Rachel Siehs, NCC, LMHC, finds her most rewarding work in counseling adolescents and young adults—helping them to navigate symptoms of depression and anxiety, find their sense of identity, and adjust to grief and loss—often journeying with them through crises. Siehs never imagined she would face her own crisis at the age of 27, in the form of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Growing up, Siehs was always drawn to people, and people to her. She enjoyed talking to her peers and listening to their problems. It was in her high school AP psychology class that she discovered she wanted to become a counselor. She was excited to feel this certain of her future: “This is my job,” she said. “I found my career! I’m going to help and talk to people all day long.”
Siehs made good on her promise. In 2010 she graduated from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, with a BA in psychology. In 2012 she completed her master’s in mental health counseling at Long Island University Post in Brookeville, New York.
Fresh out of school with a master’s degree, she had high hopes of starting her career as a counselor, but that hope quickly diminished. Siehs recalls that she “wasn’t fully satisfied with what I was doing and felt underappreciated and undervalued in the nonprofit world. I felt like I was just a number.”
Soon after completing her master’s program, Siehs began working with court-mandated clients with substance abuse disorders and at an outpatient mental health clinic performing client screenings and intake. After being fully licensed for two years, she decided to pursue a doctorate in counseling. But despite her ambitions and dedication to her work, Siehs was terminated from her position in October of 2012.
After recovering from the shock and disappointment of being let go, with guidance from her parents, Siehs quickly prioritized her health and purchased premium insurance through the Affordable Care Act—a decision that would later save her life.
At a Thanksgiving gathering with family that year, Siehs discovered a growth on her neck. After her first doctor’s appointment in early December did not give her any answers, Siehs’ second appointment was derailed when she got into a car accident, totaling her car.
At 27 years old, Siehs suddenly had no car, no job, and no answer to the growth on her neck. With a high blood cell count, Siehs' primary care physician told her ENT that she "was the healthiest sick person" he'd ever encountered.
On January 14, Siehs was diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Siehs’ cancer quickly spread from a lump on her neck to a mass on her collarbone. Looking back, she considers herself lucky to have been unemployed during the initial appointments, having the time and flexibility she needed to seek treatment: “I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I was working and I was unable to see the doctor so quickly,” she says.
During six months of chemotherapy treatments, Siehs did not see clients. She could not connect with anyone, believing that “no one’s problems are as bad as mine.” She temporarily became detached from the sense of empathy that she’d always had. After six months of treatment, she was cancer-free.
Because of this experience, Siehs has a very different view on her life and why she wants to help the types of clients she works with today.
“When people hear I’m a cancer survivor, they say how sorry they are to hear that happened to me. But it was actually the best thing to ever happen to me! All of the bad things that happen are lessons to be learned, and growth can come from that.”
In 2017 she began working in a private practice, mostly with young adults and adolescents, and she’s learned along the way that a lot of people from the ages of 23–30 have a “quarter-life crisis” that no one likes to talk about, even though it’s quite common. Students graduate from college or start their first job and feel like that was supposed to make them happy, but it didn’t. Siehs says, “I love working with this population to normalize these feelings, because I felt them, too.”
Siehs spends a lot of her time trying to normalize the feelings people experience. “A lot of the time our feelings about our experiences are normal—it’s how we think about our experiences and how we cope with them that’s the most important piece of the puzzle.”
Siehs has particularly strong feelings about the pressure society places on young people. “What I struggle with in this society,” Siehs says, “is that for some reason we’ve demonized self-care into being selfish. Self-care is not selfish. It’s the most important thing anyone can do.” Siehs wishes she had prioritized her health and wellness early in her career.
Because of her experience with life-saving health care, she always accepts clients that use health insurance as payment. It increases her paperwork and decreases her profit, but she understands the client must come first. Siehs says, “it is unfortunate to live in a society that doesn’t always value mental health.
“In mental health care, there’s no bang for your buck,” she says. “You’re going to be paying for something that you’ll need for the rest of your life,” which makes it a hard sell for insurance companies to cover counseling sessions.
Today Siehs is living her dream of being a full-time counselor who is valued for her contributions. “Clients show me appreciation on a regular basis—through referrals, words of encouragement, and support,” she says.
Siehs continues to have success with her clients, using her own experience of coping through trauma to shift perspectives about gratitude and self-control.
“My journey with people is learning to be aware of and to validate and accept their situation, figure out where they want to go from there, and make things better, while recognizing the impacts of society, peer support, family relationships—realizing that at the end of the day, the only thing I can control is myself.”
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