So often when I see a successful clinical social worker who is a leader in their area of expertise I find myself asking “how did they get where they are today?” and wondering what their first few years out of grad school were like. Each month we are interviewing and sharing the story of a clinical social worker’s “pathway to success” that has brought them to where they are today. It will share insights, hard earned wisdom, and tips that we hope will encourage and inspire you no matter where you are on your own pathway to success.
It’s incredibly fitting that our Pathways to Success interview during Suicide Prevention Month is with the Assistant Dean of Social Work at the Brown School of Social Work and co-founder of St. Louis Center for Family Development (STLCFD), Ryan Lindsay, MSW, LCSW. Ryan Lindsay is known for his leadership in evidence-based treatments, in particular Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), a treatment modality used with clients who experience chronic emotion dysregulation, suicidal ideation, and self-injurious behaviors. We are excited to share his unique pathway to success and hope you will it as encouraging and inspiring as we do.
TDC: What drew you to the field of social work?
Ryan: I understand now that I have a high compassion predisposition: I feel the pain of others, I see it in others, and I desire to make it less in others. Throughout my life, I’ve been sensitive to the difficulties that others experience. While I was originally focused on psychology in undergrad, I always felt it was too person focused. I was minoring in sociology and anthropology and found the contextual piece very interesting to me. People live in environments and contexts matter. I realized it’s not enough to look solely at the individual person. We must look at that person within the context of their environment. I decided to major in social work because it fit with my values and my understanding of the world, and was also a faster track to doing clinical work.
TDC: During graduate school where did you complete your internships?
Ryan: I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan and completed my internship at the University of Michigan Mental Health Center. I spent half of my time at the Department of Psychiatry in their outpatient clinic and the other half at a community mental health center on a DBT team. When I landed the internship, I didn’t know what DBT was, but it became formative for my career path. After I graduated with my MSW, I applied for and completed a post-master’s fellowship at the University of Michigan.
TDC: What came after your fellowship?
Ryan: After I completed the fellowship, I worked at an organization called Ann Arbor Consultation Services, which was a very, very large group practice. During my fellowship program, I helped get them prepped to start their own adolescent DBT program and when I went to work for them, I got the DBT program up and running. Once I became licensed, I started the Ann Arbor DBT Center with two friends whom I met through my internship. This was the first DBT oriented practice in Ann Arbor. While working at these two practices, I also applied for a half-time position with Washtenaw County in their Youth and Family Services and I started the first community mental health adolescent DBT program in Michigan. It was both a first for the state and something I genuinely loved doing.
TDC: It sounds like you did a LOT during those first few years out of grad school. What gave you the confidence to accomplish so much so early on in your career?
Ryan: Arrogance. And stupidity. [Laughter] And strong supports that encouraged me along the way. I was never doing all of those things in isolation. I had supervision and a strong network of other social workers around me. It was definitely a lot, though. At one point I was working six days a week, in three different practices, at four different locations and had a part-time job with the county doing crisis stabilization.
TDC: Four jobs! Did that burn you out?
Ryan: Oh totally. Around three and a half years out, I was getting really burned out. I had recently lost some mentors that were no longer accessible to me. I had my fingers in a lot of things and I needed to focus, but didn’t really know how to do that. On top of that, there was this expectation of high, high, high performance. I had a lot of people on my caseload and started to burn out big time. I came to a place where I had to decide whether I was going to stay in this profession, go back to school, give up, or approach my work differently.
TDC: So you were considering being done with social work?
Ryan: Oh yeah. Part of what drove that was the realization that in order to make a living in social work, you have to hustle, and I didn’t know if I wanted to hustle for the rest of my life. Additionally, I was getting paid very little and was working with chronic suicidality, self-injury, and extreme trauma. So there was a value piece to that. Ultimately, I decided to go to therapy myself, which was extremely helpful. It helped me put priorities back in place and organize myself in new ways. By that time (about four years out) there was also a level of competency that was under my belt. Fortunately, every single day wasn’t a learning curve like it was those first few years out of graduate school.
TDC: So what brought you from Michigan to St. Louis?
Ryan: I moved to St. Louis in 2008 when my husband got into an MBA program. Since he moved to Ann Arbor for me during my fellowship program, it was time I invested in my relationship.
TDC: What was it like leaving behind everything you’d worked so hard on?
Ryan: It was a really difficult thing to pack up everything I’d built and leave a place where my name was established. No one knew who I was in St. Louis, so nothing I’d done back in Ann Arbor meant anything here. I was also moving to a system here in Missouri where evidence-based treatments and practices weren’t really talked about-people didn’t even have a clue what DBT was. The positive side to this was that there was a tremendous opportunity to fill that gap, which is what led to founding our organization, St. Louis Center for Family Development (STLCFD). We wanted to create a place where quality mental health services existed, ideally for the people who need it the most.
TDC: STLCFD is known for delivering quality mental health services, but it’s also known for the training it provides to its clinicians. What inspired that focus on clinician training?
Ryan: Back in Ann Arbor, I had an experience where I was sitting in the basement of Huron Valley Child Guidance Center playing ping pong with one of my clients after they did some really good work. There was this other therapist down there who was not there to reward his client for hard work, but who was instead engaging in shame based therapy. He was belittling the client and shaming him. I found myself thinking, “this is not just or equitable. Why does my client get a therapist who cares about him and knows what they’re doing, while this other client gets a shaming therapist?” After that, doing one-on-one therapy wasn’t as satisfying for me in terms of the overall impact I wanted to make. I realized I had a privilege; I had opportunities to learn from the best in the country in a very organized and structured way. I wanted to figure out a way to recreate that so other people could have opportunities to receive excellent training. So when we started STLCFD, it was both to create an organization that provides stellar quality services, but also to build and train phenomenal clinicians.
I also started working as an adjunct during that time at the Brown School of Social Work. While I like being able to provide training and consultation and help shape behaviors of providers who have been in the field for years, it’s a whole lot easier to set a trajectory than change a trajectory.
TDC: You’re at the Brown School full-time now. How did that transition occur?
Ryan: It was really the universe coming together. I was at a place organizationally where I had six people doing what I used to do myself. In the year leading up to the transition I decided to take a year off from providing trainings after a previous very hectic year, so I actually didn’t have a lot to do. When the opportunity came to join the faculty here as the chair of the mental health concentration, it just made sense personally and professionally. Choosing between two very good things was probably the hardest decision I’ve ever had to make, but I had to do what was best for me. My own personal growth had stalled, so I needed to find a community that would foster that growth.
TDC: Shortly after becoming the chair of the mental health concentration, you had another pretty big transition. Tell us about that.
Ryan: After about a month at the Brown school, I was presented with the opportunity to be the Assistant Dean of Social Work. It wasn’t on my radar and I had no idea what it entailed at the time, but I decided I would give it a try. I had spent the previous 10 years building STLCFD and logging a lot of hours. The intensity of that work was worth it for the time, but I also learned that work is not everything. In terms of satisfaction in life, there’s really something to be said for not being tired all the time. Academia here is a well oiled machine and this job allows me to have a greater balance in my life.
TDC: What are you hoping to accomplish during your time at the Brown School?
Ryan: I want to build on the strengths of our program. My immediate goal for the mental health concentration was to ensure we could actually build competencies and create a more organized structure and path towards what people want to do. That wasn’t as clear when I landed here and I’ve done a lot of work on that. I’ve revamped a lot of required courses to make sure people are getting what they need by the time they graduate.
In terms of the assistant dean position, I actually don’t have a vision yet. My first year was spent really learning about the position and my second year will be about our reaccreditation process. After that, the next step will be revamping our entire curriculum and concentration options as a school.
TDC: Final question: What advice do you have, especially for social workers just entering the field or who are in the process of getting licensed?
Ryan: Dream big and take it one step at a time. Understand we are all vulnerable and fallible humans and no one expects you to be perfect. Learning is uncomfortable, but learning is what will get you there. Don’t hide your difficulties-that leads to fatigue. It leads to burnout. It leads to people leaving the profession.
Know that you don’t have to know it all. The people who we help care most that we care about them, and for the most part they aren't concerned that you’re still learning. As long as you have their best interest in mind- and they know that and you feel that- that’s the juice that’s necessary for change. The technique stuff comes over time. There’s a shift that occurs at some point, about six or seven years out. Eventually you’ll feel more competent and steady. You’ll get to a space where you stop worrying about being incompetent and start embracing it. If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that it doesn't scare me that there’s an infinite amount of knowledge; it excites me that there’s an infinite amount of knowledge.
We are encouraged and inspired by all that Ryan has done in his career so far and all that he will continue to do. If you know a clinical social worker or MFT who should be highlighted in an upcoming "Pathways to Success" story, email Heidi at [email protected]