The crayon drawing placed before me shows signs of grief, loss and fear: a green monster with bared teeth and angry red eyes is grabbing the bars of the jail cell that my little client has drawn to keep the monster at bay. I recognize that the deeper meaning of what has been created by this child will stay with me long after our 50-minute therapy session.
Putting theory to practice
My name is Sarah MacDonnell and I am a Stenberg College Counselling Therapist program graduate. I spent about two years in the program immersing myself in mental health and psychology, learning theories, interventions, and what leads us to recover (or not recover) after significant trauma or loss. During my Moving Forward Family Services (MFFS) internship, I witnessed the tears and triumphs of my clients, who were all bound by one undeniable drive: to heal.
A few months after my 14-month Counselling Therapist practicum ended at MFFS, I graduated from Stenberg with distinctions, threw my graduation cap into the air and the real work of starting my practice began.
It is one thing to spend time in a classroom learning theory and analyzing disorders and symptoms, and another when you are in your office alone as a client describes their struggles. Thanks to my lengthy practicum, I entered private practice with the ability to recognize the criteria for major mental illnesses and establish a treatment plan to support my clients through a process of healing.
My Stenberg instructors varied from clinical counsellors to psychologists who were always ready to share their experiences in the field and inspired us to pull from our strengths rather than insisting on taking on their treatment style. In addition, my clinical supervisor guided and supported me well beyond cases. He allowed me to problem-solve independently and trust in abilities I was developing day-to-day in school and at the clinic. So when I graduated, I was confident in my capabilities. Learning in class, writing papers or discussing cases with my peers led me to my career today as a Registered Professional Counsellor in private practice.
Building my Private Practice
Since establishing my practice, I faced many challenges of starting a business during a pandemic, breaking into a specialized niche and marketing myself among many experienced therapists. My training, however, had prepared me for this. A lesson I learned through my years of therapy and the supervision I received (and continue to receive) from my Stenberg instructors was to establish how I wanted the community to see me as a Counsellor. Through this community of instructors-turned-colleagues, I learned to be a dedicated counsellor for my clients.
If you asked me if I could picture myself as a child and youth counsellor four years ago, I would have said you were dreaming. While I spent much of my professional career working with adolescents as a high school and post-secondary instructor, I had no intention of focusing my therapeutic practice on them when I began my studies at Stenberg. I had set my sights on working with adult clients in the field of trauma, dissociative disorders, and PTSD. And yet, during my practicum, when I facilitated a support group for children living with family members suffering from mental illnesses, each session left me eager to start the next.
During the 8-week support group program, I could barely contain the wonder and admiration I felt witnessing the resiliency of my child clients. Each session amazed me with the wisdom and the drive they had to overcome difficulties in life that few of my adult friends had ever experienced. Watching these children adopt breathing and coping skills for when the walls seemed to cave in around them inspired me. I profoundly realized what no book or research article could ever fully translate to me: the connection felt by children when a therapeutic relationship proved itself to be safe, trustworthy and authentic. It surpassed any clinical intervention or treatment plan our textbooks had defined.
A new awakening
From there, my love of counselling children began. As I move from online counselling (something I have done exclusively since my internship in 2020) to in-person play and expressive therapy, I feel an excitement and a sense of purpose awakening. My office is filled with tools for creating art, costumes and toys designed to ignite aspects of my little clients’ psyche and move them towards self-realization.
Looking back on where my professional journey all began, sitting in a computer lab at Stenberg College in 2019 nervously eyeing the cohort who would be with me for the next two years, I wonder if I had made the right decision, and I can say that I have. I can hardly believe the distance I’ve covered and the lives and stories that I am honoured to have witnessed.