Corinne Hodnett stands at a daunting five feet tall, donning a tastefully patterned dress with a sweet grin and an accent subtle enough to initially go unnoticed. Inevitably, her Northern Irish roots reveal themselves, and her unsuspecting demeanor gives way to a deliberate wit and poignant compassion within a particularly challenging occupation.
Hodnett currently works with individuals who are experiencing mental health crises, ranging from thoughts of wanting to harm themselves to wanting to harm someone else. She sees patients who are experiencing a variety of struggles, many of whom may have developed severe symptoms of psychosis or mania. During a typical week, Hodnett and her team will treat anywhere from 40-60 patients in their unit alone.
“What I do is hyper-acute, so I work within a team and our goal is to stabilize those symptoms,” Hodnett said. “We treat them so that they’re safe, and then their treatment can continue in a different environment. Our goal isn’t to keep people forever—it’s to stabilize them so that they can go back into the community.”
The intersection of care and community is a concept Hodnett has been intimately acquainted with since childhood, with her mother working as a primary care physician in the small town in Northern Ireland where Hodnett was raised.
"Our goal isn’t to keep people forever—it’s to stabilize them so that they can go back into the community."
“Because we grew up in a smaller community, it wasn’t like when you go to the doctor [in the States] and you see them for your appointment, and they’re not really part of the community,” Hodnett said. “[We] would walk around the grocery store and [her patients would be] saying hi to her.”
She recalls going on house calls with her mom, sitting in the car while she tended to the needs of her patients. “I just always saw her stepping in to help other people,” Hodnett recalled. “I think some of my inspiration came from her… My mom did a lot of [what I do], just in a different capacity.”
When she moved to the States ten years ago to continue her education, Hodnett was unsure of the path she would take, and eventually found social work by a matter of elimination. She started with a psychology program but wasn’t attracted to the scientific components required for the field. She tried sociology, and while she found the content intriguing, the thought of pursuing teaching or research after graduation was not. Hodnett eventually enrolled in a social work class and found that she gravitated to the general concepts of the program. She committed to pursuing a degree in social work, certain that she could find a job within the growing field after graduating.
“There are social work jobs everywhere; it’s a growing field, and there’s such a need out there,” Hodnett said. “[There’s] that common misconception that social workers take people’s kids away, but that’s not really true, because there’s so much [within the field].”
Misconceptions, or perhaps just a lack of education, are prominent barriers around social work and the complicated depth of mental illness Hodnett works with. The approach and metrics of progress are often misunderstood.
“There are certain things I have no control over, but what I can do sometimes is really small—it’s being able to just provide support for a patient, family, their situation,” Hodnett said. “Successes in social work are not huge, typically.”
The seemingly small wins are the successes worth celebrating: a good conversation with a patient, connecting a family to resources and support, or seeing someone experience a good day. “Even if it’s a referral or connecting someone to a resource they didn’t know about,” Hodnett said. “It’s those small, little things when you’re like, ‘Okay, that’s a small difference I could make today. I can’t change the world, but I can make a small difference.”
"I can’t change the world, but I can make a small difference."
Hodnett expressed hope about how societal stigmas around mental health are being slowly broken down as there is more habitual conversation around these topics in the public eye. She believes it will still take a long time for people to become comfortable with conversations around mental illness, but through education and openness, she believes in the possibility to cultivate more empathy and compassion toward the stories we cannot always see on the surface.
“The people I work with, some of them are super sweet, and they’ve just been dealt a really tough blow in life, or multiple tough blows in life, and just have never been able to get back on their feet,” Hodnett explained. “There’s still a lot of fear attached to the unknowns of mental illness... It’s just realizing that, yes, there’s a lot of fear, but we don’t know the backstory… we don’t know what’s going on in someone’s life.”
Consequently, Hodnett emphasizes the need for education around mental illness as one step toward lifting stigmas surrounding the issue and the field, even drawing on the ways her perception has grown with her experience.
“When I first took on what I’m doing, I didn’t have a lot of knowledge. I thought mental illness was kind of interesting, but as I’ve gone along and just learned more about it, there are so many components to it that I never knew… and that has kind of helped me to talk to other people about it, and kind of support other people at different times.”
As Hodnett has found her place in the wide network of social work, the extraordinary challenge of the pandemic only solidified her conviction in the value of the field, particularly knowing the effects of recent years are only just beginning to show themselves. Noting the inadequate treatment because of the longevity and natural barriers of the pandemic, Hodnett expressed, “I think we’re going to see a whole lot more with those long-term effects of the last couple of years.”
Ultimately, through her work and her lived experience, Hodnett has grown a motivating understanding in knowing that we can never know the entirety of someone’s story, and that there is more to a person than how they present on the surface.
“Their behaviors may be frustrating and you don’t know what to do with them, but there’s a story behind that,” Hodnett said. “I might not have the time to uncover that story and help them process through that story, but it’s having grace for them in that, and meeting them where they are… Not pushing my agenda, but meeting them and the needs they have in that moment.”
Even with the grace she carries, the challenges of this type of acute care are not to be underestimated. “When jobs are hard, they’re easier when you’ve got a good team and you’ve got a support system,” Hodnett explained. Each day is different, but with her team, she continues to be excited by the work she engages in, even when the situations she faces are heavy and heartbreaking.
In her social work classes, professors drilled into students the critical importance of self-care for folks who work in this field. While she and her classmates considered the mantra of self-care to be cliché initially, her experience in the field has given her a first hand understanding that self-care is, in fact, crucial to sustainability.
Being a leader and advocate in the mental health space doesn’t exempt her, or anyone else, from the same basic care and needs that she serves for others, though on a much deeper scale. It’s the simple daily rituals that have become crucial for Hodnett maintaining balance after long days of caring for some of society’s most vulnerable patients.
"You’re only one person. You can only do so much."
“I really enjoy coming home and going for a walk around the neighborhood [to get] the day off me,” Hodnett began, “[but] one thing I do is I call my mom on my drive home. And normally by the time I get home, I’ve kind of forgotten about the day.”
This practice in particular harkens strongly back to the inspiration that gave her a foundation in her field—watching her mom care for and meet the needs of a community. While the specific type of work Hodnett engages in is only one avenue, she sees social work as a growing field of opportunity to make a difference through systems of care that support our society and communities at every level.
It’s a weighty world to take on, but a worthwhile one, she’s found. Particularly in resting in her support systems that she has learned to hold so dear, she embraces this truth: “You know, you’re only one person. You can only do so much.”