What? Me Network?

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

A few weeks back, as a favor to a friend, I was invited (compelled?) to speak with a small group of victim advocates—county employees who serve as a kind of official support system for those people directly impacted by a crime. The topic: sex offenders and sex offender treatment.

I agreed to the meeting several months prior, when I was still working directly in the field of sex offender treatment. Having moved away from that field, I hadn’t exactly been immersed in relevant information. As ‘luck’ would have it, though, the Josh Duggar situation provided plenty of focus on issues of law and treatment regarding sex offenses, and an easy access point to discuss much of the involved information.

I had not prepared an actual presentation–the kind with Powerpoint slides, and handouts. Rather, the victim advocates sent me a number of questions via email, and I spent the allotted hour attempting to provide straightforward answers. As with any specialized field, though, nuanced and complex answers are far more the norm.

A quick sampling of some of the (paraphrased) questions and the (overly simplified/incomplete) answers:

Q: What are recidivism rates for adult offenders versus juvenile offenders?

A: Much lower than most people think, in both cases.

Q: Is treatment for offenders a “one size fits all” program, or is it tailored to the specifics of the offender and the offense?

A: There are standardized “assignments” and program requirements, but, as with any form of therapy, it works best when the particulars of the people involved are taken into consideration.

Q: Do you see a lot of commonalities among offenders?

A: As with any ‘diagnosis’ or behavioral category, there are going to be a great many similarities—or those points where behaviors, and justifications for those behaviors, share many similarities—for example…

The lunch hour actually went by pretty quickly. And, despite feeling a bit nervous about providing accurate information without delving into boring details, nobody fell asleep. (Which reminds me, I promised to email some information about various psych tests, which I never did—and I also meant to ask about doing a quick once-over of my friend’s notes to make sure I hadn’t misspoke or inadvertently conveyed any muddled or inaccurate information).

At any rate, the lunchtime meeting was a good refresher about how necessary, and how difficult, it can be to properly ‘network’ within one’s chosen field. It’s quite easy to sit back and complain that people know so little about the specialization you’ve devoted a great deal of your working life to, without doing anything to address that lack of knowledge.

Happy face mad

Of course, it can be extremely difficult breaking through all the noise and confusion to relay one’s own specialized understanding of specific issues, or to have the patience to let the specialized knowledge of others in.

After all, we can all get bogged down in our day-to-day life. And going to trainings or other networking opportunities can feel like just another professional obligation—more about checking a box on a form, than about gaining knowledge and understanding that can truly help in one’s ability to help others—not to mention, the opportunity to meet and connect with other people who are potentially valuable allies and resources.

Still, I suppose we all have our fair share of networking disaster stories.

Take, for example, the time that I went to a breakfast fundraising event for the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center as a special guest of the Seattle Archdiocese (damn, that sounds important, doesn’t it? But, truth be told, I was actually the ‘plus one’ to my boss’ invitation as a special guest of the Seattle Archdiocese). Anyway, after the program of speakers, ranging from local media luminaries, to elected officials, to experts in the field of sexual assault treatment, to the families of sexual assault victims, as the time arrived for everyone to mingle and/or make a quick getaway to avoid mingling, I managed to upend a glass of water, which drained directly into the chair where I was sitting. Mingling in wet pants—not really a comfortable experience, or a good way to convey anything you want other professionals to remember about you.

Beyond various faux pas, I think many professionals go to trainings and seminars with those colleagues we already know—potentially insulating and isolating ourselves from other attendees. Whatever your impressions of people in the mental health field, plenty of us are actually introverts who find crowds and forced socialization to be extremely draining. For some, the same skills that make us effective in a one-on-one or group session, or even a phone-based intervention—such as being able to focus not only on a person’s words, but the whole of what people are communicating non-verbally—can make it very difficult to just mingle in a large crowd.

There is also the potential for fumbling when you’re on the ‘turf’ of some other specialization. I mean, imagine how potentially uncomfortable it can be when you work in the field of sex offender treatment, and are attending a conference for providers who treat the victims of such offenders. Ultimately, the goals are the same—to reduce the impact of such trauma, and combat the underlying causes of such offenses—but you’re definitely working different sides of the same street.

There are also several forms of specialization that can reach into most other areas of treatment—substance abuse, personality disorders, suicidality, and on and on. No practitioner has the ability to become truly well-versed in every possible situation they encounter. Ideally, though, they will learn enough to recognize when they need to refer out, and how to recognize the signs of those areas with which they aren’t particularly familiar.

I suppose this is all weighing on me a bit heavily, as I have my licensure renewal coming up, and need to make sure I have all of my trainings in order. I’ve done plenty of trainings, and perhaps a whole lot more personal study, over the past few years, but not all of that counts for official training credits.

On top of just staying abreast of one’s own field, and finding trainings of interest that fit one’s schedule and budget, the state instituted a requirement that all counselors have to have training in how to deal with suicidal clients at regular intervals. I’m trying to approach this positively. I get the reason for its necessity (although the real reason for the change in requirements had to do with previous problems in the state’s credentialing process that allowed people with little-to-no education in mental health to call themselves “counselors”—which led to multiple tragedies and other less-than-ideal outcomes).

Still, having worked in suicide prevention for years makes the requirement a bit redundant for me. I know and respect many of the people conducting the trainings, and certainly learn from them each time I have occasion to encounter them. But as a general topic area, I could be brushing up on or exploring other areas where I haven’t already spent years of professional focus, particularly given that the trainings are aimed at practitioners who aren’t particularly sturdy in their suicide prevention/intervention skills.

Mental Health practitioners are also required to take regular ethics trainings—I suppose for those therapists who can’t remember not to force their own views on people, not to run around blabbing about their clients, and not to sleep with their clients.

That said, I will look to make the most of my remaining trainings, try to be pleasant and sociable, and pay attention so that I might actually gain some new insight. And I vow not to be one of those terrible bores who offers up one’s own experiences during question-and-answer periods, just to show how knowledgeable one is, rather than actually seeking information from the experts providing it.

And perhaps I should just schedule one of those suicide prevention trainings ASAP—or maybe after I cast about a bit to see if any of my friends in the field have been blowing off that training too, and want to go along.

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