By Kate Hanzalik
The idea of playing to your strengths resonates with Audrey Van Voolen, PhD. It applies to her professional trajectory as a psychologist, her approach in treating patients, and the way she works with the providers in her group practice.
As a pre-law student at Cornell University, she interned at a law firm in Washington DC while working on a research project and taking policy courses. “At the end of the semester my advisor took me aside and complimented my work but said he would’ve liked to see what I could do if I was actually interested in what I was studying,” said Dr. Van Voolen almost 30 years later. “I was taken aback as I wasn’t aware that he could sense my apathy to the subject and I realized in that moment that I would forego law school and apply myself to a field that was equally challenging but more suited to my temperament and spoke to my heart. That field was psychology.”
Her heart led her to a doctoral program in clinical psychology at American University, an externship at the Georgetown University counseling center, an internship at Georgetown University Medical Center, then post-doctoral training at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington DC. After moving back to Central New York, she worked as a psychologist at SUNY Upstate and eventually started a private practice in Skaneateles. “I thought it would be a supportive place to live and raise a family and a place where I could make a difference.”
And she has made a difference. “After many years of practicing on my own, the idea of a group practice started taking shape. I had been spending a lot of time talking to potential patients and finding the right providers to refer them to. I realized that many people were traveling long distances, being put on extended wait lists, or turned away for mental health services as there was little care available. I thought that if I could assemble a team of clinicians with various specialties, then the needs of these various patients could be met closer to home.”
By bringing people together, she felt both patients and clinicians would benefit. “I have worked in a variety of settings, a number of academic medical centers and I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of case conferences and other professional learning opportunities as well as having colleagues you can consult with, and I think that results in happier clinicians and higher quality care. So, I sort of envisioned recreating that.” In 2019, her vision became Skaneateles Psychology Associates.
A guiding principle of the practice is to harness the unique strengths of clinicians. “Rather than, for example, putting out a job description and then plugging someone into that, I work with the clinician to figure out what they like doing, what they’re good at, then we create something around that. We tailor our services around our people. When a new clinician starts with us I have them imagine what they want to be doing in five or ten years and then we start building their practice around that.”
The approach has been successful. “We are growing. We are opening a second location in the village of Manlius to accommodate some of the demand for mental health services and we’re looking to bring on additional providers.” They’re also offering post-doctoral fellowships. According to Dr. Van Voolen, the idea is to “supervise clinicians working toward their hours for licensure. That way we can find good people and train them, and hope they’ll stay in our community.”
Observations of a professional
Sometimes people meet with a psychologist not for symptom relief but for self-improvement. “We tend to see some of the healthiest people I know because they’re the ones who come in, they want to understand themselves, they are motivated toward growth.”
Choose your therapist wisely. Make sure you know the professional credentials of the provider you’re seeing, and respect how you feel when you meet them. “The match between the clinician and the patient is really essential.”
She prioritizes exercises to stay strong both physically and mentally, especially yoga. “I believe in it. I practice almost every day myself as a way to clear my mind before work and sometimes after. It’s a great tool not only for clarity but also for sparking creativity,” she says. “Every day my schedule is built around my family, yoga, a walk or other outdoor activity, and work fits in there. I encourage our clinicians to fit their work around their life and family, not the other way around.”
Self-care can be a beautiful thing, Dr. Van Voolen learned from her mentor. “She always had a vase of fresh flowers in her office. I asked her once who the flowers were from and I was surprised to find out that she bought them for herself each week. She told me, ‘You are responsible for keeping your own vase full.’ The flowers served as a visual reminder to her. I always returned to the idea that my well-being is my responsibility. I see taking care of myself, keeping my vase full, as part of my work actually. There are a lot of people counting on me,” she says. “I feel very humbled and honored to have people entrust me with the inner workings of their lives. I can’t imagine a more rewarding profession.”
Editor’s note: To learn more about Dr. Van Voolen and Skaneateles Psychology Associates please visit https://www.skanpsych.com/. They are currently recruiting clinicians and post-doctoral fellows. To obtain a listing of local psychologists in the Syracuse area, Dr. Van Voolen also suggests the Central New York Psychological Association at www.cnypa.net.