling that yourself, it’s very easy to trick yourself into thinking that nobody wants to be there. So where I’m going with this is saying that, number one, know that there always is somebody who wants to be there. Always, always, there’s always somebody who wants to be there. And if you truly do not think that there is, again, you’re wrong, but that’s okay, I understand because I was there, too. I make this offer that reach out to me and we’ll chat. And I’ve had people reach out to me over every social media, over anything you can imagine, and once had someone reach out to me over TikTok, I don’t recommend that, I just forget that I have a TikTok, but I give people this code word because a lot of people, if you’re in that moment, it’s hard to say, hey, I need help or hey, please talk to me something like that, right? And so the code word I give people is if you want to chat, if you need someone to be there, you know, tell me, reach out to me over social media or go to my website JayShifman.com and go to the Contact Me page and just tell me that you heard me chatting with Michael and you had questions, or there was something you wanted to ask me about the episode. That’s your code word. It’s a lot easier to say that than it is to say, I need help and I will know what that means. If you say that, I will say, great, when do you want to schedule a time to call? Or can I call you now? And we’ll chat, and whatever it is that you need to say, I can promise you this, you will not say something I’ve not heard before. You will not say something that sends me running to the hills saying, wow, this guy is nuts. That is not going to happen. I will be there just so that you have someone that will listen to you.

Michael Swartz:
And I love that. That is a great offer. And any of the listeners, if you feel like you need somebody to talk, take Jay up on it. First, he’s unbelievable to talk to, but he definitely can help. You’ve been doing great stuff and really appreciate it.

Jay Shifman:
So thank you for that, and I do want to underscore that and say that when the pandemic first started in, let’s say, March of 2020, right? Because that’s when the NBA canceled the rest of their season. And that’s when we really knew, oh, this stuff’s real. So the day the NBA canceled their season and the next 48 hours, I lost five paid speaking gigs and I immediately went, oh, this is bad, right? My work is mostly, at that time, the podcast was still a baby. You know, most of my work was being out in public in front of hundreds, if not a thousand people saying these messages and getting paid well to do it. So I went, I’m in trouble, this is going to be bad. And so I thought back and said, okay, if my income for this year is, let’s just say it’s gone, and I was right, by the way. I haven’t had a paid gig since that moment happened. So we’re talking now a year and a half, because the speaking community was decimated. I mean, when you think about it, right, the, only the biggest names are going to get booked when there’s so much demand for so little supply. So, I’m sorry, the other way around, there is so few gigs and there’s so many people who do this that the, only the biggest names, right? So anyway, I knew that was going to happen and I said, how can I be of service? How can I make sure that if I’m not going to have income, that I still am helping people throughout this year? So the first thing I did was like, all right, I’m going to make this podcast the biggest thing I can make it. And I worked my ass off and got very lucky and it’s now a top podcast, so fantastic. But the other way I really wanted to do something was I was like, If I’m a person who doesn’t normally feel any sort of anxiety or depression, this might be very new to me. If I’m a person who already feels that I am freaking out ten times right now, right? So I put up on social media, on my baby podcast, on everywhere that I was interviewed. I said, look, we’re all going through something right now that is unprecedented. We don’t know how to feel. We don’t know what we’re supposed to be doing. I was like, I get it, I’m freaking out, too. If you just need someone to talk to you, if you need someone to validate what you’re feeling, hit me up, you know, here’s my number. I put my number out in social media. I was like, hit me up. I thought maybe a person or two would call. The next three months, it was a part-time job. I didn’t go more than a day without somebody just being like, hey, can we chat? Hey, I heard you’re willing to chat with people. Hey, I’ve got a question. And it was everything from people saying things like I didn’t lose my job. I’m still annoyed with Jessica in the next cubicle. Am I allowed to be pissed off, or should I be more, you know, taking? Am I taking this for granted? Right? I mean, it was those kind of things like, am I still allowed to hate my boss? And it was so many things like that. And then all the way on the other end going, you know, I’m in quarantine, my grandmother is sick, I don’t know she’s going to make it, I just need someone to talk to. So you had this wide spectrum of people just needing someone to be there. And it was an incredibly grounding reminder that even if I can’t do my job, there’s so much I can do to help. And there are so many people who are feeling this in ways that I’m not even familiar with, and I feel like everyone should do that from time to time because it changes your perspective.

Michael Swartz:
And that’s incredible. I mean, you’re able to, most people don’t just do that. Most people don’t just give out their number and that’s it. And I think, one, it shows the person that you are. On the other side, it also shows COVID has been God-awful. Let’s not kid ourselves, I never want to go through it again. But one thing that’s interesting, really interesting to me about COVID is what it’s done to people and how they feel about using technology, digital health, teletherapy, chatting through Zoom. I always tell the story of my father, who, he was awful with technology and I wasn’t invited to his house for about a year and a half. The only technology that he would know how to use or, show me something I don’t know, is like hotel deals, like hotels tonight, and he always had a new app. Well, I finally get invited back to his place and this man has Alexas hooked up all over the house? It is, I’m like, Who is this guy? And I think the one thing that it’s done is, I think on the coaching, the therapy, the being able to speak to somebody, I think it’s going to create an opportunity to really, whether it’s through you or just other channels, to really help a lot of people make people feel comfortable. I mean, we think about the stigma. What’s better to get away from the stigma besides talking about it, but is, it’s probably much easier for somebody to talk to somebody in the comfort of their own home. What have you seen with COVID and, on the mental health side? Have you seen a lot more people not only take you up on it, but just mental health and people seeking treatment?

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, that’s a great question. It’s a great story about your dad. I actually, yes, but in sort of an unlikely way. So of course, there’s been getting used to therapy at home and all that kind of stuff. But also there is a guy I know, and I interviewed him for my show, he is a therapist, and he also sort of is very what we would call a hippie, grew up on a commune and all kind of stuff, right? So he is sort of your traditional therapist, writing books and doing all the stuff therapists do. And after ten years, this is how he tells the story, he looked around and he said, I’ll be honest, I don’t like what I see in this industry, you know? And so he set out to do some research. And what he found was, yes, there are some absolutely incredible therapists out there. And if you have access to the best therapists, you are going to get absolutely change-making care, but that’s a minority. The majority are people who, in his research, he found, are no better off than somebody who is, it ranks high in empathy, and has a little bit of training, that all of their years of therapy training don’t really do any good for them, the main reason that the person themselves is just not that empathetic. So he was like, I want to change this. What can I do? And he founded an organization called Peer Collective. Now, this guy again, his name is Tim. He is a therapist. What he does is he takes people who applied to be a peer supporter and he only takes the top 1%. You have to take a test, and if you test in the top 1% of empathy, he’ll then take you and train you to be a part-time peer supporter. And what this person does is you can scroll through all of their people. You do an assessment yourself to figure out what you’re looking for, whether it’s someone who just will be there to listen, whether it’s someone who will kind of be a guide, whether it will be someone who you can bounce ideas off of, and then you can book them and they’ll be there for you over basically over Zoom, but it’s his own platform. So what’s so amazing about this, number one, is that if this person is, and I tried this out, by the way, and it was really fantastic. If this person is empathetic and then they test high and empathy and they have this training from this therapist, they’re already going to be better than your sort of average run-of-the-mill therapist. And when we know that, number one, a study was done last year that found that if everyone who needs mental health help was to get their mental health help addressed, we would need 90% more therapists than already exists. So, number one, it’s hard to find. Number two, the average therapist does not take insurance because insurance is impossible. The insurance system is broken. What’s unfortunate about that is that the average then person does not have 125, 150 bucks to spend on 45 minutes of therapy. So therapy is not accessible to most people. So Tim has addressed this problem by making his peer therapists affordable. A half an hour is only $20, an hour is $35. Now, by the way, if you think I’m like taking money from him, I haven’t spoken to Tim in months. I tried it once, I interviewed him, I was so blown away by this that I have been a big cheerleader since. Also, another problem he solved, studies have shown that at the beginning of the week, even a run-of-the-mill therapist is still going to test pretty high in empathy. Obviously, you have to care about people to get into this, that field. By the end of the week because their profit model is predicated on them being jam-packed with seeing people, the average person, average therapist will not only not be more empathetic than the average person, will actually be less empathetic because they are so exhausted emotionally from listening to all this throughout the week, right? So Tim’s peer supporters are limited to 10 to 15 hours a week. They cannot do any more than that because they don’t want them burning out. Why am I so high on this? Look, it may not work for you if you try it, that’s just the way things are. Some things work for other people, some things work for you. However, I’m so impressed that Tim, as a therapist, was willing to say, I am part of the problem and I am going to find a solution because we don’t do that a lot. As humans, we get defensive, especially people like him with years and years and thousands and thousands of dollars worth of education. People like me, and I know a lot of people who do what I do, we all have a story of somebody with a Ph.D. telling us to get out of their sandbox. You know, it’s always somebody saying, Yes, you’re making good points, but you have no right to be here. Why should I listen to you, is essentially the message. And I’m going to parody a friend of mine named Freddie Sharga, who’s also a recovery coach and speaker. And what he said is one of the times he lost it on this one. He said, look, lady, first off, I want us to work together. You’re telling me we shouldn’t. Which one of us is the problem? Number two, you may have your Ph.D., but I got my Ph.D. in life. And I agree with him because a person with 20 years of experience of training cannot tell you what going through withdrawal feels like. A person with 20 years experience cannot tell you what it feels like to be shamed by everybody in your life and feeling like you have nobody to go to so you attempt suicide. They cannot tell you what that feels like and they shouldn’t want to. I can tell you that, both of our trainings are valid, you and I should be at the same table trying to figure this thing out, because if you can look at the fact that we’re losing 125,000 people a year just to suicide and overdose, I’m not talking about all the other issues that come from unsafe drug use or issues of mental health, just those two, 125,000. For comparison’s sake, that is more people than live in Topeka, Kansas. So we are losing more than Topeka, Kansas, every single year. And if you can look at that and say, No, we got it, we’re good, go out of here, then I’m going to tell you, you do not have the best interest in mind, and I’m going to say I’m not interested in working with you.

Michael Swartz:
And I think, what, his name is Tim, right?

Jay Shifman:
Who founded Peer Collective?

Michael Swartz:
Yeah, yeah.

Jay Shifman:
Yes.

Michael Swartz:
Yeah, what he’s doing is incredible. And I am in full agreement with what you’re saying. I think, one, that coaching, people who have been through the experience, like people want to speak to somebody they can relate with that have been in your shoes. And then on the other side of it, it’s funny that you brought up that most of these, the insurance is broken and most therapists can’t take it. I was put on my desk yesterday, I think it was. It’s from the Wall Street Journal, this is the title: Why it’s so hard to find a therapist who takes insurance? It literally is going through exactly what you’re saying, that most therapists don’t take insurance and it will cost $300 and you can’t book a time. And I’d love to learn more about that peer support, and I think that could be just and, are you a, one of the peer supporters or?

Jay Shifman:
I am not, and I told Tim on this, on our chat that I don’t think I’d pass his test. I mean, I’m pretty empathetic, I think, but I am not, I’m not patient enough. I’m not, because he was giving me, both, we were, we did a little bit of this on the interview, but then he gave me a lot of the other questions offline, and I was like, I’m not doing so hot, am I? And it’s like, I mean, I don’t want to be mean. I was like, No, please tell me. He’s like, No, you’re not doing so high. So it really is the top 1% of people who he takes. And I would suggest, if anyone’s interested, you know, check out Peer Collective. What’s amazing is that he believes in this so much, he being Tim, that your first hour is free. And if you do a half an hour session, that’s two free sessions for free, so there’s no reason not to give it a try.

Michael Swartz:
And you’re not getting paid by them.

Jay Shifman:
Nope, I’m just a big believer in what they’re doing.

Michael Swartz:
I can hear it. I can feel it. I mean, it’s, and he’s the therapist. That putting that in perspective, that is, I’m a lawyer. I just got my law degree. I went to school for many years. I have a whole bunch of debt, and I’ve decided to create something that will challenge the entire lawyer industry. It’s.

Jay Shifman:
Yeah, and there’s one, he’ll do you even one better. So first off, congratulations. My buddy also just passed the bar and all that kind of stuff. My mother’s a lawyer, I know how hard it can be.

Michael Swartz:
Oh, I’m not actually a lawyer.

Jay Shifman:
Just getting it through law school at all is.

Michael Swartz:
Oh, I did it.

Jay Shifman:
Oh, well.

Michael Swartz:
It was just hypothetically, but I’m happy I sounded like I did.

Jay Shifman:
All right, so, yes, you’re making a good point, but I’ll actually do that one better that, the, Tim, the guy who founded Peer Collective, not only was he a therapist and ten, a decade in the field, he wrote a widely used textbook that then he decided was all BS and decided to found this new thing.

Michael Swartz:
Wow, incredible, absolutely incredible. It’s definitely interesting to see what’s happening. Like our world is completely changed with COVID. Was this created during COVID?

Jay Shifman:
Well, so he started the process, I believe, in 2009, and it went live, I want to say, last year, so, yes.

Michael Swartz:
Yeah, I mean, perfect time to launch something like this. But that’s incredible. So last thing, what do you want to leave the listeners with?

Jay Shifman:
Well, I would say that that number one, I, reiterating please reach out. There’s a quote that I like to drop on people because I think it makes a lot of sense. And I stole this, this was not mine, so, you know, all the credit or the credit is due to the guy who originally said this, whose name is Frank King, former Leno writer, who then gave that all up after attempting suicide to become an inspirational motivational speaker. So he said, please reach out, because those of us who do this have a saying, and that is we’d rather spend 2 hours today, talking to you today than 2 hours at your funeral tomorrow. So credit for Frank King, that’s why I do this, is I would rather know that you reached out today and we can try to figure this out than 2 hours at your funeral tomorrow. So that has to be number one, and number two, I would say is this, so I’m a millennial and I love to call our generation the WHY generation, not generation Y, because I know that already exists, the WHY generation, and I mean that as W H Y. And I say that because we are the generation willing to say to the people who’ve come before us, but why, you know, okay, you say we have to do it this way, but why? That doesn’t make any sense, that doesn’t work. And we’re kind of checking our egos at the door and going, okay, but I don’t want to put millions and millions in the bank just to have it. You know, I want to enjoy my life. Why do I need to squirrel all this money away? So I want to encourage everybody to do that. If something doesn’t make sense to you, push back, say, that that doesn’t sound right. Can you explain that? And I’ll tell you this, from, as someone who does this a lot, especially around the topic of mental health and substance misuse and recovery and drug use and policy, when you push back and people get flustered, it means they don’t know either. It means that they were just parroting what they heard and what they were taught. And I get that a lot from people about drugs, even people that I like a lot, even people I think are very smart. Oh, well, you know, of course, we can’t have legal drugs. Why? Because some drugs are dangerous. So I do more of this research than you do, but I’ve not seen that. Can you tell me where that is? Well, you know, we were just all taught that. And it’s like, okay, we were lied to. We were lied to. That’s how this works. And, you know, it’s one thing to be angry about it, and of course, I am. But it’s another thing to say, look, we were lied to, let’s take the next step of getting over it. So be willing to ask why. I would say is the other message.

Michael Swartz:
The WHY generation. I love that, never heard it, but it is definitely, I think it’s a great way to define the generation, to say the least. So where can people find you?

Jay Shifman:
Well, you can find me at my website, which is JayShifman.com, J A Y S H I F M A N.com. I’m splitting a lot of my work off into also really identifying Choose Your Struggle as its own brand, so very soon you’ll be able to go to ChooseYourStruggle.com, I’m not quite there but almost. And you can find me in all your social media by searching for Jay Shifman or Choose Your Struggle, that’s spelled Choose Your Struggle like it sounds, Choose Your Struggle, and Jay Shifman, is J A Y S H I F M A N. You can also find the Choose Your Struggle podcast wherever you get your podcasts, wherever you’re listening to this, we’re on all the platforms, and if you want to learn about the other shows that are or are coming to the network, you can search for Shameless Podcast Network and check them out.

Michael Swartz:
Well, and I’ll put all the links in the notes, so anybody that’s trying to catch that to just go to the notes right now, but definitely appreciate you coming on the show. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you, Jay.

Jay Shifman:
Well, I appreciate you having me. This was a wonderful chat and you’re a wonderful host, and keep up the great work.

Michael Swartz:
Thanks, Jay. And thanks, everybody for tuning in. I’ll see you next week.

Michael Swartz:
Hey listeners, thanks for tuning in to another episode of Everyone Hates Healthcare. If you have a healthcare story, we want to hear it. All you got to do is shoot me an email with My Healthcare Story in the subject line to MyStory@HealthKarma.org. Also, check out all the episode notes, resources, and more ways you can take control of your healthcare. All you got to do is just visit HealthKarma.org/Podcast. While you’re on there, help us out, don’t forget to drop us a rating, a review, and share it with all your family and friends. Can’t wait to see you next week.

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Things You’ll Learn:

  • Over 80% of people trust one doctor’s opinion and don’t seek more regarding mental health.
  • The community college has had a stigma around it for a long time, but now it’s starting to fade as more people realize it’s a perfectly viable and valid option for higher education.
  • Choose Your Struggle has two twin missions, ending stigma and promoting honest and fact-based education around mental health, substance misuse, recovery, drug use, and policy.
  • Many people who struggle with their mental health think there is nobody who wants to be there or who wants to care about them; that is never true.
  • Peer Collective is a platform that provides users with empathetic part-time peer supporters for only half an hour sessions that cost $20 or hour-long sessions that cost $35 as an alternative for those who can’t afford therapy sessions.
  • We’re losing 125,000 people a year just to suicide and overdose.

Resources:

  • Connect with and follow Jay Shifman on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
  • Follow the Choose Your Struggle Podcast on LinkedIn.
  • Listen to the Choose Your Struggle Podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
  • Visit Jay Shifman’s Website!
  • Visit the Shameless Podcast Network Website!
  • If you need someone to talk to, go here and send a message to Jay telling him you want to talk regarding this episode with Michael. He will be more than happy to help.
  • Remember to send us your Healthcare Story to mystory@HealthKarma.org with the subject line: “My Healthcare Story”