Iris clinicians are at the heart of what makes our organization such a special place to work. That’s why we’re turning the spotlight on the amazing work they’re doing every day. This month, we’re sitting down to talk with Elaina Najera, one of our incredible LCSWs.
Q. How did you find Iris and decide you wanted to be an Iris provider?
A. I was looking at all the available online positions at different job hosting sites. I located Iris and thought, “Telehealth, I could do that. I’ve done that already.”
Then, when I did the initial meeting with Iris, and they started telling me about the organization, I was immediately sold on the ability to work from home and to work for some of the most disenfranchised folks. That’s a huge issue for me. Serving communities that aren’t normally served appealed to me.
Another thing that was huge was the competitive pay. That was another factor in considering this job. When I thought through the first couple of interviews, I realized this job was what I wanted.
Q. How does teletherapy compare to in-person care?
A. I have been a social worker for at least 15 years and did in-person care. Then, with the advent of COVID-19 and a public health emergency, the state allowed for telehealth and expanded the ability. Initially, at the start of the pandemic, I was in case management work, not direct client service therapy.
Then, I switched mid-pandemic to doing therapy full-time, and it was all by telephone. I couldn’t even use Zoom at that location. It was very different. Comparing the two, no matter where I am, who I am, and where I’m at, I’m always the same person. I’m authentic, and I will be the same caring provider that I am, whether in person or using telehealth.
Telehealth has expanded my ability to provide care to people I usually wouldn’t have been able to reach as an in-person provider.
I’m a huge advocate for telehealth because I feel like the relationships can be just as deep and meaningful. In a therapeutic setting, the relationship is huge. It’s a huge part of the change cycle and folks’ ability to grow and build health in their life.
Even through telehealth, I can build those same strong relationships with my clients that I had while I was an in-person provider as well.
Q. How do you foster connection with patients virtually?
A. In person, you can see more of their environment. Sometimes, you can latch on to different things. Fostering a virtual connection means being authentic and genuine with what you are and who you are and acknowledging that sometimes there will be technology issues. Sometimes, there will be connectivity issues, and rolling with that when that happens.
By doing telehealth, I can see into people’s homes, which you’re not typically able to see, and see how people function in their homes in a traditional setting as a therapist. I can see pictures in the background and say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” Or they might say, “My room is super messy right now – ‘this’ is what’s going on.”
That fosters a relationship to say, “Okay, so what’s going on emotionally, mentally, that your room is in this state?” Virtually, it’s about being authentic. That’s one thing I will always come back to.
I am open to questions because sometimes your patients do not see your office. For example, they see my blurred virtual background. They’re not seeing all the things that tell them about me that they might see in an in-person setting. That’s why I’ll wear fun earrings, and then they’ll ask about it, and we joke about things and share. For me, engagement is huge for fostering that connection.
Q. As a healthcare professional, how do you manage work-life balance?
A. Since joining Iris, my work-life balance has been so much better. Getting rid of a commute has transformed my life and being home when I’m done with work. Managing a work-life balance for me is important because I am also a caregiver to my sister, who has some health issues.
So, being available to take her where she needs to go and do those things after work is important to me. One of the ways I manage my work-life balance is when my computer is off, I’m not working. I don’t have Zoom on my phone; I don’t check my emails when I’m off work. I’m grateful to be in a setting without being on call or having things to worry about.
That was a huge selling point for me with Iris – it’s more like traditional therapy. You are a therapy provider because you’re not on call or responding to crises and emergencies. I have a history of working in residential treatment. When you’re working in residential, it’s always a crisis.
As I’ve grown with Iris in the last six or seven months, I’ve had a new sense of calm and peace about my work life. That’s wonderful for me. I also make sure to schedule time off, be proactive about that time off, and make that a priority for myself and my family. I also make sure I take my breaks.
Someone asked me, “How do you do it when you have four or five sessions back-to-back?” I say, “I do the 50-minute therapeutic hour, and then I have 10 minutes to write a note or pet one of my cats, make a cup of tea, take a break, walk around in my living room, and listen to a song.”
One of my life passions is K-Pop, which has been for about 20 years. To manage and enjoy my life, I’ll listen to a K-pop song and find peace between sessions so I can show up and be the best person for my clients.
Q. What is the most rewarding part of your job?
A. The most rewarding part of my job is being able to serve folks who usually wouldn’t be able to access care. I have a caseload of at least five or six folks who are unhoused right now and are struggling to meet their basic needs. The rewarding part is meeting them where they’re at – if they are in a parking lot, parked in their car because that’s where they’re sleeping for the night. I can meet them there and provide therapy to them that way.
It’s rewarding to see a slight change. The way I look at it is there’s a spectrum of suffering, and if we can move that needle a little bit, we’re not going make huge changes overnight, especially when folks’ basic needs aren’t being met. Reducing that suffering for that day, week, or month is rewarding.
The rewarding part is there’s a social justice issue mixed in all of it. Some people would not be able to access care because of either being unhoused, being disabled, having mobility issues, or having transportation issues; being able to serve those populations and give back to a community is so rewarding.
A. Most folks in California, where I practice, have a government phone. The government phone allows them access for free for maybe a dollar a month. It’s very affordable. So, usually, they also have data, and we can do a Zoom call. If we can’t do a Zoom call, we do it by telephone.
I still provide the same care, compassion, and connection. I have some of the greatest relationships with folks who we only meet by phone, but they trust me, talk to me, and it’s a wonderful experience.
If they don’t have a private place to meet, say they’re in shared housing right now in the shelter, they go to the local behavioral health office in Nevada County where I work, and we set them up in a room with a Zoom or Team’s link. I have one patient right now who does it that way, so they’re afforded privacy in an office space.
Q. What do you love about working with Iris?
A. I love everything, but I particularly love the amount of support that I have. I have my Clinical Operations Manager, Katelyn Deckert, shout out to her. She was recently on maternity leave, so bless her for having her baby. Melissa Kennedy was able to cover during that time. I never felt like I didn’t have support. I always had support.
The other thing is that Iris has fostered such a good relationship with my clinic that my clinic trusts me. They trust Iris, and I feel like a valued professional. I have beautiful equipment that works wonderfully for the job. I have wonderful pay and benefits that are huge to me.
Medical benefits are another issue in our country for people who need medical coverage. To have it as part of my job is wonderful, too. I love telling folks, I work from home, and I get to provide therapy to people.” I love sharing that. I love telling people I’m a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and do clinical social work every day from my own home.
That’s huge for me. That’s what I love about Iris. I got one of my close friends and confidants a position with Iris. She’s been on for three or four months now, and I’m working on getting as many other of my LCSW friends to come over.
Q. Why do you think teletherapy is important to the future of mental healthcare?
A. With the advent of the public health emergency of COVID, which we are still experiencing, COVID is still very existent. We saw that it is possible for folks to access care from home and access care in other ways than traditionally going into an office. You’re talking about travel time to an office, being in the office, waiting for the appointment, making the next appointment, leaving the office, and traveling back home.
For some folks, it’s a disability justice issue as well. Another area that I’m very passionate about is disability advocacy. We’re finding that more and more folks have been disabled by virtue of having COVID-19 infections. There’s a lot of long COVID happening, but disabled people have always existed, and they’re suddenly realizing that things do not have to be in person to have the same quality, care, and impact.
For me, it’s the future because it’s the most inclusive. It’s the option that will allow us to serve the most people. Some people have never been able to see a psychiatrist, but now they can because they can see one through telehealth from an Iris provider. To me, that’s amazing. That is the future.
Folks like me who are highly skilled in this field for a reason can reach more people via telehealth. It reduces barriers to getting treatment. That’s the future.
Q. What advice would you give someone new to telehealth?
A. My advice for someone new to telehealth is to be yourself. Practice with your equipment on someone else who’s not a client so you can get familiar with your equipment. Thankfully, Iris does that with you. You get to practice with IT when they set you up, and then you get to practice with your COM.
And remember, don’t ever think that telehealth is “less than.” There’s a stigma or a judgment that happens in the psychiatry and therapy community that somehow telehealth is less than. If you feel that as a provider, your clients and patients will feel that, too. Starting in telehealth, you need to honor telehealth for the sacred connection that it is and just as equal and valuable as an in-person session.
At Iris, we believe our providers should be respected, valued, and applauded for the work they do, and we couldn’t be more proud to say, “thank you” to our very own Elaina Najera. If you’d like to learn more about working for Iris Telehealth, contact us today.