“Having a connection with people is what I’m good at.” So says Katie Burns, a licensed social worker at Wellspan Philhaven’s Ephrata behavioral health unit. Coming to that understanding was a bit of a revelation as Burns didn’t think of herself as successful when she was in school.
“Everyone else was excelling in so many other avenues. I was just always really good at talking to people.” She didn’t come to view it as a strength until later in her undergraduate studies when she realized, “You can have a pretty good career talking and connecting with people, hearing their stories and helping them find solutions to their lives. I got really passionate and humbled by this job that affords me the opportunity to hear different people’s experiences and walks of life and thoughts. You can really change people’s lives and that’s how I got invested.”
Following her undergraduate degree in clinical psychology and Master’s in Social Work, both from Kutztown University, Burns has been in the field for seven years, five with Wellspan.
Her role works with in-patients and their families or natural supports to identify their goals in relation to their mental and physical health needs during their hospital stay. She does this by using bio-psycho-social assessment which considers the person in more of a holistic format by identifying barriers to their success which may be family dynamics, interpersonal, spiritual or within their mental or physical health. “My job is to link with resources outside the hospital to help break down those barriers to help them live a more successful life.” It’s important to note that a more fulfilling life is defined by the patient.
She works closely with them to make an appropriate discharge plan and conducts family meetings to discuss what discharge looks like and answer any questions about treatment and mental health. Burns emphasizes that there is still a lot of stigma associated with mental health and substance abuse so education is a large piece of her job even within families as it’s important to people to be understood and heard.
Her work also encompasses outside agencies, making appointments with a variety of providers to ensure that after patients leave the hospital they continue on a healthy and successful path.
In a typical day the morning will see Burns discussing and reviewing with staff the patients’ last 24 hours for special needs, preparing appointments for any discharges and family communication. Interaction with the treatment team - Burns, therapists, the RN case manager, RN and the psychiatrist – takes up a large portion of her morning. They visit with almost every patient to get a sense of their progress and treatment, followed by a recap and development of next steps.
Afternoons will find Burns completing bio-psycho-social assessments, a six-page assessment, for newly admitted patients. This evaluation is broken into categories – biological, psychological and social factors – and is a series of questions that helps her consider all parts of a person. “Obviously we’re all made up of all these influences. It gives me an outline of what their needs might be, and I use that to develop a plan as to what community resources would be most beneficial to them.
“I start making connections for them,” she continues. “The mental health and substance abuse system is very difficult to navigate independently so I try to set up the best possible framework for people before they leave the hospital. It’s a broken system, but if they can find someone to help them navigate through it people don’t feel as lost or lonely. That’s my goal.”
Burns says you gain a lot of insight into yourself personally and working on yourself first is key before you can be successful helping others. She credits her program at Kutztown as very strong as well as the professors who drove that point home.
While the job can be exhausting and highly stressful it’s also rewarding. “Tt’s important to remember you can’t fix everybody,” she says. “That’s not what this job is designed to do. The people who we can help is what we have to think about on a daily basis as the rewarding factor.” She wants to continue to empower people to be their best selves and live the healthiest lives they can.
Her big takeaway is that the mental health stigma still exists. “We fight in this field every day to try to lower that. Mental health affects everyone, and it’s important to realize that anybody could be put in a situation in which they would need mental health help. Happily we’re here to do that.”