Clinical Therapist Advice – Work With a Team Before Going Solo

therapist advice


I started my career as a therapist in the Intern Program at Sanford Behavioral Health in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was called “Sanford House” in early 2018, and we were managing outpatient addiction treatment in the carriage house at Sanford House at Cherry Street for Women. I was fortunate enough to shadow an amazing therapist. She told me there would never be another experience like the training period I got at Sanford. I observed, took notes, and soaked it all up for four months without tripping. Of course, when I took the lead I made a few mistakes, but she was there to advise and guide me.


When you work with a team in a growing organization…

When you work with a team in a growing organization like Sanford Behavioral Health, there is an added benefit. Shortly after I began my internship, Sanford opened its Outpatient Center and I was part of the process. I was lucky to sit in on conversations about programming and new policies. Understanding how new procedures and programs fit into the overall plan helps you do your job better. It also makes you feel integral to the team and deepens your perspective.


Expanding Outpatient Services therapist advice flyer


In 2019, I graduated with my master’s in social work from Baylor University (Sic ‘Em!) and started full-time at Sanford Behavioral Health Outpatient Center. While I had a lot of valuable training as an intern, I also had incredible support and oversight during that stage. As a Clinical Therapist, I was going to quickly learn the ability to make effective and case-by-case decisions on my own – a frightening thought. That is something that I think all newly graduated, high-on-enthusiasm, and low-on-wisdom younger therapists experience. 


 Young Clinical Therapist – Part of a Team

Growing up, I didn’t always love school. I mean didn’t mind it, but my head was often in the extracurriculars. I played sports, I was in the leadership class, and I held leadership positions. Knowing this, it is a testament to how much I love social work that I graduated with a 4.0 in my master’s program. I loved the material, and I soaked up all the information I could on clinical practice. My favorite class was every class but research (even though I loved that professor). As I applied for and began to use my Limited License Master of Social Work (LLMSW), I felt excellently prepared to work with folks who were receiving outpatient addiction treatment. And I was prepared, even over-prepared, education-wise.


However, I soon learned that education and class materials are only part of engaging in the actual career. 


There are many important things I learned in my earliest years as a Clinical Therapist with Sanford. Some of them were joyous and happy, while others were tough and required processing. However, I would credit almost all my growth to my mentors and coworkers who taught me, supported me, and listened to me. 


 Therapist Advice – Loosen Up!

One of the first and best lessons I learned is that working with people as a therapist is a lot like learning a new recipe. You might follow the steps perfectly the first few times, but after a while, you tend to personalize it to better fit what you need – or what you have in the fridge. If I could go back and tell myself some therapist advice, I would start with “loosen up!”. You are a human talking to another human. It is okay to have some laughs, build rapport, and engage in conversations that aren’t expressly detailed in a Clinical Practice textbook.


I would not have caught on to this as quickly if I didn’t have the opportunity to watch my more experienced coworkers lead groups. I was so encouraged by their empathetic, person-centered approaches. Even if person-centered at that moment meant talking about their child’s Halloween costume or their favorite football team. Years later, I feel much more empowered to use evidence-based interventions in a way that feels fluid and organic.  


Clinical therapist advice

I credit mindfulness for propelling me to do uncomfortable work with manageable stress.


 Mindfulness – Creative Opportunities

Another learning experience I had in my full-time role was creating and running an outpatient group on Mindfulness. This required me to build a curriculum and assist with recruiting interested parties. I ended up running that group for two years. There is so much knowledge to gain when you are running groups!  Instead of one person’s feedback, you are collaborating with a whole team of people’s feedback. You get to engage with a small crowd on what they want, need, or appreciate in their treatment process. Even having the opportunity to develop the curriculum taught me skills I needed to learn. I knew how to find evidence-based interventions per my MSW courses. However, I needed to learn how to find evidence-based interventions that would impact the group the way I wanted.  


When I sit with my clients in individual sessions and groups, I hope we all have a mindful/meditative experience. 


Virtual Addiction Treatment – Pivoting to Support Clients

In the fall of 2020, Sanford pivoted to support our clients during the pandemic lockdown. We created a telehealth program for outpatient addiction treatment in two weeks! That is something else an organization can do – tap the talents of many people in times of trouble to support our clients. Virtual treatment has become a staple of the Sanford continuum, broadening our accessibility. I was part of a team this summer to develop residential to telehealth treatment, increasing flexibility in our full continuum of care. Interestingly, I am now performing my job as Outpatient Clinical Manager from Salt Lake City, Utah. Staying with Sanford would not have been possible without the technology we perfected during the pandemic.


Clinical Therapist Advice – Work With a Team

There is value in being a young clinical working with a team. Here is why:

  • You learn from others (and form lifetime friends and contacts) for personal and career growth.
  • You have consistent access to supervisors, managers, and peers.
  • And access to a mentor network – observe in action!
  • At Sanford, it is a great way to cross-train and work with medical and clinical experts in co-occurring disorders.
  • With a full continuum of care, there are opportunities to fine-tune your preferred practice areas.
  • There is a structure in place and a support system to bolster you.
  • When you falter or make mistakes you are not alone.
  • When you are starting, you don’t know what you don’t know and this is an opportunity to learn from more experienced coworkers.
  • There are opportunities for creative input and the pride of being part of a growing organization.  





844 with lake Michigan

Ali Kitchin grew up outside of San Francisco, but most of her extended family lives in Michigan, so she’s glad to call Grand Rapids home these days. Ali has a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master's from Baylor University. She was a clinical manager at Sanford Outpatient Center and worked for Sanford from 2018 to 2023. In her free time, Ali loves to run (when weather permits), read science fiction novels, or be outside with her dog, Pepper!