Our Director of Clinical Services is flexible, thoughtful, and dedicated to service, whether it’s the staff members she supervises, or the children who benefit from her extensive therapeutic knowledge. We spoke with Rhiannon about the joy she finds in her work at this particular agency and how she stays balanced in a tough profession.
What made you go into your field and how did you end up at ChicagoCAC?
I was an English major and wanted to be a teacher– but I learned more about therapy in college and that changed the course of my life. I come from a family with a history of service to others, so I always wanted to do something service-oriented, a job like teacher or counselor. Before coming here, I was feeling a little burnt out on the child welfare work I was doing and wanted to work in a different part of the system. I had other colleagues that worked with the CAC and I really valued and respected their work.
Advocacy Center work feels more preventative. You’re at an earlier part of the process, with an opportunity to work with non-offending caregivers, help them with their parenting and help families stay together. I wouldn’t want to go into private practice – I like working within collaborations and systems. And I like that we are at a CAC that follows that model, where everyone is co-located and working together.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There’s a lot of variation. Most days I’m doing supervision with my staff, and then having meetings about program decisions. I also see a handful of clients spread out throughout the week. And sometimes I need to fulfill requests for data for our grant writers. It’s a mix of clinical, administrative and programmatic tasks. I’ve always worked in kind of fast-paced settings, including residential and foster care, and I’m a very flexible person. In this environment, there’s not crises all the time, but we have to switch gears a lot and balance the many needs and competing tasks. And I like that.
Supervision is a pretty unique part of mental health environments: tell us more about it.
Supervision can be very individualized, and we do both reflective and administrative supervision here. Reflective supervision tries to help the clinician in their growth and the impact that they’re having on the work with the client, or the ways that they could maybe change things in order to help the client progress. We usually follow the therapist’s lead on what aspects of the work they need help with. Because we’re dealing with almost all sexual abuse cases, that can be really trying, and can lead to vicarious trauma or burnout if if people don’t have the space to work through those things. So a lot of what we’re doing is sharing the load and making sure clinicians feel equipped to deal with the cases.
The administrative pieces involve helping clinicians navigate the systems they’re working in. Maybe something came up with a client, and they need to figure out what could be a resource. And then there’s getting the paperwork done. Even though we’re not working within an insurance system, we’re working within a grant-funded system, and we owe people a lot of data since we use their money to do our work, and we have to make sure that we’re tracking our outcomes.
I really love working with clinicians, especially as I become more removed from those pieces of therapy. It’s interesting to see all of their different styles and skill sets and goals for themselves. I really enjoy and have tremendous respect for all the people I work with and I like to learn from them and hear about some of the things they’re doing and learning in other places.
What are some of the things a child might learn in therapy at ChicagoCAC?
When we start working with a family, there’s a conceptualization of where the symptoms are coming from – in our case, it’s often sexual abuse, but there are layers to it. I work with mostly young kids, and we start by mapping out where, as they developed, skills weren’t gained because they were experiencing trauma. With a lot of younger kids, we’re helping them to develop a vocabulary for their feelings. When you experience a lot of trauma, you don’t have the benefit of always thinking about how you’re feeling – you’re surviving. So there’s a lot of impulse behaviors and you have to learn to understand how you’re feeling in order to work through those. We help kids understand the connection between body sensations and emotions so they can articulate their needs. And we work with caregivers on being attuned to those things about their child. Most of the time, they are, but in the disruption of the trauma, caregivers can lose a sense of competence or confidence, and so we work through that as well.
Something you hear a lot about with trauma survivors is the phrase “integrating trauma.” What does that look like for someone so young?
Often that involves working on a sense of self, repairing any relationships lost through trauma, and working through any shame, guilt or blame that might have come as a result. You want to help kids understand their behavior as something that they learned to do because their brain was trying to survive. And that’s really valuable – maybe there’s times that you’ll still need a certain skill, but maybe you don’t need it on the CTA, or in algebra, because it’s not helpful there. Kids will think there’s something wrong with them because of their behavior, so you want to help connect the past, the present and the future for a child and honor the historical context of their symptoms so they can articulate those things about themselves– things that are sad or scary or hard, and things that they’re hopeful about.
Tell us more about the drop-in mental health services the Family Hope Center started offering in November.
These services are designed to help kids who are on the waitlist with some of the symptoms they’re having, especially very immediate symptoms like anxiety or depression, and to expedite their access to mental health. It alleviates the impact of the wait time for access to services. We’re not offering them for at-risk situations, but more for cases where the caregiver or child has something that they’re concerned about. And in the past, we would not have had a resource for them within our own agency, so this is new for us. This program is currently in pilot phase; we have about five therapists and five interns working on it, and they developed some new skill-based modules or programs to use. Much of our therapy is more process-oriented, but these new sessions will be skills-based and help clients with whatever they’re experiencing at the moment. And we have a module for families who maybe have some ambivalence about therapy. A lot of people on the waitlist may not know that they want to be in therapy, and we want to help people make that decision before they end up there.
Any thoughts on how the pandemic has changed your work?
It’s made us a lot more flexible. One of the good things about telehealth is that it gives us a backup for people who have barriers to services. Historically, our families have a lot of barriers that we’ve worked through the PATHH system to try to eliminate for many years. Telehealth is one more way to eliminate some of those barriers. Even for people with whom we wouldn’t use telehealth all the time, it’s a way to maintain that relational connection with the client. When you’re doing trauma work, missing sessions and not being able to see people can cause a serious regression. So if we can at least do some telehealth on a week that a family’s car broke down and they can’t get a session or maybe the kid is quarantined from a COVID exposure somewhere, you can still continue to do the work.
I think we’ve learned to use the internet to our advantage. There’s so much good and creative mental health content on the internet now: like, we can use this YouTube video to talk about feelings. And I think the stigma of mental health treatment is going down since a lot of people have struggled with mental health over the course of the pandemic, and educators and professionals alike are becoming more aware that we need treatments to be widely available.
Speaking of which, what do you do for fun? How do you guard against burnout?
I play volleyball, I like to cook and bake, I spend time with my son or my spouse and my friends – I’m a pretty social person. But I don’t think that any amount of baking or playing volleyball is going to help me with burnout – I don’t have that view of it. For me, my job is part of my life, so I don’t believe in work-life balance, but rather, finding balance within myself.
I think that to do this type of work, you have to stay connected to why you’re doing it in the first place. If I’m struggling, which I do from time to time, with feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of it all, I check back in with why I do this work, and if those reasons are still true for me, that brings me back. There’s a self-care model that talks about metabolizing trauma; if you don’t, it’s going to store up in your body. So I think about how I’m going to process everything that I hear and see and work all the way through it. If I feel really sad, I just let myself feel that. And I have worked here long enough to have close relationships with people and that helps maintain that balance. When I’m having a hard time, I have people where we can make each other laugh or we can cry about something. Those relationships help sustain the work as well.
December is usually time for our Kids Holiday Party, which this year is a Toy Drive. You’ve said you enjoy that a lot – why?
It’s an opportunity for people to see the dynamic aspect of our kids – it allows you to see their resilience rather than their trauma. Sexual abuse is so hard for people to take in and there’s so much taboo around it that sometimes it can be hard to remember the whole child exists. At the Holiday Party, the kids are playing games with each other and talking to Santa, hanging out with their families and doing crafts…they’re in their kid element and having a good time. Hope and Healing Camp is another place where kids are being kids, playing and growing and learning. I think it’s important to remember that about our clients and their families; that even though they’re struggling and going through a really difficult time in their life…. they’re surviving. They’re resilient. They’re making it. And the party is a bit like Homecoming, where you have a chance to socialize. I’ve been fortunate to come to know a lot of people over the years, so it’s an opportunity to sit down and catch up with them and hear how they’re doing.
Do you see a change in people’s behavior or emotions around the holidays?
The holidays can trigger a lot of feelings, and frankly a lot of child sexual abuse occurs within known communities – people that you might spend the holidays with. That can lead to a lot of tension, especially when there are fractures within family units, where you can’t go to grandma’s house anymore because your cousin will be there or you are reminded of past years of trauma you’ve experienced. So we do see an increase in stress and a subsequent increase in anxiety and depression. And overall, the holidays are stressful for parents – really, for any adult.
You help lead the LGBTQ+ employee group, PRIDE: why is that work important to you?
I want to make sure that everyone feels equally represented, heard or advocated for, whether that’s clients or staff or anyone that accesses the center. And because of the sense that work is a part of life, these are people that we spend a lot of time and have close relationships with. I want to make sure that diversity is expected and celebrated, and as we are more aware of diversity, equity, inclusion and their importance in a workplace, it’s important to recognize the LGBTQ+ community.
What are you excited about or hoping for in ChicagoCAC’s future?
I would love a new building – maybe one just focused on mental health. And we’re always looking for the next program or support group we’ll do. In some agencies, people just keep doing things the same way because that’s the way they do it, and that’s not the way that it is at ChicagoCAC. One of the things I love about working here is that we’re constantly trying to learn and grow and do things differently and better, in a way that will help our families, our clients. There’s a lot of joy in that.