Live Your Life One Footstep at a Time with Guest Shaun Coffey

Join us this week as we interview Shaun Coffey, Certified Recovery Specialist on a mission to normalize men's mental health. From his personal childhood trauma, military experience and years of homelessness, his compelling story of wellness is inspiring. Listen in!

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Serena: Hey everyone, I'm Serena.

Tina: I'm Tina, and we are the Mental Health Mamas.

Serena: Welcome to No Need to Explain. We are so glad you're here.

Tina: First, as always, a quick disclaimer.

Serena: We come to not as mental health professionals or experts in the field, but rather as parents with lived experience who are on a mission to normalize the conversation around mental health.

Tina: If you or someone you love is experiencing a mental health crisis, please seek professional support. You'll find a variety of resources in our show notes and on our website, no need to explain

Serena: On our podcast, we often quote the statistic of one and five.

In other words, in the United States and any given year, one and five adults will experience a mental health challenge. While this number seems low to me, honestly, and is counter to our belief that everyone has mental health, let's stick with it for a moment.

Tina: Right, so the one and five is across the population, but what we also know is that men are less likely than women to seek help for depression, substance abuse, and stressful life events due to a number of factors. These might include a reluctance to talk, the downplaying of symptoms or social norms, among other reasons.

Serena: So today we have a guest with us who is going to help us think about men and mental health through his personal experience, and also the individuals he supported over the years. Shaun Coffey is a certified recovery support worker and has extensive experience in the fields of substance use, mental health, childhood trauma, and homelessness.

He is passionate about helping others reach their potential even when they may not see it for themselves. Shaun, welcome to the podcast.

Shaun: Thank you guys so much. I've been looking forward to this one.

Tina: Great. We have too. So we'd love to start the conversation by having you respond to this idea that men are less likely to seek mental health support. Do you believe that this is true and tell us about kind of your personal experience with this?

Shaun: I believe that wholeheartedly. I think in 2021, 12% of men sought mental health treatment, and I've roughly 21.5% of women sought mental health treatment. So to answer your question, I feel like there's a bunch of confounding factors of why men don't seek help in that. You know, some of them were in the intro that you just went through and I think it's societal perception. I think it's when we get around other male friends. Most of the time we can get made fun of, they downplay. You know, when we're young, we're kind of taught to, at least in my experience, I was taught to brush everything off. Emotions weren't something that I was allowed to do openly when I was, you know, younger. My dad was a very kind of brush it off, rubbed dirt on it, keep going kind of, you know, didn't really pay attention to that stuff.

So when I did show emotion, it was met with kind of crass or really kind of just like, why are you doing this, which then made me push it down even further. So that's kind of where I've seen it in, you know, as far as personal experience, but I was taught at a young age that, you know, you don't cry about anything. You don't show emotion and the more that you did show emotion, it means that you are vulnerable and being vulnerable was not a good thing, you know, in my upbringing or experience.

Serena: Yeah. So tell us a bit of your story. You've had a long journey from childhood trauma to becoming a certified recovery support worker and I'll let you kind of, you know, fill in whatever part you would like to.

Shaun: Yeah. So I grew up with a parent. It was a one parent household. I was taught my whole life that my mom kind of didn't care and she took off on my dad and I when I was about five and I think I maybe saw her for roughly a few months between five and 23. And that was, you know, come come after, you know, full circle and talking to my mom after my dad had passed away. I know how he was and just listening to her side of the story. It was like, wow, like, you know, he basically sheltered me from from that side and made it very difficult for me to have a relationship with her. So it was a one parent household.

My dad grew up with, it was like scizoeffective back then, but they didn't, they didn't really call it that. It was more like manic depression and something else bipolar, I think, but it was really hard, you know, growing up. So a lot of trauma happened, you know, child abuse, neglect, all the stuff. And that, you know, around 16 somebody asked me if I wanted to smoke marijuana and I was like, what is it going to do to me? And they said, well, it's going to make you numb and you're going to forget everything. And I was like, sign me up, right? Because because of just what happened. And, you know, after that, it was what is cocaine going to do? What is, you know, like, I'll just all these different drugs. And I was open to every one of them because for that period of time that I was kind of, you know, under the influence of these things, I've said this on another podcast, but it was like a blanket kind of that went over me. And no one could see me. And I couldn't see them. And that that's the way that I, you know, that's that's the way that I liked it. So from 16 to about, I would say 20, 28 or so, I had poly substance use. So whatever you could put in front of me, I would do, it didn't matter. I had the smarts to never use anything intravenously. But yeah, it was just super extensive. And then, you know, growing up, my dad passed away after I got out of the military when I was 21, I didn't have anybody show me how to pay bills or be responsible or do any of that stuff. So along with all this trauma, I kind of just was like a transient. I would stay on couches or, you know, here and there, I didn't have very good work ethic. And that kind of just all culminated together. And I was homeless for about 15 years. I'm in the state of New Hampshire and that they qualified me as chronically homeless, which set me up for a bunch of benefits that I for about 14 years.

I didn't even really know that I was eligible for those. I got into a transitional housing unit for veterans. And somebody asked me, would you want to work in substance use? And I was like, well, I've been sober for a little while. And that whole concept is near and dear to my heart,

so I would love to help other people. And that was about nine years ago. And that's the short version of the story.

Tina: Yeah, so we're a little bit curious about your military. So I've known a few people who've struggled with their mental health and thought that military service was going to be a good thing. I'm just curious what your take is on that is a very strict environment, right? And it's not an environment that's without substance misuse, right? So I'm just curious if you could just do a little short take on how that affects your mental, I mean, and let's just put it out there. When you are in the military, you are preparing for some pretty hard stuff.

Shaun: Sure. Sure. I, um, I thought, well, most of my family was military or, police. So I thought that that's what I was supposed to do.

My dad and most of my, most of my family was air force. So, um, in the Supreme Act of defiance, when I was 18, I walked into the, the Marine Corps office and I was like, I'm going to, I'm going to do this about a month after I got into boot camp I realized like, oh, my goodness, what did I do? Um, so I had a probably at my first year, um, I equated the military with my dad and, um, you know, it was a lot of discipline, a lot of screaming, a lot of yelling. Um, I probably to be honest and this is the first time that I've probably said this, but I don't think I had any place being in the military. Um, and that's not, you know, because I couldn't handle it just because the, the military and my dad were one in the same. Um, and I actually, the story for another day, but I actually got removed, um, and kicked out of the military for, uh, absent without leave two, two episodes of absent without leave, um, and that was me running away. Um, and, and, and running was something that I, at that point, I did professionally. Uh, I was, you know, anything that caused pain or, or I could equate with, with anything of my, you know, childhood or my dad, I ran. Um, and that's, that's basically how that happened. I, uh, to answer your question too, I think that, um, you know, in the, it's like the late 90s, like I, I knew that I had a rough life, but I didn't know what trauma was, and I didn't know how it was affecting me at the time. I didn't know, you know, I think people say all the time, if I knew then, what I know now, like it would be different.

And I, and I say, you know, all the time. Like, if I did know, then what I knew now, I could probably stay in for 20 years and, uh, you know, I would have retired at 38. I'm 44. So, um, you know, you, you live and you learn. And I, and I think that, um, for what it's worth, I, I don't know that I would go back and change anything because all those experiences shaped and, and kind of molded who I am today and, and how I've kind of helped people.

Tina: Yeah, that's awesome. So let's circle back to that, right? You, you became a certified recovery support worker. And, uh, you started to talk about that. What exactly does, does a certified recovery support worker do where do you work? And, and how, how does that, how does that work?

Shaun: The acronym for, for that is a CRSW. But what, what, what they, there's an, it's basically an umbrella, right? There's peer support, case management, treatment coordination, group facilitation. There's, there's a bunch of different things that CRSW or certified recovery support workers can do. For me, I used it to work on a statewide addiction crisis line. Um, we had a thing out here called a safe station, which anybody who, uh, was seeking substance use help could walk to a fire station and the fire station would get them into, um, a smaller program that could help attach them to services. Uh, and then treatment coordinator, which is basically a little bit lower than the case manager and then a case manager, which I had anywhere from 20 to 40 clients that I would see on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.

Serena: And that's, that's a lot. So, um, yeah, I want to bring this to, um, we had a brief conversation before recording this episode.

And you shared with us that, um, that you had chosen to take some time off during COVID due to compassion fatigue which I imagine that kind of case load. Um, can you share with our listeners, uh, maybe what compassion fatigue is and what that looked like for you?

Shaun: So my compassion fatigue started during COVID. Uh, I actually didn't leave, um, I guess helping professions until this past June, uh, so it was nine, nine years. But what I see compassion fatigue is, um, it's basically the cost of caring for others, um, or for their emotional pain, uh, and that results from the desire to help relieve their suffering, right? So, um, it's also considered vicarious or secondary trauma.

Uh, and, and, and basically for me, if, if I use layman's terms, compassion fatigue was that I would, I had experienced all this trauma and I wasn't in therapy, uh, at this point. And basically it took over in that I was listening to other people's stories and, um, their trauma, not realizing that I was basically going through it twice, right? Like I had, I had my own, I have my own substance use trauma and my own all this, you know, these other things. And then now I'm in a helping profession.

I have a 30 person caseload and that's 30 different people's trauma.

So now I have my own to deal with plus theirs. Um, and that just ends up in, in what is called compassion fatigue, um, which I need to know it's not the same as burnout, right? Burnout is, um, psychological syndrome of like, like emotional exhaustion or maybe your overworked or you don't have the, the, um, the things that you need to do your job correctly where compassion fatigue mainly affects people in helping profession or healthcare professionals, police, um, you know, uh, people that work in ambulance that provide direct patient care.

Tina: Yeah. So I want people to hear something. You just said that you were helping people hold really hard stories. You were helping them to, to be well. And you were getting not a lot of systemic support for that.

And what I want people to hear is that is the model that is most used.

So there are books out there about therapists, you know, having therapy, that doesn't happen all that often. Serena and I were lucky enough when we work together, um, in person, which we don't anymore. But what we did, we were lucky enough to have a clinical supervisor who was our place that we could put that stuff. So at the end of last season, I said, and I'll say it again and again, we need to shake things up. This is important for people to hear. And I will share our own child as a paramedic. He sees a lot of things. He does not have a professional support unless he provides that himself. And I just think that is difficult. It is, people cannot appreciate that. So I will get off my soapbox now about that because I just want people to hear that. I think sometimes we assume things about jobs and people like, oh, Shaun, he's such a good person. He's a peer person working with other people, which you are. I'm not minimizing that. And yet, how many people stop and think about the support that you're getting? You've come from a rough place. You need to be getting that support. So anyway, now I will step down off my soapbox and ask you another question about sounds like you stopped your work because of your compassion fatigue and to do some real self care. I'm curious. What sorts of things that you do to take good care of yourself?

Shaun: I think just in a response to what you just said as well is, due to the stigma and substance use and having to appear okay all the time, which is goes back to the very beginning, what we were talking about about men not seeking, is help is that I fell under this thing where I had to be okay all the time. Even if I wasn't okay, I had to appear okay.

So I've had, I've had the program managers and supervision and just like, hey, how are you doing? And I'm like, oh, I'm doing great. Everything's okay. And behind closed doors, I'm tearing my hair.

So okay, so what am I doing for to combat that? One of the biggest things that I have started to do is get myself out of this routine that I created, which is go home, don't talk to anybody, social, social seclusion. It shows up and hanging out with friends, which I didn't do anymore. Friends would say, are you okay? And I'm like, yeah, no, everything's fine. We're doing great works. Awesome.

And then I would go home and sometimes just be like, what am I doing with my life? So community is probably the most important part, right? Because that old saying says like, it takes a village. And it really does because if you don't have, you know, people to bounce things off of, it's, it's rough. The second most important thing that I have done is during COVID, we didn't have, I worked in a position for two years and I didn't have supervision at all that whole entire time. We didn't have access to a program manager the whole time. So I changed things a little bit and I said, you know what, I'm going to go and talk to a therapist.

And in four years, this guy told me when I, when I first saw him, I couldn't hold a 10 minute conversation with him. Just, I mean, obviously it's not just because of the compassion fatigue, but, you know, now we're at a whole, a whole hour that, you know, sometimes I don't want to leave. I'm like, hey, we still have, you know, this to talk about or this to talk about. So seeking professional help, regardless if it's your, in your supervision or, or, you know, outside and talking to a therapist is huge, because even if you are a therapist, even if you're, even if you have a doctorate, like you still have to be able to have an outlet to talk to somebody, because if you don't, you end up internalizing that stuff.

And even though we think we know what's best for us, oftentimes that compassion fatigue is that blanket that I spoke about and it's hard to get away from that. And then, you know, I have just, I do outdoor activities. So I picked up disc golf and I've been playing, you know, disc golf. So there's at any number, you know, any type of day, whether it's a level 10, like, oh my gosh, this was the most horrible day, or if it's a level two where it's like, you know, everything was great, but I still dealt with this. Like, there's something that I can pull out of a toolbox that I know is going to help me kind of get myself set back to zero.

Serena: Yeah, that's awesome. I love that. I love the ranking too.

I don't know if that's something you do all the time, which sort of being that,

Shaun: I honestly just did that right now.

Serena: Okay. Right. Yeah, it's very sort of self aware and like very, very present. So before we bring the episode to a close, I wonder if there's anything else, anything we haven't asked to or anything you want to make sure you share with the world.

Shaun: I just want everybody to know that mental health is not taboo.

It's it's not, it doesn't make you less of a man, it doesn't make you less less of a woman to seek help. What you're doing by not going out there and asking or talking to anybody is just internalizing it and internalizing to me that equals turmoil, right? Like it's just it's so crazy. And you've got all these things bouncing around inside that you can't get out.

I tell my daughter all the time, like it's okay for you to exercise any emotion that you want, whether it's anger, whether it's sadness, like you can, but just please don't leave it inside. And to the point that, you know, she's actually said like dad, I'm feeling a little bit depressed and, you know, our anxiety and I'm like, well, I know exactly how you feel.

So even she goes to therapy now. So yeah, I just I want everybody to know that regardless of what shape you're in, you know, if you just live your life a footstep at a time, you have so much more chances than then you really think and I say that because I use this analogy a lot, right? But like when you wake up and you stand up and you go to the bathroom, you go downstairs to make food, you go to the to the car, you walk into into work, you walk around work. There's so many footsteps in your one day that those are those are singular chances to change the trajectory of your of your outcome of your day, the outcome of your life. And I just don't think that people stop and I don't use this, but like smell the roses, right? Like if if if I'm going to if I have my mindset on I'm going to use today, right? And I have at least 400 steps in that day that if I just stop like I'd be able to think and I'd be able to change or or seek help or something. So I always tell people live your life a footstep at a time.

Tina: So we are grateful for your wellness. We are grateful for reducing the ACEs, right? It sounds like you are, you know, we we truly believe that parents are doing the best they know how to do even your dad, right? He was doing the best he knew how to do and you

Shaun: Absolutely

Tina: You are doing better than that, right? You are making conscious choices to reduce those ACEs, those adverse childhood experiences.

And we see you, we notice that and it's awesome.

Shaun: So I appreciate you guys for having me on as well.

Tina: Yeah. So thanks so much for joining us. We are grateful for your sharing your story of resilience and recovery with our audience. Yeah, thanks a lot, Shawn.

Shaun: 100% I appreciate it.

Tina: And so podcast friends, we are as always grateful for all of you listening and supporting us. You can help us out by visiting Apple Podcast. You can leave us a review while you're there. We have a lot of awesome reviews and we love some more. Subscribe and please share the podcast with others. We, you know, you'll find more content on our website. Please visit You will also find us on all the socials. We would love to hear from you whether that's on the socials or we have a voicemail number, we have email, contact us. Tell us the kinds of things you'd like to hear and share a bit of your story because we do believe that storytelling is connective and what you've heard from Shawn today is connection matters to people.

Serena: This is your gentle reminder to take good care of yourself while you're also taking care of your people.

Tina: Thanks so much for listening.

Serena: Bye.