Monica Handlos went into social work wanting to work with kids. “I didn’t go into education because I wanted it to be more one-on-one work,” she said. “I also liked the fact that you could do social work in so many different avenues. I could work in a hospital, a nonprofit, in education.”
Handlos worked in the field after she finished her undergraduate degree, then obtained her Masters in Social Work. “It puts you into a higher level profession,” she said. “And if you want to do clinical work, you have to have a master’s degree.”
She has been at Pediatric Home Service (PHS) since 2010. “I’m the only social worker. Beginning in 2012, we added the mental health piece. My job is unique in that I can still do the social service piece and do the mental health piece as well,” Handlos said.
In the social services aspect of her job, Handlos said, “I work with families oftentimes when children are first discharged from the hospital or are new to PHS. I help with resources — housing, transportation to medical appointments, financial help if they’re struggling to pay their energy bill or medical bills. Oftentimes families are under so much stress; my job is to help alleviate that.”
In addition, Handlos does individual therapy with children and adolescents, working on their emotional needs. “Most of our kids might have some form of anxiety that they’re working through, dealing with being poked and prodded. Maybe the parents are divorced, maybe the child is not living with biological parents due to medical needs. They might be feeling guilty that they’re taking parents’ time away from siblings, or feel bad about the running around the parents do. The medical health piece aside, one in five children experience a mental health disorder.”
How do you work with kids’ mental health issues?
We use experiential play therapy. It’s nondirective. There are some rules around safety, but they get to decide how they’re going to play with certain toys. I’m a part of that play. It’s focusing on their emotional experience and what’s bothering them. It’s based on metaphors. There are so many days that I get bandages up and down my arm. I can talk about what size — “Oh, that’s a little owie today.” Or, “That’s a really big owie.” Some of it is gaining mastery with the medical equipment — they use the stethoscope and I’m the patient. They are giving me play shots with no needles. They are taking energy they have around the medical experience and playing it out in a nonthreatening environment.
What’s the most challenging part of the job?
Seeing the kids struggle. Every kid I work with is adorable, and their personality is great. Seeing them struggle with stress, anxiety, depression, their medical issues. That’s difficult to see.
What’s the most fun?
Seeing them bounce back and knowing I have a key piece in helping them get better. It’s important for kids to see a mental health therapist if they’re having difficulty. Oftentimes they get stunted in their developmental goals. We take care of it so they can move through milestones effectively. It’s really satisfying. It makes me wake up every morning and do what we do. □