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'I'm amped to go to work'

March 23, 2009
by Kevin Kolus, Contributing Editor
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The National Council recognizes Vanessa Sweeney as its rookie of the year

In professional sports, “rookie of the year” is a designation given to an individual whose exceptional performance convinces others that he/she controls the game with a veteran’s proficiency. According to the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare, this aptly describes Vanessa Sweeney who, at just age 26 and only months after earning a master’s, the association recently named its rookie of the year/emerging leader.

Vanessa Sweeney, in her own words

How did you become interested in the behavioral healthcare field?

“I grew up in Jersey and for volunteer community work during the sixth grade I went to the local hospital and I just fell in love with the whole scene. I quickly realized that people with mental health and substance abuse issues weren’t advocated for, and they didn’t have the same oversight, the staff didn’t always recognize that what they had was a true medical issue.”

Where do you see yourself in the future?

“I would like to be at the federal level, in Washington, doing work with those policies and systems. Regardless of what type of degree you have, all of our hands are bound to a degree by these overarching systems that the government puts in place, and if I can get to that systems level and make a positive difference, then that is what I want.”

Anything else to add about your career?

“What has kept my positive attitude is seeing that how we historically viewed these diagnoses is not the reality anymore. You don’t get a diagnosis and get plopped into a hospital, never to be seen from again. You can lead a normal, productive life, and that is one of the things that impacts me.... My peer specialist staff is what makes me wake up every day saying, ‘I’m amped to go to work.’”

Sweeney manages the peer specialist program at Jefferson Parish Human Services Authority (JPHSA) in Metairie, Louisiana, which provides services to those with mental illnesses, addictive disorders, or developmental disabilities. The peer specialist program hires clients as employees, allowing them to share their recovery stories with other clients with similar issues. Sweeney’s daily task is to ensure these individuals feel respected as staff members and enjoy a sense of occupational purpose.

“It’s like the coolest job ever,” Sweeney emphasizes with youthful energy. “Because I have a public health background—I’m not clinical, I’m not doing counseling, I’m not licensed to do so—I’m working more with the overarching systems and trying to build good programs.

“There is something really empowering about being able to come to work every day and trying to build a good program or trying to advocate at the state level for better treatment or better programs because they’re influencing so many people that don’t have insurance, don’t have a family, don’t even have a house,” she continues. “It makes me feel good every day to do something with that type of impact.”

Sweeney is familiar with being entrusted because of her smarts at an early age. When she was 19, Sweeney was a psychiatric technician at an emergency room—the youngest person to hold that position in the hospital’s history. From then on, she fell in love with behavioral healthcare.

“This subset of the population needs somebody that’s passionate and innovative to help them advocate for themselves and for equitable treatment,” she notes. This passion is what tipped off her co-workers to nominate Sweeney for the award. Around JPHSA, staff refer to Sweeney as “our kid” because she is so young—and because she is hard to contain.

“I’m pretty amped up,” she admits. “I walk around like this every day.” Sweeney calls this her “hyperpositive self.”

Among her other accomplishments, Sweeney has consulted with the Metropolitan Human Services District in creating a peer specialist program, participated in a statewide peer specialist initiative, and advised programs in other states on how to begin peer specialist services.

“Because of her vision, commitment, and perseverance, Vanessa Sweeney's future in the behavioral healthcare field holds limitless possibilities,” said National Council President/CEO Linda Rosenberg in a statement. “We have no doubt that she will continue to have an impact on the lives of those she touches in her community and in her career moving forward.”

“The award tells me that I am doing something right,” Sweeney says. “These are the formative years of my professional career, and giving me a pat on the back is helping me and everybody that I want to help in my future.”

Sweeney will receive her award at the National Council's annual conference next month in San Antonio.