Dr Cate Howell, a truly Flourishing Woman
October 30, 2023
Recently Med CPD had the pleasure of speaking with Dr Cate Howell, a distinguished general practitioner, medical educator, and author with an illustrious career in health inline with the release of her newest book. The Flourishing Woman: A mental health and wellbeing guide, is a fantastic book, where she seeks to empower women with the knowledge and tools to flourish in all aspects of their lives. She has seemingly lived many lives, traversing multiple realms of health and medicine, building her knowledge through research, experience and dedication to education, on her quest for balance and a selfless career serving others. Renowned for her dedication to understanding the intricacies of the human mind and body, and importantly how those two aspects combine to form our purpose. It was truly a privilege to interview Cate, please read on for the full interview.
Med CPD: If you could, tell me a little bit about how you arrived here, your career journey, and what it is about the work that drives you?
Dr Cate Howell: I began my career in health as an Occupational Therapist, working at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. I was fascinated by the human body and mind and applied to do medicine at Flinders as a mature aged student. Fortunately, I was accepted, and 6 years later I was working as an Intern, then a Resident at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
I applied to General Practice training as I enjoyed all aspects of medicine, and wanted to practice ‘whole person care’, based in the primary care setting. I spent four years with the Royal Australian Air Force as a Medical Officer at that stage, in Adelaide and Townsville, and loved these years. I put my hand up to do any course and to relieve in Australia and overseas, and I was awarded a Conspicuous Service Medal related to my role in the RAAF.
I then completed the final term of GP training and stayed on at Highbury in a practice associated with the University of Adelaide. This led to me being involved in undergraduate and postgraduate teaching. I became a Medical Educator, and my interest in mental health grew rapidly. In the Year 2000 I had a Churchill Fellowship to study the primary care management of anxiety and depression overseas.
This Fellowship opened the door to more teaching and research, and I embarked on a PhD upon my return, studying a program designed to prevent depression relapse. During these years I studied many different therapies, and have worked in university-based practices, Defence and in my own mental health focussed practice.
I was also awarded the Order of Australia Medal in 2012 for service to mental health and medical organisations. I was chair of the Adelaide North-East Division of General Practice and the Australian College of Psychological Medicine for some time and served on numerous national committees.
Now I predominantly work in education, sharing what I have learnt over the years. And I am an author. A book was published following my PhD and since that time I have written six books, the most recent being ‘The Flourishing Woman: A mental health and wellbeing guide’.
I am inspired by humans and their complexities, and their potential for change. I have a curious nature and I love learning and have been driven by wanting to help people and be of service to the community. I also love the idea of legacy and sharing what I have learnt over the years via teaching and writing, with community members and with the upcoming generations of health professionals. This gives me great satisfaction, meaning and joy.
Med CPD: What key issues do you believe face our medical professionals today, or in the next few years?
Dr Cate Howell: There are numerous issues. Some of the key ones are the rate of change in health and in relation to national programs such as Medicare. We are also dealing with an ageing population and greater levels of chronic disease. Our First Nations people suffer high levels of ill-health and poverty, and there are other vulnerable groups in the community who are facing health challenges.
Levels of violence against women remain too high and must be addressed. Young people are experiencing high levels of mental health problems, related to the modern world including the influences of social media and the aftermath of the pandemic.
There are shortages of health care professionals which impacts services and places more demands on those working in the health system. General practices are facing spiralling costs, and some are not surviving. Rates of burnout amongst health professionals is high, and we must care for their own health and wellbeing to be able to continue to assist others.
Med CPD: How did COVID-19 put your work-life balance in perspective for you?
Dr Cate Howell: The social and financial changes that came out of the COVID-19 pandemic were devastating for many individuals, along with loss of life. I was fortunate that none of my family or friends were too adversely affected. I feel especially grateful that I was able to continue to work from home doing education and clinical work via Zoom and spend time with my writing.
I live on the coast at Goolwa in South Australia, and there are some beautiful places to walk. I have a very old railway cottage and a peaceful cottage style garden with fruit and shade trees. I spent a lot of time in the garden, and it loved the attention! I also acquired two dogs as I thought it was a good time to settle them in. Leo and Mia kept me entertained and exercised!
Since the pandemic, I have continued to do more work from home. I love it because it gives me greater work-life balance via less travel, more time enjoying my cottage and the local area, and more autonomy. I have focussed on my own education programs and had a platform built so they are available through my website. The pandemic gave me the impetus to achieve this goal and to head in some different directions.
Med CPD: You have a fantastic balance in life, something most people find very difficult! How do you look to actively maintain your wellbeing?
Dr Cate Howell: To maintain my wellbeing, I aim to keep an eye on all areas of myself and my life. I aim to keep my approach simple and easy. With physical wellbeing I mostly eat simple foods, avoid alcohol except for celebrations, and I exercise regularly (dog walks plus swimming). Sleep can be challenging when life is busy, so a good wind down is helpful. I meditate regularly.
In terms of psychosocial wellbeing, I aim to live life consistent with what is important to me, namely spending time with family and partner, and friends, enjoying nature and the garden and helping others. I love a good laugh, and I talk regularly with a psychologist colleague. She and I are mentors and supports for each other in relation to work.
I love going away for weekends around the State or ‘writing weeks’ somewhere in Australia. I spend most of the day writing but also walk and explore the area. I genuinely enjoy my work, and writing is a great way to satisfy my curiosity and explore topics and reflect on life. I am also fascinated by spiritual aspects of life (I wrote a book on ‘Intuition’), and I love reading and listening to podcasts in this area. This year I went on a spiritual retreat with a spiritual mentor. A wonderful group of women attended, and it was a fabulous week. I think there is possibly another book about this domain in life!
Med CPD: With the experience of an expansive and diverse career, what advice would you give to young medical professionals or your younger self today?
Dr Cate Howell: The advice that I would give to young medical professionals is enjoy the journey. A wonderful aspect to a career in medicine is constantly learning, from education and from clinical experience. Also, follow your passions in medicine and you can create a path that suits your strengths and interests.
Continue to grow as a person, reflecting on yourself and your learnings. And be mindful of taking time out to relax and enjoy other domains of life. Drop self-criticism, imposter feelings and unhelpful parts of perfectionism. Prevent burnout and enjoy the journey. A mentor, coach or therapist can assist.
I think that I would say the same things to my younger self. I have followed my passions and interests and had an amazing career. I have worked on perfectionism and learnt to be more compassionate with myself in my thoughts. I love what I do, and I do it authentically and with heart.
Med CPD: What can people expect from your new book The Flourishing Woman?
Dr Cate Howell: I am receiving some lovely feedback from friends, colleagues and people reading ‘The Flourishing Woman A mental health and wellbeing guide’. It is clearly touching them in various ways. The aim of the book was to identify and comprehensively address the key mental health issues that adult women currently face and to provide many useful insights and ‘keys’ to assist. I also aimed to provide a compassionate and supportive voice for the reader as they work through the chapters.
The book is described as a unique, holistic guide to fostering women’s mental health and wellbeing, allowing them to overcome challenges and flourish or thrive in life. It emphasises the influence of mental health and wellbeing on the prevention of ill-health (physical and mental), and on living a satisfying and meaningful life.
‘The Flourishing Woman’ addresses many important questions, such as why women prioritise themselves last, why we find it hard to say ‘no’ and why we try to do it all (at the same time!). It explores the higher rates of mental health problems in women, including anxiety, eating disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The book also covers ways to overcome stress, overwhelm and anxiety; reproduction, menopause, and mental health; and managing parenthood challenges and relationship issues. Other topics include the impact of trauma and physical illness on mental health, and strategies to manage these impacts; and how to silence self-criticism and grow self-worth.
It draws on the latest information about wellbeing and tools from many approaches, including Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Narrative Therapy and Positive Psychology to assist women in all areas of their lives.
Above all, The Flourishing Woman is a guide to fostering our mental health and wellbeing, which includes getting in touch with our authentic selves, feeling connected, growing as a person (even at times of challenge), a sense of meaning and purpose. It is all about flourishing in life.
Med CPD: We are really looking forward to this! How can people connect with you or attend your book launch?
Dr Cate Howell: I love it when people connect with me. This can be done via Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/DrCateHowell), Instagram (https://www.instagram.com/dr.catehowell/) or LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/cate-howell-91952523/). I have a website full of information and resources. My books are all available there, or from any bookshop (including online ones). See www.drcatehowell.com.au – you can sign up there for my newsletter (don’t worry, it only comes out a few times a year due to busyness!). It contains some positive thoughts and an update about my blogs and courses.
Information on my courses for GPs, mental health professionals and counsellors (on Interpersonal Therapy, trauma management, hypnosis) can be found on Med CPD, as well as my website (and many more coming!). I also facilitate Mental Health First Aid training and BeWellPlan training (SAHMRI).
Please join me for the book launch, a public talk, on October 26th, 2023. A colleague will interview me about women’s mental health and the book, and then I will interview a panel of colleagues about their work with women. It is being held at the Charles Hawker Building (McLeod Lecture theatre) on Waite Road, Urrbrae (Adelaide) between 6.30pm and 8pm.
Please register via Eventbrite
I look forward to meeting the Med CPD community!