Reflections On Twenty Years in Social Work
An A-Ha! Moment
I woke up the other day and I realized that as of 2018 I have been a social worker for 20 years. It was a sobering thought. “I am having an unexpected anniversary,” I reflected.
When I’m used to putting one foot in front of the other and giving as much as possible to every counselling moment, sometimes I forget to look back. And when I do, I have this odd feeling of, “didn’t I just start this?” combined with the memory of my days before Willow Tree Counselling, which seems like a time very long ago.
If you’re interested in hearing about my career (thus far) and my corresponding thoughts, read on. If you’re not, this article probably won’t speak to you.
I came into social work quite accidentally. I was an undergrad at Simon Fraser University studying psychology, in a department that was uber-competitive. I had it in my mind that I wanted to be a clinical psychologist—or at least get a master’s degree in counselling psychology. SFU offered tracks to both of those designations.
Even though I was excelling in my grades—especially in the latter part of my undergraduate degree—I had a few new-to-university courses that had negatively affected my grade point average. Turns out that linguistics and philosophy were not my strong suits, combined with one rogue English class that discouraged me so much I never went on to complete the one more English class I needed for a minor.
At any rate, I never obtained the coveted 4.0 GPA. I met with one of my favourite professors who projected that I would likely be just shy of getting into grad school in counselling psychology. I left that meeting defeated, and then I felt generally angry. What I wanted to do was train in a profession where I could help others. I’d been a counselling client myself and had great respect for this work path. How would near-perfect grades be so key in helping others?
Social Work: Meet Megan
Some of you know that while I was pursuing my undergraduate degree in psychology, I was also working on a Certificate in Family Studies, also at SFU. It was an interdisciplinary program, taught by a psychologist, midwife and social worker Social worker? LINK What…do…they…do, exactly?
I had many common prejudices and misunderstandings about social work at the time. I though that social workers worked almost exclusively in child protection or alternatively, distributed welfare cheques. But the (clinical) social worker who was teaching me brought perspectives that I hadn’t previously been exposed to in my education: social justice, culturally-informed practice, qualitative research and more. And so I wondered how I could bring together my desire to train in counselling, with the value base that social work offered. Enter clinical social work.
Hello Grad School
I researched and researched to find a social work grad school which would take students without and undergraduate degree in social work—which at the time, was only three in the country. And so I found myself at the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto (U of T) embarking on my first foray into clinical social work. It was a leap of faith because SFU offered no official courses in social work and I had never studied anywhere else.
At the U of T, I was fortunate to have diverse courses to suit my learning goals, but even more so, two lengthy clinical internships that I still credit to this day for winning me over to the profession and teaching me counselling skills that are still core for me today. It was awesome training.
A New Career
When I returned to Vancouver it was a stressful time: I began the process of getting licensed in British Columbia, where I knew no other social workers. I started calling social work departments in hospitals and other medical settings until I found a social work lead who wanted to talk with me. I was first placed on a fast-paced hospital neurology ward where I was a fish out of water: there was no opportunity to counsel and the job was strictly discharge planning. I didn’t know what I was doing, which came across quickly and I was switched to inpatient psychiatry, where I stayed for a year before transitioning to outpatient mental health.
In my ten-year stint on a community mental health team, there were numerous opportunities for counselling, as well as learning specialized skills for helping with major depression, generalized anxiety, panic attacks, OCD, PTSD, bipolar disorder, addictions, eating issues, psychosis, trauma and the like. It was an amazing experience.
Time for a Change
After a decade, I needed a change and I had a growing desire to go back to my social work roots and values, LINK borne in a non-medical setting. I also had a baby and I knew that a 9 to 5 would no longer work for my family schedule. I sought work in the employee assistance program (EAP) industry, choosing a not-for-profit option with solid values and the opportunity to counsel for 95% of my work day. I was working the busy shifts: evenings and Saturdays and my schedule was always full. While I continued to help with mental health-related conditions, I expanded my counselling reach even further, helping folks that were in relationship crises, experiencing grief and loss and going through life transitions too. There was also more couples counselling than I had done before. In general, lots of normal life stuff. And it was very gratifying work.
Private Practice: Here I Come
And after the birth of my second child it seemed to me that working for anyone, no matter how wonderful, wasn’t going to cut it for me anymore. I wanted an option with the ultimate scheduling flexibility but also spoke to my desire to work autonomously. Mandates and rules exist for a reason but can sometimes cramp a counsellor’s ability to make clinical decisions that would be in a client’s best interests.
I wanted the opportunity to collaborate with clients authentically by putting their needs first and foremost. This is not to say that I went entirely off the grid. I remain a proud registered clinical social worker with the BC College of Social Workers, where I am responsible for complying with strict professional, ethical and legislated standards.
Founding Willow Tree Counselling has undoubtedly been the highlight of my career thus far. Before starting out, I researched the counselling scene in Vancouver extensively and there was a few things that surprised me:
- A dearth of information available online about the counselling process
- A general emphasis on counsellors’ credentials rather than the therapeutic fit
And as you may have guessed, these factors played a major role in my approach to private practice, combined with my love of writing and desire to take this information online.
It was also a fascinating time because I knew nothing about business and how to run one, or where to start when it came to building a website and creating appropriate content (willowtreecounselling.ca is now in version 3.0). But it’s research I highly recommend for fellow counsellors pursuing this path—it gets one invested and engaged in the process of private practice building like nothing else. My research, writing and private practice launch took me a year. I was on a strict 10pm to 2am schedule for my second maternity leave, while my children slept.
My Takeaways (Thus Far)
Yes, this article is now getting long, so I’ll wrap it up. My work hasn’t always been roses—I don’t want to present a fake perspective—but the challenges in and of themselves have been immensely helpful in that they have tested my motivation in ways that have consistently proven to me that I always want to return to counselling work.
I have learned much, and the learning never stops:
- The right fit between client and counsellor is critical. There is no one right counsellor for all clients (and vice versa) and recognizing when a fit is not ideal is not a failure for either party, it’s a sign of care for clients’ well being and a desire that they have the best counselling experience possible.
- The more I go on, the less I know. This may be hard to understand because while my clinical knowledge continues to deepen, I can never assume that I have people figured out. It’s best never to assume. Better to learn than to think you know and be wrong.
- Human beings are amazing. Everyone has the potential to evolve and grow and if it’s not through counselling, it’s by other legitimate means.
- While I have specific professional training and experience, I am not an expert in life. I am a facilitator. And I am forging my own life journey.
- In order to practice authentically, I have to live and work by my values. Counselling is not a popularity contest.
- It’s good to let go and take it slow. In the early days of my practice I was busier than I am now. And I’m not complaining. I never have liked people having to wait for counselling and I used to always try to accommodate, even if it meant sacrificing self-care. I don’t do that anymore and I like to think that my clients benefit just as much from that as I do. It’s ethical too.
- My practice keeps gratitude burning brightly in my life. It’s a rare thing to go to work and love it. Consistently. Thank you to everyone I have worked with over the years, met on a consultation, or talked over phone or email.
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