Two years ago I was debating whether or not I wanted to pursue a master’s degree in Social Work or Mental Health Counseling. Everyone told me to go with the Master’s of Social Work (MSW) route because New York State is primarily dominated with social workers and I would be able to do more with the degree. But for me I wanted to genuinely make a connection with others and here is why.
There were cockroaches running up and down the living room walls. The smell of five month old spoiled milk smacked me in the face and the sound of twenty screaming children starched my ear drums as I followed Karen into the bedroom to meet her mother. The cluttered room filled with bags of clothes had one queens size bed, a dusty giant brown teddy bear, a metal chair with a soft green cushion attached to the seat and a 1980’s television set on the tile floor.
I have been an interviewer intern at the Child Psychiatric Epidemiology Group (CPEG) at Columbia University Medical Center/New York State Psychiatric Institute for eight months. I assisted with the data collection of a newly designed study entitled “Stress and Well-being” which examines the long-term effects of disaster exposure (particularly, the events of 9/11) on child behavior and mental development. When I first began my internship experience with CPEG, I thought the experimental group would be the individuals who would have the most clinical issues. But having completed more than 30 baseline interviews in both the experimental and control groups, I realized that it is not whether a person was directly impacted by the events of September 11, 2001 but, rather it is how these individuals cope with previous traumatic life events.
*Experimental Group – Persons who were directly affected in the events of 9/11. Sample was recruited through the World Trade Center Health Registry (WTCHR).
*Control Group – Persons who were not directly affected in the events of 9/11. Sample was recruited through an outside source and through the Queens area.
I was assigned to a control interview with a mother about her child in Astoria Public Housing on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon. We started off together as a family going over the study consent forms. Ms. April was a middle aged woman with red and black highlight braids. She immigrated to the United States from Barbados having only completed some of her high school education. She had a tough time understanding some of the study forms but I was there to help her through the process. My assignment for the day was to conduct and complete an in-person structured interview to learn about Ms. April’s unique 9/11 experience and other traumatic life events she may have experienced and how she deals with daily stress.
It was hard to conduct the interview. Her answers to my questions were yes and no’s but other times she would run into tangents about other traumatic life experiences that I had not yet asked about. The interview lasted about seven hours and I had walked away learning so much about Ms. April’s personal life circumstances. She shared intimate details about hardships she experienced such as making a suicide attempt, being a victim of child abuse and having had anticipated homicidal thoughts. It was clear that she was experiencing depression as she expressed her extreme sadness and feelings of hopelessness to me.
I was stunned and taken back by her life story of being sexually abused as an eight year old girl. She was so depressed about how things were going in her life, that she wanted nothing but to be dead. Her stories touched me deeply but it was this particular interview that redefined my motivation to become a counselor. My encounter with Ms. April was important because all people’s lives matter and there is a essential need for more Mental Health Counselors to provide mental and emotional support for all individuals.
I walked away from this experience thinking to myself, I should have done more and that I failed to help someone who was crying out for help. It was hard to deal with the aftermath of the interview because as a former student leader at John Jay College, I prided myself in helping students with their questions and needs. My encounter with Ms. April caused me to feel vulnerable and helpless because I wasn’t able to effectively make a difference. I replayed her stories in my mind like a broken record for a week going over every small detail of her stories with a comb.
I ultimately dealt with this situation by seeking the advice from those who currently serve as advocates within the field of human services and by doing this I was able to gain a greater understanding and learn a different point of view of the role of a counselor. I was able to debrief and reflect on the situation with professional’s in the field. This ulimately allowed me to talk about how the situation made me feel and allowed me to develop skills to use in the future.
I was unprepared and very inexperienced at the time but hearing Ms. April’s story has only motivated me to continue growing and developing into a better counselor.
Please note for privacy purposes the names of all characters were changed.