Leadership in Social Work
MSW alumna Alyssa Hetschel balances clinical practice with organizational leadership
When alumna Alyssa Hetschel (MSW ’14, LCSW, LAC) joined the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work (GSSW) as an advanced-standing MSW student in 2013, she accepted the first field internship offered to her: a position with Behavioral Treatment Services (BTS), where she provided individual and group therapy to inmates at the Jefferson County Jail and assisted clients as they transitioned from jail to the community.
The internship turned out to be a perfect fit, and Hetschel ended up staying with BTS for nearly a decade, eventually becoming the organization’s executive director.
BTS provides accessible, integrated and inclusive behavioral health services for clients involved in the criminal justice system. Hetschel worked as a jail-based therapist, a team lead for mental health and substance abuse treatment at two large county residential community corrections facilities, and residential clinical manager for four community corrections facilities in Colorado.
“I was really passionate about that population,” Hetschel says. “I felt like it was the bottom of the barrel when it came to their access to services. People carried so much trauma, so much stigma.”
In May 2019, Hetschel became the executive director of BTS, leading a team of more than 60 therapists and interns and expanding the organization’s work from providing mental health and addiction treatment services to also pursuing criminal justice reform efforts such as recovery court and homeless court programs.
“My clinical skills helped me be incredibly successful as a leader, to get buy in from funders and partners in the criminal justice community,” Hetschel says. “I really have found my stride in leadership in the clinical realm,” she adds. “It keeps me connected to the clinical work but also with the power to make change at a more macro level.”
Hetschel recently left BTS to become a senior instructor of clinical practice and director of behavioral health programs for Sheridan Health Services, a program of the University of Colorado College of Nursing. Sheridan is a nurse-managed federally qualified health center designed to serve low-income, marginalized communities. Hetschel supervises LCSWs and LPCs doing integrated care and outpatient behavioral health care across three clinic locations.
“I find I’m still using skills I developed in the criminal justice realm,” Hetschel says, noting that motivational interviewing and harm reduction approaches are both incredibly helpful in her ongoing work. “Harm reduction means meeting someone where they’re at in their life journey — not setting goals for them that are unrealistic.”
Throughout her social work career, Hetschel says, “I have learned so much about myself, the identities and biases I hold.” In her current role, which includes working with resettled refugees, she thinks about how her identities might get in the way of a person getting the best care possible and what cultural practices might come into play.
These are all lessons she shares with students as an adjunct instructor in GSSW’s MSW@Denver online MSW program, where she teaches courses on mental health and health care policy, human behavior, trauma and substance use, and leadership and supervision skills.
She also reminds students that no matter how passionate they are about an organization and its mission, there may come a time when they need to move on. “You’re not responsible for fixing all the tragedies and traumas and ineffective policies in this world,” she says. “The more you burn out and struggle in a job, the more you do a disservice to your clients, the work, your employer.”
“You don’t have to sacrifice your own physical and mental health for the cause,” Hetschel adds, noting that burnout in social work signals not a problem with individual social workers, but with broken policies. She encourages setting healthy boundaries (for instance, not skipping lunch or working outside of one’s typical hours); asking for support from a peer or help from a counselor or coach; and getting involved, whether that’s with organizations such as the National Association of Social Workers, voting or lobbying for change. “There needs to be larger systemic change for the profession to protect us.”