A Journey to Social Work: the connection between mental health and poverty

By Ashley Trice.

Ms. Trice is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) who has has a private practice working with adolescents and adults in Durham, North Carolina.  She obtained her Masters in Social Work from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After graduate school and earning her LCSW, she worked in community mental health in Durham, NC for 7 years prior to starting a private practice.  She graduated from Washington and Lee in 2005 with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Anthropology.

"The relationship between mental health and poverty is dynamic and I certainly don’t have an answer to eliminating poverty or achieving mental health for all." writes Trice, who is in private practice in Durham, N.C.

“The relationship between mental health and poverty is dynamic and I certainly don’t have an answer to eliminating poverty or achieving mental health for all.” writes Trice, who is in private practice in Durham, N.C.


One of the first assignments I received as a social worker was a family of four that included two developmentally delayed parents, one of whom also had a psychotic disorder, and two boys ages 13 and 14. The boys had issues with adjustment and struggled to take care of basic household chores, and had some anxiety and depression fitting with their current experience. When I started working with the 14 year old, he was very hesitant to trust me, and our visits were brief. Slowly, he opened up to me and shared with me things that he has never told anyone. We talked about his hopes for the future and his desire to go to college. He would be the first in his family to go to school. Over the years, the family had difficulty paying rent, rarely had enough food in the home, and struggled to get the kids to school due to transportation issues. Child protective services was involved with the family for years. At one point, both boys were removed from the home and placed with a family member. Last year, the older child graduated from high school. By the time he graduated, I had the school calling me if he missed a class, if he was behind in something, or if they were worried about his mental health. As he walked across the stage, his family and I stood and cheered. After the ceremony he asked if I cried. Today he is in college, working and on track to graduate on time.

People often ask me what prompted me to be a social worker. My answer every time is the Shepherd Poverty program. I took the intro class my sophomore year at Washington and Lee. The next summer I did my internship at N Street Village in Washington, DC. N Street is a homeless shelter that provides overnight and day services for women in DC. I worked as a day center assistant and helped with meals and built relationships with the women who came in during the day. That summer I built amazing friendships with some of the women at the shelter, as well as some of my fellow Shepherd Interns. I watched women have breaks in reality and witnessed paranoia make them unable to make decisions, eat, or feel safe in their own bodies. At N Street, I saw a lot of schizophrenia, psychotic disorders, and substance abuse. It was at N Street where I began to think more critically about the connection between poverty and mental health.

During the work week, I loved these women and spent a tremendous amount of time with them walking around, talking about their lives, asking questions, and sitting in the courtyard together. On weekends I met up with my friends who lived just a few blocks away doing internships in the corporate world. Though just blocks away, we were worlds apart. I remember beginning to feel uncomfortable with the privilege and wealth that surrounded me. Perhaps what bothered me most was the invisibility of this privilege to those who had it. This tension remained a constant during my time at W&L. The contrast between my world at W&L and what I experienced in DC was striking. I left a place where schizophrenia and poverty were rampant to a place where so much privilege and wealth existed, it felt invisible. I missed my DC world. After my N Street experience, I decided to do more in the community and volunteered with a domestic violence shelter for women in Lexington. Rural poverty, though very different, was also connected to mental health. I also took several sociology classes that connected to my poverty studies. My senior year, I wrote a capstone about the implications of welfare, specifically TANF, on women who experienced domestic violence.

Prior to my internship at N Street, I was uncertain what I would do after I graduated. After my internship, however, it was clear that I wanted to do something in the human services field. I graduated from W&L and moved to Charleston, SC to work for a development firm. I enjoyed raising money, but it certainly didn’t satiate my desire to work with people and deal with mental health and poverty. After moving around some with my job, I applied to social work programs and entered the University Of North Carolina School Of Social Work. While pursuing my MSW, I worked in a group home and a rape crisis center. After graduation, I worked toward becoming a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) in a community mental health clinic. I spent two years getting the hours I needed and passed my exam. After completing the licensing process, I remained in community mental for four more years. I did in-home therapy with children, adolescents, and families in Durham, NC. I spent a lot of time in the most impoverished areas of Durham. I worked with families who were involved with Child Protective Services, on public assistance, and those trying to get out of public housing. Again, the connection between poverty and mental health was evident.  It was exhausting and I loved it. Last year I opened a private practice in Durham and continue to practice with adolescents and adults. The connection between mental health and poverty is ever present.

The Shepherd Poverty Program helped me recognize my desire to help the most vulnerable in society, recognize how mental health is closely related to poverty and that both of these issues are things that I feel passionate about. The relationship between mental health and poverty is dynamic and I certainly don’t have an answer to eliminating poverty or achieving mental health for all. I do, however, have a better understanding of poverty and how it intersects with mental health because of my time with poverty studies. I am thankful for my experience with the Program as it laid the foundation for my career in social work.

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