A Day In the Life of a Clinical Mental Health Pro

When you have a career in the mental health field, every day is different. The field of psychology offers a lot of different branches to choose from; the work done by Stevenson, Waplak & Associates offers a distinctly hands-on approach.

“This isn’t for everyone, but it is unique and very rewarding,” said Jeff Waplak, clinical director for Stevenson, Waplak & Associates (SWA). “When a client has started with such self-doubt, and you hear the joy in their voice as they reach their goals, it’s all worth it.”

Choosing The Clinical Side Of Psychology

SWA focuses on therapeutic work within the field of residential care: actively planning, scheduling and prioritizing interventions for someone 24/7, instead of helping an individual develop skills and uncover insights in an hour-long session every two weeks.

Each path provides an opportunity to contribute to the lives of others and make a difference in the community, but residential treatment is an around-the-clock commitment that requires the passion to give back and a drive to work with the most challenging individuals.

“The pace is fast, and the challenges can change quickly,” said Waplak. “You can go from someone facing a panic attack, to someone thinking about suicide, to someone causing significant property damage, all before 9 a.m.

“It’s a great responsibility when a parent, agency, province or country places the life of a child or youth in your care,” he reflected. “This is especially true with the individuals we work with, who have already faced challenges and hardships that most members of our society will never experience.”

A Day In The Life: Jeff Waplak

As clinical director, Waplak has overall responsibility of treatment plans for each of 60-70 individuals SWA is working with at any given time. This includes not just direct clients of SWA, but also those involved with the affiliated Applewood Academy for Learning. He never knows what any particular day will hold, but shared what happened on what he called a “typical Monday”.

7:00 a.m.
A quick check of messages for any priority items that may have come up overnight. “This could range from someone running away, to sleep disruption, to a heads up about clients who came home under the influence of drugs or alcohol over the weekend.”

7:30 a.m.
In line at Starbucks and tweeting about it via @StevensonWaplak. “Part of my job is also about building and keeping the social media connections in our community.”

7:45 a.m.
At the office and checking his email:

  • Celebrating a foster child who had to deal with disappointment over the weekend but dealt with it in a productive way,
  • A message from a former client who’s enjoying her new school in Japan,
  • Another client who shares that she’s decided to face some long-standing personal demons.

“The diversity is great; it gives me an opportunity to share these milestones in a significant way, and to be a positive influence in each of these lives.”

8:00 a.m.
A conference call with a parent who trusts the SWA team to both provide clinical care for her son and coordinate his education to best manage the challenges in his life.

“We walk through the elements of a plan that will help keep his mood and lifestyle stable, and make sure that we’re all still on the same page. In the time we’ve been working together, he’s taken significant steps forward. It feels good to see how our role has supported the important changes he’s made.”

9:00 a.m.
Offers treatment foster care to kids facing significant mental health issues, and Waplak has a meeting with one of the foster parents (or what they call Parent Therapists). “These meetings have two goals: To review the current situation with the child, and to support the needs of the Parent Therapist.”

This particular family has multiple foster kids as well as two children of their own, so there’s a lot to do: review treatment plans, clarify the targets of interventions, collect data on what’s worked and what hasn’t, and ensure that the family and team members are healthy themselves.

One highlight from this meeting is the progress with one of the foster kids. “About a month ago, we made some changes to this individual’s environment and medications; we’re still considering the data to decide which has had the most influence, but the resulting changes have been positive.” In this situation, the youth has moved from emotional distancing, aggression, destructive behaviour and racing thoughts to recognizing that these thoughts, feelings and behaviours don’t add up.

11:30 a.m.
Starbucks coffee now long gone, Waplak wraps up the Parent Therapist meeting and compiles the notes, which are available to team members to review when needed. The data is impressive, with comments on residential and educational progress, social progress, input from the biological family of each foster child, legal comments, medical comments, responses to interventions and next steps.

11:35 a.m.
Checking email again: New messages span everything from report card reviews and clarification of psychiatric notations, to supporting an individual’s application to Oxford University, a quick review of a new assessment request, and reminders about several professional commitments.

12:30 p.m.
A quick lunch chatting with other staff in the reception area. “Between chews we discuss dogs, cats, losing weight and business changes.”

12:50 p.m.
Catching up on Twitter, Waplak finds a few good articles to read.

1:00 p.m.
An individual therapy session with a young girl whose anxiety is disrupting her school attendance. Waplak uses a relaxation training technique called Jelly Belly to teach deep breathing. “If you don’t believe anxiety affects young children, you need to listen to the pain in their stories about being unable to accomplish the things they want to do.”

2:00 p.m.
In another individual therapy session, Waplak meets with a referral from the probation office to look at ways to reduce their risk of slipping back into criminal behaviour. Despite horrendous things that have happened in this individual’s life, he notes that the individual still needs to accept responsibility for their thoughts, feelings and behaviour.

“We agree that they will seek medical assistance for a sleep disorder, instead of using marijuana, and that they will start an exercise program,” Waplak said, highlighting the importance of exercise. “It helps provide structure as well as health and mood benefits, and it will hopefully impact sleep patterns and self-confidence.”

3:00 p.m.
Reviewing email, Waplak has a message from a client asking how to help the family understand the treatment needs and plan for “an exceptionally personable emerging teenage girl,” he noted.

3:15 p.m.
Reviewing a treatment plan for a youth with an emerging mood instability condition, Waplak focuses his attention on healthy living: “With this client, I think we need to do some education about sleep routines and proper eating habits,” he explained.

“We’re considering vitamin supplements and working to change their eating pattern. They drink a lot of juice at night; I think we should try focusing on milk, water and flavored water instead of coffee, energy drinks and juice.”

He also considers a way to monitor the use of stimulant medication and track it’s impact on symptoms. “With a mood instability condition, we typically try to stabilize mood first, then reassess for residual symptoms.”

4:30 p.m.
Checking his phone, Waplak has messages from a new referral, a mother looking for treatment for an eating disorder, and a message from a friend.

5:00 p.m.
Before heading out the door, Waplak does a quick Twitter check and responds to new tweets.

5:05 p.m.
Heading home, Waplak knows he’s left the office but work is never far away. “I know that when I walk by my phone — between making dinner, playing with cars, watching the football game and reading stories — that flashing light in the corner might be a friend inviting me for dinner, a client telling me that if I don’t call right away she’ll hurt herself, or one of my staff telling me we need to talk tomorrow.”

8:23 p.m.
Wrapping up his day, Waplak finishes his notes about the day while his teenager does homework nearby and family members call on the phone. “I wouldn’t change my experiences for the world.”

Questions about becoming a mental health professional? Connect with us on Twitter (@StevensonWaplak) or via Facebook.