Mitzi Peterson, (MSW ’97), LICSW, CCHP, is the Massachusetts Department of Correction’s Director of Behavioral Health. Overseeing the delivery of clinical services to incarcerated men and women, Mitzi works to establish level of care across the mental health continuum to include initial assessment, outpatient services, residential treatment, inpatient hospitalization, and reintegration to the community. Ensuring the wellbeing of the seriously mentally ill, Mitzi has coordinated the ongoing program development and implementation of specialized mental health units to divert individuals from restricted housing to a therapeutic milieu.
In this Q&A ahead of this year’s Distinguished Alumni Awards, Peterson talks with former employee Joseph Zimakas (MSW ’11), as they discuss why Joe nominated her and their shared experiences in corrections, what it means to share a bond as BCSSW alumni, and why she got into the field in the first place.
BCSSW: Thanks for joining us in conversation today. We’d love for Joe to begin, and tell us why he decided to nominate Mitzi as a Distinguished Alumna.
Joseph Zimakas: I had the pleasure of getting to know Mitzi as a supervisor and colleague right from the beginning of my social work career when I was fresh out of Boston College. I was at Old Colony Correctional Center as part of a team that was working with inmates who had open mental health cases. My job was mental health clinician and Mitzi was the clinical director.
I’ve known Mitzi as a colleague, mentor, and friend for going on seven years altogether, and I’ve always been very impressed with the mix of care that she gives to clients from populations that are often maligned, but also, to the development of young social workers and clinicians to make sure they are growing in their profession as providers of services.
Mitzi Peterson: It’s quite amazing to be recognized by Boston College, and actually, it means even more to me that I was nominated by Joe. I can explicitly remember every piece of conversation we shared on the day that I met him, when I was interviewing potential candidates to join our staff. From day one, Joe stood out as someone with potential, and at the end of what turned out to be a months-long process, I was begging him to come work for me. To have someone who I have the utmost respect for, who is so incredibly bright, to have thought of me… That really means so much.
BCSSW: It sounds like you had a great experience at BCSSW. Talk about what it means to be alumni from this school, and also, to share that connection with people like Joe.
MP: For me, the education was excellent. I have always felt confident in my positions in leadership, that when I get a resume from a BC School of Social Work graduate, they will have a strong foundation in what it means to be a social worker. Joe proved this—that the education I had received more than a decade before him was still so exquisite.
JZ: So much of a social work education is about that apprenticeship/mentorship relationship that you’re able to forge with more experienced supervisors while in school, and I had great mentors at BC. I also so appreciated the foundational ethics that are so necessary to our field, and that are instilled in you very early on at Boston College. BC’s heritage as a Jesuit institution is a big part of that, whereby the emphasis is not only on the skillsets a person can bring to their careers, but also the values and ethics they bring to their work. Being able to explore a future in the social work profession with people with this similar background rooted in service, speaking in a similar, united voice, was a wonderful opportunity for me.
BCSSW: You’ve moved on from corrections, Joe. Tell us about what you are doing now, and how has Mitzi prepared you to do this work.
JZ: Currently I’m in a student support role at MIT, providing academic and personal counseling. It’s an interesting transition to go from a correctional facility to higher education, but thanks largely to Mitzi, I have felt so prepared to make that switch. There are so many lessons that I’ve learned from her. One that sticks with me is that social workers don’t have to be softhearted or meek, which is the perception that so many people have. Mitzi taught me that if you know your stuff and you have something important to say, people will listen to you. She’s always pushed me to do better for my clients, but also, to be better for myself, and this shines through in how I think about my career.
MP: It was devastating for me when Joe left corrections, because I saw his trajectory moving up as a director within in our field. But I also took pride in the fact he’s demonstrated how translatable the skills he’s learned working in a prison are. When you work in a prison, you actually see everything, so much more than you would be exposed to in a small practice with a particular focus. We get it all.
JZ: It’s so true. Everything I’ve learned in the prison system is directly relatable to higher education. All issues with students, so many of whom are actually high risk, have corollaries to clients in prison system. With social work today, and in particular forensic social work, I’ve learned that there’s nothing new under the sun. Problems are based in humanity, not necessarily who someone is and where they come from. And since there are no secrets in prison, you learn so much, and this really comes out.
BCSSW: You’ve forged quite a career “seeing everything” as one does in corrections Mitzi, and you’ve worked your way to the top of the department here in Massachusetts. Tell us about some of the responsibilities of your current position.
MP: I oversee currently 16 prisons where mental health services are available at each facility, and I oversee the delivery of those services at each of the prisons. This means I work on everything from contract compliance to behavioral management plans for higher risk people. I even wrote the do not resuscitate policy for the department. While not a physician, I’ve worked with so many of these men over the years, and understand the choice to die peacefully with us. These prisons are the homes for the older men.
This is a great example of how, in my current role, I’m translating the experiences I had over many years as a therapist clinician, which is what I truly am by heart, into the policy-based position I serve in now. As I spent more time in corrections, I realized that I wanted to find ways to make a larger system change, and I’ve been able to do this as the Director of Behavioral Health.
JZ: You know Mitzi, I’d love to ask you a question if I may. You come from a family of lawyers and engineers.I don’t think I’ve ever asked you what made you choose social work in the first place.
MP: That’s a great question! When I was at William Smith College in Upstate New York, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the Canandaigua Veterans Administration Hospital, and because I was a psychology major, they asked me if I wanted to run groups with Vietnam War veterans. I had such an amazing experience with these men that I decided that that was the field I wanted to go into. I was still focused on some how doing so through law, until after college, I moved to Cape Cod and worked with kids who were criminally justice involved. I realized in order to do what I wanted to do—to help people to change their behavior and see things differently—I needed an advanced degree. The ideals of social work were the best fit, and I’m so happy that I was able to go to BC.