Student Spotlight: Sara Pickett
Written by Erin Michel, Graduate Assistant for the Graduate School
Sara Pickett has always been interested in people’s stories. The stories we create, the stories we tell others, and the stories we tell ourselves. That’s why she became a mental health counselor—this field is about so much more than the stereotypical image of lying on a couch and answering the question, “How do you feel about that?” Counseling is about connection, using empathy and shared humanity to help someone process and understand their unique journey, both where they’ve been and where they’re going. Counseling work also stretches beyond that one-on-one interaction; it also involves advocating within systems and society at large, endeavoring to make the world a place where everyone can flourish. “If you’re a counselor, you’re an advocate, and you cannot divorce yourself from that title,” says Sara. “It sounds daunting for some people, but we are advocates for our clients and I think that’s a gift that we have as counselors. Over the last couple of years, I’ve learned to accept and honor that gift.”
Sara has found a way to weave these passions for stories and advocacy together through her doctoral dissertation. Her research, which is qualitative in nature, examines mental health within incarcerated populations in the U.S. According to Sara, incarcerated individuals constitute an overrepresented and particularly vulnerable population that is overlooked within the mental health field at large. Incarceration and mental health are tied together in complex and systemic ways, which Sara is attempting to understand through her work. She is specifically interested in examining the impacts of romantic relationships within heterosexual couples where the male partner is incarcerated. “Studies have shown that people who are more prone to having mental health problems are more likely to be incarcerated, and then while they're incarcerated are more likely to develop mental health problems. Are healthy romantic relationships a way of mediating some of those effects?” she asks. To investigate this question, Sara is conducting in-depth interviews with four couples in hopes of attaining a holistic perspective of the ways in which mental health and incarceration have impacted both partners as well as the relationship unit as a whole. To recruit participants, Sara has been working closely with the Vermont Department of Corrections to locate and secure interviews with couples; as she points out, working within a realm as complex and formal as the criminal justice system means that things move slowly, and there are a lot of barriers and red tape. But the work is important, and the results will be worth it. “I expect that the more supportive the relationship, the more stable the relationship prior to incarceration, the more likely it is that the man will be able to use that relationship to bolster his experience and protect him through the trauma [of being incarcerated],” she tells me. “[But] am I willing to be surprised? Absolutely.”
Sara’s interest in working with incarcerated individuals began in her master’s program, where she had the opportunity to volunteer with a debate program at Riker’s Island in New York. “Seeing the alarming environment that we are putting human beings in, and these were teenage boys, still developing humans… I just can’t imagine any way in which a person could thrive in that environment, and yet I was absolutely floored by it. It was a debate group so you have to be really clever and quick, and they were […] You can educate and inspire people despite the most dire circumstances.” This interest has grown throughout the years—Sara has sustained a pen pal relationship with an incarcerated friend for the past 12 years, which she states has been a formative experience for her and a lesson in keeping things in perspective. Beyond the impact on her present work, Sara’s commitment to mental health and incarceration has been pivotal in forming her hopes for the future; according to Sara, her ultimate professional goal is to open a counseling center for families who have experienced incarceration. Through her doctoral research and direct experience in the field, Sara has seen the impact of incarceration on family systems—the ripple effects of imprisonment go far beyond the individual themselves. Counseling and qualitative research are vehicles through which we can care and advocate for these family systems.
I ask Sara about the benefits of this kind of micro-level study, since it seems unique. Personally, when I hear the word “research” I think of statistics, large sample sizes, and p-values, but this is far from the nature of Sara’s work. Qualitative research provides a different, albeit equally valuable, kind of information; it offers stories, rich detail, holistic perspectives, and working relationships. “There is a lot of pushback against qualitative research,” admits Sara. “But it is very much aligned with my skills, which is that I’m a counselor, you know? I’m going to sit with them and get their stories. [To me], the benefit [of qualitative research] is that you’re less voyeuristic. You’re not just like ‘fill out this survey,’ and then leave. You’re like, ‘Hey, I’m here, I’m invested. I care,” Sara continues. “I think it gives less of an air of take and more of collaboration.”
Sara points out that research is not the only way to advocate for incarcerated people. We all have a role to play in supporting these individuals and families. “Language is hugely important,” explains Sara. “So not calling someone a criminal or a felon, but rather someone who has served time. That person doesn’t need to be that label—it’s an experience they’ve had.” Working to dispel our preconceived notions or snap judgements is important, too. “Each [incarcerated] person is not necessarily dangerous. People find themselves in these systems for a lot of reasons. So [it’s important] to manage your fear and manage your judgement around how each person got into that position.” As Sara points out, understanding the larger sociopolitical context behind the judicial system in this country can help us to dispel this judgement. “A lot of people would argue that incarceration is containing and criminalizing minorities,” says Sara, “especially people of color and Black men. And what we have to understand is that people who are marginalized already are dealing with a certain level of stress, minority stress, that then puts them a more vulnerable position to be incarcerated […] and when they’re released, they’re stigmatized, ostracized, not allowed to vote, have jobs […] It’s just a lose, lose, lose situation from the beginning. And so I feel like our job is to advocate and to notice and to understand... and to really fight for people.”
What’s next for Sara, after she wraps up her dissertation and attains her PhD? She’s interested in pursuing a role as a faculty member in a counselor education program, she tells me, to help train the next generation of counselor advocates. But no matter what, Sara Pickett will always be seeing clients and hearing stories. “I love teaching, of course, but I can’t imagine teaching clinical work without staying involved in my own clinical practice. I will probably be seeing clients until the day I die.” Sara is grateful that she has found her home within the counseling field, challenging as it may be. “I believe in the profession passionately,” she tells me, smiling. “I think it’s a really important feature that goes underfunded and underutilized in our society […] You know when you get on an airplane, and they thank service members? I think that’s awesome. But man, I wish they thanked teachers and counselors too, because we do really hard work.”