bipolar, creative nonfiction, depression, discrimination, essays, helpers, helping professions, mental health, mental illness, mentally ill, schizophrenia, social work, social workers, stigma, writing
I don’t know if it was being the youngest and only girl in a family of boys and men, or if it was growing up poor in a small town in Eastern Washington, or if it was spending my high school years seeing and living with the truly poor of Egypt, or if it was the liberal arts school I attended, any, or all, of those things could have instilled in me a desire for social justice, equality, compassion and empathy. It may have been all those things combined along with many experiences I had with people being outsiders, bullied, and discriminated against. Whatever the reasons were, I became a social worker after college and I like most social workers, I had a true desire to help people.
After several years as a social worker, I developed what those of us in my office called, “social worker humor and sensibilities.” Roughly translated that means I laughed and joked about situations that no one outside of my office would have found humor in because the stories were tragic and painful. In other words, my compassion and empathy developed callouses, because of the horrific stories I heard daily about child abuse, drug abuse, alcoholism, prostitution, and many other human tragedies that are a part of people’s lives.
So, when I say I have been humiliated and silenced by social workers, and medical professionals, I can honestly say, I have done their job, and I have participated in their “humor” and degrading remarks. It is very different when you cross the line from helper to client and back again.
What I learned as a client after my initial hospitalization was that the tough stuff people are going through is never funny and the degrading language that is used to describe people with personality disorders or a mental illness lessens your impact as a social worker. You can’t be giving your client the best services when you refer to that client as “wacko” “crazy” or “psycho” to your fellow co-workers or behind that client’s back.
For me, the big change in how I spoke about clients came for me when I was hospitalized for my mental illness and heard the nurses in the hallway talking.
“Did you see what she does for a living? She works for Child Protective Services. She is a social worker. I wonder if we are going to end up like her?”
Those nurses’ comments were a defining moment in my career just as my own diagnosis was. I spent the rest of my time as a social worker listening to some colleagues call their clients, “crazy” “wacko” “nuts” etc. and what they didn’t realize was that I had paranoid schizophrenia and listening to them use disparaging language about their difficult or mentally ill clients made it impossible for me to find the courage to share with them my diagnosis, and it made me feel shame about an illness that is no more shameful than cancer or diabetes.
Although I kept my boundaries, I spent many years identifying with clients more than I identified with many of my fellow coworkers.
Of course not all mental health workers talk badly about their clients. I have worked with some professionals who understood and practiced complete advocacy on the part of their clients and never wavered from that advocacy even behind their client’s backs.
Personally, I didn’t realize that a life time of building up empathy, compassion, and a desire for social justice could get clouded by the way I chose to refer to other people and their circumstances. I didn’t realize it until their circumstances became my circumstances.
As someone with paranoid schizophrenia I am an insider in terms of mental illness, as a former social worker, I am an insider in the helping profession. I’ve been on both sides of the desk and in order to do the best for your clients you occasionally need to step out from behind the desk and sit in the other chair, if only for a moment, and if only to see the work you do more clearly.