As a crisis intake clinician with Clatsop Behavioral Healthcare, Susan Denight responds to mental health crises at the Clatsop County Jail, Youngs Bay Juvenile Detention Center and elsewhere throughout the county.
Denight, 40, has been involved in social work and mental and public health in Oregon for a long time. She started at CBH just a few weeks ago and is settling into life in Astoria after moving here earlier this year.
“The agency is in a really great stage of development,” she said about CBH.
Denight and three co-workers at CBH make up the crisis team, receiving calls and responding to Columbia Memorial Hospital and other institutions with people struggling and in need of an immediate mental evaluation. She has already been called out to the Youngs Bay Juvenile Dentention Center several times.
“They’ll call us and we’ll respond,” she said. “From there, we might determine they need to be admitted to a hospital for more psychiatric care.”
Without a mental health hospital on the coast, patients are often sent to other parts of Oregon. “We have to look around and try to find beds that are available around the state, which usually means far away, which is really a bummer.”
Denight will be conducting assessments of youth for CBH as well. Often a parent who is worried about a child will call, or in one case recently, a school nurse called. An appointment is then scheduled for an assessment.
“Together, with them, we try to figure out what they might benefit from and then try and connect them with a therapist that is going to meet their needs,” Denight said.
Denight grew up mostly in Portland, but traveled back and forth from there to Hawaii throughout her childhood until middle school.
“My mother would say I was always a social worker,” she said. “I certainly was a kid at an early age who felt the need to stand up for the injustices, whether it was an animal on the side of the road or a kid getting bullied at school.”
When she was in high school, gang violence in the early 1990s was becoming a major issue for the Rose City.
“It just had an impact on me, watching that go on and the things that happened.” Later, while in college, she took her first women’s studies class. Learning about historical injustices and growing up in a progressive household brought together an awareness of systemic issues in society.
“It just sort of all connected for me,” she said.
Her focus in graduate school was on clinical social work, and specifically justice-centered social work. Denight has worked in the state Department of Human Services and at the Eastern Oregon State Hospital in Pendleton. In 2011, she completed her master’s degree in social work (MSW) at Portland State University.
Denight went to graduate school with the executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, Julie Soderberg. They met in Costa Rica during a summer program that was part of their academic studies.
When Soderberg got the job at the Women’s Resource Center in 2012, the two spoke about the agency’s vision and Denight helped with grant writing for the agency. The two of them, with clinical and administrative strengths, were able to complement each other, she said.
Denight started coming from Portland to conduct agency assessments and eventually took a position with the Women’s Resource Center as an economic stabilization specialist. She helped run the Déjà Vu thrift store and with efforts to revitalize the work program. “The vision was that eventually we would have more classes and work experience type opportunities,” she said.
After a few months with the agency, Sara Wirkkala, the clinical director at CBH, spoke to Denight about a position that was open. With clinical work as her strength and original interest, Denight felt it was a good fit. She left the Resource Center and started work with CBH a few weeks ago.
At about the same time, she started as a teacher at Clatsop Community College. She was approached to teach a class in the Lives In Transition program and was later approached about teaching a women’s studies course.
While growing up in Portland, Denight’s family made vacation trips to Astoria. Now, she sees it as a good home base, a city she can develop her career in while finding time to travel as well.
Her dog likes being close to the beach, she said, and Denight is avid about the outdoors. She has picked up surfing again on the North Coast, although, compared to Hawaii, it’s much different.