Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service welcomes the newest addition to our full-time faculty, Dr. John Holland! Welcome, Dr. Holland!
Holland will serve as an online faculty member at GSS. He has nearly 30 years of social work practice experience in community mental health, and most recently worked as an administrator for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health & Addiction Services Young Adult Service Division, a statewide program for emerging adults recovering from mental health and trauma-related disorders. His teaching and research interests include program evaluation, data-informed program management, evidence-based practice, and clinical work with families of adolescents and young adults. As an educator, Holland emphasizes the integration and application of core social work values into the learning experience, and encourages students to explore social problems and social change from this values-based perspective. Holland teaches research courses along with clinical courses focused on family work.
We sat down with Dr. Holland to speak about his career, life, and passion for social work.
Why did you choose to enter the social work profession?
When I got out of college I did a couple of jobs, but I ended up in Bridgeport, Connecticut, working on a homeless outreach team. I used to walk around downtown Bridgeport back in the ‘90s, and I would just hand out bag lunches and engage folks in conversation. I would spend some time in the local soup kitchen and food pantry, and I just started networking with folks, and my goal, of course, was to try to link people to services.
The people I was working with and the people that I most admired happened to be social workers, and it seemed that if I wanted to continue to do this kind of work which I enjoyed and was valuable to the community and valuable to the people that I worked with, social work was the direction to go. It would give me some additional tools to be able to affect change in the community, and to improve my practice.
Social work has allowed me to do a lot of things, but all within the context of working to make communities better places, and to help people who are really struggling in the community to do better. And I think when I started out, that was all I was really looking for in a profession.
What’s the most important change that you’ve seen in the mental health field in your 30-year career?
I think the biggest and most important change has been the movement toward what’s called the Recovery Movement, which is a movement that acknowledges the agency and the dignity of people who have significant mental illness to give them some control over major decisions in their lives, and to give folks an opportunity to move past the diagnosis and to have a more rounded life by having a job or a place to go during the day and participating in community activities. Those opportunities really work.
When I started out back in the early ‘90s, the idea was that providers would tell people what to do: this is where you’re going to live, this is how you’re going to spend the day, the medications you’re going to take.
In the ‘90s and into the early 2000s, there was a movement away from that. We became partners with the people that we worked with, and recognized that the quality of life that somebody has is really dependent on the amount of control they have over their own life.
What separates a great clinician from the good or the not-so-good?
I really believe in Carl Rogers’ core components: congruence, unconditional positive regard (UPR), and accurate empathic understanding. First of all, as a clinician, entering your relationship with the people that you work with, with those core components in consideration, is huge. It really allows for engagement and continued trust through the process of treatment. I think that those core components really account for about 75% of the effectiveness of any clinician.
I truly believe the other 25% is made up of the interventions that we use, and the best interventions are the ones that have a good track record that has been shown to be effective for a particular problem or a particular group of people. Good clinicians are clinicians that keep up with the science and know what are the effective treatment interventions for a problem, and that requires continuing education. I think that social work as a profession requires constant learning over the arc of the professional lifespan. It doesn’t ever stop.
You’re someone who is very data-driven. What’s one big win that came from data in your career?
I had been previously working with the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services in Connecticut in a program working primarily with young adults. In Connecticut, we have a children’s mental health system that serves children up to 18 years old. So programs 18 and up are administered by the department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. And what happened was if you were a teenager getting significant services from a mental health provider, you had to move into the adult system. There’s this bridge you have to go over. And, in general, that age group doesn’t participate in behavioral health or mental health treatment at the same rates as older people or younger people. And yet it’s a time of really high risk.
So what was happening in Connecticut? There was an acknowledgment that there was a core group of youth that were getting lost and not making it over that bridge. And they were showing up in the courts, or in hospitals, or on the street. Our goal was to prevent that outcome, to help people make that bridge from being an adolescent to being an adult.
We were looking at the data of who was coming to our program, and what they looked like in terms of not just demographics, but presenting problems. We really saw that a number of the young people coming to our program were people who had experienced significant trauma in childhood and were struggling partly because of the after-effects of those traumas. And we were not a trauma-informed program. So we started to gather up that data, to be able to quantify what proportion of the young people coming into our program had experienced this kind of trauma, and get a sense of the acuity or the degree of trauma that was involved in our program. That involved a lot of data collection and analysis of individual cases over time, and we developed our own tool and a process by which we did that.
This was important for 2 reasons. One was because we had a statewide program of 18 community-based providers. We needed to train them on how to provide trauma-informed treatment. And so we needed funding for that. And this allowed us to go to people in the state of Connecticut and say we want to provide this kind of training across the board to everybody in our part of the service system, so that we can have a trauma-informed program that’s going to really meet the needs of this group.
And of course that led to the second part, which was to identify an intervention program that we could implement across agencies, develop a process for that implementation, and then continue to monitor that those strategies were being implemented in the way that we hoped. I think that over the course of a decade or so we really changed the culture of our program from one that really didn’t understand the effect of trauma on behavior to one that really understood it and then was responsive to it.
Why did you want to be a professor?
So I’ve been teaching as an adjunct for many years. I like the interaction with the students. I like the opportunity to be close to faculty, and others who are full of innovative ideas and real passion for the profession.
I’m very passionate about it. I believe that the work that we do is work that has a value. It’s a value to the clients, and it’s a value to the community. I just want to share my enthusiasm for the profession, and to encourage students as they enter the profession to think about our values, and how important those values are to the to the work that we do, and know that it doesn’t always feel that way in the moment, but I think in the long run, if you stick with it, we can affect great change in people, families, and in the community. So that’s why I’m here.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to a student beginning their MSW?
One piece of advice would be to be open to other perspectives. Thinking about myself, I had been working in human services for a couple of years before I went back for my master’s degree, and I thought that I knew it all. I think that the beautiful thing is that we never know it all, and there is so much to learn, and the potential of the University to allow people to expand their thinking about the world is just incredible if a student takes advantage of it.
Think critically, appreciate the experiences that other people bring to the classroom, and share along with your own experiences.
Is there any mistake you’ve made in your career that you will never make again?
I think the biggest mistake that I’ve made over time is to think or believe that I know better than my clients about what they’re experiencing. I think that leads to poor relationships with our clients and poor decision making. I really believe that whether we’re working with an individual or a family, or if we’re working in a community setting, we need to be collaborative. We need to be partners.
What do you like to do outside of work?
My wife and I like to travel. We went to Costa Rica last year, which was a beautiful place with beautiful people. I have a granddaughter and another granddaughter on the way in March, so spending time with my daughter and her family is always a priority. I play the guitar, and I play locally here and there. Right now I’m playing with this blues band, so that’s a lot of fun.
What’s one song everyone should listen to?
God Bless the Child by Sonny Rollins.
What’s one book everyone should read?
Tochi Onyebuchi’s Goliath. Onyebuchi is a writer from New Haven (my hometown), and Goliath is set in a future New Haven. The story explores issues of oppression, race, and ecological mismanagement that very much reflect current events and struggles. It is an enjoyable read with great dialogue and an important message about communities and resilience, although the ending is heartbreaking.