An Interview with Clinical Director Alexandra Backis of Chicago Compass Counseling

Spotlight on Alexandra Backis, Therapist and Clinical Director in Chicago, IL

What does anti-racist practice look like in psychotherapy? Today, we’d like to introduce you to Alexandra Backis, LCSW. As Clinical Director, Alexandra draws on over a decade of experience incorporating anti-oppressive practice in her work as a therapist and supervisor in how she guides our team’s clinical development.

Questions and Answers

1. Let’s start with your story – how you started and how you got to where you are today. What drew you to the field of social work? Psychotherapy? Has it been a straightforward path for you?

Answer: I started out from a pretty young age being really interested in issues of gender and identifying as a feminist. In college, that interest expanded to include sexuality and sexual health. After college, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but literally the only grad school programs I really knew about were law school, business school, medical school, and social work school (because my dad had gone). Since I knew I wasn’t going to be any of the first 3 things on that list, I was left with social work. From there, my career began as a case manager working with adolescents and those impacted by HIV/AIDS. I quickly realized what a gap there was in terms of the support that young people and people navigating a stigmatized diagnosis had access to and how that was getting in the way of them being able to take care of themselves in the ways they wanted. That realization, and my general curiosity about people, made therapy feel like a natural next step and I’ve been doing it ever since. From the outside, I’m sure my path looks fairly straightforward, but it was only a few years ago that I had ever been at a job for at least 2 years. So there was quite a bit of bouncing around in there!

2. You have a passion for mentoring new clinicians. Tell us more about that.

Answer: Therapy is one part skill and one, much, much larger part, heart. When I left grad school as a new clinician, I thought therapy was all about the skill- following a script and following it perfectly. Not only did this not serve my clients particularly well, but it left me feeling bored and burnt out. I wish someone had told me then that therapy was not only about what can be taught, but more about this process of constantly being curious, taking risks, trusting myself, making mistakes- all the things that make this work intellectually stimulating for me and responsive to my clients. It took me such a long time to realize that and I love being able to meet new clinicians right at their beginnings of the career to hopefully give them that permission right from the start to let go of what doesn’t serve them as a therapist and lean into what their intuition tells them is clinically important.

3. How do you bring an anti-racist lens to supervising therapists?

Answer: First and foremost, I try hard to minimize any sense of hierarchy or me being an expert. I don’t always succeed at that, but it’s what I’m always striving for. There is no right way to do this work and I want to help therapists tune into what it means for them to practice in a way that is authentic to them. I also try to invite feedback from the very beginning of my work with therapists. Supervision time is like therapy time- it is meant to be in service of what the therapist needs and if I’m not attuning to that or not being helpful, I really want to know so that I can make that space useful.

4. What book are you reading right now?

Answer: I’m in a study group that just started Mariame Kaba’s book, We Do This ‘Til We Free Us about abolition. To be honest though, most of my reading is on Twitter or magazines since finding uninterrupted blocks of time to read are in short supply these days.

5. What do you believe is the most important issue facing the mental health and psychotherapy industry? How do you think the field will change in the next decade? 

Answer: Therapy is still a privilege for too many people, when it should be a right like any other form of healthcare. There are still communities that lack sufficient community mental health centers. There are still people that can’t access adequate treatment because they don’t have insurance coverage or the right kind of insurance coverage. There are still people that can’t find a therapist that speaks their language, looks like them, is competent in working with the issues that they are dealing with. I really hope that one of the changes we’ll see in the next decade is universal health care that makes mental health care available to anyone who needs it. I would also love to see more social workers and therapists unionize so that they are better able to advocate for themselves and for their clients.

6. You’ve written a lot about challenging the idea of “self-care” to make it more radical and inclusive. How might we begin to think about it differently? What do you do for self-care? 

Answer: I think self care is important, it’s just that it’s one piece of the puzzle. Too much of a focus on self care makes it seem like it’s the solution to the problem rather than just one of many possible ways to think about how we take care of ourselves and manage our emotional experiences. A more interesting question to me than “are you practicing self care” is “what’s going on in your life that you’re needing self care?” That often points us to larger systems and structures, such as our work, or our experience of -isms, or our relationships (or lack of relationships), that are making us feel stressed, sad, lonely, burnt out. Having that context is important, because it helps us make sense of the times when self care doesn’t seem to work and it also invites us to think about self care as something more than what we do individually. “Self care” can and should be communal as well. My self care is going to therapy, spending time with friends, crying, going to protests, donating to causes, trying to be kind to myself, doing nothing.

Quotable Takeaways

Takeaway #1: Therapy is one part skill and one, much, much larger part, heart.

Takeaway #2: A more interesting question to me than ‘are you practicing self care’ is “what’s going on in your life that you’re needing self care?”

Takeaway #3: Therapy is still a privilege for too many people, when it should be a right like any other form of healthcare.

Learn more about Clinical Director Alexandra Backis.

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Sarah Suzuki, AM, LCSW, CADC

Hi, I'm Sarah, and I'm a counselor who helps high-achieving men learn how to moderate their drinking. I currently offer counseling services and corporate training here at Chicago Compass Counseling. If you're interested, you can read more about me on my about page.