Clinical Social Work at the Austen Riggs Center – Part 4: Staff Profile on Meg Czaja, LICSW
by Aaron Beatty
Meg Czaja, LICSW, is the newest member of the clinical social work team at the Austen Riggs Center. While she began her undergraduate studies as an education major, it was social work that eventually spoke to her. As she tells it, “I had a thought that ‘I just really want to help people; how can I help?’ and social work is such a broad field where you can help in so many different ways.”
After completing her undergraduate work, Czaja went on to receive her Master of Social Work degree from the Smith College School for Social Work, “one of the only psychodynamic social work schools in the country,” she remarks, adding, “there was always talk about the Austen Riggs Center at Smith, so becoming a social worker at Austen Riggs was always in the back of my mind.”
Before coming to Riggs, Czaja was working in a program she developed for adolescents considered “high risk or treatment resistant.” As she says, “I’ve always wanted to understand ‘Why?’ and have a chance to discover the meaning behind symptoms, and behind what a person is going through, particularly when it comes to major mental illness or treatment-resistant mental illness.” Given this particular interest, Riggs was, in many ways, a natural fit for Czaja. “I hold Riggs as a very elite institution with some of the best thinkers in the fields of social work, psychology, psychiatry and nursing and there is so much opportunity here to explore the ‘Why?’ and not just focus on symptoms,” she says.
When asked what is different about social work at Riggs, Czaja remarks, “being a social worker here gives me the privilege to take a step back, look at what’s happening on a systems level, speak to it and examine what it means; there is time and a value here to see and explore what is happening for a patient, their family and the Austen Riggs community. .” One of the venues where this happens regularly is the twice weekly meetings of a patient’s interdisciplinary treatment team, which includes a patient’s social worker. These meetings provide an opportunity for patients to be understood from multiple perspectives, which can give a clearer picture of a patient’s strengths and struggles.
Czaja sees many benefits to working at Riggs. As she says, “Here, I am able to examine myself and even though it has not always been comfortable, it has already made me a better human being I also really enjoy being with the patients and families, and watching their viewpoints change during treatment to encompass a wider perspective on themselves and how they interact with the world.”
In addition, Czaja values that, at Riggs, “there is space for the negative,” elaborating by saying, “one of the barriers to treatment outside of here [Riggs] can be that treatment providers do not always take up the negative transference. That happens here and it is discussed. Patients can dislike me and we can talk about it or there can be a conflict and we can talk about it; there is room for a whole range of emotions and interactions.” Furthermore, she sees “an opportunity to research here [at Riggs] and to further one’s learning in an effort to serve the patients.”
When asked about the future of social work at Riggs, Czaja has hopes for deepening community involvement surmising, “In many ways we are translators; we take complex concepts and theory and we translate them to the patients and their families. I think we can also translate them to the outside world as well.”
Check back next week to read Part 5 about what “Settlement Houses” from the late 1800s and early 1900s have to do with social work at Riggs today.