By Toki Burke June 7, 2017

A curious group of healthcare professionals joined East Bay community members on a warm Tuesday evening in Oakland to experience a unique approach to mental and physical well-being championed by CIIS Professor and Community Mental Health Program Chair Dr. Elizabeth Markle and her co-founder Dr. Benjamin Emmert-Aronson.

Her project, Open Source Wellness, takes a holistic approach to well-being, understanding that mental and physical health can't be separated and treated independently. The aim of this special Providers' Night was to introduce health professionals to the group's programming aimed at supporting behavior change to address chronic health conditions.

Dr. Markle leading the group during the mindfulness session Dr. Markle leading the group during the mindfulness session.

A New Vision for Health

"If we get people psychologically healthier, they're able to take better care of their bodies. If they're able to take better care of their bodies, they feel better psychologically, so it goes both ways."

With close to 18% of the U.S. GDP going toward healthcare costs and nearly 80% of those costs used toward treating people with preventable chronic disease, Open Source Wellness is rethinking how we treat healthcare on a systems level.

Trained as a clinical psychologist, Dr. Markle worked closely with physicians in an integrative primary care facility where she kept seeing doctors make the same four recommendations: eat better, move more, reduce stress, and get more social support. But she noticed that many of the patients didn't have the resources to make these changes, and this led to worsening chronic disease and increased utilization of the emergency room for preventable conditions.

As Dr. Markle says, "we actually know the basic lifestyle practices that are upstream from health and well-being, so what if we applied some of that to the healthcare system?"

Movement Director Teresa Elis (right) gets the group moving. Movement Director Teresa Ellis (right) gets the group moving.

Founded by Dr. Markle and Dr. Emmert-Aronson in 2016, Open Source Wellness was created to meet the needs of communities without access to boutique integrative health or wellness centers. Open Source Wellness operates as a "behavioral pharmacy," a delivery system for health behavior change based on doctors' prescriptions and patients' own motivation. It's like an experiential support system for patients who are told by their doctors that they need to make lifestyle changes but aren't sure how to get started or maintain those changes.

As Dr. Markle explains, "It would be crazy if we said, ‘You need antibiotics, now good luck finding them!'" adding "just like you pick up prescriptions at a pharmacy, we're trying to provide a place where you can pick up the support needed to make behavior changes to prevent chronic disease."

The movement session in full swing The movement session in full swing.

Providing an Experience

The group of Bay Area doctors, chiropractors, wellness coaches, and other healthcare providers joined past participants to immerse themselves in programming designed for their patients and self-referred individuals.

Starting with an energetic dance and expression session led by Movement Director Teresa Ellis, an Oakland-based physical trainer, the group continued the three-part program with a guided meditation session led by Dr. Markle, and finished with a plant-based community dinner. Dinnertime has only one rule: one conversation per table at a time -- to encourage authentic and engaged participation and social connection.

Sitting in groups with an Open Source Angel -- a past participant designated as a leader for the session -- each table discussed challenges they've overcome, future goals, and ways to support change while enjoying a home-cooked meal of Jamaican coconut rundown (a delicious coconut and banana curry stew) with an ancient grain mix and salad made by Fekida Wool and Erin Clark, two participants and chefs from Oakland.

Fekida Wool, a professional chef, preparing the main course for the group meal. Fekida Wool, a professional chef, preparing the main course for the group meal.

At the end of the evening, providers left with the same experience and understanding of the same programming their patients would have. By participating in the program, the hope is that providers will be more likely to refer their patients to Open Source Wellness because they know firsthand how it can support their patients in making health changes ways the modern healthcare system can't.

Mind, Body, Spirit Connection

CIIS' focus on educating professionals trained in looking at the whole person and not just the symptom is shaping the future of health and wellness. 

In addition to Dr. Markle, student coaches and graduates from CIIS' Integrative Health Studies program provide coaching for Open Source Wellness. 

Dr. Markle, Erin Clark, and Fekida Wool serving dinner Dr. Markle, Erin Clark, and Fekida Wool serving dinner.

Kevonya Elzia, a current IHL student, has been working as an intern at Open Source Wellness since January. Helping Open Source Wellness run a Wednesday evening and Saturday morning group for residents at Alameda Point Collaborative, Elzia says the focus on coaching helps individuals find their own path to success to help change behaviors.

"It's all about letting the person find their own answers. That's what coaching is really about... . We try and help guide the person to come up with a solution that's right for them."

Dr. Markle explains that the mission and ethos behind Open Source Wellness are ingrained in the curriculum and teaching philosophy of the Community Mental Health and Integrative Health Studies programs, making them perfect partners for creating supportive programming that evaluates the whole person.

Currently operating at two weekly clinics in the East Bay, Open Source Wellness and its programming is peer-led and donation-based. For more information, visit Open Source Wellness online.


Learn more about the Community Mental Health and Integrative Health Studies program and donate here to support scholarships for students who are passionate about making a difference.

Toki Burke is the Digital Media Specialist at CIIS.

Community Mental Health, Integrative Health Studies, Faculty News

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