A Conversation With Dr. Jessica Byrd-Olmstead: Part One

Dr. Jessica Byrd-Olmstead is a licensed psychologist in the Bay Area treating adolescents, adults, and their families. Currently, she’s president of the Santa Clara Psychological Association. In addition to psychotherapy, she provides training and consultation to organizations in both the public and private sectors. She advocates at state and federal levels for improved psychological services for the community. Her interests include the intersection of healthcare and technology, inspiring leaders, and organizational change.

We spoke with her about her past and present roles, as well as the exciting projects she is currently working on.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Dr. Byrd. Can you tell us a bit about your career?

I have been honored to wear many different hats over the span of my career. I spent the last few years in leadership in a hospital setting, and most recently helped build a treatment center from the ground up with a world-renowned company. Currently, I have a private practice providing psychotherapy to adolescents and adults addressing a wide range of concerns. I specialize in addiction, adolescent development, and working with members of the LGBTQ+ community.

We recently celebrated Pride Month in June. Can you elaborate a bit on your work with LGBTQIA teens?

I’ve been working with transgender clients for years, ever since graduate school. While working in management at Kaiser Permanente Santa Clara, I helped build their Pediatric Gender Program. Along with an amazing multidisciplinary team of pediatricians, OBGYNs, and endocrinologists, we helped provide both psychological and medical support to adolescents who identified as transgender or nonbinary.

Although this is a complex and controversial topic, statistics show that there is a lack of services for transgender clients across the nation. Evidence also shows that trans-identified youth are more likely to complete suicide than their gender-conforming peers. So it’s necessary to have professionals trained to offer gender-affirming support to families.

Let’s talk COVID. How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your private practice?

As many other therapists have done, I have moved to virtual sessions, using a telehealth platform. I had previously used telehealth with clients and found it a useful, alternative way to stay connected.

I have been a longtime believer in finding ways to leverage technology for the greater good. In a sense, the coronavirus has accelerated the use of technology to benefit people when they need it most. There’s been a rise in health apps and remote patient monitoring. COVID has been the catalyst for all of this. While I miss the experience of seeing my clients in-person, I am finding silver linings as we stay connected virtually. In some ways, you get a different type of glimpse into a client’s world. I have even been able to meet pets, as they occasionally like to crash sessions!

What are the main stressors your clients grapple with these days?

I offer services for clients coming from high-stress sectors such as technology and other executive levels across various industries.  I help people learn how to recognize burnout, let go of the belief that we need to be perfect, ask for help, and realize that we are never too old to engage in play. Among professionals, burnout is more common than we think. I think we get a lot of praise for productivity and it is positively reinforced by society.

COVID has instigated self-reflection for many people. So many of us are searching for a deeper purpose and meaning in life and questioning our life decisions.

How do you help them work through these issues?

To help facilitate the self-reflection process, I’ve found myself asking the question, What were your earliest aspirations as a child?

Kids always have big dreams. As life passes, life turns serious. We have families, financial issues, and we forget some of that curiosity and playfulness we harbored as kids. But we still need those dreams. Part of my work as a child psychologist has taught me how valuable it can be, at times, to see your adult life from a child’s eyes.

We all need play and to practice “holding things lightly” to balance out the heaviness of the current state of affairs that we are all collectively living through.

Tell us how about your interest in, and connection to, technology.

I was born and raised in Silicon Valley. Growing up here, I’ve seen this area through all of its change and transition. I still remember the early days of tech, when people started companies out of their garages in the 80s. It’s been inspiring to watch the evolution as time passes.

While working in healthcare, I developed even more of an interest in entrepreneurship and technology. Many of my clients came from a professional background in technology. While helping my clients cope with their high-stress careers and develop a work-life balance, I received lots of exposure to the world of technology and especially the #techforgood industry.

Later on, my interest in technology led to a professional opportunity, as I was brought on by a  health tech startup to serve as an advisor. Their product was an integrative behavioral health platform where people can access their care team remotely 24/7. The app, which helps providers and their families keep in touch, can sync with the client’s electronic health record. I’ve consulted with them on the clinical end for several years, offering insight on how to make their product more beneficial and targeted to a population struggling with substance use and addiction.

What approach do you take when working with clients struggling with addiction?

I think it’s incredibly important to understand what strengths and opportunities an individual already possesses. Too often there is a stigma associated with addiction and mental health concerns. In order to take some of that societal shame away, I strive to see the whole person sitting in front of me, not a set of problems. Of course, I believe having a thorough assessment to determine any type of use or problematic use is the foundation of any healing from addiction. I also utilize evidence-based practices such as motivational interviewing.

You started out at an established hospital, in management. Then you built a treatment center from the ground up. What instigated your shift to private practice?

It was very difficult to leave my managerial job at Kaiser to establish a treatment center, and then leave that to pursue independence. But I knew I wanted to go solo, as an entrepreneur. I wanted to ask the tough questions – what are we missing in addiction treatment?  In adolescent mental health? And, of course, the one question that was always on the forefront of my mind: How can we leverage technology, take innovative strategies and adapt them to our own field—behavioral health?

Of course, it was hard to jump from a secure, salaried position to my own business. But once I realized it was okay to leave behind my prescribed notions of what my career trajectory was going to look like, I knew I could go out on my own.

It was hard to take those leaps of faith…but there was something itching and eating at me and I had to listen to my voice. I kept ignoring it for a long time, but it was there, every day.

Until it became so loud that I couldn’t ignore it!

To read the rest of our conversation with Dr. Byrd-Olmstead, read A Conversation With Dr. Jessica Byrd-Olmstead, PhD: Part Two