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YU News

How a Student from Toronto Wound up in the Psychiatric Units of Harlem

Reena-photoby Reena Gelberger-Carmen, LCSW (MSW ’07)

When I first arrived at Wurzweiler in the summer of 2005, I knew only two things for certain: that I wanted a career where I could help people and that I wanted to be able to complete my field placements in my hometown of Toronto. I figured that a degree in Social Work could help me accomplish my first goal and I knew that I could accomplish my second goal through Wurzweiler’s Summer Block Program. I had some general knowledge of what social workers do but I also had many misconceptions (and over the past few years, I have learned that this is true of most social work students).

Through my coursework and the wonderful internships I had at the Jewish Family & Child Service and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, I learned so much about the intricacies of the profession, how vast and dynamic the field of social work truly is, and how social workers can make a tangible difference in the life of others no matter the practice setting. I was also fortunate enough to get my first job through the Career Services Department at Wurzweiler! Almost as soon as I graduated, I began working as a social worker in the Inpatient Psychiatric Department at Metropolitan Hospital Center in the East Harlem section of Manhattan. Close to eight years later, I am still working at Metropolitan Hospital, though my role and responsibilities have changed significantly over the years.

When I first started working at Metropolitan I had no prior experience in the field of mental health and that, quite honestly, led me to feel both nervous and intimidated. I learned within the first few weeks, however, that the knowledge and skills I had gained from social work school and from my field placements could be adapted to fit any setting. After a few years of working with individuals with serious mental health conditions, I moved from the inpatient department to the hospital’s outpatient clinic where I provided individual and group psychotherapy to adults with a wide variety of clinical conditions including depression, anxiety, mood disturbances, eating disorders, and addictions.

Though I felt it was important to gain more education to effectively provide therapy – and I have now completed several postgraduate training programs including programs in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – I realized that many of the skills I had developed in inpatient psychiatry carried over into this new practice setting. Being able to effectively assess a patient, develop an understanding of the clinical condition at hand, create a treatment plan, and build a therapeutic rapport – all skills I had used in previous settings and all concepts I had learned about at Wurzweiler– are crucial elements of outpatient work.

I am currently working as a Social Work Supervisor at Metropolitan providing clinical supervision to social workers in the hospital’s four adult inpatient psychiatric units and the psychiatric emergency room. I also provide field supervision to MSW students. I now have the opportunity to help other people develop and refine their skills for working with individuals with serious mental illness. In addition to this work, I maintain a small private practice seeing individuals and couples in Astoria, Queens, because I developed a real love for psychotherapy during my time in the hospital’s outpatient clinic. As well, I believe that therapy is a great way to help people learn the coping mechanisms needed to effectively manage negative thoughts and emotions, deal with stressors, and create  (to borrow a phrase from DBT) a “life worth living”.

When people are able to master these skills, they are able to take something learned in a therapy setting and apply it across all sorts of different situations. In the same way that I have been able to take the concepts I first learned at Wurzweiler and apply them to the different practice settings where I have worked, an individual who learns the skills to manage, let’s say, anxiety, can take that set of skills and use it in any situation where they may have previously felt anxious. Helping people to gain those skills helps to change their world – and helping to change their worlds has helped to change mine too.