“What keeps me inspired is pretty personal. Learning about and dealing with PTSD and trauma explained a lot about what I was experiencing in my own life. I have empathy and the desire to use my experience and my education with homeless clients in shelters and with other people in the community.” – John Lafferty, LMSW
Driven by a lifelong challenge, John Lafferty started his second career three years ago as a licensed master social worker (LMSW) at Maryland Health Alliance, at the age of 64. After working at Catholic Charities of Washington, DC back in the early eighties, John earned his master’s degree in social work (MSW) in 1990, was a teacher at local community colleges for 20 years, returned to school in 2011, and is now fulfilling his true calling — using both his own experience with trauma and therapy, as well as his continuing education, to help low income mental health clients in the community.
What inspired you to go into the mental health field and profession? What keeps you inspired every day?
It’s something I have wanted to do for all of my adult life. When I got my social work degree at the age of 40, the psychology field did not know about trauma and PTSD. I learned about it when I was 57. When I was 60, I was at a point in my life where I had a general idea to take a risk and find a way to do what I always had wanted to do. I told myself, “If not now, then when?” At that time, I also came across a book by Daniel Pink, called Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, which talks about the desire of older people to do the work that they find meaningful, and that they’ve always wanted to do. It validated what I was considering.
What keeps me inspired is pretty personal. Learning about and dealing with PTSD and trauma explained a lot about what I was experiencing in my own life. I have empathy and the desire to use my experience and my education with homeless clients in shelters and with other people in the community. It gives meaning to my experience, and it makes me less of a victim, when I am able to use my experience as an asset in helping others. It helps with my own recovery…and when doing my own recovery work, I learn a lot that I can use to help people across socioeconomic, ethnic and racial backgrounds. I am also interested in learning about other mental health issues that I encounter. I appreciate the opportunity to make a small difference in the lives of a few people in Baltimore. I value going to places throughout the city that I would not otherwise travel to because of racial and other socioeconomic differences. I appreciate being able to help people I have gotten to know and interact with professionals in the legal and medical system. I don’t have the problem that a therapist told me about several years ago, when he said he felt stuck behind a desk listening to people’s problems all day.
Tell me about a client that was the most difficult to help. What was the outcome and how did you overcome the challenges and difficulties?
I’ve lost a lot of clients, clients who have dropped out, for example, with bipolar depression and ADHD, treatment resistant depression, anxiety disorder, certain personality disorders, or because of their fragile living situations. That’s been challenging. But that’s not the whole story. There are other clients whom I think about how to help them understand, develop hope, and change personal behaviors…ways of thinking that can help them live more productively, or at least take another step to living more productively. Some of them appreciate how my listening and ways of talking with them is different from how others in their families and social networks relate to them. But there are some clients in between these two groups. They might not have the cognitive ability to participate in therapy in the usual way, and some people have suggested to me that they may not be appropriate for therapy. I have been encouraged to discover that some of them benefit in other ways.
For instance, I was recently working with a homeless man who experienced traumatic brain injury when he was hit on the back of the head and went into a coma. He had to learn to speak, think and do everything all over again. He was later run over by a car…he had a lot of cognitive impairment. During his recovery, he wanted to depend on other people to take care of him, and he really wasn’t into therapy. He was dealing with depression; feeling like his life was pointless. Later, it was discovered that he had stage four cancer.
In my working with him, I learned a lot about his medication, and the hospital system. With a combination of my work, that of the staff at the shelter, and the work of the doctors and the palliative care team, he came to accept that he had cancer (after being in denial when he was diagnosed). His family accepted it…he got reunited with them. I was able to reassure them that some of his behavior that had troubled them in the past was much better when he was taking a certain medication… and he is now receiving in-home hospice care while living with them. So here’s a homeless guy whose now off the streets, and is reunited with his adult daughter for the first time in years. At the same time, I also learned in a continuing education ethics course about the treatment of advanced cancer patients that family support was one of the top five things that most of these patients want. The plan is for him to go into it into inpatient hospice care when a space opens until his daughter can get a place with him, and they’ll live out his last days together.
That’s one example of me helping someone in a way that involves working with a client’s environment…talking with his family when he was in denial and going to his medical appointments, so I could participate in the therapy with him. But in the process, I was also able to facilitate coordination of care (which is out of the scope of my job duties, but it was worthwhile). This ended up being a positive therapeutic outcome that I did not envision when I first met this man, but which I was able to do because of my efforts to provide him behavioral health therapy.
What’s it been like working for Maryland Health Alliance?
It has been a growing experience in several positive ways, especially because of the excellent individual and group supervision. I have also enjoyed learning from other second career colleagues in group supervision. I feel fortunate to work in an entrepreneurial, minority-owned company because many of the clients I work with are minorities. They are flexible problem solvers that help me do the work that I want to do with adults.
What advice would you give to someone who was interested in going into the mental health career field?
I think it’s really important to listen, understand and to accept what clients are saying and feeling before offering suggestions. Understand that you have to develop a relationship with someone based on acceptance and care before you can introduce suggestions for change. That’s one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.
Interested in joining the Mental Health Alliance, Inc. team?
You can do important work here! With exceptional colleagues like John, you’ll be among people who share a commitment to helping clients, enriching our communities, and protecting the environment. Maryland Health Alliance inc. offers an excellent environment for your aspirations and experience. You’ll find the support and resources you need to keep learning, balance work-life integration, and be recognized for your achievements. We’re growing and always looking for talented and experienced mental health professionals.
There’s room to develop at Maryland Health Alliance Inc. where action leads to impact and impact leads to growth. Post a reply below to ask us about our career opportunities!