meet karissa: children’s psychotherapist in milwaukee

Karissa Kesselhon on People With Panache

“My favorite demographic is school age to teenager,” says Karissa. “I don’t ever want kids to not have someone be there for them.”

“You’re living in your own reality,” says Karissa Kesselhon. Kate and I spend each week sharing stories of women turning their dreams into reality. This week I got to meet Karissa, who has a whole different view on that topic. She’s a psychotherapist, so every day she sees the impact of our brains’ perceptions on our actions, personalities and realities.

Karissa is a Masters-level psychotherapist—the technical term for a therapist. In her practice, she does children’s play therapy. (In case you’re a little out of the loop on all these terms, like me: You can be a Ph.D. level and do this work, but most Ph.D.s are psychiatrists or psychologists. Psychiatrists can prescribe medication, and psychologists mainly do assessments.)

Her work life is a little different than I expected, because she’s an independent contractor at a private practice. This reminds me of growing up with my business-owner mom: Karissa has to do her own marketing, find clients, get credentialed in insurance networks, even make sure people are authorized for her to be able to see them. She schedules her clients, provides the therapy—and only gets paid when she’s working face-to-face with her clients. Karissa’s got a hard job, but just being near her, you can feel the light and passion shining. She works frequently with clients from the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare, and I so hope she continues doing this for a long time. There’s something special about her that you can just tell helps her pint-sized clients to heal.

People with Panache: How did your path lead you here?

“I asked Jill, one of the owners, ‘How will I know if that was the right thing to say or activity to do?’ She said, ‘You’re never really going to know. There’ll be moments, and that’s when you know you’ve made it. But you’re always going to be learning, doubting, wondering.’”

“I asked Jill, one of the owners, ‘How will I know if that was the right thing to say or activity to do?’ She said, ‘You’re never really going to know. There’ll be moments, and that’s when you know you’ve made it. But you’re always going to be learning, doubting, wondering.’”

Karissa Kesselhon: After getting my undergrad in psych, I took a year to work at a residential treatment facility for girls 11 to 17 with severe emotional disturbances. I thought, “Whoa. I don’t want to be doing this.” It was so stressful. The only person they respected there was the therapist. I wanted to be that person. I thought, “She is making a difference.” So I asked her about her program, applied last-minute on a whim, and I made it!

PWP: That sounds really challenging, but I bet it’s rewarding, too. I’m excited to learn more about play therapy, your specialty that you use with your kiddo clients. What are some activities you do?

KK: They’re tailored toward the kids’ developmental levels. Play is their communication medium and takes pressure off a direct, uncomfortable conversation. We deal with a lot of trauma, which is so subjective, so our play therapy room is filled with any toy you can think of: a sandbox, a stage with a curtain, art supplies, different kinds of toys, play medical equipment, dolls, play food. The activity depends on the issues, what kind of approach you use and even what day it is.

PWP: Do you remember how you felt when you first started seeing your own clients?

KK: I still to this day get weirded out sometimes. I will walk out thinking, “You’re responsible for somebody’s mental health.” I have a serious profession, and it’s taken so long to get here.

Grad school was the hardest time in my life and pushed me to know myself inside and out. You have to be aware of your facial expressions, body movements, tone of voice, everything that’s influenced you and your thoughts—I got critiqued a lot for strong facial expressions. It really forced me to analyze and evaluate myself. I cried like every day after grad school driving home from class—it was tough.

“If I’m going to be here on this earth, I want to be contributing to something.”

And now, people put a lot of trust in me. I technically don’t have a boss. The three owners of the practice where I work are so different but have been the best mentors I could ask for. Lisa, the one I interned for before I started at this practice as a contractor, has a special place in my heart. She’s such a smart businesswoman—she has clear focus and drive, which is admirable.

PWP: What was it like starting your own practice within a practice?

KK: At first, to build my own business, I just needed people—and to learn! I had to get off the ground. Now that I’ve been doing this for a bit, Lisa tries to get me to think about my craft, my interests, what kinds of people I want to be seeing.

Karissa on PWP

“We don’t get to see therapy outcomes that often, as people just stop coming, or their insurance changes or something. But one day, one of the boys I work with just said, ‘Thank you.’ I asked him, ‘For what?’ ‘Just for everything.’ Those moments make it all worth it.”

PWP: I see—even though you can’t predict what a single day will be like in your life, you’re shaping it in the ways you can. Within your practice, what’s it like taking on the problems of others?

KK: Thankfully, my program focused a lot on self-care, how to know when you’re starting to get burned out or too invested. I think it’s therapy for myself doing things I want to do or little hobbies. Or if there’s something really disturbing, I kind of vent or get ideas from another practitioner. It’s hard. I started off working with all Bureau kids, removed from their parents’ care for emotional and physical abuse, nightmare things you couldn’t even imagine. School taught me how to leave that at work. As much as you want to help, you can only do what you can do in the moment you’re with that person.

One messed up thing about the system is that I am an independent contractor, so that means no benefits or anything. But all therapists should have mental health coverage! I can’t see a therapist because I can’t afford it, but I’d love to.

PWP: Stuff like that is really hard for me to reconcile in my heart and in my mind, especially thinking about all the help and service you provide, and all the benefits others get for jobs that are far less emotionally taxing. I know it’s not the same, and you chose this job because you love it.

KK: Right. This is my vocation. My calling. Yeah, it would be sweet to spend a lot of money, go on vacation, but I feel like my life’s purpose is to help others. If I’m going to be here on this earth, I want to be contributing to something. I want to at least try to make a small impact on this sometimes terrible world.

PWP: What are your next steps?

“How the government has so much control over mental health makes me sometimes want to be a lobbyist,” Karissa says. Psychotherapists like her are required to diagnose people the first time they see them. “I don’t like the black or white, when the care is so obviously the most important part,” she says.

“How the government has so much control over mental health makes me sometimes want to be a lobbyist,” Karissa says. Psychotherapists like her are required to diagnose people the first time they see them. “I don’t like the black or white, when the care is so obviously the most important part,” she says.

KK: The “dream” is to own a private practice. But after working as an administrative coordinator at the practice, I know how much work it is to credential the therapists, run the office—I mean even paper costs a lot!

My future is open. I love where I am, and actually one of the owners mentioned to me how another owner is going down to part-time and jokingly asked if I wanted to be a partner—it totally caught me off guard—but maybe something like that! I also think about doing my own private practice, like renting an office space somewhere with massage therapists or starting a wellness clinic and sharing the office space with someone else. Or trauma responding. I love trauma. PTSD is so interesting to me because it can actually change your brain structure. That’s why it is so detrimental but so cool because it’s treatable. If you get the right treatment by the right practitioner, you can become well again.

PWP: And while you’re helping people heal from trauma to lead happy lives, what makes YOU happiest?

KK: Being close to people, my family and friends. I can travel, go places and experience different things—but having a solid foundation of these people makes me happy.

[Photos by Alysse.]

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