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I Built My Own Mental Health Practice; So Can You

by Florence Saint –Jean, Ph.D., NCC, ACS, MFP Doctoral Fellow

For long ago as I can remember, I was told if I were to obtain a mental health degree my career options would be legion. I could, for example, open a private practice or start a nonprofit organization. I was always intrigued by the idea of starting my own business.

The part no one told me was that starting a business is no small task.

It sounded so simple, as though school prepares one to simply walk into any career path after graduation. Pastor A.R. Bernard has said on many occasions: “Change is not an event; it’s a process.” And he sure is right. My process was a long one.

In 2014, after completing my doctoral course work, I was working on my dissertation and going through the hardest time of my life. I had just moved back home to New York City and was dealing with a lot of personal pain. I was unemployed and broke. I felt unmotivated and lost navigating the big New York City streets. However, through it all, a masterpiece was born.

The ‘Miracle Question’ I Asked Myself
One day I sat on my bed and thought, since I can’t find a job with all the skills I acquired, how about I dream up my own job? I asked myself “the miracle question” I had asked my clients time and time again: “If you woke tomorrow, and everything was perfect, what would your life look like?”

And so I began to dream. At the time I was doing a lot of international work—I brought doctoral students and professors to do mental health trainings in Haiti—but the work had no name and no affiliation. In my miracle dream, I drew an organization that did indirect work such as international trainings for lay workers and provided direct counseling for underserved residents of New York City. I even designed the facility and named it Global Trauma Research. When I was done with my drawing I felt much better. But I left it at that—a dream in my journal.

A few weeks later a good friend of mine called me and asked, since I was back home, what my plans were. I told him I was focusing on finishing my dissertation. But I also said something that would change my life. I shared my miracle dream with him.

I explained, “It’s just an idea, something I won’t be able to do, until 10 years from now.”

He replied, “If I know anyone that can do this, it would be you.”

I was happy to speak to him that day. Still, I pushed the whole conversation to the back of my mind and went back to watching TV.

It didn’t go to the back of my friend’s mind, though. Two days later, he called again and said, “I have the opportunity of a lifetime for you!” He wanted me to consider partnering with a well-established organization to create the organization I dreamed of.

A few days later, I met with this company and its leadership immediately agreed to partner with me. They had the resources; I had the mental health knowledge. It was perfect!

The only problem was, with whom were they partnering? You mean the organization I dreamed up in my journal? Yikes!

After that initial meeting, I had 1 month to create this organization from scratch, from registering the business with the state of New York to creating a business plan. I had no idea what I was doing.

In school I was encouraged to do things like this. And I thought I was ready to do so. I mean, after all, I was a National Certified Counselor . . . an Approved Clinical Supervisor . . . a SAMSHA Minority Fellow . . . a National Board for Certified Counselors Mental Health Facilitator . . . and a doctoral candidate in counselor education. I knew a lot!

Only trouble was, none of those credentials taught me how to run a business.

Fast Forward to 2018
Today, Global Trauma Research is a very successful new business, providing

  1. Intensive 24-hour crisis intervention, as well as psychiatric and psychotherapy services, in partnership with HCC Inc.

  2. Satellite support groups

  3. International trainings and research, including our signature annual Haiti Trauma Project

We have partnerships with major companies. Yes, some of those companies, Apple and Google, for example. And we have raised thousands of dollars.

There have been a lot of successes, but also growing pains.

I look back today, and I wouldn’t change a thing. But I wish I had known more at the start.

How Did I Get There?
Bet you’d like to know how it got there. As I said before, my process was a long one.

Here is what I learned that would have made the process shorter if someone had told me at the beginning of it:

Research the Need. Many businesses fail because of lack of research. Ensure that you’re solving a problem in the neighborhood you want to start the business. Be sure to start small though, so you can set yourself up for success.

Get Mentorship. I had many amazing mentors over the years. In my doctoral program, my mentors knew counseling inside out, but no one understood business. I advise you to go online or ask around and find the ideal company that models what you’re trying to accomplish, and find out who runs that company. Don’t be afraid or intimidated to e-mail or call that individual and ask for 15 minutes of his or her time. You will need that person’s expert advice, and you’d be surprise to know how many leaders are willing to pay it forward. But make sure you’re bringing something to the table as well. Ask yourself, what do you have to offer that person?

Access Free Education. Many schools such as Columbia University or nonprofits such as IMPACCT offer free business workshops for first-time business owners. Access the free information there to avoid pitfalls such as employer taxes, unemployment and liability insurance, payroll processing, and the like. Another great resource is the New York City Mayor’s Office of Minority and Women-owned Business Enterprises.

Enlist Volunteers. Whether it’s your friends, family, or church community, anyone you know can get involved. Host a small gathering at your home or community center, and tell everyone what you’re working on and how they can participate. You don’t have to embark on this journey alone, so use your support system and all their available resources—you’ll be surprised to learn whom your friends know.

Offer Barter Services. At the beginning of my partnership with HCC I didn’t get any income, as the clinic wasn’t generating any money. I did, however, offer the company my skills and expertise in exchange for its resources such as space and electronic access. You can do the same thing to get help from a consultant. When money is limited, offer your skills in exchange for someone else’s professional skills such as grant writing and business plan writing.

Give Yourself Grace. Understand that it may be a one-person show in the beginning. Understand that you have your own limitations and time is not always on your side. Therefore, you need to say no to some things and OK to some losses. Follow your intuition: know when to fight for the right cause, and know when to step away, and let it go for your own sanity.

Pay Yourself First. When you first start making money, the amount may be so small that you can think of millions of things to do with it—pay bills, hire staff, and so on. My recommendation is to pay yourself for all your hard work, even if it’s a small amount. When you work hard for so long with no financial compensation you may start to grow resentful and burn out, especially if your personal finances are suffering. Therefore, even if it’s as small as $100 a week, incentivize yourself.

I’d like to support anyone out there who would like to do it as well. You can learn more about Global Trauma Research by visiting www.GTRInc.org

The author is pictured above, at the center of the ribbon cutting.