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Karen Bates
Jul 15, 2010

Politics and Counseling Make Strange Bed-Fellows

I’ve always struggled with self-esteem issues but you wouldn’t know that unless I told you. I think we all do from time to time. It happens less and less often, thank goodness. I remember telling myself that no one would ever “take” my self-esteem from me about 15 years ago when I was working at a school-based health clinic as a crisis-intervention social worker. Back then all you needed was a bachelor’s degree and the director of the community agency that employed me had a master’s in social worker. She signed off on my social worker registration with the state and I got the job. I was also working on my master’s in counseling at the time so I thought this would be a great opportunity to help the inner city children in Detroit. Boy, I was right and wrong.

I loved the responsibilities of the job but I had no idea about the politics involved with the medical staff and school that I worked. It was a Friday morning after working at the clinic for about 7 months that the director of the clinic approached me with a memo from the medical director who was also the adolescent physician at the clinic. She was a black female, as were all of the staff at the clinic, coincidently enough. So I thought, naively, we should all bond well with the commonality of being black female health care professionals. Yeah, right. I think I still have the scar from the knife wound that this doctor put between my shoulder blades. A bit histrionic but you get the point. The memo cited all the “problems” I was having at the clinic. Oh, really? I looked at this woman delivering the memo to me in person, who, by the way was the daughter of a well-known Detroit area politician, so she was in her element. I think I almost saw a twinkle of delight in her eye. The memo was addressed to an administrator of the Detroit Medical Center, very renowned for the medical school and research work that is done there. The memo was also cc’d to my boss. I never saw it coming. My initial reaction was to become defensive and argue but I graciously took the memo and said thank you for letting me know and to have a nice weekend. I had some paperwork to finish and was out of there a short time later. My now husband and at the time fiancé were headed to see the Detroit Pistons. I’m a huge fan by the way.

But not before calling my supervisor and letting her know that I need to meet with her first thing Monday morning about this letter that she had been cc’d on. Later that evening, after the game, I sat down at my computer and I responded with documented evidence, i.e., meeting notes I had taken, examples of having no written protocols to manage specific procedures, etc. that I was being accused of neglecting and confident that these citings were unfounded, trivial and if necessary, I would be more than willing to write a clinic manual to improve the quality of services to the clinic and the persons we serve. I’ll admit, my fiancé at the time who is my husband as I previously mentioned, rode quite the rollercoaster ride with me before I summoned up the confidence to write my response because the entire afternoon, I was withdrawn, depressed and silent. I hardly cheered for my favorite team. We were at the Piston’s game on a sunny Friday afternoon and I’m thinking about the memo from this petty woman. It made absolutely no sense to let this define me as a professional, not to mention ruin my entire weekend. I knew that I possessed a multitude of qualities that were necessary for a successful counselor, therapist and human services professional. Back then and to this day, I assert these qualities to the best of my ability.

That following week we, being my boss, the clinical director, the medical director and the head nurse all met and I provided my response to the clinic staff with the support of my supervisor. Needless to say, I think I got my proverbial self-esteem back because the physician that initiated all this had to leave during the meeting and threw up in the clinic bathroom from a migraine headache. I remember feeling quite refreshed and energized thanking everyone for their time. I also knew that I had to start looking for another job. It was too much political noise and my intuition paid off because the clinic soon after my leaving closed down due to cut-backs and lack of funding in the city of Detroit’s public health department.

I have to say, I am so thankful for that lesson. I realized so many important skills from working there. One is being able to communicate with others in a diplomatic, effective manner. As an LPC, I sometimes feel as though we’re the red-headed step-children in the behavioral health care and human services profession. But we’re just as capable, skilled, and highly trained as anyone else in this field. Even more so in comparison to other licensed clinicians because I find in a lot of agencies, the professionals that struggle the most with documentation and record-keeping are the licensed social workers.

I’m not sure if it’s because they are not required to write a major research paper such as a thesis that is required for our master’s in counseling or what. But my documentation and record-keeping skills have been recognized by the quality assurance team in almost all the agencies I’ve worked. I’ve even been given awards. Not bad for someone that didn’t know what they were doing as a school-based social worker. And that’s another lesson that I’ve learned and have to remind myself that you never stop evolving. It is so important to take stock in yourself and all the accomplishments you have achieved and new things that you want to learn. That’s what keeps me excited about the work that I do. You never stop learning and opportunities are endless because it is a journey. Enjoy the trip!

Karen Bates is a counselor, addiction specialist, and a doctoral student at Walden University.

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