May 30, 2022

Class of 2022: Student pays it forward through hard-won wisdom and experience

Social Work graduate Jake Davies uses first-hand knowledge of homelessness and addiction to help others triumph over adversity
Selfie of Jake Davies wearing a black t-shirt with "practice compassion" written on it.
Courtesy Jake Davies

Jake Davies says he’s experiencing a “gratitude attitude,” having just landed a Social Worker II position with Edmonton’s Royal Alexandra Hospital in its Psychiatry department’s inpatient mental health unit.

It’s not surprising that Davies has found employment so quickly after finishing his Bachelor of Social Work at the Faculty of Social Work’s Edmonton campus this spring: the fact of the matter is that he has been working in the field throughout his education, focusing on positions where he can put his intimate knowledge of homelessness and addictions to use serving others.

Although Davies says he comes from a somewhat “privileged” background, having grown up in Edmonton's bedroom community of St. Albert, that wasn’t enough to shield him from some of life’s harsher realities. Facing rejection and isolation over his burgeoning “non-heterosexual” identity as an adolescent, compounded with an undiagnosed attention disorder and grief over the loss of his mother to cancer, Davies increasingly coped with drugs and alcohol. So much so that he eventually found himself homeless on Edmonton’s often extremely cold, unforgiving streets.

He credits intense therapy with turning his life around and has since become charged with the idea of wanting to help others “become empowered to triumph over adversity and take back ownership of their lives, like I did.”    

It's not uncommon for people who go through substance-abuse issues to end up in a helping profession as part of their own healing. Do you consider that as part of your own practice?

Absolutely. Although I don't think it's a requirement to be in the profession and have that kind of lived experience – there are some amazing professionals that don't have that experience, but are still outstanding in the work they do. But I think having that experience can broaden your perspective. For me – I can only speak to my own experience – it helps me empathize with the clients that are in addiction and mental health with a greater efficacy, I suppose. I feel like I'm connected, and I understand [them] on a more relatable level.

Did you take clinical, trauma-informed practice as your focus? 

Yeah, definitely. I've been working in the inner city since 2018. Throughout my academic career, I've been working part-time trying to survive while floating in and out of poverty. I've worked in an intox shelter and then worked in a detox, as well. So, in the field, I've really been able to get some practice experience with complex systems and resources and becoming more trauma-informed throughout the last four or so years.

I think in terms of my direction, I was always going to head toward the social work practice and addictions. I also have a lot of interest also in Indigenous social work, and a huge part of my first practicum was in Indigenous counselling. It was with a counselling agency called Indigenous Psychological Services where I became really get engrossed in the culture and ceremony. I learned about medicine picking and smudging, and I was in sharing circles – it was a weekly activity with the clinical therapists there.

So, I think a huge part of my future in this work will involve working to decolonize mental health and to call out the systems and policies that are impacting and subtly perpetuating oppression. A lot of these things were developed decades ago, and we're still sort of operating in that same framework. But we're making change slowly, but steadily. I’m also interested in LGBTQ+ social justice. I think I might not have nearly drowned had I had access to sexual-minority resources.

What are the standout moments for you of the last four years?

There have been lots of great experiences. Although COVID impacted most of my third year and part of my fourth, I really enjoyed having my diversity class in person and my first practicum seminar in person.

I really wouldn't have been able to get where I am today if it weren’t for Leann Hilsen – she's an instructor and the field co-ordination liaison for placement in social work. She's an angel in so many ways, and she's also very modest and very humble. I wouldn't have been able to get here without her encouragement and advocacy and her believing in my inherent dignity and my inherent worth.