“There are myths about mental illness that often can be dispelled through education and experience.” with Stephanie S. Covington

Fotis Georgiadis
Jun 25 · 8 min read

I had the pleasure to interview Stephanie S. Covington, Ph.D., LCSW, is an internationally recognized clinician, organizational consultant, and lecturer. For more than thirty-five years, her work has focused on the creation of gender-responsive and trauma-informed services. Her extensive experience includes designing women’s services at the Betty Ford Center, developing programs for women in criminal justice settings, and being the featured therapist on the Oprah Winfrey Network TV show entitled Breaking Down the Bars. Her current projects including working with twelve women’s prisons and sixteen men’s prisons in England. She also has served as a consultant to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna and was selected for SAMHSA’s Advisory Committee for Women’s Services. Educated at Columbia University and the Union Institute, Dr. Covington has conducted seminars for behavioral health professionals, community organizations, criminal justice professionals, and recovery groups in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Europe, Africa, Iceland, Brazil, and New Zealand. She has served on the faculties of the University of Southern California, San Diego State University, and the California School of Professional Psychology. She has published extensively, including ten gender-responsive, trauma-informed treatment curricula and several self-help books, including the best-selling A Woman’s Way through The Twelve Steps. Dr. Covington is based in La Jolla, California, where she is co-director of both the Institute for Relational Development and the Center for Gender and Justice.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

My interest in mental health began when I was a high school student. A girls’ club I belonged to adopted the local child guidance clinic as its volunteer program. Our club members took care of its yard and gardening needs. In addition, I began to volunteer as a receptionist there, after school. I was intrigued by the work done by the psychologists and social workers. As a college student, I majored in psychology and then obtained a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in psychology.

However, the real impetus for my work comes from my own experience with addiction. I was not working as a mental health professional because I thought I was “crazy.” I knew something was wrong but did not know what it was. In my mid-thirties, I realized that alcoholism was having a huge, negative impact on my life. As I entered recovery, I said to myself, “If I can just help one other woman feel the way I do….” It felt like a miracle to have “the monkey off my back” — to no longer feel the need, the out-of-control compulsion, to drink. Little did I know at that time where that thought would lead me.

Initially, my work was as a therapist in private practice specializing in women with addictive disorders. As I began to attend conferences, I realized that the focus, including treatment services, was always on men. The struggles and challenges experienced by women were overshadowed. This compelled me to speak at conferences, write self-help books for women, and develop treatment materials for women. For many women, substance use disorders (as well as other mental health issues) are related to trauma. Now we are much more successful in treating these challenges because we understand that adverse childhood experiences often are at the core of physical and mental health problems.

At the end of the 1980s, I had another personal experience that changed the trajectory of my work. I had a professional opportunity to live inside a women’s prison for a few days, and this experience affected the focus of my life’s work. I realized that this was my passion: working with women who are incarcerated — who are invisible to the outside world. The women in state prisons are women with histories of trauma, addiction, and mental health problems coupled with little education and few skills. When we shut our mental hospitals many years ago, we did not develop the community services that were needed. Today our jails and prisons house those with mental health issues who lack other resources.

According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?

I think stigma is complex and complicated. One aspect is fear. Often, we are afraid of what we do not understand. The media’s portrayal of mental illness often is dramatic and frightening. Another aspect has to do with difference. We are not a society that embraces differentness, particularly at this point in time. We are a society based on dominance and power, and we think less of those we see as weak or powerless. Think of how we elevate ourselves as we push others down. Then there is the shame that people carry, so they feel the need to hide what they see as a personal failing. So I see many aspects of stigma that continue to hold it in place.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

I have found that the knowledge we have today about the effects of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and their linkage to a vast array of human issues is helping to de-stigmatize mental illness. The original ACE study was done in 1998, and for the first ten years no one paid much attention. In the last ten years hundreds of thousands of people have answered the ten simple questions about their lives before the age of eighteen. Depending on the number of “yes” answers, one’s score correlates to a long list of potential challenges, both physical and mental, in one’s adult life. These include depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance use disorders, eating disorders, aggression, violence, heart disease, lung disease, and obesity.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

The core of my work is developing and providing gender-responsive, trauma-informed services to women and men, girls and boys, and the transgender community. The story behind this is about years of working with people and listening to stories about their lives, then trying to develop materials that can help. If we can help those who have multiple challenges, then we can certainly help others who are more fortunate and have fewer challenges. Note the word “gender-responsive.” It is important to consider similarities but also differences between people. Certainly, this is true when we focus on the effects of trauma. For example, although both boys and girls are at risk for abuse as children (particularly from those they know, more so than from the strangers they are taught to fear), there are important gender differences to consider as we look over the span of life. Adolescent boys are at particular risk for abuse if they are gay, of color, gang members, or transitioning, and the abuse is from people who dislike them: peers, the police, and rival gangs. A girl’s greatest risk is from a person to whom she is saying, “I love you.” This difference continues into adult life, with men at risk of being victims of crime committed by strangers or being in combat. Women’s greatest risk is in their relationships. It is very difficult to make sense of someone saying they love you when they are also abusing you. We believe that this difference accounts for some of the higher rates of mental illness among women.

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

As individuals, we need to educate ourselves about what is actually true about mental illness. There are myths about mental illness that often can be dispelled through education and experience. Hearing the stories of how people are living with mental illness can be beneficial for both children and adults. The bottom line is that healing happens in connection. Mental illness thrives in isolation. So there is a much larger issue here. This has to do with the health of our society. We are expecting to raise emotionally healthy children in a world filled with dishonesty, isolation, greed, and hatred. You cannot develop healthy families and individuals in a sick society. Our government and society have become derailed from their task of creating and sustaining an inclusive, just, and sane world for all. If you water a seedling with polluted toxic water, the plant may not die. But it will not flourish and thrive.

What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?

Eating healthy food (and avoiding foods that starve the brain and the body). When I gave up alcohol, I also stopped eating red meat. I was a vegetarian for a number of years, then added chicken and fish to my diet. For the past two years I have been a vegan.

Exercise that includes being outdoors and in nature (such as walking in the woods or on the beach). I can even sense the difference when I am driving for hours in a rural area compared to how I feel in a more densely populated area. I love big cities but in terms of peacefulness, I love solitude outdoors.

Yoga (as exercise and, more importantly, for quiet mindfulness). Like many people, my life is filled with busyness. Yoga and meditation provide an antidote.

Surrounding myself with like-minded people with similar values and avoiding people who are negative/toxic. I am lucky to be in a place in my life where I can choose who I work with.

Reading, particularly a book related to the country I am traveling in, whether fiction or nonfiction. I love to read, including the The New York Times and the The New Yorker. But immersing myself in a book related to the culture I am visiting is my very favorite reading experience.

Using the universal spiritual principles embedded in the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. These basic principles are actually great tools for living for anyone. Reviewing one’s interactions on a daily basis, making amends to others, trying to live one day at a time (being in the present), and letting go of trying to control others are just a few principles that help my wellbeing.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

Writings from women in prison complied by writinginsideV. The conversations I have and the letters I receive from people who read my books or participate in groups based on materials I have written.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Fotis Georgiadis

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Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.