Talking about Mental Health
Rowan Willis-Powell is a young queer woman who is a passionate and invested advocate for youth with service system involvement, with special interests in young adult peers, the LGBTQ community and ensuring that everyone receives appropriate care when they are experiencing suicidal ideation. Rowan is the Transitional Age Youth Outreach Program Manager at On Our Own of Maryland. In this position she connects and mentors’ young adults with lived experience in behavioral health service settings to peer support and leadership opportunities on community, state, and national levels.
Rowan struggled and overcame several behavioral health challenges and traumatic events, as a young adult she had extensive personal experience with the mental health system that she freely draws from in her work with other young adults. She began her career helping to run her local Youth M.O.V.E. chapter, and started an LGBTQ specific meeting after noticing a need for it in her community. In her work she strives to create an environment in which young adults are partners in change for policy that affect service systems. Rowan is the creator and facilitator of numerous workshops and is the current President of the Board of Directors for Youth Move National.
She sat down for a conversation with Chloe of the YE4C Editorial Board.
Disclaimer: the information shared here reflects the opinions of the host and interviewee and do not reflect the views of the Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs.
Chloe: Hi. Welcome to Youth Engaged 4 Change radio, where we seek to empower and inform youth listeners just like you. I'm your host, Chloe. Today, we'll be talking to Rowan Wills-Powell who is a transitional age youth outreach program manager at On Our Own of Maryland. Rowan connects and mentors young adults with lived experience in behavioral health service settings to peer support and leadership opportunities on community, state and national levels.
Before we start, can you just introduce yourself to our Youth Engaged 4 Change radio listeners?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Sure. My name is Rowan Willis-Powell. I am from Maryland and I use she/her pronouns.
Chloe: Great. Can you describe a little bit more about your career?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Sure. That's a hard explanation to give, but I'll try to keep it concise and short. I work for an organization called On Our Own of Maryland. We are a consumer advocacy and education organization that is entirely staffed by people with behavioral health lived experience. This means different things to different people. I primarily work and run our transitional age youth outreach project. This looks like a lot of different things, but I like to put it into two different buckets.
I work with providers and state agencies and nonprofits that are either serving young adults or are writing the policies that help serve young adults and help them make sure that young adults are involved in that process and that the policies and programs they're providing are actually helpful to young adults. I work with young adults that have either behavioral health experience or service system experience and mentor them into being advocates.
Sometimes that means that they are starting a peer support career. Sometimes it means that they're really interested in legislative advocacy. Sometimes it's really simple and they're struggling with a local provider and they want to make sure that they're receiving the kind of care that they want. It means a lot of different things.
Chloe: Yeah. Thank you for that introduction. Can you elaborate a bit on how you got to this point in your career? How'd you find On Our Own Maryland? What has led you down this path? So on and so forth.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Lots of small events leading to this. Starting off with when I was growing up, my mom who is a forensic social worker, started working for an organization that is now called Midshore Behavioral Health Systems, which they are a local behavioral health provider. I interned there, got to meet a lot of great people and then when I went to college for my first year, all of the mental health problems that I had experienced as a kid became significantly worse.
I finished my first year and then didn't go back. I didn't really have any intentions, besides my mom telling me that I either had to find a job or I had to volunteer somewhere, and was lucky enough to talk to the woman that was running the organization at that point, Holly Ireland, she's still a good friend of mine.
She mentioned they were hiring for a youth engagement specialist, which was essentially a youth peer support specialist, specifically running chapters for our local youth move chapter. I applied, got the job, had no idea what I was walking into. That led to me meeting someone that I consider to be probably my best mentor, Lauren Grimes, who was at that point holding the job that I hold now at On Our Own of Maryland. I left that job, did some more very direct service peer support work, and then some direct service clinical work, and then eventually found my way to On Our Own of Maryland and have been there for four years now.
Chloe: You would say that it was mostly due to you taking advantage of every opportunity you could find that got you to this point, right? It kind of sounded that way.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah. It was taking advantage of the lived experience that I had with my mental illness and the trauma that I had gone through and really being shown that, that wasn't something that was just going to follow me around for the rest of my life and be something that I had to deal with. That I could choose to make it something that was impactful for other young adults growing up behind me.
Chloe: Yeah, and that's really inspirational. I think you coming onto this podcast and you sharing your story is definitely a part of that. You making the most of your lived experiences and I don't think that sounds bad. I think that's a good thing to be proud of. You're making your lived experiences really worth it, I guess.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah. I think that's really true and there's a lot of things that I've done now in my career that I think 19-year-old Rowan that just started working would've had no idea were possible.
Chloe: You mentioned briefly earlier on about trauma and having a mental illness as a kid, if you're comfortable with sharing, could you share it?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah, of course. My parents got divorced when I was seven, which for a lot of kids is really impactful. I started, I went from being what you would call a gifted kid and really smart, excelling a lot in school, to by the time I got to middle school, I think a couple of compounding factors made it so I was failing a couple of my classes. That being a combination of undiagnosed ADHD, both in school really struggling to pay attention with things that I wasn't interested in or I couldn't learn quickly and at home being kind of unable to do a lot of the tasks that you're expected to. I couldn't keep my room clean to save my life, I just didn't have the capacity to do it, and I just thought that I was lazy.
Also, developing a really traumatic and harmful friendship that culminated into having really, really low self-esteem and self-worth which fed into a major depressive disorder. I think it was around that time that I really started struggling with suicidal ideation and wasn't quite sure how to deal with it. I disclosed that to my primary care physician and her immediate response was, "Oh, we need to hospitalize you," without asking how I felt about that.
Actually, I'm really scared of hospitals, I just don't do well in them. Thankfully, my mom got me out of that, but that led to me really struggling with depression and anxiety, but also feeling like I couldn't talk about what I was going on with because of that experience thinking, oh, if I say something you're going to hospitalize me. Something that I think really helped was building relationships primarily with adults really. Yeah.
Chloe: How do you think youth like me can actually seek out to find those good mentors and seek out to find good and healthy relationships?
Rowan Willis-Powell: That's a good question. I think I was lucky in the sense that I was given an introduction based on the community that I was a part of.
Chloe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rowan Willis-Powell: I think a lot of it is building relationships within your community.
Rowan Willis-Powell: If that's not possible, seeking out a mentor, which I know sounds silly but there are tons of older young adults, not young adults, but adults, that are ready to kind of be a mentor.
Chloe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rowan Willis-Powell: And share their experiences with someone that's younger than them and be that example of, "Hey, I know life is tough, but you can get to a place where you're happy and stable."
Chloe: It's good to have an open mind when approaching people and seeking out those.
Rowan Willis-Powell: I think when I first met Lauren, I didn't understand that she could be my mentor.
Chloe: Wait, who's Lauren again?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Sorry. Lauren was the woman that became my supervisor, but worked at On Our Own of Maryland and had the job that I have now.
Chloe: Oh, okay.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah. When I first met Lauren, I don't think I thought she'd be my mentor, but very quickly after having a couple conversations with her, I think I came right out and said, "Hey, can you mentor me?"
Chloe: And she said yes?
Rowan Willis-Powell: She didn't say no. We're still friends today, so I think that means that she said yes.
Chloe: Yes. I think so, too. That worked out in the end.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah.
Chloe: Yeah. I think having a mentor figure, it sounds really cheesy and it sounds really cringey, but I think it's really important. Even from my personal experience, having a mentor and not having a mentor, it just has so much of a difference. Because that mentor's been through a lot of the stuff that you're going through now. They have the ability to guide you in a good way, a good path. You don't have to struggle, you don't have to do this and that to find out what is the right path for you when you can just ask them how they've gone through that experience and they'll just tell you. I think in that way, it's much more helpful and it's easier on you. Mentors are important.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah, and a good mentor will understand that sometimes you're going to make a different decision and that that decision can still be good. Especially in terms of recovery, there are multiple pathways and different things work for different people.
Lauren runs eight to 12 miles a day, she's a beast, she's ridiculous. That's been her main method of recovery. That doesn't work for me, but just having a relationship and knowing that I can talk to her about things and get advice from her and even if we disagree on what the best route forward is, she is always going to be cheering me on.
Chloe: Mm-hmm (affirmative). That's what a good mentor is. I think you shared with us your journey of your mental health, right? Your undiagnosed ADHD.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chloe: How did you realize that you had ADHD? If you didn't know you had it for such a long time. What was that turning point that made you realize that you had it?
Rowan Willis-Powell: It was pretty recent actually within the last year or so. I think part of it was definitely having to live with myself through a pandemic. I think it's also been, TikTok is amazing in so many different ways and is so educational.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Finding other, primarily some identified people that were talking about the same experiences that I had and I was finally like, oh, that's what this is. I'm not lazy. My brain just works differently. Having someone else, they weren't talking to me, but they were talking about their own experiences and being like, oh, this isn't just my weird brain. This is a normal pattern of weirdness.
Chloe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rowan Willis-Powell: That was really eye-opening. I don't know if cool to see is the right word, but was really validating. It wasn't just one. I did some research and I talked to a coworker that also has ADHD. I was like, "Hey, does this sound right to you?" This coworker is also a clinician, they were like, "Yeah. Rowan. I think you have ADHD."
Chloe: Wait, so have you ever been to therapy?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yes. I have been in therapy for what really feels like most of my life at this point.
Chloe: Did you talk about this issue with your therapist?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yes. We talked about it and her answer was like, "Yeah, it sounds like you have ADHD." Eventually I might go and see a psychiatrist or a psychiatric nurse practitioner to talk about medication but I'm not quite there yet.
Rowan Willis-Powell: We'll see.
Chloe: I think, I'm not quite sure, but medication should only be prescribed... Not should only be prescribed, but technically it can be prescribed to you when the mental illness is impacting your life a lot. When it's doing a lot of harm, when it's interfering a lot.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah. Different people have different feelings about medication.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Lauren, the reason she runs is because she really doesn't like taking medication. I don't like taking medication, I'm also really bad at medication adherence, which I realize is partially because I have ADHD. In my experience with taking medication in the past, especially as a kid, I always had really negative side effects, usually headaches. That's been the most common thing for me, or one of them that I took gave me double vision. It's always been like a I'll do it, but it needs to reach a point where the potential for side effects makes it worth it for me.
Rowan Willis-Powell: And it hasn't reached that point yet.
Chloe: Yeah. That's totally understandable. In your career, you said you've been with On Our Own of Maryland for quite a few years, right?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah. Four years now.
Chloe: Four years. Yes. During your four years there, have you had one particular instance that made you really proud of your job, proud of what you were doing? You felt like you were making a difference and you felt like you were making an impact, have you ever had an instance like that or a case like that?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yes. A couple years ago, I got to participate in an expert meeting that SAMHSA was holding, talking about best practices for pediatricians that are treating and screening youth with suicidal ideation. Having the opportunity to talk about my experiences and provide input and opinion that they weren't entirely familiar with was really, really impactful and opened up a lot of doors. But it also made me feel like, maybe we'll improve the way that we provide services to youth and young adults that are struggling with suicidal ideation and maybe a young person won't have to deal with that scary experience of immediately being hospitalized without the conversation happening.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah. That was really, really impactful. Thinking about it just makes me happy.
Chloe: Yeah. It's a pretty cool thing to do, because your experiences again, I think we keep going back to this theme here, you're making your lived experiences really worth it in the way that based off of your own personal experiences, you're shaping the experiences of other people, of other young adults, current young adults. I think that's really impactful. I think you're really making a difference. I think that's really cool.
How do you think, there's no really right way, but what do you think is a good, or what do you think is the best way to console a friend that's going through mental health issues or even suicidal ideation? As you said, being hospitalized after talking to a doctor about these thoughts, it's actually terrifying. Maybe the friend wants to, I don't know, go to another friend to actually talk about these issues, but I feel like in our society, even me, I'm not really sure on how to discuss about that, discuss about mental health topics. Although we're always told in school, or always told that we should embrace the friend and we should help them out in situations like that, I don't exactly know how to console them or guide them to the proper treatment or help that they need. What do you think is a good way to help a friend through that situation?
Rowan Willis-Powell: That's a really good question, Chloe. I think part of it is if you're worried about a friend, not being afraid to ask, "How are you doing right now? Are you struggling?" Specifically, "Are you struggling with suicidal ideation?" There's a misnomer that asking that question will cause someone to have suicidal ideation, and that's not how it is.
Asking them that question and then asking them, "How can I support you? How can I help you find support?" Something that's really important to remember is that as a young adult, as a youth, it's not your job to be someone's provider.
Rowan Willis-Powell: You can definitely help that person. Providing them with a list of crisis services, providing them with a list of warm lines.
Chloe: I'm familiar with what hotlines are, but what are warm lines?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Warm lines are a step down from a hotline. I actually used to staff a warm line and generally it was people calling that they just needed someone to talk to. Whether they were struggling with something, a lot of times they were feeling really lonely, they needed validation for a certain thing, but it's not quite a level of a crisis.
Rowan Willis-Powell: But feeling like you need support from someone.
Chloe: That's actually a pretty good resource because I've never heard of it. I feel like I could even use this service. Do you have any youth testimonies that you wanted to share with us? Where you felt a youth that came to On Our Own of Maryland really became, I guess for lack of a better word, better, in his or her or their overall situation?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Actually, yes, kind of in a way. We've been running these things, we're calling them TAY academies, we're meeting with a bunch of different adults once a week for seven weeks. We just had our wrap up session last night and something that really I didn't expect to hear, but was really nice to hear, was one of the young adults in our feedback survey said that it was really nice to be in a space where they weren't worried about being misgendered on a regular basis. They felt really supported and safe.
I think that's the ultimate goal. We can achieve all of these amazing things, but really it comes down to, are we providing a space where someone feels safe and like they can be authentic? That's all that I can really ask for.
Chloe: That's what makes your job really meaningful and impactful?
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah. Being able to curate a space where someone's not worried about not being able to be themselves.
Chloe: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah.
Chloe: Thank you so much Rowan for being here and talking about your personal experiences and talking about your career. I think this podcast was very inspiring to a lot of youth out there, to a lot of youth who might be particularly struggling with issues that you have struggled before. As a closing remark, do you have anything that you want to say to the youth who might be listening to this podcast?
Rowan Willis-Powell: The cliche of it can get better. The things that you think make you not worthy are the things that make you very worthy and will inspire someone as you grow older and they’re your strengths.
Chloe: It's actually pretty powerful. The things that make you feel not worthy right now can be of so much value in the future.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Yeah.
Chloe: You shouldn't give up because there's always light at the end of the tunnel. All right. That wraps it for today. Thank you so much for being here Rowan.
Rowan Willis-Powell: Thank you, Chloe.
Chloe: Thank you. That's a wrap. We hope you are inspired by Rowan's personal journey and learn about the importance of mentorship as well as having hope that things will get better.
Please follow Youth Engaged 4 Change radio for more content created by young people for young people. You can also follow Youth Engaged 4 Change on Facebook and Instagram and visit us online at engage.youth.gov. Thanks for listening and we'll see you next time.
More Inspiring Stories
HAVE AN INSPIRING STORY TO SHARE?