Gaining adequate access to mental health care has been a hot-button issue in the United States over the past several years. It’s a challenge Kelly Olenski is intimately aware of. As a trained behavioral therapist, she’s seen first-hand how difficult it can be for patients to navigate our current systems. She admits, “Accessing mental health services from the outside can be extremely difficult and overwhelming. That is even the case from inside the system at times!” But she’s working to change that.
After graduate school, Kelly worked as a clinical therapist serving individuals who struggled with self-injury. While she enjoyed the patient interaction, the position didn’t feel quite right. She admits, “I had this ‘quarter life crisis/epiphany’ during my yearly review.” She believes a combination of time, growth, and insight helped her identify where her passions, skills, and values met. She took her concerns to her former boss who generously helped her make a change.
Navigating Uncharted Waters in Mental Health Care
Kelly now serves as the Physician Relations Coordinator at Linden Oaks Behavioral Health, an organization in the suburbs of Chicago. Her role is new, just created in the fall of 2015. On a day-to-day basis she works to integrate primary care and behavioral health, closing the gap between these two fields, and promoting the belief that health and wellness require care for both the body and mind.
Her role requires that she wear several hats — physician liaison, project developer, patient navigator, community educator. She jokes, “I think I may need to invest in a good hat rack.”
As a mental health professional, she’s uniquely qualified to build relationships with primary care providers and their patients while helping to improve the way mental health care is integrated into primary care settings. Kelly is committed to ensuring that patients find the appropriate behavioral health services. She explains, “Having someone to specifically navigate patients through the system, makes the process a little easier and less intimidating.”
Healthcare navigators are beginning to emerge in specialties like cardiology and oncology, working with patients who might otherwise get lost in the shuffle of complex systems and specialties. Though it’s still rare to see navigators in behavioral health circles, Kelly predicts this will change in the future.
“If we want patients to start taking their health and wellness seriously, we need to take their connection to services seriously,” Kelly explains. “Behavioral health navigators not only provide intentional connection to care, they also help break the stigma associated with mental health issues and demonstrate the necessary connection between physical and mental health.”
Recognizing Her Need for Self Care
She began her role navigating patients in December of 2015. By the end of February 2016, her patient load had increased by five times. This rapid growth begs the question, how is she handling the stress of the new position? Her answer, “By navigating myself to care!”
Kelly is well aware that professional growth and career advancement creates good and bad stress. She manages both by intentionally caring for her mental health. She’s instituted a few work/life balance guidelines:
- She structures her days so that she has firm start and end times.
- She sets realistic goals and expectations for what can be accomplished in a day/week.
- She reaches out to her team and her boss for support and guidance when needed.
- She remembers that disconnecting is as important as connecting – meaning, she takes time “offline” to participate in activities that are important to her.
As Kelly looks to the future, she predicts that behavioral health navigation projects will gain momentum and quickly turn from projects to programs to a standard of care. If the rapid growth of her project is any indication, it is a service that we truly need. But change in healthcare, like most fields, does not move quickly. It can be a challenge to incorporate innovative processes into a large, well-established organizations. She credits much of her success to the fact that her organization is open to change and ingenuity.
She confesses, “This [career path] was certainly not my plan and I really attribute my career transition to personal introspection, strong mentors, a dash of risk, and a whole lot of perfect timing.” For the first time since graduate school, she feels she is where she belongs. “Every day I am seeking opportunities to learn from others about leadership — especially in healthcare, business development, and project management.”
She recently jumped back on LinkedIn and looks forward to connecting with others and reestablishing a network there. She is always open to questions anyone has about mental health and believes, “From connections and conversations, we cannot only end stigma, but work to integrate mental health into all parts of life.”