Oftentimes a single event leads to the discovery of one’s life purpose. For psychology professor Scott Poland, a life-altering experience occurred just as he was beginning his graduate education at Ball State University in Indiana.
Poland had recently graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s in psychology and was ready to pursue a master’s. But just as he began his studies, Poland’s father committed suicide.
“It didn’t immediately cause me to know that suicide prevention would be my life’s work, but I did pursue a master’s in counseling,” Poland said.
This began a series of unique, and often troubling, experiences as Poland entered the workforce, looking to apply his background in psychology and counseling to a worthwhile cause. Poland’s first experience with a disturbing work environment was during his undergraduate studies, when he worked at a large psychiatric hospital in Connecticut.
“It was a time which today’s young people aren’t familiar with,” Poland said. “America had so many large institutions with thousands of patients receiving mental health care with a variety of diagnoses in one place.”
As an attendant, Poland worked in many areas of the hospital and was able to see everything from cases of substance abuse to psychotic behavior. In one of the units, Poland was frustrated with one of the psychologist’s unkind bedside manner.
Poland said, “I wanted to further my studies and work in counseling and psychology because I was motivated by him. I wanted to be able to work with people with sympathy, empathy and sensitivity.”
Poland’s first full-time job was counseling in a private all-boys school in Indiana, where it didn’t take him long to figure out that abuse was occurring. Poland resigned and tried to forget about the disturbing experience, but when he found himself unable to, he organized a group of former employees at the school and presented the evidence of abuse to both the school’s board of directors and Indiana’s public welfare department. Thanks to his determination, despite receiving opposition from the directors, the school was shut down.
“After working in two state hospitals and successfully closing a boy’s school, I remember thinking to myself ‘What could be better than this?’” Poland said.
Poland went on to earn a doctorate in school psychology from Ball State University and moved to Texas, where he became a school psychologist and, eventually, became the director of the entire district’s Department of Psychological Services. During his first year as director, several students committed suicide, and dealing with the aftermath of their deaths became part of the inspiration for his first book, “Suicide Intervention in the Schools,” published in 1988 in six different languages.
Just before writing his second book, Poland grew interested in more general crisis intervention, not just suicide. Immediately after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Poland was invited to the city as part of a national team to work with public school children who had been affected by the attack. For 11 years, Poland continued this kind of intervention work in the aftermath of crises throughout the country, such as school shootings and bombings, as the first Chairman of the National Association of School Psychologists.
At NSU, Poland continues to promote suicide and violence prevention and believes that his 26 years of providing full-time support to schools and students allows him to show to his classes how he lived the subject that he is teaching. Poland allows his students to accompany him on some of his interventions in public schools and is grateful that he can still receive hands-on experiences in counseling while also teaching.
NSU created the Suicide and Violence Prevention office shortly after Poland became a faculty member, which he now co-directs with Associate Professor Douglas Flemons. They recently applied for a second federal grant, so, in addition to teaching, Poland is still actively promoting suicide and violence prevention at NSU.
“Sometimes I do miss the day-to-day work in schools because some of those days were wonderful and happy, and some days were sad, but they were never boring,” Poland said. “I do miss that, but I also really enjoy my colleagues and all the things that NSU has to offer.”
Photo Credit: Courtesy of S. Poland
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