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February 3, 2016

Meet Dr. Kenya Key, Chief Psychologist at The Cook County Jail

Meet Dr. Kenya Key, Chief Psychologist at The Cook County Jail

WILDCAT WEDNESDAY – Meet Dr. Kenya Key, one of the biggest and best Wildcat supporters I’ve ever met – even if it meant rooting for her teammates and choreographing pre-game high-fiving moves and hair styles – when her knee injuries would not allow her to take the floor. Kenya, a Long Island native, is now the chief psychologist at The Cook County Jail in Chicago where she oversees the clinical operations of mental health service to the inmates, supervises all clinical activities and manages a staff of over 80 mental health providers.

Kenya majored in Education & Social Policy/Psychological Services while on the basketball team (and she was also an Alpha Sweetheart). Kenya received her master’s in counseling psychology at NU and her doctorate at Pepperdine University. Please be sure to read all the heart and soul Kenya gives to her job and how on a daily basis she manages to stay positive in the face of challenging situations that the rest of us only hear about or read about or see on TV. I honestly wish I could put a bench outside the Cook County Jail and cheer wildly every day for Dr. Kenya Key.

MO: Tell us about your high school career and how you ended up at Northwestern.

KK: I had the rare experience of playing Varsity basketball for five years after joining the team as an 8th grader. Manhasset High School played a significant role in my development as a student-athlete. The academic opportunities and expectations prepared me for what I would eventually face at an academic powerhouse like NU. I credit the majority of my athletic development to my AAU team and coaches. I was a member of the New York Liberty Belles for five years. Being able to compete with and against the most talented girls in the country was an invaluable experience in my development as a player. The level of play in AAU was of a different caliber. Playing AAU also afforded me the opportunity to have college coaches see me play. I am proud to say that I was recruited by many top tier schools, however, my parents were very clear that the academic reputation of any school I chose was far more important than the athletic reputation, so that eliminated a few institutions that I otherwise may have considered. So, I considered myself very lucky when I was recruited by Northwestern, as I knew that there I would have the best of both worlds – a strong academic institution and high caliber athletic program, THE BIG TEN! When I came on my recruiting visit, it felt like home, moreso than any of the other schools I visited. It just all worked, it felt right. My parents were tickled pink because it was Northwestern for pete’s sake! The school colors being my favorite color (purple) didn’t hurt either!

MO: How was your athletic experience as a basketball player at NU?

KK: Challenging. Emotionally trying. Rewarding despite it all. Going from hoops being the center of my world and who I thought was as a person to being unable to play was devastating. Four knee surgeries in three years. My career was over before it began. I came to NU with all the hopes and expectations of excelling on the court and in the classroom. Freshman year I worked hard to recover from surgery 1 and made good progress from what I can remember. I think I was the biggest cheerleader our team had as the loudest on the bench and one who was always making up pregame high five routines for everyone. I was determined to contribute and be an important part of our team and support my teammates even if I could not help on the court playing. I stayed motivated and worked hard in PT, but it lead to another injury that was tougher to recover from. After my third surgery, my hoops dreams started to fade a bit and the depression and insecurity set in. This was also around the time that I started feeling like I was being treated by the coach as an outsider, which was the most painful part of it all. Instead of finding solace in one place that never failed me – in the gym with my team – I started to feel like an unwelcome intruder. I withdrew from the team more and more, spending less and less time at practices and games until I stopped going around at all. Why was this rewarding? Because I met and bonded with some amazing people, I received a free college education, but most importantly I learned how strong I was. Not only how strong I was, but also that I was more than who I thought I was or could ever be. For the first time in my life, I was forced to find a passion off the court.

MO: I saw the your first year when I was a fifth year senior, and it was tough on you, but you were always so supportive. It was a tough year for me, but I know seeing those who could not be on the floor helped put things in perspective. I was grateful to always have you in the locker room and at the end of the bench because you always made me laugh and believe more in myself. But what was the silver lining for you? How has your career as an athlete helped shape you?

KK: The silver lining was learning that I could redefine myself when necessary and that passion does not have to lie in one arena. All of my life until college, it was basketball and books, and I was okay with that because I was passionate about both. When I lost one of my passions, it forced me to discover what else I was passionate about. In some ways, I think it was a blessing that my big “aha moment” came so early in my academic career because I was fully able to pursue my passion in helping others while I was still in school. I had the opportunity to delve into the course work and prepare the foundation. Had my injuries happened later in my career, things may have looked quite different. I say this because once I really started to think about what makes me tick, it resulted in a change of majors from pre-med to psychology.

I think learning how to work as part of a team was one of the most important aspects of being an athlete and it’s something I apply daily. Every position I have worked in has required reliance upon a teamwork approach, as I am always a part of a multidisciplinary team (psychiatrists, social workers, mental health staff, nurses, case managers). There is not much in my work that I do in a silo, so appreciating the contribution that everyone makes to the care of each patient is critical.

MO: Did you know at NU that you wanted to be where you are now?

KK: Absolutely not. My first two years at NU I expected to be an orthopedic surgeon because I had never really thought about anything else. It was not until my junior year that I figured out that I wanted to be a psychologist. And if anyone would have told me that I would end up working in a jail, I would likely have laughed at them and likely found the notion absurd. But jail is where I did end up in a very unplanned way, but when I got there, it fit – just like NU. I just knew that is where I needed to be. I had found my niche in corrections and almost 14 years later, I still love what I do.

The only thing that I was always sure of was that I would always serve those who were underserved. I have always been drawn to work in settings and with populations with limited or no resources and otherwise marginalized. I figure individuals with resources have a much easier time finding the support and help they need, I need to be where few other people want to be. Why? Because that is where the help is most needed.

MO: Describe the range of scenarios you have been in over the course of your impressive career as a psychologist. What were some of the hardest cases for you?

KK: I have worked with individuals across the lifespan (child to older adults) and across the spectrum of mental wellness, from individuals without mental illness who came to therapy to get support about a new life change (i.e. changing jobs, blending a family, etc.) to those with acute psychotic disorders who are completely out of touch with reality. I have worked in schools, community health centers, hospitals, homeless shelters, and corrections. They each come with their own challenges, individually, culturally, and with respect to the challenges unique to the given system where the treatment is being provided. I have worked with people who have been accused of doing horrific things who are mentally ill. I have worked with people who have been criminalized because of their mental illness.

The hardest cases were my juveniles at the CCJTDC. I worked with girls who should have been thinking about home work, jumping double dutch, playing with Barbie Dolls and worrying about what color lip gloss they could sneak to put on knowing they were too young for makeup. Instead these young ladies were dealing with the aftermath of lives fraught with experienced and witnessed physical and sexual traumas. Trying to create a safe space, trying to build a trusting adult relationship, and trying to help a traumatized child find hope in an existence that feels utterly unsafe and hopeless is one of the hardest things I have done in my life.

MO: And what were the most rewarding ones?

KK: Those same cases were the most rewarding ones for the very same reasons – creating a safe space, building a trusting adult relationship, and helping a traumatized child find hope – when I think of meaningful work, that is what I think about.

MO: What do you think is the root cause of psychological illness? Is it genetic, environmental, both? Have you seen clear examples that support both cases? What other roles play a role in mental health? Diet, stress level, self-image, abuse?

KK: I think mental illness has bio-psychosocial roots. Existing research tells us that genetics and environment both play a large role in the development on mental illness. Certain medical conditions, including traumatic brain injury can result in diagnosable mental health disorders. I do not think that it is possible to isolate a whether or not an illness is born out of genetics or environment. It’s just not that simple. Additionally, cultural factors have to be considered. The threshold between “normality” and pathology differs between cultures. For example, hearing voices of dead relatives in some societies is viewed as a possible grief reaction, however, if it goes on too long it becomes thought of as abnormal, eventually possibly psychotic. However, in some cultures communicating with the dead is not only normal, but expected. When I think about children growing up in communities that experience a great deal of violence on a daily basis and they start to adapt by developing protective behaviors, these behaviors are often interpreted as symptoms of a mental health disorder. Is a child that reacts strongly to perceived threat as a result of living in chronic violence mentally ill? These are the types of questions that mental health professionals have to consider in their work. I can affirmatively say that our diets, level of stress, sleep, self-image, etc. all contribute to how psychologically healthy we are and how we feel, but narrowing down the cause of mental illness to a specific etiology is much more difficult, if even possible at all. In fact, it really depends on who you ask and what school of thought they subscribe to, which informs which research they believe to be accurate.

MO: Tell us about your ideal day at the office – if all things are running smoothly, what’s it like to have the amount of responsibility you do at one of the country’s most largest single site jails in the United States?  

KK: An ideal day would start with my morning administrative meetings. Following those meetings, I would have the opportunity to visit each of our clinical areas to check in with staff and observe the daily clinical activities, therapeutic groups, individual therapy sessions, clinic appointments. Making clinical rounds gives me an opportunity to engage with patients and provide needed support to my staff directly. An even better day would involve the opportunity for me to provide direct service to patient(s), either completing assessments or facilitating a therapeutic group.

MO: Tell us of the things that make it a rough day at the office.

KK: Constant crises without clear and easily grasped solutions always make for a rough day. Providing healthcare in corrections is challenging because there are so many moving parts in a large system like the one I am in. The amount of coordination it takes to accomplish what healthcare providers in other settings might consider a small task is unimaginable. Healthcare (mental health, medical, nursing), administrative, and correctional staff have to work very closely together daily to keep things running. The reality is that sometimes each of these different disciplines have different viewpoints and ideas about how issues should be handled, so working through the differences in an effort to achieve the best and safest outcome is an important part of our work.

MO: How do you best cope with the level of responsibility?

KK: Trying to focus on self-care as much as possible. I have always taught this to staff and students who I have supervised. I am much better at this now than I used to be. I actually practice what I preach these days. I get a hot stone massage every two weeks, acupuncture weekly, and my husband and I travel as much as possible. A more recent addition to my self-care repertoire is using essential oils, not just for aromatherapy but for the therapeutic value as well. As a result of all of the above, I experience less subjective feelings of stress and all the lovely stuff that comes with it (poor sleep, headaches, random aches and pains, etc.).

Additionally, I try to keep things in perspective. I am one person. I am human. I am not going to have all of the answers all of the time and occasionally the answer I come up with may not be the best one, and that is not the end of the world. This also relates to the last question you sent about working so hard and seeing folks come back and forth to jail or relapsing in their addiction, etc. You have to learn that you are there to help people help themselves. You as the clinician cannot work harder or want more than the patient. When you find yourself wanting to save lives then you have a problem. “Saving a life” has to be a bonus not the goal. Helping someone develop the tools and establish the supports they need to save their own lives is the goal. This is not always easy, but that is what supervision and consultation is for. This is actually why I had to take a break from working with children. I started finding it hard to separate and it’s hard to expect a child to be able to save themselves when you are sending back into the environments that led them to your care to begin with. 

MO: What’s next on the horizon for you?

KK: That is a good question. Personally, hopefully starting a family. I think my husband and I have so much love to share and we would like to have children to share that love with someday soon. Professionally, I actually have no idea. I just know that every day I am trying to become a better psychologist and a better person. People always tell me, “you can’t possibly want to work in a jail forever,” and I say, “on that morning that I wake up and find myself not wanting to walk into those gates, that’s when I know it’s time to figure out what is next.” I am a strong believer in passion and purpose and I have both right now professionally. When either or both of those dissipate, then I will have to recreate myself. I think I have gotten good at that!

MO: This was really a pleasure to reach out, re-connect and show my respect. Thank you for all you give.


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