In the latest edition of our A Career Choice is a Life Choice series, we had the pleasure of speaking with Sandra Tysar-Gilbert, Clinician II at a shelter care facility for children in Oakland County, Michigan. Starting on the mental health path in her early teen years working predominately with women and run-away children, Sandra went on to getting her Masters in Social Work to provide therapy to at-risk youth. Continue reading as we walk through a day in Sandra’s life, what keeps her motivated, how she manages stress in a high burnout rate field and her future aspirations as an advocate for mental health.
AS: Thank you for meeting with me today, Sandy! What is your current position and what population are you working with at this time?
ST: My current position is Clinician II. In this role, I am responsible for providing therapy to young children and adolescence in shelter care. These kids have been removed from their homes and families by the state of Michigan. The age group I work with ranges from infancy to 18 years old. I provide therapy to children who suffer from a plethora of issues, including emotional dysregulation, suicidal ideations, adjustment issues due to their situations, and much more while they’re in their programs. Along with providing therapy to youth, I also work alongside psychiatrists as I perform medication reviews as well as initial psychiatric assessments.
AS: What other populations (if any) have you worked with in your background as a Social Worker? Additionally, how long have you been in this field?
ST: Although I have been a fully licensed Social Worker for ten years, this September I will be celebrating 30 years total working in the field. I have a background working with homeless and runaway youth as well as women and children, specifically women who are victims of partner violence or those who have been trafficked. I have also provided mental health care to adults who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar, anxiety, and substance abuse.
AS: According to a plethora of scholarly articles, it is a well-known fact that burn out is a concern among mental health professionals. As someone who has excelled in the field for years, what strategies do you use or what activities do you engage in to help you overcome falling into the burn-out rate statistic?
ST: That skill set is something that has evolved with me over time. I would say the most important thing is to have a strong support system. Learning how to leave work at work and home at home can be difficult. When I first entered the field, I struggled with role restrain quite a bit. Luckily, having built that solid support system has helped me tremendously. One key component of that support is seeing a therapist. For me, and I’m sure many others would agree, the job is emotionally and mentally tasking. It is important to be able to talk about what I am feeling with a particular case in terms of how draining it can be and talking to a fellow mental health professional even about the way I handled it is important. Having somewhere safe to put those feelings and thoughts has been essential. Just to have someone listen and say, “Hey, this is messed up, I agree,” can be so comforting and validating. Other strategies or activities I resort to include eating healthy and not caving to those comfort food cravings, mindfulness breathing techniques, and physical exercise.
AS: What is the single most rewarding aspect about your career?
ST: There can’t be a single most rewarding aspect because I experience different levels of victories depending on which population I work with. For example, right now I work in shelter care. For this area, the most rewarding thing may be a child not self-harming that day. I believe right now the aspect that is most rewarding is watching as a child is able to identify their triggers and try some of the coping techniques I’ve taught them. Even if they get upset about the approach, at least I know they tried. That’s definitely a huge win.
AS: In what ways do you see yourself advancing within your profession in the next 5-10 years?
ST: I’ve actually thought a lot about that lately. I’m in the process of opening my own practice. In that location, I’ll be offering individual and family treatment in addition to clinical supervision to social workers just starting out. I would like to continue my focus on young children through early adulthood with my individual therapy. I also LOVE group therapy. I could for sure see myself eventually educating on that and possibly transitioning into a teaching role for prospective mental health professionals at a university level. My ultimate goal is to become an instructor for trauma-focused, cognitive-behavioral therapy. I do believe I am ambitious enough to accomplish all these career goals!
AS: While thinking about the team of mental health professionals you would like working with your future clients, what characteristics are most prominent to you as their intended employer?
ST: I’ve had a lot of time to think about that too lately, especially by reflecting on my experiences with the interns I’ve supervised. The main thing is needing them to be authentic and display integrity. While gathering these professionals for my practice, I need them to be the kind of people who will do what they say they are going to. This means if you say, “I’m going to stay with you and help work through this problem, I don’t care if it takes two hours,” they better be willing to stay the two hours they promised. Another critical attribute is if you don’t know, just say no. I want my clinicians to admit to their limits and be willing to ask for help and display that level of transparency. It doesn’t matter to me if they have an introverted or extroverted personality; I have worked with great social workers who were both. Either way, Integrity is huge.
AS: Lastly, what has been your biggest takeaway from your journey through your career path?
ST: The best lesson I have learned throughout my journey in this field is to not take alternate opinions and constructive criticism too personally. In my profession, there are many cooks in the kitchen. By that, I mean we all have ideas and we all think our methods of approach are best. I had to learn to not take it too seriously when everyone is trying to give their input and help by coming at a child’s treatment plan at a different angle. With that being said, the biggest take away has been to hear and accept these other approaches while still maintaining the confidence in myself and in my own skills. When you’ve been in this field for so long, your assessment skills are pretty well developed but that doesn’t mean you’re always right. When you’re providing assistance to other members on the team, talk to them, not above them.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255