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Member Spotlight: My Interview with Jenn DeSouza

By Ellen L. Ziskind, LICSW, CGP

I would like to preface this article by stating that it was my great pleasure to write about Jenn, as I never would have dreamed of the grit and determination it took for her to become the remarkable person and professional she is today.

Jenn was born and raised in the Boston area, the elder of two. She loved to read as a child and refers to it as her “escape.” She left home at a young age, never going beyond the 9th grade and earning her GED at the age of 16. Jenn reminisces about this experience as “one of my better choices of that era.” Her first job entailed scooping ice cream at Brigham’s and “thus embarked on a career in food service, which was a good fit.” She states it was hard work, but liked the flexibility, camaraderie, and fun, and she made friendships that have lasted her to this day. During her early adolescence, after her parents divorced, Jenn discovered horse riding: “all I did was ride.” At the age of 12, she won 7th place in the country in her division. In her early 20’s, she found a new passion after signing up for a class in basic metal jewelry, and has continued making jewelry ever since. She spoke of working twelve-hour shifts and waitressing during holidays to allow for more free time to spend in her studio doing what she loved. For the past twenty years, she has shared a metalsmithing studio with a few friends. Jenn’s business is named “Randomly Hammered.” At times in her life, she has exhibited at juried crafts shows, though in recent years, she and her studio mates only have time to be “weekend warriors.” Married at 46, she and her husband have three pugs whom they adore. Jenn refers to herself as an animal lover of all kinds. Born Jewish, she takes pride in her heritage. She enjoys seeing live music at local venues and was especially taken with punk rock in her younger days when seeing bands like the Ramones. She currently has a close relationship with both her parents who live in the Boston area and are in their 80’s.

At 24, she began at Mass Bay Community College and after seven years, completed Simmons College, signing up for a few courses at a time as she worked thirty hours a week as a waitress. Though she began as an English major, she eventually switched to psychology. She shares, “I became a therapist because someone made a difference for me and I wanted to do that for others.” She graduated from Simmons College in 1997 and Boston College School of Social Work in 1999.

Prior to entering graduate school, Jenn worked as a Residential Staff Counselor for Vinfen Corporation in Dorchester, MA, working with Department of Mental Health clients who were unable to live independently. From the beginning of her professional life, she enjoyed working with patients who were considered “misfits,” giving to others “what I didn’t get.” After Vinfen, she worked as a per-diem Milieu Counselor at a Crisis Stabilization Unit processing admissions, formulating treatment and discharge plans, and connecting consumers to community services. Following that, in 1999, she was employed at the Behavioral Health Network Crisis Service as a Crisis Clinician in Springfield. She conducted assessments at hospitals, mental health settings, and private homes, utilizing foreign language, deaf interpreters for evaluation and providing crisis-based brief interventions with diverse cross-cultural populations. Afterwards, she was promoted to Crisis Team supervisor where she evaluated people who were often brought to the Emergency Room against their will. When asked about her background and what allowed her to be comfortable in these challenging work environments, she states, “I didn’t know to be worried about my safety. That’s how I got through.”

The anecdotes she shared about her years in these settings gives a wonderful sense of the gutsy, roll-with-the-punches, deeply committed spirit she brought with her. In each setting, she helped develop a true sense of community and the many “misfits” finally had a sense of belonging because in the environments she created, they did, indeed, belong. One of her first mobile evaluations after graduation was with a man in Springfield whose parents were concerned about him. The man answered the door and let her know he was Jesus Christ and reported that God was telling him he could only eat Triscuits and jelly. She responded to the man in that no-nonsense way of hers, “Well, of course Jesus would only eat Triscuits and jelly.” She added matter of factly to me, “I eventually got Jesus to the hospital.” Furthermore, she described working in Field’s Corner, Dorchester during college instead of doing a less intensive field placement at a rape crisis hotline. She drove the residents to appointments in a “giant van” with four back seats, in which she had to stand up to look in the side and rear view mirrors. One day it snowed and the van couldn’t get up the hill. “Me and all the clients had to get out and push the van up the hill. It was so much fun, all of us working together!” At times like these, Jenn was able to make the trips into group events with a sense of humor,
community, and purpose. Unbeknownst to her, it seems she was already in her early days of group therapy training! It is important to highlight that Jenn had her dog, Albert, a pug trained as a therapy dog, come to work with her every day in the community settings. All he cared about was food and sat underneath the chair of anyone who was eating. He didn’t like people all that much, but he loved having a job and a mission. No salary required! Next, she began her position at Cambridge Hospital on the inpatient unit.

It seems as though it was in Jenn’s DNA to be drawn to settings and populations that were highly demanding, requiring
qualities and skills beyond what graduate school prepared her to do. Her professional choices demonstrate a capacity for intense, thoughtful collaboration as a team player, decisiveness under pressure, and a tolerance for the stress that comes with complex systems. Underlying all of this seems to be a profound empathy for those who are dependent on others to care for them and about them when they are trying to recover their lives.

In 2002, Jenn began working at South Shore Mental Health in Quincy as a Mental Health Crisis Clinician conducting emergency evaluations and consultation to hospitals and mental health providers for children, elders, the developmentally delayed, dually diagnosed, and those with substance disorders. She was there for four years, working as Program Director of Community Rehabilitation Service and Program Director of Community Based Flexible Supports in the Community Recovery Program and Community Support Program. Both these roles required an enormous amount of coordination with a variety of services ranging from hospitals, detoxification units, shelters, physicians, the Court of the Commonwealth, Community Health Centers, and home-based services.

If you think this already sounds like a lifetime of meaningful, demanding work, we’re only getting started! Jenn was a clinical social worker in the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital from 2010-2020. For the first five years, she supervised Bachelor-level staff, completed psychosocial assessments and connected patients to services both in the community and throughout Geriatric Psychiatry, Neuropsychiatry, and General Psychiatry Services. In 2015, Jenn became the Clinical Manager for Group Psychotherapy at MGH, a member of the Center for Group Psychotherapy as well as its Steering Committee. She remained in this position until 2018, where she provided assessment, coordination, and placement of patients referred for group psychotherapy and DBT skills training groups, and co-led two psychodynamic process groups with residents in their 3rd year of training. In 2019, she was promoted to Clinical Director of the Group Psychotherapy Training Program where she focused on program development and continued to run three interpersonal process groups. She left the role of Clinical Director earlier this year because she wanted to do more clinical work and less administration, and continues to facilitate three ongoing therapy groups at MGH.

Jenn has done a great deal of advanced training since receiving her MSW. In 2016, she completed a One Year Fellowship Program at the Boston Psychoanalytic Society & Institute in Newton, an introduction to the theory and practice of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Afterwards, she did a plethora of training groups and says she “worked an insane amount over the last 10 years” to learn about them. In 2013, she completed Principles of Group Psychotherapy in the NSGP Group Therapy Training Program. Between 2014 and 2018, she completed thirteen experiential weekends at the Center for Group Studies in New York on a variety of topics ranging from “Working with Unconscious Material” to “Transference/Counter- Issues in Group.” When I asked Jenn what attracted her to groups, she said she thinks it involves the sense of belonging groups foster and provide, but admits that learning about them was not easy.

Jenn’s NSGP career has had what appears to be a meteoric rise between joining in 2011, as well as AGPA the same year, and becoming President this year. Her rapid ascension, while remarkable, seems no more so than the rest of her story. She attributes it partly to there not being much new blood in the organization during those years, partly to older members sensing her willingness, and partly to Deb Carmichael getting a sense of her potential for leadership. She became chair of the Publicity Committee in 2013 when the AGPA Conference was held in Boston. Beginning in 2014 into this year,she was co-chair of the Membership Committee and from 2015 to last year, Secretary-Elect of the Executive Committee of the Board. Finally, one year ago, she became President-Elect.

Jenn acknowledges that from a very young age, she had to figure everything out by herself. “In groups, people help each other figure things out. That’s part of why NSGP was so appealing to me.” Jenn emphasized how important it is to her to mentor and support others. “I get to redo in some way what I didn’t get. I know what it’s like not to have support. Encouraging people to get involved in NSGP is a way to reach out to people.” It’s likely not a coincidence that the second leadership role she took on in 2014 was to re-establish and revitalize the lapsed Membership Committee. She saw her vision through until becoming President. This role gave her the opportunity to welcome people interested in groups to become part of one themselves in a supportive, collaborative learning environment with people like Jenn to mentor them.

Jenn wishes to acknowledge her gratitude to Kathy Ullman, Pamela Enders, Siobhan O’Neill, Laura Crain and Dr. Guy Maytal for all their support and guidance at MGH in training and fostering her leadership skills. She is grateful to Deb Carmichael as well for all of the above and, in addition, for being a wonderful role model as President of the NSGP Board, which is Jenn’s new position. She sublet Deb’s office the year before Deb passed and continues to practice there today.

Ellen L. Ziskind, LICSW, CGP

Northeastern Society for Group Psychotherapy
P.O.Box 356 | Belmont, MA 02478

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