As a young adult, I worked in a psychiatric hospital as a “youth care worker”, providing in-patient care and support for children, adolescents, and their families. It was there that I found the work of therapists to be an integral part of helping families understand how to adapt to the behavioral health needs of their children. Unfortunately, there was little intervention or education for the families, so many children would leave our care and return to the exact environment of their original emotional traumas.
The young patients I attended came from wide ranging backgrounds, but each presented some behavior in school or at home that was seen as harmful to themselves or others. It was common to have patients who had attempted suicide, threatened or attempted to kill a peer or family member, or suffered terribly from eating disorders and substance abuse.
These were extraordinary circumstances for the patients and for myself. At 20 years old, I was just 2 years senior to the oldest patient. I learned quickly how to de-escalate a potentially volatile situation and how to rapidly respond in the event of a crisis. The reward in the work came when the patients would begin to soften their defenses and sit one on one to talk about their pain. I would never know what life would be like for them after they left the hospital, but knowing that for a brief moment they felt safe enough to open up was my first experience as a “therapist.”
It was during this time that I sought counseling for myself. I was ungracefully struggling to come out of the closet, to reconcile my faith with my sexuality, and end an unhealthy relationship with my first lover.
My first therapist, Margaret, happened to be a lesbian. She had been married to a man for many years and raised a gay son. Her insight into my reality was so close to the truth that she seemed mythical. She guided me through the end of the relationship and helped me see that I could be okay as I am. It would be several more years later that I would have my second experience in therapy. Hank was also a mature man in his 50’s, and he had a gift for fatherly compassion. I went to see Hank many times over the course of about 10 years. After struggling to complete my college education, I went to Hank and asked him to help. He seemed perplexed at the proposal, but I told him I needed him to hold me accountable. I told him that when I became a student again, it was because I knew I would graduate. His role was to make sure that nothing distracted me. He helped me celebrate my successes as a student, and to accept who I was becoming as a future social worker.
Upon completing my MSW at the University of Kentucky, my clinical training has included in-patient psychiatric care for adults, community mental health with minority groups, and direct services for LGBTQ+ older adults in Chicago. My clinical work has been supervised by seasoned and expert Licensed Clinical Social Workers in Tennessee and Illinois.
Advocacy for LGBTQ+ Older Adults
While my work now focuses on the mental health needs of members of the LGBTQ+ community and those with diverse perspectives, my work with LGBTQ+ older adults has informed how I work with LGBTQ+ clients across the lifespan.
There are many unique needs facing the LGBTQ+ aging population that require special consideration when working with this population. Many LGBTQ+ seniors live in isolation due to a cultural history of feeling unsafe to disclose their sexual orientation over a lifetime. This increases their dependence on informal networks of social services and decreases their likelihood to access mainstream professional aging services or health care. This isolation leaves many LGBTQ+ seniors at risk for major socio-economic and psychosocial challenges such as poverty, poor health care, growing older alone, and fear of non-LGBTQ+ services.
These sensitive issues for LGBTQ+ seniors are often compounded by a lack of culturally competent service providers. Much of my professional and volunteer work has been devoted to creating awareness and advancing a conversation about the issues facing mature and aging LGBTQ+ people. Special consideration must be given to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ seniors when developing programs to help meet their challenges in aging.
Utilizing tenants from the Community Participatory model, in the spring of 2013, I created the Senior Pride Initiative, a grassroots coalition of professionals in Lexington, KY concerned about the representation of LGBTQ+ elders in mainstream aging services. The initiative began with direct input from LGBTQ+ seniors requesting education and access to information regarding end of life issues and health care. The goal of the Senior Pride Initiative is to improve the quality of life for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people by raising awareness of the unique issues and needs they may face in aging.
This work allowed me to connect with a select group of LGBTQ+ advocates across the country in programs like SAGE, the LGBT Elder Initiative, the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, and Center on Halsted’s Senior program in Chicago, where I worked directly with LGBTQ+ older adults.
My work has been recognized publicly through receiving the Lexington Fairness “Jennifer Crossen – Out for Fairness Award” in 2012, and a featured story, “Training day: National Resource Center teaches LGBT cultural competence”, in Aging Today September – October 2012 issue.
In 2006, I returned to the University of Kentucky to graduate at the top of my class with a BASW (C’08) and advanced standing MSW (C’09) in Social Work. As a non-traditional student, my experience working in mental health and programs for children gave me a unique perspective on what I was learning and how I was actualizing the knowledge in my life and community.