Being a clinical social worker, I saw a need for holistic care for my clients and patients. I wanted to offer aromatherapy as one of the tools they could choose from. I have been working in the social work profession for quite some time. I have seen both the strengths and the opportunities for growth within our medical and behavioral health care systems. While many individual providers strive to provide excellent care for their patients and clients, their service delivery is confined within a system that is driven by finances.
Our health care system is complex, and options for providing client interventions are driven by numbers based on cost-benefit and cost-effective analysis. While the opioid crisis has recently pushed the health care system to start looking for effective non-pharmacological interventions for pain, we still have a long way to go.
When it all comes down to the fiscal return on investment, the holistic treatment of an individual gets lost somewhere in the shuffle. Many complementary and alternative therapies that could be integrated into the health care system are still considered non-evidence based practice. This creates further barriers as far as funding for alternative therapies that can be integrated into health care practice.
Regardless of the state of our health care system, I have always been passionate about providing care that is geared towards prevention, stabilization, and revitalization. This passion stems from many years of professional experience, being frustrated with the system at times, and seeing the gaps while helping patients and clients to try and navigate the system. My interest and passion also comes from my own personal experience of being on the other side. I’ve been a patient, experiencing feelings of hopelessness and frustration with our health care system, wishing that there were more options for holistic care. I needed holistic options that were affordable, evidence-based, and fairly easy to access.
As a teenager (in the late 1980s and early 1990s), I was actually introduced to many of these holistic options. My Mom worked as an alcohol and drug counselor at a facility that uses a unique and innovative psychobiological model for treating addiction. My Dad had started using and selling essential oils through a multi-level marketing company. At that time, I didn’t think much of it. The extent of the essential oil use was just putting some lavender into my diffuser and letting it run. Little did I know that these seeds that were planted back in my childhood had started to grow and blossom.
It was during my own personal health crisis that I realized I needed to make a change for myself, both personally and professionally. I started to investigate the integrative therapies that I was introduced to earlier in my life. I wanted to know if and how they were being utilized within various areas of the health care system. I was curious about the integration of some of these non-pharmacological interventions in my field of social work: hospice, oncology, home care, chemical health, and mental health.
During this in-depth exploration, I started to utilize some of these methods as a patient, and integrated them into my health care plan. My integrated care plan included: acupuncture, Tai Chi, chiropractic, massage, homeopathy, naturopathy, functional medicine, herbalism, restorative yoga, prayer, and last (definitely not least), aromatherapy.
Over the next couple of years, I became fascinated with aromatherapy. Having worked primarily in behavioral and mental health for the majority of my career, I was particularly interested in its effect on stress and emotions. I was also impressed by the affordability, versatility, and accessibility of this complementary health care modality.
I went back to my roots with my first introduction to essential oils, and got hooked up with the same multi-level marketing company that my Dad started with all of those years ago. I signed up under his significant other, as she is still a distributor for the company.
However, after going to a day long educational event put on by a higher ranking distributor in the area, I quickly started to second guess some of their practices and teaching. I had that feeling in my gut. You know, the one that is coming from the spirit that says “this is NOT a good idea”. I didn’t pay attention to that feeling, and thought, “No, this IS a good plan, I can also make a lot of money by becoming a distributor and selling the product.”
I came up with some justifications in my mind: paying off school loan debt, allowing flexibility in my schedule, helping family and friends to improve their health. Finding other friends who were successful in selling products through a multi-level marketing approach further propelled my confirmation bias. I became excited, and I started using the products and following some of the recommendations from the distributor and other information that I’d found on the internet. It was mainly from facebook groups, big name bloggers that were also distributors, and pinterest.
Unfortunately, both myself and my son ended up having several adverse reactions from using them the way that the company recommended. One of these reactions was significant enough to stop me in my tracks and get me to re-think my actions. If this could happen to me and my family, it could happen to anyone.
I started to become concerned for my friends and family who were using essential oils without any formal and accurate education and training. I also wondered how many of my clients and patients were also being affected by possible adverse reactions. I noticed a lack of safety information as well as a “diagnose and treat” approach with essential oils.
In my career, I’d learned from other medical professionals on my teams that it is important to have ALL medications, supplements, vitamins, and any other natural products to be reconciled. This means that the doctors are made aware of what the patients are taking so that they can properly assess for contraindications, and that a medical professional is monitoring this. Many of the patients would even have a scheduled meeting with a pharmacist to review everything as well.
Just like vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other over-the-counter supplements, essential oils can be easily purchased. Anyone can buy them from the internet, grocery stores, co-ops, and home parties. How were these essential oils being used by patients, and how was it interfering with their medical and mental health conditions, and medications? Obviously they couldn’t be too problematic or dangerous, because people are not dropping dead like flies from use of essential oils?
As these questions and concerns arose within me, I knew I needed to investigate further. I was not even aware that there was formal education out there for clinical aromatherapy. I spoke with an acupuncturist friend, and she provided me with alternative options for learning more about aromatherapy from the professional stand point. This brief conversation was instrumental in starting me down my new path, and giving me the guidance that I needed to start seeking answers that would give me some peace.
While this new quest for learning about safe and effective aromatherapy was underway, I was working as a social worker on a team for a local hospital based home care. The hospital system was utilizing aromatherapy with its patients, primarily in hospice and the family birth center. This type of aromatherapy and use of essential oils was new to me. It was based on evidence-based practice with policies and procedures that had been developed by a trained nurse who was working with local clinical aromatherapists. This experience, and having a colleague at another hospital who had already implemented the use of aromatherapy with their home care and hospice team, led me to seek further education and guidance on how I could implement this for our home care patients.
I used my Google skills, and found an expert clinical aromatherapist in the Twin Cities area. I attended her two day Foundations class to learn the basics (little did I know that this was just scratching the surface!). I asked to meet with her, and she kindly invited me to her studio to give me some insight into her profession. She provided me with ideas on how I could start to integrate aromatherapy into my profession as a social worker. She also gave me more leads on things that I could research. She also offered me a position to start working with her and interning, which I gladly accepted!
For several months I wrestled with the idea of learning just enough to personally use essential oils safely and with confidence vs. getting formal education to be able to use it safely with my clients. As a social worker, it is my ethical duty to refer out to other professionals, and to not engage in work that is outside of my scope of practice. Did I want to refer my clients out to the Clinical Aromatherapy professionals? Or, did I want to become one of them, and be able to teach other licensed professionals? After several months, and many conversations with my mentor, I made the decision that I wanted to go back to school for clinical aromatherapy.
Now, if you know anything about social workers, you know that we love our research, resources, and contacts. I thoroughly researched the different levels of certification and every approved school that was listed on the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists websites. I created a spreadsheet that took note of each school’s qualities that included: costs, time investment, method of learning, teaching styles, certification options, values, morals, ethics, rooted in evidence based practice, and alignment with my current profession and trajectory. With the help of my mentor’s reflection, observations, wisdom, and feedback, I decided that I wanted to complete enough hours to become a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist.
Based on several factors, I decided to attend the New York Institute of Aromatic Studies (formerly known as The School for Aromatic Studies). I may write more in depth about my experience with the school in the future, but I can tell you at this point, I am pleased and satisfied with my education that I have received. Because I am an avid learner, I like learning different perspectives from different teachers. So, I have started to branch out and seek additional opportunities from other well known schools in the professional aromatherapy field. Just like I need to get my CEUs for my social work license every two years, I also need to keep up with my continuing education for my clinical aromatherapy certification.
As I am human, my life has been made of up a tapestry of experiences that are woven together with the goal of joining others on their journey to improve their overall health and wellness. These professional and personal experiences have brought me to where I am today, and for that, I am grateful.
As we all have our own journey, I encourage you to reflect on how you became interested in essential oils. What drew you to them? How do you want to use them personally and professionally? Is this a tool that you can see helping your clients or patients to add to their self-care toolbox? How in depth do you want to go in your learning?
If you would like help reflecting on any of these questions, please feel free to contact me for a complimentary consultation.
National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics. Retrieved 8/10/17 from: http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp