Empathy, Not Sympathy

Yolanda Johnson treats the individual, not just their disease

How would Yolanda Johnson change the world? Most people could make the case that she’s already changed it for the better in her work as a program director at an addiction care center. Johnson will tell you her dream is to do more, “to work to open up more facilities for people that are struggling with the disease of addiction, especially women that are struggling with the disease of addiction and also have their children so that they can recover with their children, and the children are not taken away from them,” she says.

The 2019 Excelsior graduate has worked in addiction care since 2004 and is a passionate advocate for her field. Her graduate degree is the latest in a string of professional and academic achievements that have her ready to tackle what’s next.  “With my master’s in public health, there are a lot of jobs I qualify for. Also let’s not forget that we are presently battling an opioid epidemic which is a public health concern,” she says.

Millions of Americans will have their lives touched by addiction this year. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health directed by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 21.1 million people aged 12 or older needed treatment for substance use in 2018. Johnson knows all too well the damage addiction wrecks on entire families but also the hope that treatment can provide. Experience with addiction in her own life has given her a unique insight into the recovery of those she treats. “I think it’s very helpful, because it allows me to have empathy and not sympathy, and to understand that the struggles that they face on a daily basis include stigma that is associated with substance use disorder,” she explains.

Early in her career, Johnson worked overnights in a women’s and children’s facility while earning her associate degree in chemical dependency counseling from Hudson Valley Community College.  She knew she wanted to further her career but wasn’t sure she was going to be able to balance school with life and work. “Years passed and I realized that I was getting older, and there was so much more to learn in regard to helping vulnerable individuals. I needed to gain a better understanding of concepts, skills and knowledge to be able to address the whole person and not just their addiction,” Johnson says.  Encouraged and supported by friends, family, and colleagues, Johnson went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in community and human services from Empire State College and ultimately her Master of Science in Health Sciences at Excelsior College.

As her education progressed, so did her career. In Johnson’s current position as a program director, she oversees the treatment of 48 clients as well as supervises 19 employees, a workload she admits can have its challenging moments. “I deal with different attitudes and behaviors daily. I could have my day planned out and an emergency arises with one of the clients that must be addressed immediately. This could be due to a relapse or a behavioral issue. I supervise all the counselors and staff, so this entails providing supervision on a weekly or biweekly basis to all. I am in meetings, case conferences, trainings, etc. on any given day,” she describes.

While her job can be highly rewarding, it can also take a high toll, both mentally and physically. Johnson counsels others interested in the addiction recovery field on the importance of balancing service to others with self-care. “You have to have the passion and desire to want to help individuals, and to understand vulnerable populations and the struggles that they go through. But also, it is a stressful job, it really is.” It’s important to consider counselor wellness and be able to leave the job at the job at the end of the day, according to Johnson. Johnson’s own counselor care comes in the form of the gym, spa or just a good movie on the couch. Of course, people who change the world never sit still for long. “I love to learn. That’s the good thing about me, I always want to be educated. I’m open to learning, because the more that I know, the more that I can teach the people that I serve.”

Secret Talent

I’m funny. Yes, my husband says I should be a comedian!

If You Could Meet Any Historical Figure…

Rosa Parks– I love her sayings– and also Maya Angelou. I would ask them how did they get through the struggle, and to let them know that also, when I am having a bad day, I go and I read their inspirational quotes just to get me through. It makes me strong to get through the day, understanding what they’ve been through in their lives.