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College of Social Work

  • Katie Totten

How a Passion for Mental Health Led to Social Work Graduate Studies

Feb. 12, 2020
Chris Woodley •  

Chance encounters often occur in air travel. Some passengers meet a life-long friend or future spouse. Others may connect with someone who assists them on a path to a new job. For one Master of Social Work student, an encounter with an individual on a flight changed her course in graduate studies.

Katie Totten was living in Texas when she was on a flight to North Carolina. That’s when a conversation with an individual began her interest in pursuing her graduate studies in social work, a degree she had never previously considered. 

“I always seemed to sit next to people who liked to talk. It didn't bother me because I wanted to be a therapist, so I figured I should get used to talking with people,” Totten says. “I told the man sitting next to me that I wanted to be a therapist and planned to get my master's in counseling. But he told me that insurance companies prefer social workers because their profession has been around longer and gave me some background information.”

Totten always had an interest in mental health. But while pursuing an undergraduate degree in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin, she said her most interesting class was a social work course that focused on young people and substance abuse. After graduating, she was a mental health associate at a residential psychiatric facility while working alongside social workers and professional counselors. After considering the pros and cons of both fields, she decided that the ethics of social work were more aligned with her values.

Totten’s interest in mental health came from personal experiences within her family. She realized that some of her relatives were not receiving what she considered proper care. In addition, she was shocked by the recommendations of mental health professionals. For example, one psychiatrist told her parents that buying a house and providing a family member more space would solve their problems. Totten was upset by the negligent care received by the people she loved and cared for the most.  

“I felt that the ways these professionals were treating their patients would never be acceptable in the medical field. I started doing research and became passionate to serve a population that is vulnerable and stereotyped in our society,” Totten says. “It became a passion to advocate for people who are looked down upon and ignored for being unstable. People with mental illness can be successful and live happily with proper care and treatment.” 

Totten’s field education placements have allowed her to apply her passion in mental health in real world settings. Last year, she was placed at Mental Illness Recovery Center, Inc., a nonprofit in Columbia focused on adults diagnosed with severe chronic and persistent mental illness. Most of the clients have suffered mental illness for a long time, leading some to endure homelessness.

“We provided housing and then focused on treating their mental illnesses,” Totten says. “I heard stories about how some clients were kicked out of their homes at a young age and bumped around through the judicial system and through the streets. It was interesting to see not only how mental illness can lead to these negative outcomes but how proper care can lead to fantastic outcomes. One client’s family abandoned him in Charleston and ended up in Columbia with nothing. He's been with MIRCI for several years and has a house, car and stable job. It reiterated the idea that proper care can lead to great outcomes.”

Totten now works with students at her current field placement at the University of South Carolina Student Health Services office. Unlike last year at MIRCI, she notices that more students are focused on preventative mental health. There is also more of an emphasis on learning coping skills and the acceptance of mental illness.

“It seemed that everything was retrospective at MIRCI, but students come to the counseling center feeling stressed out and might say, ‘I noticed something about my friend and how they turned out, and I don't want that to happen to me,’” Totten says. “There’s a big emphasis on learning coping skills.

Experiencing group settings at the counseling center are more beneficial for the diagnosis. They are informative, and a bond is built between participants of the group. It's a phenomenal way that we're trying to serve a large community with limited resources. That's important for me to learn as a social worker.” 

Totten also volunteers with Crisis Text Line for additional experience in helping individuals cope and overcome mental health issues. Texters are connected to a trained crisis counselor like Totten who actively listens and helps provide collaborative problem solving.

“It's amazing that anyone can be a volunteer, and you commit to completing 200 hours if you are selected,” Totten says. “I completed 30 hours of training before I started talking to any texters. There is always a licensed mental health professional supervising your chat, so volunteers can raise awareness to the supervisor who walks you through continuing the conversation or if it needs to be moved up the chain.

The texts range from someone calling because they failed a test or another person who has had thoughts of hurting themselves for a long time. Sometimes the police are called out to check on the texter. It’s great to be a part of an organization that reaches a broad array of people.”

As Totten prepares for graduation this spring, she is considering fellowships at other university counseling centers that would provide the supervision needed to obtain her clinical license. But she has also completed trauma-related trainings and is interested in working with people who have more severe mental illnesses, such as personality disorders. According to Totten, more clinicians tend to avoid patients with personality disorders because they believe it is so persistent that a client will never improve.

“Right now, I want to put myself in the best position to provide appropriate care for people in need,” Totten says. “I know I can utilize my strengths in mental health to provide the necessary care, but I’m not limiting myself to a specific area because I love learning about the different aspects of mental health. I'm glad people know that I'm passionate about mental health because it’s always easy to talk about a topic that you really enjoy.” 

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