Specializing in vocational rehabilitation and work/life issues, Australian social worker Dawn Vincent has been in the mental health field for 25 years. Like many therapists, she considered opening a private practice, but says she lacked the confidence to actually do it. Read how one private practice course helped her muster up the courage to open her private practice in Camberwell, Victoria, Australia where she helps clients work toward mental health and well-being and navigate changes and choices in life and in work.
Why did you decide to open a private practice?
I had thought about it for about 10 years, but lacked the confidence to go ahead. After spending over 20 years in vocational rehabilitation I decided to take my long service leave and think about my options. After an overseas trip I came home and enrolled in an Introduction to Private Practice course run by the Australian Association of Social Workers. At that time there were only a small number of Social Workers in private practice and it was still somewhat controversial here in Australia.
The profession has a very strong welfare orientation where most Social Workers are employed by the Commonwealth or State governments or work in hospitals and community based settings. Having worked for a large government bureaucracy myself, I liked the idea of the independence and autonomy private practice seemed to offer. I had been a bit of a workaholic and I wanted to move to a better work/life balance and be able to work my own hours. The course helped me to decide that private practice was what I wanted and I committed to this goal.
Clients that therapists find to be the most "difficult" are sometimes the ones who can teach them the most. What have you learned from your toughest clients?
Before private practice I had worked with clients with physical, intellectual and psychological disabilities, helping them to enter or re-enter the workforce after injury or disability. At times it was very challenging and distressing working with people with acquired brain impairments and severe physical disabilities, particularly the younger ones whose lives were permanently changed.
I found I was drawn to the mental health clients and tended to specialise in this group and continue to do so in my private work. Working with people with disabilities reminds me how lucky I am to be fit and healthy and not take this for granted. It has also taught me about the dignity of risk and courage and resilience in life. Helping people overcome their barriers and live a full and meaningful life is incredibly rewarding. I learn from my clients daily and I am a better person from my interactions with them.
What's your biggest pet peeve about private practice?
The uncertainty of income. There are obviously times of the year when referrals are quiet and I used to worry about when I would get my next referral. Over recent years I have become more relaxed about this and accept it as part of the natural seasonal variations. I do get annoyed when clients cancel at the last minute when I have made a special time to see them outside of my normal schedule, although fortunately this does not happen often. As a member of both the Australian Association of Social Workers and the Career Development Association of Australia I have double fees and professional development requirements from these bodies which becomes very expensive.
How did you discover or develop your practice "niche"?
As mentioned above, my background is in vocational rehabilitation specializing in working with people with psychological disabilities. I always enjoyed working with this client group and was fascinated by the workings of the mind. When I entered private practice I was naturally drawn to working with mental health clients. Originally I had intended to focus on general counselling and psychotherapy, but I found that some of my colleagues were referring clients to me for career counselling.
With my experience in general counselling and vocational counselling it made sense to continue to use my skills in both areas and mix the two streams of work. I now see approx. 70% of clients for personal counselling and psychotherapy and the other 30% for career counselling, although sometimes there is an overlap as people may have psychological issues which impact on their career decisions. I find the career work provides some “light relief” from the common presentations of anxiety, depression and relationship problems as it is shorter in nature and less intense.
What resource (book, website, person) helped you the most when setting up your private private?
The Introduction to Private Practice course I did was based on Lynn Grodzki’s workbook Twelve Months to Your Ideal Private Practice. I worked my way through this workbook and reported back to the group each week. I found this helped me to be well prepared for the realities of private practice.
I still frequently refer to Lynn’s books when I need to focus on how to develop my practice further. One of the social workers who ran the course allowed me to rent her room for half a day a week and on the days I went there we would spend some time talking about my practice and she provided ongoing support and advice to me as I waited for my client base to build up. My husband was incredibly supportive and encouraging.
What has surprised you most about being in private practice?
The number of people who have been prepared to help me learn what I need to know about running a business and the amount of resources available to support this.
I belong to several business networks which have been very useful in making contacts with various professionals with expertise in website development, social media, business systems, coaching etc. It took me a while to find these, but they are out there if you ask and look.
Has your private practice helped you grow professionally? How so?
Every day I am learning new things. The longer I am in private practice, the more I realize there is to learn. Working with people and studying the human condition is exciting and stimulating. My skills and knowledge are continually growing as no matter what I may know about any topic or therapeutic approach, there is a constant stream of new knowledge out there.
Being in private practice makes me resource myself. I am responsible for my professional development – no one else, so I seek out opportunities to grow my knowledge and skills so I can continue to provide my clients with the best service I can and deepen my satisfaction at work.
Has it helped you grow personally, too? How so?
Absolutely. My confidence and self belief have developed as a result of taking a risk and putting myself “out there”. I could have continued in my former job with a safe, secure income and never grown to be the person I am now. It is great to have been able to overcome my own fears and insecurities and put in the hard work required to realize my dream.
I have had to learn about marketing, networking, managing a business, budgets, Business Plans, etc. I am more independent and I have a better understanding of myself, what I need and what I am capable of. I am happy doing work that I love and which I believe makes a difference in people’s lives. It is for me the perfect combination.
Being a therapist can be emotionally exhausting. What do you do to care for your own emotional and psychological health?
I am a great believer in self care and I constantly talk to my clients about this so I make an effort to practice what I preach. Some days it can be emotionally draining working with human pain and giving out to people. I debrief with professional colleagues as needed and I attend monthly private supervision. I try to exercise regularly, get enough sleep and eat healthily. My husband and I love travel and we visit our daughter in New York annually and have mini breaks in between. I make sure I catch up with family and friends on a regular basis. I use mindfulness breathing and meditation to help me relax and I listen to music and go for walks or do some gardening to unwind.
How do you cope with the inevitable stressors involved with being your own boss?
I love being my own boss so I don’t find it too stressful, but I imagine you are referring to having to do everything myself. I have no office assistance so I manage my appointments, type my invoices and reports, do my own marketing, pay the bills etc. I’m pretty organised and I am a bit of a control freak so it does not bother me to do all this myself. Sometimes I think it would be nice to have someone take on some of the small practical things while I focus on the things only I can do.
What personal strengths have helped you succeed in private practice?
Well, I think I am persistent and resilient and if I make up my mind to do something I don’t give up easily. I am quite disciplined and conscientious and hardworking. I am happy spending time alone so although I sometimes do miss having a team of people to work with, I operate better when I have time to think, reflect and plan. Private practice requires a lot of this.
I have good people skills and I have no problem forming trusting relationships with my clients. I network well and I seek out other people when I need social contact, but I don’t need a lot of people around me all the time. I am not afraid to ask for help when I need it and I am committed to life long learning.
To learn more about Dawn's practice visit her website http://www.dawnvincent.com.au