Reflections on a Decade in the Field

May 24, 2021

“I just want to help people.” For many, this phrase begins a career as a mental health professional, and I was no different. An amalgam of optimism and newfound self-belief, armed with little more than a few years of personal recovery experience, I found myself in a position to provide direction to clients in one of the most vulnerable periods of their lives.

In the ten years since, my professional roles have run the gamut, but that original desire – to help – has remained constant. Today, I recognize the immeasurable gift and undeniable toll this call to purpose carries. Now charged with leading others, I recognize the importance of promoting a forward-thinking, sustainable quality of life for all helping professionals. While I purport little authority, I wish to share my thoughts and observations in hopes we talk openly about how to best walk forward together.

#1. We have to think long-term. 

The lack of shared goals among behavioral healthcare leaders results in a failure to prioritize practices that would ultimately serve our clients. While a number of providers deploy resources to staff development, outcomes tracking, and inter-organizational collaboration, other organizations fail to invest in their futures. The compounded effect of disunification across our industry has resulted in limited progress toward better practices for the clients we serve despite an explosive increase in the number of providers. 

Longstanding addiction treatment providers share certain qualities. They are dutiful in their commitment to ethics, invest in outcomes monitoring to improve their programs, and collaborate with their industry counterparts. Instituting these standards raises the floor for the entire industry resulting in better care for our clients. 

I have been fortunate to work for organizations that are forward thinking and driven by legacy. In these cultures, decisions tend to be utilitarian, based on the clients’ needs, and considerate of long-term sustainability. The longer I work in the field of addiction treatment, the greater my respect for longstanding organizations becomes. In an industry rife with emotionally charged decision-making opportunities, thoughtfulness, patience, and future-orientation are vital commodities. 

#2. Professional mentorship is crucial.

One of the greatest ongoing gifts I have received is time from leaders in the field. The ability to be vulnerable with individuals I admire has been a touchstone of sustained personal and professional growth. This occupation requires perpetual recentering and, compared to other career paths, necessitates ongoing interpersonal work to be of maximum utility. 

When considering our industry’s challenges with professional ethics, it is easy to have an “us” vs. “them” attitude. However, I believe that few enter this industry with intent to harm. Losing one’s way is a gradual process. The allure of the high-paying business development position is undeniable when considering the susceptibility of a newly sober, eager to please young adult, even if it may require ethically questionable practices. When thoughtful, principled mentors are not available to hold impressionable young professionals accountable, a detrimental outcome is likely, and may be deadly.

Professional mentorship is vital whether considering work-life balance, ethical concerns, or the development of future executives. Dedication to principles and a desire to serve are rampant qualities among those entering helping professions. However, these raw gifts must be channeled and cultivated through conscious leadership, so that individuals feel supported as they progress in their careers. Mentorship plays an invaluable role as a guidepost for rising professionals and their impact on the future of our industry. 

#3. It’s all about relationships.

Nothing exists in a vacuum. As is the case for many in our industry, my personal story of recovery and my professional journey are intertwined. While a healthy separation of personal and professional contexts is vital, I cannot ignore that I am a result of the culmination of all the amazing people and experiences that have influenced me along the way. 

As time passes, I place more and more value on the relationships I have made over the last ten years. Countless individuals I admire have taken time to share their experience, show encouragement, or teach me something new. These amazing people believed in me while holding me accountable to developing the qualities and skills required to support individuals in their greatest times of need. The clients we serve are not “that tough case” or “that BCBS federal policy.” They are human beings, deserving of our attention, care, and time.

I do not operate on an island. Collaboration, innovation, and growth occur only when I have the opportunity to be exposed to new ideas. Many of the individuals I speak to on a regular basis have known me for the entirety of these last ten years, and I like it that way. They tell me the truth, have my best interest at heart, and are invested in my future. If we could approach all our relationships as if we would still have them a decade from now, what would we do differently?

In closing, I wish to say “thank you” to the numerous individuals that I have gotten to share these last ten years with. While a relatively short time in the span of a career, the countless opportunities I’ve had to witness true healing could fill a lifetime. Treatment works. While I may have chosen a difficult path – a job that asks for more – there is nothing I would rather do. I am surrounded by people that believe, like I do, that healing is possible, the future is bright, and that together we can do anything.