VHS Career Spotlight: Kaitie Westbrook, Mental Health and Wellness Coach
Welcome to the launch of Virtual High School’s Career Spotlight Series!
The goal of this series is to introduce students to different types of careers, both familiar and unique, in order to build on the college and university program information that we present every fall in our Post-Secondary Info Series. A significant advantage of the Career Spotlight Series is that we can highlight a wide variety of occupations that may not necessarily fit within a traditional mould or require a typical educational background. We want to give you a brief glimpse at individuals who are successful in their fields so that you’ll be inspired to do more research on the specific careers that interest you.
We’re kicking it off with Kaitie Westbrook, a mental health and wellness coach for the Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board.
Can you tell us a bit about your educational background?
I hold a Master of Social Work degree, and I am a Registered Social Worker with the Ontario College of Social Workers and Social Service Workers.
My post-secondary education began at Brock University, where I obtained a Bachelor of Arts (Sociology). Following this, I enrolled at King’s College at Western University to complete my Bachelor of Social Work. I then went into the field of social work as a child protection worker. After gaining some practical experience, I decided to return to school to complete my Master of Social Work. I completed my master’s education part-time at Dalhousie University in order to continue working and integrating my academic and practical work experiences.
What are your current responsibilities within your role?
Much of my work involves helping students with their mental health needs, but I also provide support to administrators, school staff, parents, and the Huron-Perth Catholic District School Board community.
When I am working with a student, my role is guided by the needs of this student. Often, they require 1:1 support where we embark on a journey together to explore their needs and learn how they can begin to feel their best. I often work as a two-way communicator between the student and the school team to help students meet academic requirements despite their obstacles. Sometimes this involves advocating for alternative assignments or due date extensions. I offer the school team consultations, resources, and presentations regarding mental health to support students.
Upon request, I complete classroom presentations for students, classroom observations, and assessments of students. I can also offer classroom interventions to support an educator’s needs and the needs of the students in the classroom. Lastly, I am also responsible for working with my mental health and wellness coach colleague, mental health lead, and the superintendent alongside researchers from Queen’s University and Western University to develop the mental health and wellness program. This involves research meetings, data collection, and the dissemination of materials for gathering qualitative and quantitative data.
What does a day at work look like for you?
When I am working at the secondary school level, I hold a caseload that varies between 30-40 students, and I see approximately 6-7 students per day for counselling. In addition to counselling students, I meet with the administration, the chaplain, and the guidance department to discuss student needs and mental health activities.
When I am providing service at the elementary level, the role involves more observation, assessment, and support for the classroom teacher. Sometimes this allows the opportunity to engage young students in play, provide help with tasks, hear about their curriculum activities, and engage in meaningful discussions with teachers, educational assistants, and administrators about the challenges and rewards they experience working in education.
On the days that I am not directly working with students, I work on the research project and program development with my mental health team, engage in professional development opportunities, engage in system meetings, and complete documentation as required.
I love the variation and diversity my work offers, but it requires a high degree of adaptability, flexibility, and organization to effectively respond to the shifting expectations.
Why did you choose this line of work?
Working with children, youth, and families has always been a passion of mine. Before completing my master’s degree, I always thought my role in child welfare would involve protecting the most vulnerable children and youth and supporting families enduring adversity. However, while I operated within a counselling role for the Huron community Family Health Team during my Master of Social Work program, I learned a great deal about myself and other field opportunities. I found my one-to-one counselling experiences and work within a multidisciplinary team to be incredibly rewarding.
I decided that this was the line of work best suited for me, and I felt I had more to offer in this area of social work. However, I also knew that I needed diversity and flexibility in the work I was doing. My position as a mental health and wellness coach allows me to provide direct practice, system work, program development, presentation and research development, ongoing professional development, collaboration, and opportunities for intervention.
What obstacles or challenges have you faced in your role?
My position is a new role that was first piloted thanks to the Tanner Steffler Foundation during the 2018-2019 school year. Given this, there are challenges involved in creating a mental health program within a system whose primary function is to provide education. For instance, we are developing our department’s policies and procedures to determine how we service the school board system. Additionally, we are exploring databases and selecting the appropriate processes that will support the work. This is particularly challenging because this is all happening while we are providing mental health services. However, the learning and creative opportunities are just a couple of the benefits that offset the challenges as we create a program that best meets the school system’s needs and fosters our development as school social workers.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I think the most rewarding aspect of my role is the opportunity to work with a multidisciplinary team to holistically support the needs of children and youth throughout their education journey. It is also rewarding to feel valued and be provided with the autonomy to co-create the mental health and wellness program.
Do you have any advice for people looking to get into this field?
My advice for those seeking opportunities in the field of social work, mental health, and/or the education system is to reach out to people in these areas of work. Connect with individuals within these fields of practice and ask them about their careers. Take time to research what education and professional designations are required for the job you are most interested in.
I also suggest that individuals seek placement and volunteer opportunities within various organizations to gain practical experience in order to learn what work they are best suited for. Lastly, continue to engage in opportunities that support your wellbeing, learning, and development. The better you know and can take care of yourself, the better positioned you will be to help others!
What are you looking forward to in your career this year?
This year I am most looking forward to learning how the research project will inform our work and program development. I am interested in hearing from staff and students about their experiences with the mental health and wellness services provided to them and discussing ways to improve the program to best meet their needs!
How has your role changed to adapt to the pandemic?
Much of our work shifted from the presenting problems we were focused on at school to the pandemic’s implications on the students’ mental health and wellbeing. With this second closure, the work in elementary has been paused. This has opened up my schedule to provide more availability to my secondary students. The secondary students are now more comfortable with cyber counselling and often request a video appointment rather than a phone appointment. While we still talk about the pandemic and remote learning, we continue to focus on the presenting problems. From my perspective, the pandemic has reinforced how resilient our youth truly are!
Kaitie’s recommended resources:
Self-Care 101 – Self-care is an important part of wellness. Take time and discover what helps you to feel good and recharge.
Reaching Out – It’s best to reach out and talk to someone. We all have mental health and talking about things is one of the ways we can take care of it! Asking for help can be awkward but you’ll probably feel relieved after you do.
No Problem Too Big or Too Small – A help seeking resource: for students by students.
CMHO – Kids’ Mental Health Resources
mood. by mindyourmind – A variety of day-to-day factors affect our mental health. Having a way to track some of these factors can help you manage your mental health and can allow your healthcare providers to better support you if you choose to share this data with them.
Jack.org – COVID-19 Youth Mental Health Resource Hub