Self-Care Tips for the Modern Mental Health Counselor

Interview with Daryl Cioffi, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and LMHC in Rhode Island

Daryl Cioffi has always had a fascination with the human mind. As a young girl, she was the one who friends came to when they were experiencing difficulties. So it’s not surprising that she would go into the world of mental health treatment. But while it’s a career she thrives in, Cioffi is quick to realize that it can also be an all-consuming one. She posits that caring too much about a client can be as dangerous as not caring at all, which is why self-care is the most important thing to do as she expands her mental health counseling/life coaching business.

Cioffi has been on a clear path to success for the past ten years. After completing a Bachelor’s degree at Stonehill College, she then obtained a Master’s degree in education from Providence College. But she didn’t stop there. She then received a Certificate of Advanced Graduate Studies (CAGS) in mental health counseling from Salve Regina University. She is currently a doctoral student at Johnson & Wales University and is teaching neuropsychology and psychopharmacology in the counseling psychology masters and undergraduate programs at several colleges in the New England area.

Interview About Self-Care in Social Work with Daryl Cioffi

At 29, Cioffi has already established her own business, Polaris Counseling & Consulting, along with a partner. She is also an authority on mental health counseling and life coaching issues, having been quoted in several online publications and websites, in addition to offering advice on a women’s-only radio show. A firm believer in connecting to one’s inner self as a way to stay healthy in mind, body and soul, Cioffi has used that approach to further her knowledge of the mental health field. She also follows that principle to drive her enthusiasm for cutting-edge research, such as her study of the relationship between drinking and risky sex, which she conducted at Brown University.

Enjoy the entire interview with Daryl Cioffi as she shares her secrets to achieving a healthy, unplugged life, free of the stress that can arise as a mental health counselor and coach.

GradSchools: Tell us about your background and education. How did you initially get involved in psychology and mental health counseling?

Honestly, I was the creepy kid who always had a fascination about serial killers and Sybil type characters and all of those really odd things that would make my parents look twice at my Christmas list. I have always been intrigued with how the human mind works, or in some cases, fails to work. As I got older I was always the girl in school that everyone came to talk about their problems. I had a natural knack for listening and being able to communicate effectively. I was also an athlete in college having grown up playing basketball, and eventually competing at such a high level allowed my communication skills to really flourish.

GradSchools: You’re currently a counselor and life coach. Can you discuss some of your previous positions and how they led you to where you are today?

I have been very lucky to have an array of experiences on my never-dull journey. I started out working in an inpatient psychiatric hospital and then moving to a clinical research position at Brown University to conducting my own research at Boston University, both in addiction studies. I then went on to become a director of a residential program for women with dual diagnoses. I am currently a doctoral student, teach neuropsychology and psychopharmacology in the counseling psychology masters and undergraduate programs at a few colleges in New England, and I own my own private practice with my business partner Jenn Weaver-Breitenbecher, called Polaris Counseling & Consulting. We are in the works of making it into a wellness center focusing on mental health, physical health, and spiritual health. We have nutritionists, holistic healers and clinical staff ready to come in and work with clients on becoming "well beings."

GradSchools: Based on you and your colleagues’ experiences, what are some of the stresses and challenges of careers in mental health counseling?

Some of the biggest stressors in this field stem from the reasons that we start in these careers. At times there is such a thing as caring too much about your client. It’s very difficult at times to do the right thing that may make your client feel worse and need to face their discomforts when you want to do the easy thing, and make life easier for them by fixing everything. It is tough realizing that your job is not to fix the other person, your job is to help them learn how to fix themselves. I also think that clinicians often lack the ability to self-care at times. This can cause burn out and lead to a risk of your own mental and physical well-being. When you feel like you are trying too hard or doing too much, you are most likely right. Learn to listen to your body and see the signs of burning out.

GradSchools: What are some self-care tips that you use to combat the affect those stresses have on your personal well-being? Do you take part in any self-care group activities?

I am extremely lucky to have a significant other and family that contribute to my well-being daily by their constant support and love. I also make it a point to work out and take time to do the things that I truly enjoy, even if it is driving the scenic route between jobs and class or singing awful early 2000s music as loud as I can. I also have a wonderful business partner and friends/mentors who know the business and are amazing clinicians. It is nice to be able to talk and vent to them while having check-ins about difficult cases and much needed laughs.

GradSchools: Can you talk a bit about the research projects you took part in? How does that experience contribute to the work you do?

At Brown University, I was a clinician on a research study looking at drinking and risky sex in an emergency room population using motivational interviewing. So there was clearly never a dull day. It was a really great way to see first-hand not only how to conduct research but why it’s so important as a practitioner to know about research, nevermind the experience with that population. This project went on to spark my own research project at Boston University looking into media influence on underage drinkers at a brand level. I was able to see and learn from both my triumphs and struggles by doing that project. It contributes to the type of clinician I am now. I love looking at cutting edge research to help my clients out by utilizing old and new theories and practices. It also keeps me informed and engaged with my students in teaching them how to be the best practitioners that they can be.

GradSchools: Is there any advice you wish you had received early on in your education or career as a psychologist? Are there any missteps to try avoiding?

I wish I would have listened to people when they told me to "trust my struggle." This entire process will add to your value as a practitioner by tapping into your own struggles and process of overcoming hard times, and learning how to celebrate the good times. I still need reminding of it when I feel like I am not where I need to be at the time I need to be there in my career. But I am only 29 years old and I often need to remind myself of that.

GradSchools: Can you outline some of the particular challenges to working with sexual assault prevention and crisis intervention?  What are some self-care tips you have for dealing with those particular issues?

One of the biggest challenges with crisis work is that if you are not careful you begin to take your work home with you. Being able to have strong healthy boundaries and good supervision is key. Making sure you’re taking care of basic needs (sleeping well, eating right) as well as mental needs (talking it out, getting your own therapist, etc.).

GradSchools: Do you have advice for those interested in pursuing careers in counseling psychology? Do you think it’s important to have some self-care tips ready for when you start your career? 

Don't be afraid to make mistakes and ALWAYS ask for help or advice. You learn through growth, especially in this field. Many times the mistakes you will make will be the key to making you a great clinician. It is extremely important to be able to care for yourself before you start in this field. If you are carrying around any of your own baggage or have any of your own issues to work out, get that settled because it will at some point enmesh with your work if you are not careful.

GradSchools: Are there certain traits or qualities that you think make a person while suited to pursue a career as a counselor?

Some people are natural born counselors while others are able to acquire the skills needed. A great clinician is open minded, can think outside the box and on his or her feet, and they are brave enough to ask for help. Also, individuals with a good sense of humor and even better boundaries—and a person who genuinely cares for the betterment of a person, no matter how small the progress—may be well suited for a position in this field.

GradSchools: In your opinion, is this a good time for students to pursue careers in mental health counseling? Why or why not?

Absolutely! There are more and more specialties opening up and more potential career paths for people in our field to forge a new path. Science and technology are allowing us to see and do things in this field never before seen or done and quality of care has continued to improve. Smart phones and computers now connect counselors to clients across the globe and give instant access to those who need it. There are so many possibilities and dimensions to pursue in this line of work that if you don't find the right fit at first, continue to try different paths and you may find what speaks to you and your skills most.


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