Personal Meets Professional: Social Work and Mental Illness

February 23, 2018
Haleigh Culverhouse 1

With parents who own a nonprofit agency that supports women who are at risk for or recovering from human trafficking, it is no surprise senior BSW student Haleigh Culverhouse came to Baylor to study Social Work. Growing up, she knew she wanted to help people like her parents but was not sure what she wanted to study. Eventually, while on a mission trip to India, she found her answer–– or rather, it found to her.

“I was in India and met a girl who was rescued from trafficking. We really hit it off and she [asked] me if I was a social worker and if I could help her. Before that point in time, I had never really thought of social work or understood social work. I thought it was just [Child Protective Services]. From my experience with the girl in India, I looked into social work and realized that [social work] is where I felt like my skills and experiences growing up met. It fit me,” Haleigh said.

After deciding to study social work and coming to Baylor, Haleigh thought she wanted to focus on anti-human trafficking like her parents did; however, Haleigh’s sophomore year saw life flipped upside down for her and her family.

The human potential to be resilient and come back and be stronger … is really beautiful. To be able to come alongside people in that transition would be such a [wonderful] experience.

“My brother was [being treated] in Utah for severe depression and a drug addiction. His depression led to suicidal ideation and self-harm habits. As a big sister, all I wanted was to take that pain away,” Haleigh said. “I even remember praying, ‘God, why is this happening to my brother and not me? Let it happen to me instead.’” Her brother’s healing process took a great toll on her family, and Haleigh had to take care of her own mental health at the same time, but she found positives takeaways.

“There was so much growth that happened for my brother in the year he was living in Utah, going through treatment. Now he has graduated high school and is planning for his future. [He] wants to help kids just like him. I think seeing his transition inspired me,” Haleigh recalled. “The human potential to be resilient and come back and be stronger … is really beautiful. To be able to come alongside people in that transition would be such a [wonderful] experience.”

After personally encountering mental health concerns, Haleigh’s interest in exploring mental health grew.

“We needed to focus on our mental health as a family, and that for me opened up this whole new world of acknowledging feeling and emotion on a spectrum and not just ‘happy’ and ‘sad.’ I became very interested in what it means to be holistically healthy,” Haleigh said. “Learning what self-care is … was painful and hard, but it was also really healthy.”

Haleigh currently interns at Waco Center for Youth where she cares for adolescents with varying mental health diagnoses. She works under supervision of a therapist and gets to meet individually with girls at the center to talk them through their thoughts and feelings before they meet with other staff members. She has recently started planning and leading group therapy sessions, and often gets to sit in on clinical therapy sessions, among other day-to-day responsibilities. In all this, her own experiences have greatly helped her serve patients.

“Now that I work with girls with different mental illnesses, I don’t fully understand what they’re going through specifically, but I understand what it’s like to feel deep sadness or anxiety, or to be in a group setting and feel like everyone’s against you. I know what that feels like,” Haleigh said.

Haleigh’s time at the Garland School of Social Work (GSSW) has been extremely helpful for her as she has been able to learn groundwork and various theories for understanding mental health that she’s been able to apply to her personal and professional life. She also values having classmates and colleagues who bring different perspectives on how they have seen what they have learned in class play out in the real world.

“It has been really valuable to see how human behavior manifests itself in different environments. If I weren’t in the school of social work, I wouldn’t have that knowledge that’s been so valuable,” Haleigh said. In the future, Haleigh hopes to do interview-based research on how Waco Center for Youth can better support clients on the autism spectrum.

Along with the professional experience her internship has brought, Haleigh has also greatly valued the emphasis the GSSW places on the integration of faith and practice into social work.

“[Since] I work for a state-funded agency … I’m not supposed to talk openly about my faith, but faith in practice teaches us that to ethically practice is to allow the client to lead, but also give them resources as needed,” Haleigh said. “I still [personally] pray for my clients. I pray for healing for the girls, that they feel they are loved.”

Overall, Haleigh has felt emboldened by professors at the GSSW. She feels they’ve extended care for their students beyond the classroom.

“When I was experiencing tough seasons of life, they would extend grace and have spaces where you could come and talk through what’s going on and how it’s affecting you, [knowing] things in the outside world also affect schoolwork,” Haleigh said. “They are very nurturing and loving, but also empowering and encouraging for you to seek whatever you need. That is super significant.”

Haleigh plans to complete here MSW at Baylor and work towards an LCSW. She’s still working out whether she’d like to stay in Waco or take advantage of the GSSW’s virtual program. Professionally, she would like to continue focusing on mental health therapy and counseling, as well as holistic care and advocacy.