S4 E7: Whitney Howzell on Pressures Young Adults Face

Released November 2, 2021

Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is a very vulnerable time in a person’s life. When you add a global pandemic into the mix, it can make things even more complicated. Today, we bring back the Executive Director of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, Dr. Whitney Howzell, who says that it is okay to have many questions when becoming an adult and that everything does not always have to fall in line perfectly.    

Podcast Transcript

There’s no handbook. I think a lot of validation and the things that you guys are going through now, life is coming at you hard, and you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. You know, what’s the difference between an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old or a 19-year-old and 21-year-old? Not much. You know, that’s a year and a half, two years apart. There’s not much life experience that happens. They’re still trying to figure it out. 

Welcome to Beyond Theory, a podcast powered by Meadows Behavioral Healthcare that brings you in-depth conversations with firsthand insights from the front lines of mental health and addiction recovery. I’m Dominic Lawson.

Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is a very vulnerable time in a person’s life. When you add a global pandemic into the mix, it can make things even more complicated. Today, we bring back the Executive Director of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center, Dr. Whitney Howzell, who says that it is okay to have many questions when becoming an adult and that everything does not always have to fall in line perfectly.   

Let’s get out of the abstract and see how this applies in the real world. It’s time to go Beyond Theory.  

Dr. Whitney Howzell: I’m Dr. Whitney Howzell, Executive Director of the Claudia Black Young Adult Center. 

Dominic: Dr. Howzell, thank you so much for coming back to the Beyond Theory podcast. What’s been going on with you since the last time we spoke? Well, we didn’t speak, but the last time you were on the show. 

Dr. Howzell: Right. An international pandemic. 

Dominic: Fair enough. 

Dr. Howzell: It’s been going on. I think COVID-19 has certainly kept us all busy. 

Dominic: Absolutely. 

Dr. Howzell: In more ways than one. There’s been some gifts, a lot of curses, but nonetheless, it has definitely kept those of us in the mental health field pretty busy. 

Dominic: Absolutely. And what are some things that have, kind of, so far, because we’re still going through things. About nature, what are some things that have come out of it for you as far as perspective, some things that maybe you didn’t think of before and now you think about all the time? I guess, can we do some commentary on that, if you would?

Dr. Howzell: It’s perspective. Where do you start. 

Dominic: Yeah. I’m going to shut up, I guess.

Dr. Howzell: Right. I think an overarching theme, at least for me, has been kind of “practice what you preach.”

Dominic: I hear that. 

Dr. Howzell: In getting some rest, pacing yourself, really prioritizing what’s important. Quality time with family, with friends. Those things that we stress about in the office and the day-to-day that they’re at, they’re gonna be there tomorrow and the day after. So, just doing what you can do and really leaning on my own social supports and giving them as much quality time as I can has been really, really eye-opening. Albeit, because we didn’t have a choice in some respects. But I think it really helped me remember how much I missed it. Just talking about my day or not talking about my day, talking about …  

Dominic: Fair enough. 

Dr. Howzell: … something that’s on TV or cooking, cleaning, decorating. All of those little novel things that I’ve not had time to do in years suddenly being forced to just, kind of, stop and pause and get back to, and like, okay, I have other passions outside of work. I like this. I could keep doing it.  

Dominic: Absolutely. And we’ve seen, also, over this past 18 months or however long it has been going on, celebrities and musicians and famous people, athletes ­­— Simone Biles comes to mind, Naomi Osaka comes to mind — as far as really prioritizing mental health and what they do. What did you think about those instances and them speaking out about mental health and advocacy and things of that nature?

Dr. Howzell: I was so proud of them — especially to see young black women say that. And there’s this viral meme going around Twitter and Instagram with their pictures on and it says, “you’re not going to stress us out.” Beyond just what they do, remembering that they’re human beings. I can’t even imagine the pressure. They’re in their early 20s. Like, they’re each like 24 years old? 

Dominic: Something like that. Yeah. 

Dr. Howzell: Simone Biles is the GOAT, no doubt about that. But that type of pressure at 24, I don’t think that I would be able to handle it. Let alone, her or anybody else with the pressure of going out and performing. I’m sure she has things on outside of gymnastics, being in a foreign country, in a foreign country without your family. Those athletes were there by themselves. I can’t even fathom what that’s like. If you had a good day or a bad day. You get up there, you perform well, and I imagine the first thing you want to do is run into the crowd and hug your mom and dad, and they’re not there. What do you do with that? I saw the actual event that she was in when she was telling her coach, “Nah, I just don’t trust myself.” That is wisdom beyond regular years for a 24-year-old.  

The average American is like, just power through, you can do it. She has to come back alive. You know what I mean? And in one piece, to be able to do that again with the same pressures. So, I commend Simone Biles, Naomi, any other athlete. I was overjoyed to see the outpouring of support from other athletes. With Michael Phelps speaking up for her. Some of the track and field stars like Allyson Felix, so on and so forth. Just really saying, “we get it, and we support you, and take the time that you need.” I think more than anything, beyond being patriotic, that speaks to the greater human experience that we all should have across the world. So, shoutout to them.  

Dominic: Right, right. Absolutely. And it kind of speaks to the Olympic mantra a little bit as well. You talked about a lot of people who were supporting her. Kerri Strug, somebody in the ’96 [games] who went through an injury or something like that also supported her as well. So, it was kind of interesting to see. And when you talk about Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, they’re kind of in the same age group as some of the people that you work with at The Claudia Black Center.  

Dr. Howzell: Yeah, they are.

Dominic: And I imagine with everything going on, transitioning from college to work or even high school to college and stuff like that, that can be a tricky time, a stressful time as well. What do you say to people in that age demographic — because I know you work with a lot of them — when they talk about those stresses and they talk about those things that they’re kind of going through. 

Dr. Howzell: There’s no handbook. 

Dominic: Fair enough. 

Dr. Howzell: I think a lot of validation and the things that you guys are going through now, life is coming at your heart and you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. What’s the difference between an 18-year-old and 19-year-old or a 19-year-old and 21-year-old? Not much. That’s a year and a half, two years apart. There’s not much life experience that happens. They’re still trying to figure it out. I think that there’s a lot of exposure, just being in the times —social media, television — to what everyone else is doing. And we all put our best selves on the internet. So, I think there’s a lot of misconception around “I’m supposed to have this, I’m supposed to be doing this.”

And if you had the grandest setup, it would still be difficult for where you are developmentally. So, I always lean on telling them that you’re where you’re supposed to be. It’s difficult, it’s confusing, it’s supposed to be like that. But moreover, it gets easier, and you can get through it. There’s no finality in now. You can keep going. You learn some lessons, you fall sometimes, sometimes you fall and you just get up and you keep going. 

Dominic: Right. In that same vein, one of the things I think we see a lot of times, especially in the professional work arena, it is like, if you’re not a tech billionaire at about 25, then it’s done.  

Dr. Howzell: If you’re done, right? 

Dominic: Right. If you’re not making a $100K by 27, then you’re done. And so …

Dr. Howzell: I would still have liked to know how it felt, but that’s- 

Dominic: Right. Fair enough. Right. Now, I definitely understand that. But like you said, there are a lot of people going through a lot of different things right now. So, I appreciate you sharing your insight on that as well. And that kind of brings me to something we talked about off-air, about a CDC report that we saw as far as emergency room visits and suicide attempts. And they kind of fall again in that same demographic of the population that you work with. I guess I’m just curious: you took a look at the report and stuff like that. Can you give some insight or some commentary on that, if you don’t mind, Dr. Howzell? 

Dr. Howzell: Yeah. From what I remember in the report, is it was specifically focusing on the time period end of 2019 all the way through 2020  and the emergency room visits that had to do with suicide attempts and self-harm. There was really no delineation between the two, but it was emergency room visits because of one or the other. And I’ll say this, I think that there was a lot of things that could have contributed to that. One, being that we’re in a global pandemic, people are home. I think there was a lot more opportunity for support systems or families, parents in particular, to say, “I don’t like that language, something’s not right, let me take you to get help,” which is the good thing. Right?  

And then, I harken back to that very black and white thinking — I’m never going to make it, everything is bad — is really common for people in that age group. I think that one of the curses of social media then is that, that kind of echo chamber of when things are going bad, everything is bad. And there’s this black and white thinking of it’s not going good, it’s going bad, and I have to end it all. It’s really common with this age group. So, in saying that, the data shows that suicide rates were up during the pandemic because of the lack of social supports. Kind of, sitting in, in a room somewhere, thinking I’m supposed to have it all, the setback of the average college kid like, “I’m not going to be able to get out in three to four years. My life is over. What do I do?

Which I think, in the mental health field, we kind of expect it. That there’s something about people having to sit with themselves beyond just their age. Older adults are having a hard time coping with this. So, I don’t want to just demonize or put a big spotlight on this particular population, but it was everyone. I think about the people who didn’t make it to the emergency room, who didn’t have someone in their corner saying, “let me go get you some help. Or this is bigger than all of us, what can we do to support you?” A number of things could contribute to that. Again, from the general lack of support to people who are back at home with, perhaps, people who’ve abused them in the past. 

Many kids go to school (and I say kids to encompass adolescents and young adults) for meals, to have some sort of escape, and they couldn’t do that. So, I imagine the weight of the world or just looking for some sort of relief, suicide and self-harm would come up as an option. Very maladaptive, not something that we want to hear, but I think it’s just, it was something that was bound to happen, given the circumstances. And then we forget that it happened really quickly. We blinked and we were on lockdown. There was no place for anyone to go. There was no escape. There was no time to prepare.  

So, young adults or anybody who’s in that situation, then you got to go to, what can we do to support you? Which, I applaud the people who got them that help. Whether it be to the emergency room or to a therapist, or just Zoom, a sleepover, something. I think that was step one at the most basic thing that someone could do to be supported, and that showed in the uptick of emergency room visits, aside from what got them there, sadly. 

Dominic: Of course, of course. Thank you for sharing that. I’m thinking about one of the things that we did was Zoom movie night.  

Dr. Howzell: Nice.  

Dominic: Just to, kind of, we all hop on a Zoom call and somebody points a screen at something, and we all just kind of … 

Dr. Howzell: We got real creative with the Zooms. Obviously, the suicide attempts, the more access to maladaptive coping drugs and alcohol is not something that we would like to see. But there were some blessings or some really cool things that came out of the pandemic just from being online and on the internet. I’ve never watched so many TikTok videos. I am in love with Instagram Live now. Still not huge on Twitter, but just the way that people adapted. Young people adapted. We don’t highlight that enough.

Dominic: In what ways did they adapt in your opinion, Dr. Howzell? 

Dr. Howzell: Ways that they got creative in reaching out. I go back to the internet and to TikTok, there’s that yin and yang, that gift and that curse. They found ways to connect with folks just beyond their bubble, globally. Trends were started. I think things go viral so often that we just see the novelty in it. But for something to get online that you just did on a whim and someone in China or South Africa sees it, and they can either relate or connect with you in some sort of way, it’s a big deal.   

I think that the lost heroes have been teachers, the mental health community. People willing to shift their practices around to be able to connect with people to start an online practice. And I know for a while, it was kind of taboo in the mental health field, because there’s something to sitting next to a person and not just paying attention to what they’re saying, but their body language, their energy. There’s so much in silence that is very valuable to the therapeutic process. So, I understand why people were really steering away from the online mental health field. But I think if it’s done nothing else, it’s connected so many people to this thing we call therapy and what is it. And if that was the baby step that will eventually get you in the door to sitting in somebody’s chair physically, then that’s definitely a blessing that I’ll welcome.  

Dominic: Absolutely. Absolutely. You talked about some of those creative ways of connecting. I think it was also that generation that showed us how to do the caravan outside of somebody’s house.  

Dr. Howzell: Yes, yes.  

Dominic: And because we couldn’t go and see Grandma, Grandpa, birthdays … 

Dr. Howzell: The birthday caravans, yeah. 

Dominic: … graduations and stuff like that.  

Dr. Howzell: I saw this 18-year-old — I don’t know if it’s still on the internet — I wish I knew his name, but he built almost like this tunnel door thing where he could put his arms through like makeshift gloves so he can hug his grandmother and, obviously, not physically touch her during the pandemic, but who does that?  Who thinks of those things? We pay so much attention to, and I don’t mind, with a young adult, and how much bad stuff can happen. But think of how much innovative things really came out of it. It’s amazing.  

Dominic: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely. And you said taboo about something, something was taboo earlier. And I know, me and you are both people of color, and for the longest time, we know in our community that reaching out for therapy, going to therapy was kind of a thing like you didn’t do, or it was discouraged, or it wasn’t talked about, and stuff like that. But now we’re seeing more and more people of color reach out for help, reach out for therapy, and things of that nature. I guess, I’m curious from your perspective, why the shift? Why do you think, is it because, and this was happening pre-pandemic, why do you think that shift is happening in your opinion? 

Dr. Howzell: I think exposure. Exposure, opportunity, in the same way in which a celebrity or social figure can kind of celebrate or highlight the next outfit or pair of shoes or weight loss tea. People were being more forthcoming — Black people in particular — with “I’m not doing well in this pandemic, and I’m not doing well at all. This is what I’ve done, and I feel like there was some sort of safety net on the other side.”

There were people of color, the Black community, in particular. Our community is so tight knit for historical ways that we’ve just had to be. There’s safety and there’s protection. But what can also bloom in that is shame and not feeling confident enough to step outside of what you were raised with. I think that, organically, us kind of stepping outside of our church, what’s going on in the house, who has curated our own value system, being able to do that ourselves.  

Mental health in particular was one of the first things that people were like, “Oh, I’m going to jump into this.” And I think that happened full-fledged. I again give kudos to the matriarchs of our community, Black women, for opening that door. You hear people like Taraji Henson talk about mental health all the time and the foundation that she started. Again, Simone Biles. More and more we heard Black women talk about not just the daily struggles that they have and just putting up with it, but people stepping out and saying, “I don’t like the trope of a strong Black woman. This is exhausting.

Dominic: If you don’t mind, explain that trope. Explain that trope.  

Dr. Howzell: I think it’s come out of having to be. There’s historical racialized trauma around what Black people, particularly black women, have been able to tolerate. And when I say historical, we can trace that all the way back to the development of reproductive health. These come from experiments on Black women. So, there were doctors who literally believe that Black women are able to, they have a higher pain tolerance. And if they have higher pain tolerance, physically, of course, they have a higher pain tolerance mentally. Kind of being, or having to support a household where typical American society, the man goes out and works. We know what Black men deal with and in the larger culture so they’re going to need that support.  

But when they come home, who do they take that out on? The man kicks your husband and your husband comes and kicks you, you take it out on the children, the children take it out on the dog, the dog takes it out on the cat, so on and so forth. And slowly, I think just by the way we’re set up. Now, with Black women stepping outside of the actual house, being the most educated woman in American society has helped a lot. Really finding new ways to, Okay, we’ve taken care of everybody else, how do we take care of ourselves?  

So, when we hear, you’re a strong Black woman, it almost sounds like an underhanded compliment at this time. Because yeah, I’m strong, but who do I have to support me? And the same innovation that we’ve had to carry us through so much trauma, I think we’re utilizing that to take care of ourselves now. 

Dominic: I hear that, I hear that. And in that same vein, Dr. Howzell, when it comes to, you kind of talked about this a little bit, how are you dealing with your mental health? What are some activities that you’re doing? What are some of those things that you are doing in order to feel protected, feel safe, and feel okay? Or whatever you define for, Dr. Howzell that you need to be. Does that make sense? 

Dr. Howzell: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Firstly, I’m going to therapy.  

Dominic: Okay. 

Dr. Howzell: I highly recommend a therapist should have a therapist. Everybody needs not only a sounding board, but just someone to help them process, typically, because so much is coming at us at once as a mental health professional, as a Black woman, as just a human going through a pandemic, as someone who’s had a job that didn’t stop. How do you stop and process?

For me, I have just something that I do midday and at the end of the day where I just have to stop and pause with, what am I feeling? Because we can get so disconnected from our actual emotions, because we’re just doing, doing, doing and we’re forgetting to be, so recognizing and having some awareness of, oh, I’m angry right now, or I’m sad, or I’m feeling shame, or even, Hey, this thing went really well. Take a moment and have a little piece of joy and celebrate before you just move on.  

Another thing that I’ve started to implement is just really, really long baths. I can’t go get massages anymore, take that back. But again, I harken back to the internet. I’m all about the DIY facials. The online meditations or the guided meditations, they’re everywhere. Yoga through YouTube. I’m doing more reading. But again, I think the biggest thing for me has really been that focus on my own emotions and processing and actually giving myself some time and space to do it. And it’s like, this is okay, this is okay. I struggle with the guilt of not doing anything or feeling or harkening back to somebody has it a lot worse than you, so suck it up and do your job. But saying, “No, you don’t have to suck it up. You don’t have to do that. You can have the same space. You can, again, full circle practice what you preach. What are you telling people who come and sit in the chair in front of you?”

Yeah. I just think that has been really helpful, and it didn’t happen overnight. At all. I definitely give myself some grace with, “what can you implement today?” And you fell off yesterday, but that doesn’t mean that you have to stop. Or you are going to guilt trip yourself into doing it? But really building up a habit slowly. I hope my therapist hears this. I hope. And she gives me some kudos for that, so.

Dominic: Got you. I hear that. Thank you for sharing it. As we begin to wrap up this session of Beyond Theory, Dr. Howzell, first of all, thank you so much for coming on the show. I really appreciate it.

Dr. Howzell: Thank you for having me. 

Dominic: And I appreciate your candor and your transparency in our conversation. I guess I’m just curious if there’s somebody out there who is looking to get help, looking to get that help, and they’re trying to fight through the stigma of getting that help. Or if you are a person who is seeing the person who may need help and you’re trying to figure out, how do I help that person? If you would just kind of give us some insight and some advice on that, if you would. 

Dr. Howzell: Getting over the stigma or ….? 

Dominic: Getting over the stigma. Yeah, yeah. 

Dr. Howzell: There’s no handbook for getting over the stigma. 

Dominic: Fair enough.  

Dr. Howzell: It’s a brave thing to do, especially if you’ve never done it before. I think just, one, having that awareness that something is wrong. If you’re that person that’s witnessing something happening and you want to get somebody some more support, it’s really important not to force them. So, oftentimes, we can force them back into the closet, so to speak. But hey, I noticed this came up or I don’t take for granted that simple question with, “are you okay? And how can I support you?” Sometimes they’re just listening, they don’t want any advice, and they don’t want to do anything in particular. But can I just sit with you? What’s on your mind? Those are really simple, basic things and it doesn’t take a trained therapist to do that. It’s really humanistic. It’s just a way to connect. And I would start there. 

Dr. Whitney Howzell is the Executive Director of The Claudia Black Young Adult Center at Meadows Behavioral Healthcare. Much of her work has centered on treating adolescents and families with behavioral and emotional issues, sexually compulsive behavior, sexual trauma, and couples with relational issues. Find out more about her work at claudiablackcenter.com.   

Beyond Theory is produced and hosted by me, Dominic Lawson. You can discover more, including videos of some of our conversations, at BeyondTheory.com

Finally, thank you for listening, and I hope you join us next time for another episode of Beyond Theory.