Counselor Spotlight: Simone Key

By Rebecca Smith

During her interview for this profile, Next Step counselor Simone Key carefully considers the facets of each question posed, inspecting details and possible meanings.

“Girl, you should have sent me these questions beforehand,” she laughs. “I’m just not the type of person who can respond off the cuff. I like to sit and think before I reply.”

Simone works at Next Step’s downtown counseling office, a free resource for K-12 and college-age Smith County residents funded by a grant from the Women’s Fund of Smith County.

Stay-at-home orders to handle the coronavirus outbreak have meant that Simone and the other Next Step counselors have been having sessions over online video, which Next Step had in place three days after schools closed.

“I am beyond thankful for this service as it has given me necessary personal tools and resources to navigate internal complexities that have previously inhibited my day-to-day performance,” wrote one of Simone’s clients, a full-time college student who said they wouldn’t be able to access counseling services if they weren’t free. “I am amazed at my personal growth within the last year which has additionally been noticed by friends and family.”

Simone grew up in Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut. She did her undergrad at Williams in Massachusetts and grad school at UT Tyler in 2012.

She started as a pre-med student, then realized that wasn’t for her.

“In some way I wanted to be a child advocate, ever since I was little, but I didn’t know what that meant exactly,” she said. “I was thinking pediatrician because my family is in medicine. I was in college shadowing a doctor, and he noticed I was lingering with a lot of the patients. He said ‘You seem to be more interested in their overall wellbeing.’ I was interested in the surgeries, but I was more interested in how they were handling the anxiety of coming into the room, and recovery afterward, and if they had people to take care of them. There were also pre-med requirements that I was getting really sick of. I remember calling my dad and saying, ‘I don’t think this is for me’ when I had a fruit fly lab I had to do. You had to write 50 pages on fruit flies, and it was absurd. I said ‘If this is a pre-med requirement, I’m done.’ I decided I like to talk to people more than fruit flies.”

Simone said most of her sessions with the adolescents she sees focus on anxiety, depression, identity issues, or bullying. She sees some cases of trauma, but not as much as when she previously worked at the Child Advocacy Center of Smith County.

“When you can get to the issues with adolescents, it’s a lot easier to resolve than with adults, when the patterns are more deeply ingrained,” she said. “It’s a lot more rewarding to intervene at that stage in life. They’re old enough where you can kind of talk to them about existential issues, while also getting them early enough to make some substantial changes without a lot of battle. One of the most rewarding things about this job is you get to see students making progress every day. Clients say they have been able to restore relationships, or they’ve been able to find joy where they couldn’t find joy before.”

She also appreciates the rest of the Next Step staff, who help cheer her up when she has a day full of heavy sessions.

“I love getting to work with a team,” she said. “At my private practice I was feeling very isolated. Next Step is a very professional environment and there’s a lot of positive interactions with coworkers. You get to have good morale in the office, while you’re dealing with some difficult topics in sessions, which is great for preserving a healthy mindset for a counselor. I also think that the staff really cares about what they are doing. I don’t see anyone who is just going through the motions. Of course we all have our off days, but I think for the most part people really care.”

Simone uses a lot of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Gestalt, and Mindfulness in her sessions, she said. While there is research that these methods are effective, she said she still thinks society misunderstands therapy sometimes.

“There still is a very common stigma about counseling: that people are wanting sympathy or just being needy,” she said. “I don’t think that is at all what counseling is about. What counseling is usually about is telling your story in order to move forward, not get stuck in it. In fact, if you don’t tell your story, you usually end up getting stuck in it in some way. You tell your story, then you can move beyond it.”