Prologue: A poem for new graduate students

Brodie Vissers / Burst / Used under licenseI wrote this poem several years ago, and republish it each fall as a welcome to students beginning their graduate studies in the mental health professions.

Every fall, the university where I teach enrolls dozens of new students into our graduate programs in mental health care. Our new students tend to be immensely talented, and many of them (as at any school) are also immensely anxious as they begin their journey.

As faculty, I can empathize. I know I was much the same way when I started my graduate program more than 20 years ago. I’ve grown less anxious over time, but I can’t say I’ve grown to be non-anxious. I just learned ways to manage my anxiety. One of those ways has been writing poems.

Some years ago, in a particularly trying spell for some of my students, I wrote a poem laying out what I wished I had said to them on the day they arrived for their first class. It’s preachy and a downer at the beginning, and I know it’s long, but it picks up, I promise. (Sort of like my law and ethics class, heh.)

If you are a new student in a psychology, counseling, MFT, or social work program this year, or if you are just thinking about becoming one in the future, I hope this helps you be prepared, even if in just some small way. I will be proud to be calling you a colleague. Enjoy.


Welcome, new students.
You have chosen a career in mental health,
One of the most noble lines of work on earth.
I assume you chose this career because you want to
What’s the cliché?
Help people,
And perhaps because at some point earlier in your life
You had a wonderful, transformative experience
With a therapist who gave you the help you needed when you needed it
You had a horrible, traumatic experience
With a loved one
Who wasn’t so lucky.

Whatever your story,
I presume that, all clichés aside, you are here for the right reasons
To begin a noble career of helping people.
I do not, however, presume
You know what that means.

First, you should know that when people talk about a career being noble
They mean it is unsteady
Sometimes unsafe
And always underappreciated.
Your noble sacrifice
Of the potential for a bigger house
A nicer car
Nights where you don’t cringe every time the phone rings,
In fear that perhaps this is the night one of your clients followed through
Will not be recognized.
By anyone.

Confidentiality, baby.
No one can know what you do.
Great for your clients.
Sucks for you.

Second, you should know that helping people
Is not the feel-good movie of the summer.
It is hard.
It will weigh on you.
It is true that some people don’t want to be helped;
Those people will not spend a lot of time in your office,
And even when they do, you will not worry about them so much.
What will break your heart
Over and over and over again
Are the people who want desperately to be helped
In ways you can’t provide.

A warm conversation
Is not a warm meal.
A perfect diagnosis
Is not a bus ticket home.
Even the most brilliantly executed therapeutic intervention
Is not a mother’s child back in her arms.

I know, and you know
We all only do what we can.
But people in other jobs
Normal jobs
They don’t have to see
The enormous and deeply personal tragedy
Of how badly we fail every day
At being a community.

If you really want to help people,
You need to start by toughening up.

Few things are as frustrating
For a teacher in mental health
As a student who says she wants to help
But then is too uncomfortable to spend five minutes
In the company of anyone who actually needs it.

If you want to never be afraid
If you want to never have your beliefs challenged
If you want to never see the victims or the perpetrators
Of poverty, racism, rape, religious fanaticism, child abuse,
And everything else you cannot stand
If you want to never have anyone angry enough at you
To scream your name so loud that you can hear it several blocks away
If you want to never have to face these things
Not only are you in the wrong line of work
You are in the wrong line of life.
Because sometimes fear is your body’s way of telling you to wake up and pay attention.
Some of your beliefs are not just naive or misguided but simply wrong.
There are people suffering from all of those things all around you, every day.
And sometimes, screaming at someone who is trying their best to help you change
Feels really good.

In other lines of work
Or life
You may be able to just deny these things
Or pretend they don’t really exist.
In this line of work
You can’t.
In this line of work
Blinders are laughed at
And then violently torn off.

I don’t mean to be a downer.
I just want you to go into this career with your eyes open.
This work is hard.
But if you’re ready for it
Physically, emotionally, intellectually, socially
(A development process that will take at least three times as long
As the time you’re in school
And that’s if you have a good therapist of your own)
If you’re ready for it
This work will be your window
Into more scratching and clawing off of the ground,
Onto one’s feet, and into the air
Than you ever thought human beings were capable of.
This work will be your window
Into more love found after years of having gone missing
Than some families experience in ten generations.
This work will be your window
Into how the mere act of being in someone’s company in the right way
Can change their life
And their children’s lives
And their great-great-great-grandchildren’s lives.

That thing I said before
About the right diagnosis not being a bus ticket home
Is true
But sometimes, being in someone’s company in the right way
Enables them to build themselves a new home
Right where they are.

You picked a line of work that will change you.
So get ready for it.
Really ready.
As in, brace yourself.
You are approaching turbulence.

If you are in a romantic relationship of some kind,
You will not be in the same relationship two years from now.
You may be with the same person, if they are adaptable
But I guarantee you that your relationship as it exists right now
Will not survive all that you are about to learn about people.
Are you ready for that?
Through this program you are about to begin
You will learn about oppression, bias, discrimination, and hate
And by that I mean your own
And if your teachers and fellow students are doing their jobs well
You will be held accountable.
Are you ready for that?
Perhaps most importantly
In this noble career you have just started
You will be not only called upon but actively taught and encouraged
To empathize with suffering worse than any you may have ever known.
Are you ready for that?

Once you are ready, we are
I am
Ready to teach you.
If you are not prepared, we
Cannot help you, for you will fight against this journey every step of the way.
Instead of the client who does not want to be helped
You will be the student who does not want to learn
And I will not worry that much about you.
I will simply encourage you to consider other career options.
If you are prepared, we are
I am
Ready to walk through this turbulence with you.

The kind of teacher I aspire to be
Is the one who tells you
“Hold on, there’s a rough patch coming”
And then lets you do the work of getting through it.
Doing it for you is not teaching you.
Letting you fail and then learn from that failure is.
Initially, I’ll be here at your side,
Telling you you’re doing fine
Or, if you’re not doing fine, reminding you that you have what it takes to do fine
And telling you what doing fine looks like.
As you get used to the rough patches
I’ll move a little farther away with each one
Because you’ll know how to get through them without me.
By the time we’re done here,
You will not need me at all anymore.

Getting to that place is difficult. And working in this career is difficult.
But if you’re well-prepared,
You’ll love it
Long before you’re good at it.
Are you ready
For that?

Let’s get started.


Originally published 2013. Republished several times, most recently August 2023.