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Podcast: Addressing Mental Health during COVID-19

Podcast with Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt, Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics, American Public University, and Dr. Kelechi Fluitt, Director of Outreach, Howard University Counseling Service

How has COVID-19 highlighted mental health issues? In this episode, APU professor Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt talks to clinician and educator Dr. Kelechi Fluitt about the work she’s done to educate students and the public about the mental health challenges that have arisen during the pandemic.

Start a psychology degree at American Public University.

Learn about the importance of normalizing the conversation around mental health and addressing apprehension and the myths people have about seeking counseling services. Also, learn about and the importance of providing education about the interconnectedness between mental and physical health.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Welcome to the podcast. I’m your host, Kandis Boyd Wyatt. The goal of this podcast is to highlight our local heroes in our community who are champions of important issues affecting us on both a national and international scale, from the classroom to the meeting room to the boardroom.

Today, we’re going to add to that very important discussion happening on both the national and international stage regarding the importance of business acumen and also how to maintain your health during a global pandemic. Today, our guest is Dr. Kelechi Fluitt. She is a global speaker, and she’s also a licensed psychology associate.

Today, Dr. Fluitt will talk about the importance of mental health during these trying times. Dr. Fluitt, welcome to the podcast and thank you for joining me.

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: I’m excited as well; I’m really looking forward to this discussion. There are so many critical conversations happening today that pertain to mental health. You’ve been communicating the importance of mental health for several years, and I’m sure today’s audience can benefit from you sharing your story. First, can you tell us about yourself?

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: The way in which I view myself is multifaceted. I view myself as a clinician, an educator, a researcher, a coach, a moderator as well as a social advocate. And so all of these pieces I find intertwined with my everyday life experiences and ultimately where I want to be in the future.

Currently, I’m the Director of Outreach at the Howard University Counseling Service, where we provide mental health services to our students, including but not limited to our undergraduate, graduate and professional students.

And so we provide individual therapy, group psychotherapy. We also provide them with references for psychological assessment, as well as we have a psychiatrist on staff that is able to handle medication management. And so at the University Counseling Service, not only am I a clinician, but I get the opportunity to be the Director of Outreach.

And so essentially what that means to me is providing mental health support within the campus community, and so getting out of the four walls, getting out of the one-to-one interaction, and going into the masses.

We do screenings; we do tabling events where we provide mental health material, as service panelists, as speakers, as moderators. And then ultimately since [the] pandemic is here, we’ve been doing a lot of things virtually.

We’ve been engaging our students on social media platforms including but not limited to Instagram, YouTube, as well as Twitter. And so being able to meet our students where they are all over the globe has been a tremendous resource for us and has made our students feel more connected to the university as a whole.

My experiences are multifaceted. I’ve had the opportunity to do clinical work at the D.C. VA at the D.C. Superior Court, and I recently completed a two-year fellowship at the Washington School of Psychiatry, National Group Psychotherapy Institute in Washington, D.C. And so that’s a little bit about who I am.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow, that is amazing. Your breadth and your depth is just incredible, so I’m so glad that you’re speaking with us today. Can you start by talking about some of the challenges or problems that you’ve encountered when it comes to communicating the importance of mental health?

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: I think that’s actually a really good question. I think the first step is really to normalize the conversation around mental health.

I find that a lot of people from varied backgrounds have feelings or impressions about the field based on past experiences within their community, which is natural, right? There is a natural apprehension to talking to someone outside of your home, speaking to someone who’s in a clinical field that doesn’t know you personally.

I think the first step in order to communicate mental health and the importance of mental health is really to normalize the conversation. One of the things I always say is self-care is self-love.

And so when we start to think about how in the many ways we take care of ourselves, we are usually really good about trying to do well physically. So we exercise, we want to eat right. So we eat our fruits and vegetables, we try to cut down on this or cut down on that. We usually take care of our spiritual side of our bodies, so we may attend church services or we may meditate. We may find ways to connect ourselves to the earth.

But for some reason the social-emotional part of us, the mental health part of us, we don’t always do a good job of acknowledging as well as taking care of. And so really just noting that your body is made up of soul which is connected to your spirit, it’s made up of the emotional side and your physical side. And so really just making sure we’re taking care of our whole self.

And so normalizing the conversation about mental health, encouraging people that just as there are people who are board-certified, maybe in pediatrics or they’re medical doctors or cancer surgeons, there are clinicians who go to school, who get their degree, who get their licensure essentially to provide these services and to utilize them when you need support.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, I think that’s great. And you touched on a really important point that so many times we’re comfortable talking to family members or loved ones, but to talk to someone who we perceive as a stranger sometimes can automatically raise a barrier and can prevent someone from getting the treatment that they need. In a perfect world, what training would be needed to help people start and succeed in becoming more versed in mental health?

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: That’s a good question. What I always think is that when you find a field that you may feel like you’re called to the first thing is to do your due diligence, right? And so when we talk about training for people who want to succeed in the field of mental health, that is always interconnected to me with education.

And so going beyond the bachelor’s degree, going beyond the master’s degree, getting licensure, going to a Ph.D. program. Going through all the intimate parts of it from classwork to comps, to dissertation defense, to internship. Going through the breadth and depth of it, I think that’s really essential.

If you find that you may want to be in this field, it’s going to be really important for you to connect to and commit yourself to the educational portion of it so to get all you can while you can, and to really just make yourself a student of it. Most people who have Ph.D.s like myself have gone through a doctoral program.

Some may have done undergraduate and doctoral, some may have done undergraduate master’s and doctoral program. It’s years [of] commitment. A typical doctoral program is about seven years.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow.

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: So there is commitment there that has to be done, but you can do it. That is what I would suggest first. I would suggest that they would get into a program, a licensed program through an accrediting body and go through the process of attaining that degree, attaining that certificate, and then going through the process of getting licensed also.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Wow, that’s amazing. Like you said, it’s definitely a journey.

Let’s talk about COVID-19 and the global pandemic. I think it’s definitely caused us to look at mental health in different ways. From your perspective and your vantage point, how has COVID-19 shined a new light on mental health?

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: That’s actually a really good question. I think one of the first ways in which COVID-19 has shined a new light on mental health is to really show the disparities that are across the races; I think I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that.

For instance, black Americans make up 13% of the U.S. population, but they make up 36% of deaths due to COVID. And so one of the things I think COVID-19 has been able to do is just to show the inequalities or the systemic racism that occurs for people of color, particularly black people.

If we go back to March when the calls were made about shutting down schools, right? Once those calls were made, there were attempts made to support students in home and support parents in home and ultimately which will end up supporting their mental health.

But what they found was even when they gave them laptops in certain districts, the individual may not have had internet. And one would think in 2020 everybody has internet, but no, that’s not the case. Now we have to figure out a way to get the resources needed in order to equalize the experience.

I think COVID-19 has really shown the inequalities that exists not only in the mental health field, but in the health field, in the education field, in the house and equality field, and ultimately for a group of people who are citizens of the United States. In terms of mental health, COVID-19 has reminded us the importance of taking care of one’s health because your mental health impacts your physical health. It impacts you.

If you are feeling depressed, if you’re feeling sad, if you’re feeling anxious, it may show up with stressors in your body, headaches, backaches. It may show up with belly pain; it may show up in heart palpitations. Stress or mental health is expressed sometimes or most times physically.

One may assume is, “Oh, I’m not doing this I’m not doing that,” may really be fully interconnected with their mental health. And because their mental health is poor, they’re seeing the physical symptoms or the physical manifestations of such.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: That’s really enlightening, that mental health and physical health are so interrelated. Thank you for sharing that.

We talked about COVID-19. Now, let’s go back to the education component when it comes to mental health. You mentioned that you have an undergraduate degree; you have a graduate degree; you have a doctoral degree; and you also completed post-doctoral work as well. Based on your experience, what changes should be made to the curriculum to help students be more aware of the importance of mental health?

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: I think a lot of universities are already ahead of it. I find in that they already provide mental health facilities on campus.

Typically at every university across the globe, there’s a university counseling service. They may go by different names, but there is some location on campus where you should be able to talk to someone if you find that you need the support.

I think what’s happening in a lot of spaces and I just speak about my experience even in undergrad, is that you’re not fully aware of it. I don’t know why for some reason we remember other spaces more than the university counseling service, but I know that a lot of students are not always aware that these services exist.

I think one of the main things to do is to really promote the university counseling service, promote mental health, normalize mental health. If there are freshmen coming to your university, they should be speaking at orientation. They should have tabling events outside where students know where they’re located. They should give scenarios if potentially possible about reasons that students come and seek mental health support.

Oftentimes, the assumption is that you have to be on the edge before you can seek support. But students can come in and get support about adjustment, right?

Coming to campus is full of transition. You miss home; you have loneliness; you’re isolated, you’re not adjusting well. You can see a clinician for that; you can see a clinician if you’re having roommate problems or relationship concerns. It doesn’t have to be one extreme or another; we see people for the full gamut.

I think one of the ways in which people should be more aware of the importance of mental health is one: normalizing it, putting out information about it, reeducating and reacclimating students to where they’re located, what services they provide. And I think outreach really is the way to do that.

Connecting with the campus community, going beyond the four walls to let people know that not only this is important, but it’s important enough that we are providing these external services to you so you can utilize these services that are already provided for you.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: That was really enlightening, thank you. I want to go back to something you mentioned before. You mentioned that sometimes there’s these preconceived notions about mental health, particularly when it comes to students that they feel like they have to be on the edge or on the brink of destruction before they actually reach out and seek mental health services.

Can you talk more about some of these inherent biases when it comes to mental health? And how do you suggest one identifies these biases and how do they help address them so we can demystify the challenges around mental health?

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: I think that’s a good question. I think one, the first way that we can do it is education. I’m going to keep harping on that because I think that we, I know for a university counseling service, the students are entering that space because they are coming to a space of higher education, so they’re going up into the next level.

I think even in the same way that they embraced their academic schedules and the academic rigor is really to educate oneself about the benefits of mental health and the reason why mental health exists.

I often think that the reason why students are hesitant to get mental health services, like I said, I think it’s connected with the cultural upbringing that they have. But there is this overarching thought or feeling that if you seek mental health services you must be crazy, so there are a lot of myths.

If you seek seeking service, you must be crazy; there must be something wrong with you. We don’t talk to people that are not within our community; we keep all of our business at home. You should be able to handle your problems; you should be able to shoulder everything, and that’s just not realistic.

I think reminding yourself that these clinicians are professionals just like a doctor of medicine, just like a dentist, just like if you have a foot problem, you will go to a podiatrist. You wouldn’t say, “Oh, you should be able to fix that foot problem.” You will say, “Let me get a referral to a podiatrist so that I can get the support that I need.”

It’s the same way I find that I may need some support mentally; I’m not as emotionally stable as I used to be. And a lot of that is self-reflection, to be able to do some reflection around yourself and say, “Hey, I’m noticing that I’m sleeping a lot more often than I used to. I’m not eating. I’m choosing not to be around friends, I’m having difficulty connecting. I feel alone, I feel isolated.” And being able to do a self-check with yourself and then connect with services.

I think a lot of what happens is there’s a lot of myths out there about mental health, whether through previous experience because that’s a real thing and/or through hearsay and people then take on or use those myths as… What’s the best way to say it? They use it as like this is their border, right? “This is my boundary. I’m not going to cross this boundary because XYZ, ABC,” and so really encouraging them to educate themselves.

Research has found that peer-to-peer education is also helpful, so oftentimes when a student comes to a university mental health and they have a great experience they go back and they say, “Oh, I had a great experience with my therapist.” And then their friends will say, “You have a therapist?” And they’re like, “Yeah, I have a therapist.”

It’s an exchange that occurs between friends or colleagues. And next thing you know, that person is coming in for self-services. Knowing that one’s peer also impacts their use of mental health services either positively or negatively, so I think that’s another thing.

Really just having education around what it is that we do? How it is it could be beneficial? Having students share their experience which is not something that they have to do.

But we found that a lot of students they just say, “Oh, I’ve been to the center.” Even something as simple as that or “I know where the counseling center is.” And someone saying, “We have a counseling center?”

And then that opens up new dialogue. And then outreach, getting out within the campus community, providing pamphlets, speaking, being a counselor in the room, providing service has really increased engagement and connectivity with mental health services.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: Yeah, that’s a good point, that’s a good point. I agree with you because many things that I hear from my peers I take them at face value.

And what we’re is in some cases that’s appropriate and in some cases not so much, so thank you for highlighting that. As we start to close our podcast today, what are some resources that you have used or provided in the past to help individuals become more aware of how to address mental health issues?

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: Because of COVID-19 and the fact that we are teleworking or at home for certain people and then of course others may be within their field at the brick-and-mortar space, we’re finding that the resource for us that is connecting our students or individuals to be more aware of mental health is through social media.

We’re doing a lot of short mental health PSAs that span about three to five minutes on different topics. And we’re posting them on Instagram, we’re posting them on Twitter, we’re posting them on YouTube. And we found that the engagement has been…the numbers have grown in terms of engagement.

And so the resources that we used prior to in the brick-and-mortar would be more pamphlets and handouts and now we’re doing more videos, more virtual graphics. We’ve done Instagram Lives with our student population, we’ve done Zoom calls with our student population.

We have prerecorded material for our student population, and we’ve tweeted out so many messages that include but are not limited to mental health quotes, encouragement, even the note that I said earlier which is “Self-care is self-love.” Putting something like that out and having students engage with that message has also been tremendous.

Messaging with graphics. For instance, you can’t pour from an empty cup and having a cup that is empty, so really having people know that even as you support others, especially in this pandemic, even as you support others it’s going to be essential for you to pour back into yourself. Because if you don’t pour back into yourself, then you’re depleted and you can’t move forward.

A lot of the resources we’re doing now post-March has been virtually. And we are finding that we’re able to engage with more students via that medium because they’re all across the globe. They can log in; they can get the information that they need and then they can log out.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: That is amazing. And I think we’re going to leave it there. I mean, that was a great point, especially for the listeners at American Public University. Dr. Fluitt, thank you again for sharing your expertise and your perspective on this issue, and thanks for joining me for today’s podcast.

Dr. Kelechi Fluitt: Thank you so much for having me. I hope people learned something and I was so glad to be a part of this wonderful podcast. Thank you, Dr. Boyd.

Dr. Kandis Boyd Wyatt: You’re welcome, you’re welcome. And again, thank you to our listeners for joining us. Until our next podcast, be well and be safe. Thank you.

About the Speakers

Boyd Wyatt

Dr. Kandis Y. Boyd Wyatt, PMP, is a professor at American Public University and has over 25 years of experience managing projects that specialize in supply chain management. She holds a B.S. in meteorology and an M.S. in meteorology and water resources from Iowa State University, as well as a D.P.A. in public administration from Nova Southeastern University.

Dr. Kelechi C. Fluitt, Ph.D. (formerly Anyanwu), is a clinical staff member, Psychology Associate and Director of Outreach at the Howard University Counseling Service. Dr. Fluitt received her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from Howard University. She completed her American Psychological Association Accredited Internship at the Howard University Counseling Service.

Dr. Fluitt has diverse clinical training experiences, including the Veterans Administration and the D.C. Superior Court, as well as university and community colleges. She recently completed a two-year fellowship at the Washington School of Psychiatry National Group Psychotherapy Institute in Washington, D.C. Dr. Fluitt has specialized focus on issues related to HBCU student success, self-efficacy, leadership efficacy, imposter syndrome, religious coping, and grief.

Dr. Fluitt is a clinician, educator, coach and moderator. She specializes in group psychotherapy, diversity training, leadership training and working within university and college settings. She is a lifetime member of Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology and a current member of the American Psychological Association.

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