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A deep Q&A about mental health with Dr. Bill Howatt from the Dr. Greg Wells Podcast (part 1 / 6)

Published on March, 30th 2018
By Greg Wells

This Q&A was adapted from my podcast conversation with Dr. Bill Howatt that aired on March 8th, 2018. You can listen to the interview here: http://drgregwells.com/be-better/dr-bill-howatt/. As Chief Research and Development Officer at Morneau Shepell, Bill is an internationally recognized expert in mental health who has spent 25 years helping employees, patients and leaders achieve their potential. Bill has a PhD in Organizational Psychology, did post-doctoral training at UCLA, has developed programs with organizations like the Conference Board of Canada and the University of New Brunswick, and is author of numerous books and articles, including regular contributions to The Globe and Mail.

Overcoming mental health challenges: the story of Dr. Bill Howatt’s personal and professional journey

Dr. Greg Wells: Bill, can you start us off by describing your expertise?

 Dr. Bill Howatt: The central emphasis of my work is helping leaders remove barriers that are limiting them from achieving their potential. I focus on helping people learn to think differently, so they can positively impact their quality of life. The biggest factor is what happens between their ears. What they are capable of doing begins with what they believe they’re capable of doing. So I’m kind of in the helping people learn to believe in themselves business.

 GW: Your interest in mental health issues began with your own struggles. Can you tell us the origin story?

BH: I grew up in Prince Edward Island with adoptive parents who were kind of angels for me because they provided a lot of structure and support. On the outside, I looked like a healthy and vibrant child. But on the inside, I was struggling because I was really challenged by reading and writing. After I failed grade two, I was living with the shame of that and started to develop social anxiety. Throughout public school, I battled fear and early stages of depression. To cope, I created the illusion I was all right.

It wasn’t until I got to Acadia University at 18 years old that I realized I was struggling with learning disabilities, ADHD and visual and auditory dyslexia. Yet, even when I knew I had these challenges, I didn’t really know what they were. I was very lucky that there were amazing people at Acadia who took care of me. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the caring professors who saw something in me.

Because I struggled with reading and writing, they put accommodations in place for me to have oral testing and got me resources and support systems. The upshot was that during my five years at Acadia, during which I completed two degrees, I learned how to read, write and articulate my ideas. I built the confidence that I could actually learn. I started to believe I could be more than just a good farm hand.

Through that process, I came to grips with my self-confidence, so I could deal with my anxiety and depression. I realized that once you free your mind from waking up every day with paralyzing fear and accept that failing is part of learning, you can start to focus. You can have a vision of something you want to accomplish and actually start doing it. That’s when you put yourself in a position to finish things and begin to flourish.

GW: How did your career path unfold from there?

BH: When I got into my first job as a youth worker, I didn’t really have any training, so I didn’t have a clue about how to help other people. But I was starting to understand that failing was part of learning, so I was able to draw on my own experiences with mental health and coaching sports and help young people. From there, I ended up doing a Master’s in Counseling Psychology, which gave me a frame of reference for counselling people. Later, I started doing employee assistance counseling, which got me more involved in mental health.

When I completed my PhD and was expanding my knowledge about human behaviour, I reached a transformational point where I was enjoying seeing clients but was asking myself, “how can I help more people than one per hour?” Through my EAP work, I came to believe strongly that employees own their mental health but the employer has to play a role as well. My desire to have a broader impact led me to start doing some corporate training and speaking on the topic of leadership development. I was convinced that the employee-manager relationship was key to wellbeing in the workplace and creating a safe working environment.

After that, things steamrolled. I ended up in North Carolina doing work in Human Resources, and then I had an opportunity to do a bunch of executive coaching. I started to see how coaching and counselling intersect. I ended up working on Wall Street for about 12 years, helping in different corporations, while I was still seeing private clients, teaching and starting to write books. I just followed my interest and tried to figure out how I could make a contribution. Eventually, I decided to narrow my focus. I came back to Canada and took the role of Chief Research and Development Officer at Morneau Shepell. That’s when I got involved in developing a mental health product called the Total Health Index.

GW: So, what’s the main focus of your work now?

BH: Over the last three years, I have been working with large organizations to bring in a frame of reference for how employers can play a role promoting the total health of their employees, especially resiliency. One of the main goals is to help people have more ability to deal with stress, which is most often the challenge they face, as opposed to mental illness.

In many ways, I have come full circle from my own early experiences because I work helping leaders and employees believe in themselves.

GW: Can you tell us a bit more about how you made the shift to a more functional state when you were faced with the challenges presented by ADHD, anxiety, and depression.

BH: I guess I see it as an arc that started with my parents who taught me to own my behaviour – to be responsible for myself. From there, I learned that there are key strategies, like being mentored or acquiring micro-skills that allow you to challenge your irrational beliefs if you are having negative thoughts. I was able to shift my thinking about failure and learn how to regulate my emotions.

I would say that the main thing I have learned is that there is no end to this whole mental health thing. You can never master it. You just have to work through the three steps: awareness, accountability and action. In my everyday life, I focus on being aware. I’m a pretty blunt, direct person who has no hesitation acknowledging my limitations and handicaps.

Part 1 / 6.