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A Tangible Way To Show You Care: The Better Box

Today, I’m talking to Sarah Angle, the founder of The Better Box. The Better Box was born after experiencing mental health challenges with her ex-husband and now as a college professor. Sarah watches many of her students struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges. The Better Box was designed to bridge the gap between counseling and clinical intervention. It gives people something to do, touch, smell, and feel in the moment.

Let’s dig in!

Scroll down to read the full episode transcribed.

What You Will Learn: 

  • The Better Box: what it is and how you can use it for someone in your life who is depressed. 
  • The signs of depression in teens and the role that shame has with depression.  
  • The signs of depression that Sarah missed with her husband.
  • The importance of having open conversations about feelings and mental health with our kids. 
  • How a daily gratitude journal can change your mind. 
  • How connection with others impacts the brain. 
  • The difference The Better Box is making in schools.

Where you can find The Better Box:

Find more encouragement, wisdom, and resources:

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And here is the episode typed out!

Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and you don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you were failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone and you have come to the right place.

Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.

I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our families and impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and becoming more of the mom and the woman that you want to be, welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.

SHERYL:  Welcome, Sarah, to The Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. I’m so excited to talk to you and happy that you’re here.

SARAH:   Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here. This is a great opportunity. And you are so fun. 

SHERYL:  So are you. And for the listeners, we met through one of my daughters, my youngest, that was in college through her roommate. I want our listeners to hear about you. A little bit about your background and your personal story. Sure.

SARAH:   I am 42 years old, and I am a professor at Texas Christian University. I teach in the Department of Strategic Communication. And everyone’s like, what does that even mean? Well, that means that I teach advertising and public relations classes and also teach some writing classes too, which is a joy because I love writing. 

I think that the way that Better Box really came to life has been because of the journey that I lived, which started when I was in my 20s. I married my high school sweetheart, and we started dating when we were 18. Haltom High School – Go Buffs! We’re Texans. 

And we dated through college, and I moved to a college to go with him there. He’s a swimmer and got a scholarship. And we got married, we were 24. We never dated anybody else. It was one of those beautiful romances. 

And very soon after we got married, he got diagnosed with chronic depression. And it was something that he didn’t realize he had, and I didn’t know anything about any type of mental illness. I had been very lucky in my life thus far to have been spared. No personal experience with it, and my family hadn’t experienced it. So neither one of us really knew how to handle it. 

Well, and this is a time too, almost 20 years ago when mental health wasn’t talked about like it is now, it was not part of the conversation. You didn’t go up to a friend or family and say, “Hey, I’m dealing with chronic depression.” It was so much more stigmatized than it is today. So I kind of thought, “well, he needs counseling, he needs medication.” 

I also thought wrongly, “I can be happy enough for the both of us and I can fix you.” I know how sometimes we think we can do these things. So that was kind of the journey that we started on, right after we got married. And that was the journey of our entire marriage. And unfortunately, that journey didn’t end well for us. 

He didn’t do the things that we know now you have to do to take care of yourself. To take care of your body, take care of your mind when you have something like that. I think that it’s hard to treat any type of illness, physical illness or mental illness. It’s hard to maintain it. But when you have that support system in place, it is possible to do it. I think it’s possible to commit with time and work. 

So we ended up getting divorced, and that was a large part because of it. But before that, we had a wonderful daughter together named Amelia. I always kind of was worried, and I still am, that she might inherit it because mental illnesses have a genetic predisposition. 

I was always a little bit like, “okay, I’m going to learn as much as I can about mental health and mental illness so that if this is something in her sweet little body, then I will understand what I need to do this time to really help her. To really be there for her in a way that a lot of us just don’t know how to do.” 

Not because we don’t want to but just because we don’t have that knowledge. So that has always been part of my story and my history. And it was a sad thing. Divorce is sad. It’s hard, especially when you have been with someone for 17 years. So I’ve always kind of thought, how can I turn this heartbreak into something beautiful? How can you turn your trauma into triumph? 

During the pandemic, I saw my college students at TCU struggling so much with mental health. And at TCU, as many universities, periodically, we’ll have suicide on campus, one of the students, it’ll be announced. And that’s happened. I’ve been there for six years. I would say that that happens periodically. And those are just the students that we know about. Suicide, especially in that age bracket, is a very real thing.

I thought, what are some tangible evidence-based techniques and practices that I could create and provide for my students, myself, or my friends? That could get them past a terrible moment in time, which I think is a lot of reasons people take their lives. They can’t get past that. To get them to that next level, maybe that next level is talking to crisis intervention and counseling. Just like, “I’m having a really bad day. I need something wonderful to do.” 

So, Better Box is a happiness toolkit for mental health. I’ve seen it be pretty effective so far. But really, if it can help one person get past a really traumatic season. Then it’s really worth it to me because I know what that feels like. 

SHERYL:  I’m thinking I have some things I want you to talk about after sharing your story. But I am thinking about how a Better Box – giving it to somebody, and just how that alone, “I’m thinking of you, and I care about you, somebody sees you.” In addition to that, it’s like we can often feel like “nobody cares about me, nobody’s thinking about me.” And to be able to give something to somebody to show that you care is a powerful thing.

SARAH:   I think that a lot of times we feel very lonely. We are social creatures as humans. That is how our brains develop. I think we all need someone, and we all need to feel like we are loved and cared for. I think you’re right. Giving someone a Better Box makes them feel like, “oh my gosh, this is a present special gift for me that this person cared so much about how I feel about myself and how happy they want me to be.”

Opening it’s really well designed as tissue paper and stickers, and you open up, it’s like, “oh, it’s like a joyful basket of happiness springing out of it.” I do think that women particularly love to get a gift like this. All the women in my life do.

SHERYL:  Yeah, I know. I’m going to hold it up, and we’ll talk about each thing that is in it. It’s beautiful the way you did it. And it is so fun. The tissue paper and the box itself and the smile. I think that guys like it too. They’re just maybe not going to admit as much that it makes them feel good, too. 

SARAH:   I think it’d be good. I mean, there’s a candle in there, and I think guys like candles. Sometimes not the manliest thing to admit. 

SHERYL:  I love it. I want to touch on a few things about the story that you shared. Because I think it’s important for the listeners to hear. I’m curious about your high school sweetheart, your ex-husband. When you look back, did you see any signs? Before you even got married, there was some depression there? 

I think that is hard to see if you don’t – as you said, you’ve never experienced anything like it. So it was hard to see it. I know a lot of our listeners have kids, that it’s hard to see it because they’re teenagers, and a lot of the behaviors, it might come out as being disrespectful or procrastinating, just different behaviors, and you don’t recognize it. So did you have any red flags that you didn’t see? And you’re in denial around?

SARAH:   And that’s such a great question. And so what I’ve learned about chronic depression, and I’ve written about it some in the past, it usually presents itself in by like the teenage years, that’s pretty common, it has a presentation in teenagers when it presents. I didn’t notice it. Initially, while we were in college, he was depressed before college because when we were joking earlier, I went to a “party school,” and most of the time, we were out drinking with friends, and he would sleep a lot, but everyone slept a lot.

We were together a lot. But he had a separate life that I didn’t see where he was going to his classes, and he was an athlete, and he had all of those practices, he was working. I always just chalked it up to having very different personalities. I was much more optimistic and happy, and he wasn’t as much. But in retrospect, they were there. I just would have never, in a million years, seen it. 

I think, as parents, if I were to look now toward my own daughter, she’s ten right now. If I wanted to be really cognizant of what to look for, I would say, has their sleeping pattern changed? Is she spending more time alone in her room?

SHERYL:  This is hard to know, too, because when they get into the teen years, they do spend more time in the room.

SARAH:   They do. They spend more time. She’s just ten now. And she’s spending a lot more time in her room, drawing or organizing or doing these things that she likes to do. She’s establishing her own independence itself, which is wonderful and important. 

I saw this with my ex-husband. There was an emotional disconnection, and there was a big emotional disconnection between us. Because he had so much shame around him, he did not want to face or admit how he was feeling. And that shame, he didn’t want me to see it. So he pulled back. And it caused a big disconnection between us. 

For him, at least that shame didn’t go away. For the course of our marriage, it didn’t go away, and it was always there. And so he was always trying to cover it up, and it resulted in disconnection. Lack of emotional engagement and communication that’s so important in a marriage.

SHERYL:  And you were, you said, I can’t remember exactly the word – trying to save him. And, of course, we don’t want to look back and ever shame ourselves for how we did. We do the best we can at the time. But do you think of what maybe you would have done differently now that would have been helpful, that was not helpful at the time?

SARAH:   Absolutely. Well, so my one big takeaway from experience, but I think everyone should keep in mind that I wish I had known when I was 24 is that no matter how much we love somebody, we cannot change them. 

We cannot help them, and they have to be willing to help themselves. No matter how much we love that person. At the end of the day, that person has to be willing to put in the work and say, “Okay, I’m going to do this. Okay, I’m going to try it because it matters.” 

And for my ex-husband, he did, eventually. But it was after he lost the marriage. He had to lose everything. And then he did. And that’s terrible. I hate that. You don’t want to get to the point where you have a total loss. You know, let’s stop it before it gets to that point.

SHERYL:  Yeah, well, and I’m thinking how easy as a parent is to get in the way because we’re trying so hard because if you think of our kids, we love them so much. And at that age, they tend to resist the more that we push, rather than trying to empower them to take ownership. What I hear is he had to take ownership of his own mental health. You could not make him do that. I feel like it’s this weird nature thing where the more that we try to make somebody, the more that they resist. Do you feel like that was part of the case here? 

SARAH:   Absolutely. I think he felt I was forcing him to do too many things. I was pushing him in a way that he didn’t feel comfortable with, and all these different dynamics were at play. I think something that would have been helpful and something I try to do with my daughter now is we have open conversations about feelings, mental health, about hard things. It’s like an open door. 

I want to, as she’s a 10-year-old, to build that foundation, knowing that I’m a safe space to talk about really, really hard things with no judgment because I know that my ex-husband felt that I judged him a lot. That was never my intention, but I can absolutely see how he would have felt that way. 

SHERYL:  It’s easy to feel scared when you love somebody, and you see that happening. And what’s our natural reaction when we’re feeling scared is we want to control it because we feel so powerless. This is what I love about The Better Box because I feel like The Better Box is opening that door. And it is getting that conversation started. And like you said, with your daughter, being able to talk to her about her feelings and how she’s doing and be that safe, non-judgmental place. This just feels like such a bridge to becoming more self-aware of our mental health and so many levels. So can we go through it?

SARAH: Yeah, absolutely.

SHERYL:  Listeners can’t see it. But I just want to say so you open this up. We’re going to talk about who you give this to and what you’re doing with it. But it’s The Better Box, and it’s really colorful and bright. It’s got this smile. Then when I opened it up and had this beautiful tissue and a little sticker, and then it said, “Happiness starts here. Your evidence-informed holistic happiness toolkit.” So step one, so go to tell us about step one.

SARAH:   Sure. So inside the box, and the card that you’ve got there. And this is how I like to think about and explain it. It’s like, for women, we all understand the skincare process. It’s like we have 1000 things which we choose. And so I wanted to have the card in there to say, “All right, we got three products in here, three steps, and this is why they work and this is how to do it.”

We have a gratitude journal in there. And the gratitude journal is this cute small little pocket journal. Yes, with all these different designs, you write down your daily gratitude. It’s free flow; however, you want to use it if you want to doodle or if you want to have quotes, but this is your tool to write down gratitude, keep it by your bed in the morning, or do it before you go to bed at night. I liked it in the morning. Personally, it kind of sets the day off for me in a positive way. And it really does change your mind. It really changes the way that your mind works. It really does. The science backs it up, and it’s really cool in that way. 

Then another thing we have in the box is a lavender candle. 

SHERYL:  I know it’s so cool. I wish I could smell it through this screen. I love it. I’ve been waiting to do this interview, so I didn’t burn it yet. Now I can burn it. 

SARAH:   So that’s a lavender tea, and I get it from this beautiful company called 21. Co. And they produce beautiful things, the journal, and that candle. But lavender has the power to calm, and reduce anxiety, just inhaling the scent of lavender. I wish I had known about this ten years ago. I would have been having lavender candles burning just constantly. 

But it’s one action step you can take to actually create a positive impact in your brain, just one thing you can do to create a positive impact. And then the last thing in the box, which is my favorite thing, is called Inspiration cards. And those little mini inspiration cards that come with envelopes. They’re all different designs. I have different quotes on them like “it’s okay to not be okay” and “You do hard things well,” and those cards are designed for the receiver of the better box to give to other people. 

So you open up the cards. I’ve got one of them that says, “you are very much appreciated for what you do.” So that’s a card that I might give to my mom because she does so much for me and the back is blank on purpose, you can write something like “I love you so much, I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, thank you,” and put an envelope and give it to her. 

SHERYL:  So there are little envelopes that come with it, which I think is so nice. So it doesn’t make it hard. Even “thinking of you today,” like what a difference that makes, it really does.

SARAH:   And you know, when we think about how to connect, and so those are connections. And so how connection impacts the brain, we were talking about this earlier, we are social creatures, humans are designed for connection with others. We are tribal. That is how we are. And this is a connection point that you can make with another person. You are making them feel better. And by making them feel better, you are feeling better in turn, and you’re forming a deeper relationship. So again, small actionable steps that you can take that really do produce a result pretty immediately too.

SHERYL:  I loved that so much. Who are you focusing on with these boxes?

SARAH:   So my largest clients today have been I sold some to school districts. I work with some school districts around Texas. I’ve worked with Cook Children’s. I sold orders to them first, and they actually gave them to their behavioral health physicians. And this was last year. And then I’m working with a lot of mental health organizations here in Fort Worth and Tarrant County. I’m doing a big order right now that’s going to go out to teachers, which is really cool.

I think in terms of who would most benefit from this, the answer would really be anyone because the products and the practices are accessible. There’s simple. I would say age-wise. I did a little program with my daughter’s elementary school, they just exchanged cards, and I gave them the card components. And they did that. And they loved it. Little third and fourth graders were writing little cards and giving them people, and they loved that. So some things in the box are appropriate for that age bracket. But really, we’re thinking older, and probably, I would say, middle school, high school, and above.

SHERYL:  Okay, what are you seeing the difference that it’s making? 

SARAH:   The cards themselves. And this is just information I got from the school counselor that she told me at my daughter’s school, was that the kids who gave the cards were so happy, they came back to tell Miss Emily, “I gave them the card, and they were so happy, oh, my gosh, I was so happy.” 

This is a fourth grader, internalizing this action through it and how excited they were to have these cards and give them away. Our adults would say that getting the box makes them feel like somebody really cares about them, that someone believes enough in them and their future, to buy them something. That’s going to take care of them in a really meaningful and deep way. 

SHERYL:  I love that. Are they? Do you feel like it helps to get the conversation going as well, with a stigma around mental health, because I’m even thinking it would be so helpful in the school system to be able to have the teacher share The Better Box with all the students and then talking about what the science and coming alongside?

That feeling like, “they understand it.” You’re teaching your daughter to understand mental health at a very young age. It’s important for the kids to understand as well. How do you handle it when a friend comes up to you? And they tell you they’re depressed? What do you do with that?

SARAH:   Yeah, I think it does. I think it’s an entry point into the conversation. I actually use it a lot at my job at TCU. All my students, most of them know that I do this. I’ll have cards out on my desk. I have the candle out at work. And a lot of times in my class, on the first day or middle of the semester, I will give them out cards. 

I’ll say, “Hey, y’all, I brought 25 cards with different little lines on them, you pick one that you want to give to somebody else.” And then they’ll be like, “Oh, my gosh, this is so cool. What is this?” Then I’ll tell them about it. 

And so then they feel like I’ve opened that door with them to have a greater conversation about mental health. At some point in the semester, I’ll have a handful come into my office and say, “Hey, here’s what’s going on. I want to talk about it.” I always say, “okay, I’m not a licensed counselor. But I can sit here, and I can listen to you. I can tell you maybe how that would make me feel if that were happening to you.” 

So that’s the door that’s open for me. And also, I think here in Fort Worth. We’re like this really big small town. Friends and colleagues know that I do this. They feel much more open to talking to me about mental health issues. And I’m grateful and happy that I can receive that information. It feels like that’s a safe space to have those conversations.

SHERYL:  Yeah. Just the power of listening. And what I love about The Better Box is it keeps it simple. I think that our human nature makes it so complicated. We do these valentine’s day affirmation printables through Moms and Tweens and Teens, and it’s like two sheets of specific affirmations. I’ve heard from so many parents just the difference that’s made. 

Focusing more on the positive and being able to affirm their kids. And this reminds me of giving a card to somebody where I care about you, with the candle, those little things. And those little things make a difference.

SARAH:   I think you’ve hit on something that’s so universal here that I’ve thought about so much since the pandemic. And it’s the little things in life that are the biggest things. I think during the pandemic, I was so worried, especially in the beginning, about getting COVID and then not knowing how to act. Or suddenly giving it to my parents was such a fear of mine. Give it to them and then die from it. I mean, it was such a fear. 

So anytime that I would go to TCU, I had COVID tests. Get them anytime. I’m going to get the COVID test at TCU. I would go over there right after the test, and I’m like,” Okay, I don’t have it. I’m good. I know that I can at least spend, however many days with them.” I just relished that small connection, that dinner, we had that whatever it was that hugging, whatever. Just that little thing was so meaningful. I think our lives are built upon these little moments. 

SHERYL:  Yeah, yeah. It made you appreciate it that much more.

Well, Sarah, you have to tell our listeners where to find you and how to order these boxes. We have a lot of administrators that listen and teachers and social workers, and health care providers. Where to find you? So they can order the boxes and even give them to their staff, teachers, and students.

SARAH:   I would love that. I love social workers; I did some research with a team of social workers at TCU. My heart goes out to y’all. So the best way is to you can look at my website, of course, and that’s https://www.yourbetterbox.org/. 

If you want to have a conversation with me, maybe to do a customized order, or just say, “Hey, here’s what I’m thinking, what audience do you think this will be best for and we can have a longer conversation?” I run my social media, and I look at it all the time. So my Instagram is https://www.instagram.com/your_betterbox/. And you can just call me. My cell phone number is on my Instagram too. 

SHERYL:  I will put all the links in the show notes so that they can find you as well.

SARAH:   I think it is a beautiful gift for teachers. Teachers have a really, really hard job. My mom did home school for 30 years. I do not know how she did it. It’s incredible. My dad did High School. So it’s beautiful for teachers, beautiful. For those of us in the service professions, where you’re serving others, it’s good. How can we love ourselves and take care of ourselves at the same time? 

SHERYL:  Yeah. So I just want to close on this note, you have this on your Instagram “burnout exists because we’ve made rest or reward rather than our right.” I love that. I love how important it is with what you just said to love ourselves and to be kind to ourselves and to each other, wherever we’re at.

SARAH:   I think self-compassion is the biggest gift that we can give ourselves. We can give anybody.

SHERYL:  Yeah, I agree. Well, Sarah, thank you so much for what you’re doing. I’m excited to hear about all the orders that come in for people that want to give their loved ones, colleagues, students, and friends, Better Boxes. So thank you.

SARAH:   Thank you for having me. You are a joy, a joy, joy.