October 11, 2023

October is coming to a close, and with it being the final hours of Emotional Wellness Month we thought we'd spotlight our behavioral health services/team at Greater Portland Health. 

Marianne Donahue is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with Greater Portland Health. She recently spoke with us about her journey to her career path, how she interacts with patients, and the benefits of receiving behavioral health services.

1. You've had years of experience working as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Can you talk a little bit about what led you to your career path, and what brought you to Greater Portland Health?

I'm from Boston, and I went to school and got a degree in psychology; I always felt like social work or psychology was my path cause' I just love people, and I really am interested in understanding behavior but also helping people. I went to school — I worked in hospitals, mostly psychiatric hospitals in Boston, but I used to come to Maine for vacation. So, I came to Maine years ago — thought I would maybe just stay for a year, because Spring Harbor at the time was opening up, and I thought 'Well, I'll work at a hospital in Maine and try it out.' I liked it there, but I decided to go back to school. [I] went to Boston University for my Masters in Social Work, and continued to work up here [in Maine.]

I always wanted to work in a community health center; I used to walk by here. I'd think 'That looks like a good place to work — I wonder if they have any Social Workers?,' but I had pretty much gotten locked into a job a Cumberland County Jail working with people who had mental health and legal problems. At the last moments I saw an ad for a job here; I applied right under the wire — ran my resume and the application to City Hall, put the other job on hold, went for an interview here and was lucky enough to get the job. I knew it was the right fit because it was going to be integrated care and working with a team. It just reminded me of my days in Boston; it was like having a little bit of a city feel in Portland — in a smaller city.

I've been here now eight years, and I'm on the mental health team. I do consider myself a Psychiatric Social Worker, but some of us call ourselves Councilors, we might say we're your Social Worker. We technically can and do, do therapy so some people say Therapist. What it comes down to I think is basically doing what we can do to help people; all the people here, the social workers, have their own special area that they really like and are really talented at — it's a great group of people.

2. Would you happen to have an overview of some of the services that the behavioral health team provides?

When we first started out it was me and one other Social Worker; it was really busy, but we were small, so we really grew and expanded over time. I don't think I've ever been in a place that has grown and added on so many different aspects of health. What we do is we work along with the medical providers and everyone else here — all the teams; we provide the behavioral health end of treatment. For example, we have [those] who [do] Pediatric Social Work. We have Social Workers that work in the different schools in the community. We have [those] who work in the substance abuse program. We have other people that [work in] all different kinds aspects of behavior - for children, adolescence, [and] adults. 

A big thing that we do, and a big thing that I do now is working with people from other countries, and I love that part of the work; a lot of us do some of that. [We] [get] to know people's culture, customs, [help] people with asylum, and [work] with people that have gone through horrific trauma and gone through really horrible times in whatever country they may be coming from and seeking safety here. There's so much to it, and I'm sure I'm forgetting things, but we're like a compliment to the medical aspects. Where the providers are paying attention to people's medical health and care, we're providing support to their emotional well-being. We have great Outreach workers and people in all the different programs. I don't want to not mention them, that do fabulous work in the community, so we cover a lot of aspects of care — the whole spectrum. 

3. I know you disused this briefly in working with people from other countries, but can you talk about some of the ways that you specifically work with patients to improve their emotional well-being?

It's probably in a way the same basic principles for every person no matter where they're from, or what culture, what race — basic respect; treating the person with the respect they deserve. I think it’s really important to create a safe welcoming space for anyone. They're just those basic principles of how we would want to be treated if we went to a health care place. In working with people from other countries I had so much to learn; I had only done a little bit in my experience [beforehand.]

I hadn't really worked with interpreters. You're talking to someone sometimes about very personal traumatic things but sometimes, in the beginning especially, using an interpreter. If you know someone and you feel like you're being respectful you can almost joke — so many people say to me 'I wish I knew English,' and I'll say, 'I wish I knew the five languages that you speak.' A lot [of our work] is about helping people in our case management.' Outreach people do this with resources, knowledge, helping them if they have questions, to understand, to get around.

[We help] make them feel safe because for so long they have not felt safe. [We also work] to understand what their triggers might be. If they hear a siren or if the police come it doesn't have to mean that it's going to be something that's going to hurt them, or kill them, or be harmful.  

Little by little as people begin to trust us, or have trusted me, they'll start to tell me your story. I say that going through the pain of telling your story is hopefully worth it because, then what we do as social workers is, we can write up a medical assessment that this person did suffer. [That] they do have PTSD [and that] they've suffered from torture [and] trauma. [We] can [then] present that along with their lawyer’s information, and all that they do, and make their asylum case a little bit stronger and bring the human aspect to it. 

There's so much to it, but I just want to say that every social worker here, that is on the team, has a passion and a particular interest for what they do. [They give] their sincere attention and following through on their things builds the trust that helps to heal people. [This] along with [providing] skill building, coping skills, and some hope. 

[It's about] giving realistic hope — not saying things that are false that set people up but [giving] realistic expectations, you know? You may have to wait a long time to get a hearing for asylum, but you can be doing things along the way. It doesn't have to be wasted time. [You can] connect with people. It's hard to do it alone. 

I didn't know that I would be working so much with people from other countries [for my job.] I had been hired to do mental health work, but the population of people from all different countries has grown, and I love it. I like the diversity that I saw in Boston, and I'm glad it's coming to Maine.

4. Mental health still feels like it can be a taboo issue. As someone in the behavioral health field what do you believe are some of the general benefits of receiving mental/behavioral health services?

Just to go back to what you said as mental health being taboo, I think there is a lot of stigma attached to mental health. I think [in our profession we] try to work to advocate that not be the case and say that the world is difficult — life can be. There is always a focus on trying to bring an awareness that people have problems, [and] they're not bad or defective people in some way; with that being said, it's really hard sometimes for anyone, even ourselves, to ask for help.

What we do is just offer some genuine techniques, strategies, so that the person can cope a little bit better; even breathing exercises or things that could be physically helpful like going to the gym and just getting some stress out. Sometimes even if you love your family you don't want to stress them out so you talk to someone outside that you get to know and maybe you feel a little relief. 

We try to offer some concrete skills and understanding of stress and the effects it can really have on a person — that they're not losing their minds; they have had legitimate awful things happen sometimes in their lifetime, and these are normal reactions in many ways. We offer some hope that maybe things can get better and also maybe [act as] a role model. [We] say 'You have met people in the world that have treated you abusively, with disrespect that no one deserves, [but] there are some good people here in the world. We're on your side to try to help you.'

We do this because we believe in trying to make the quality of anyone's life just a little bit better; everybody plays a part — it's not just one person. I think the benefits [of receiving mental/behavioral health services] are that maybe, concretely, a person may have less nightmares, they may have fewer panic attacks, maybe the depression lifts and they can finally have some energy.