Counselor Spotlight: Yvonnee Tatum

By Rebecca Smith

Yvonnee Tatum always knew she wanted to be a counselor.

“I was the kid on the playground solving people’s problems,” she chuckled. “That was me. Other people I’ve talked to in the profession, they have the same story. Then in high school, that’s when I really was like, ‘I need to figure out how our brains work, because you people are weird. I know I’m weird, but y’all are weird.’”

Yvonne works for the youth counseling program at Next Step that provides schools and juvenile probation offices with licensed professional counselors at a much lower rate than the school or probation office could hire one individually.

According to the Next Step website, “as many as 20% of students have behavioral, emotional and mental health issues that require counseling or treatment. Of these youth, more than 80% never receive any mental health care for their issues and 10% go on to drop out of school.

Many schools have a student to guidance counselor ratio of 500:1. Most school guidance counselors simply don’t have the time to spend with the 30, 60, 100, or more students who require many hours of individualized counseling sessions over the course of the school year.”

Yvonne grew up in Palestine, Texas. Before coming to the Next Step youth counseling program, Yvonne worked as a correctional officer, then at a large hospital system that handled eating disorders. She received her bachelor’s from the University of North Texas, then her master’s from UT Tyler.

Yvonne currently sees students at Robert E. Lee two days a week, Moore and Hubbard Middle Schools in Tyler, and Winnona Elementary School.

While she is conducting video sessions currently under the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools are open she sees 30 to 40 students a week.

Next Step had a HIPPA-compliant video conferencing tool in place for schools only three days after schools closed. While Yvonne says it is slower now, she expects it to pick up as people become acclimated to life under the stay-at-home orders.

“I think most parents right now are thinking ‘Oh my kid is ok,’ but I think as time progresses and they’re at home more, there will probably be more requests from parents.”

The kind of issues that she sees—and the ways she handles them—vary greatly by age group, she says.

“Outside of anxiety and stress, high schoolers are mostly trying to find themselves, trying to figure out who they are,” she said. “I really try to let them know ‘It’s cool to try and figure out who you are right now, but I just want to let them know that by 19, 20, you are going to look back and think ‘I was stupid.’ Then at 25, it’s going to happen again.”

Most of the self-harm cases tend to happen at the middle school level, she said, and far as elementary schools, sometimes there is family dysfunction and even budding mental health disorders, but mostly behavioral issues that she goes into the classroom to address.

“I try to interrupt the behavior as it happens or go into the classroom and observe,” she said. “I like to see how they are acting at different parts of the day, and I try to give the teacher as much support as I can.”

The number of times she sees each student varies depending on the seriousness of the issues.

“A student with some struggles who is doing OK mostly without me, they get about six sessions,” she said. “The ones who have more work to do, they get about 12. Then I have some that I have been seeing all year, because they need it.”

And—under no coercion or threats, mind you—she said her job at Next Step is the best one she’s had.

“Even if they fired me, I would come back and say ‘I know you were just playin’. They would have to push me out the door and change the locks!”

What does she find so different about working at Next Step?

“My favorite thing, hands down, about working at Next Step is you feel like you have a voice,” she said. “You tell the director about something that is impeding your progress, and it changes. And I’m like ‘Ooh, that happens? You tell your boss about something that is wrong and they fix it?’ When I tell my friends about my job, they are like ‘I didn’t know that existed.’”

Yvonnee likes working with adolescents because it is the time in life she feels you can make the biggest difference.

“This is where change can happen, this is where intervention needs to happen,” she said. “They keep me young, and it helps you stay connected to what the experience is of being that age, and I think that’s always refreshing and something I really enjoy.”

Yvonnee’s favorite therapy to use with clients is called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, which has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of problems including depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug use problems, eating disorders, and severe mental illness, according to the American Psychological Association.

Some of the core principles of CBT are that “Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking or learned patterns of unhelpful behavior. People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives. CBT treatment usually involves efforts to change thinking patterns.”

Yvonnee says sometimes patients get frustrated that they have to do their own work on changing their thoughts as part of CBT, but she doesn’t let them ignore the work.

“We live in a ‘just add water’ society, an instant gratification society,” she said. “Counseling is not a one-day fix-all. The first couple sessions is just students telling me everything that’s wrong, and they will say ‘I feel great! I got this down.’ Then I will say, ‘Wait, come back, there’s a lot to still unpack. I just needed you to get it out. Now we can move forward.’ You’ve got a couple times to tell me what’s wrong, then after that I will push you to challenge yourself to be different, how can you change things, how can you control yourself?”

Before her current school assignments, Yvonnee also worked at Juvenile Probation Offices with Next Step.

“The biggest difference is the consequences are not hypothetical,” she said. “They know what the consequences are, because they have gone through them.”

That was also where she saw one of her most memorable clients who made some of the biggest changes, she said.

“In the beginning, every week it was something. ‘This person said this, this person did that.’ I said, ‘At some point we have to look at ourselves and ask ‘What can I do to be different?’ It was really cool to see them make strides. They were behind in school about half a year, and then they caught up. They came up with different plans for their future. That kiddo right there, that was my heart.”

Yvonnee wants people to understand they may have some misconceptions about therapy.

“It works if you work it,” she said. “Counseling is not just laying on a couch. I’m gonna push you, I’m going to make you mad, I’m going to challenge you, I’m going to push you to work, and if you don’t, you’re going to hate coming to see me because you’ll say ‘All she ever does is force me to face up to my junk. I don’t want you to be 30-something, still struggling and missing out on life. You can’t beat anxiety if you don’t work at it. You can’t be different if you don’t try.”