Does Anyone Care About The Mental Health of Social Workers?

It’s a lovely party with my friends from social work school. However, I know there’s a dreaded question coming. So between the glass of wine and potato chips, I steel myself for it.

Because I don’t know if I belong in their world anymore. See, I left.

I didn’t leave entirely because I wanted to. I felt deeply called to social work and still do.

I’m passionate about my former work, especially around working with individuals struggling with suicidal ideation and self-harming disorders.

But I left because it had become very obvious that, no matter how many self- care speeches I received or how many times I asked, I wasn’t going to get what I needed: disability accommodations.

See, I have PTSD. But in my early years as a mental health therapist, my ability to manage my symptoms became more and more difficult.

Everyone I worked with was “understanding” and, on the surface, said the right things.

But the problem was, whenever I asked for something that seemed to me to be utterly reasonable — reduction in productivity expectations, reduction in hours but still keeping some of my clients, not working with some clients who might be better served by another clinician — there was always this pushback.

“Well, if you don’t take them as a client, then they’ll have to go to someone else outside the area and it’ll be a big hassle for them.”

“Well, we can do that, but only as a temporary thing. If it becomes more of an issue, we’ll have to discuss it.”

Statements like these treated my needs as a pesky, inconvenient thing that I really needed to get a better grip on.

After all, social workers are helpers. They don’t need help, right?

We do the work no one else can imagine doing and do it with a smile and for horribly low pay. Because it’s our calling.

I’d bought into this line of reasoning hard — even though I knew it was wrong.

I threw my heart and soul into the work and kept trying to need less. I could do more, be more. I was tough, I was strong.

The problem was, I was very good at my work. So good that colleagues were sending me more difficult cases on what was becoming my specialty because they thought it would be a good match for me.

But those cases were complex and took hours of extra time in my day. Time that was often not as billable as the agency wanted.

I was constantly running against the clock called productivity, which is a strange way of measuring how many billable minutes you’re talking to or working on the client’s behalf every day.

While it may seem like an easy thing to do, I suspect any of you who’ve had a job like this know how many hours a day get eaten up by things that are utterly necessary.

Email, paperwork, eating lunch (the amount of times I ate lunch with a client because I was behind on billable time cannot be counted), using the restroom, getting a drink, taking a much-needed brain break between intense sessions, figuring out what to do next, getting input from my supervisor over the phone, or researching more detail or new treatments for a particular condition.

None of this was counted toward the percentage that was my “productivity.”

As a disabled social worker, I internalized a deep sense of shame and failure.

Colleagues of mine seemed to have no trouble or seemed to be less concerned about their productivity, but I was constantly missing the mark.

Action plans were made and serious meetings were had, but I still hovered somewhere around the 89 percent mark.

And then my symptoms started getting worse.

I had high hopes for the place I worked, because they talked a great deal about self-care and flexible options. So I moved down to 32 hours a week, in the hopes of getting everything back under control.

But when I asked about reducing clients, I was told that because my productivity was still not right I would keep the same number of clients and just have reduced hours — which ultimately meant I had the same amount of work to do… simply less time to do it.

And over and over again, the implication was that if I just scheduled better, if I was more organized, if I could just get it together, I’d be fine. But I was doing my utmost and still falling short.

It all fell apart when I did.

By the end of the year, I was so sick I couldn’t sit upright for longer than an hour or two without having to lie down because my blood pressure was shot.

I saw a cardiologist 3 months after I quit when things weren’t improving and was told I had to find a less stressful and less emotionally draining line of work.

But how could I? I was a social worker. This is what I’d trained for. This is what I had committed myself to. Why was there no other option?

I’ve talked to more of my colleagues now since I’ve been out. Most of them have held out hope that maybe it was just where I worked, or maybe I would do better somewhere else.

But I think the problem is actually centered in how ableism is entrenched within social work, an intense sense of what I would call ‘martyrdom.’

See, there’s this odd pride I’ve noticed in older social workers — that they’ve been in the trenches, that they’re grizzled and tough.

As young social workers, we listen to their stories, we hear about the war wounds, and we hear about the days where they dragged themselves in because someone needed them.

In hearing older social workers share these stories, we internalize the idea that someone else’s need is more important than any needs we may have.

We’re taught to worship at this altar of shoved-down suffering.

We, of course, have this sprinkle of lectures about self-care and burnout and vicarious trauma, but no one has time for that. It’s like frosting on the cake, not the substance.

But the problem is, when that’s what you’re taught to see as the ultimate ideal, needing any kind of disability accommodation or even just a break feels like admitting weakness — or that you somehow don’t care enough.

I’ve collected stories over the years from other social workers like me, who’ve been turned away or called out for asking for relatively innocuous accommodations.

As if social workers are somehow supposed to be above all that.

As if we don’t have some of the same problems as our clients.

As if we’re supposed to be the superheroes we’re branded as.

The demands of social work, and an unwillingness to accommodate those who struggle within it, leads to a workplace that encourages social workers to disregard their own needs.

And it certainly doesn’t leave any room for social workers with disabilities.

It’s a workplace that privileges a very particular kind of body and mind, and leaves everyone else out in the cold. It makes us less useful and diverse as a profession — and it needs to stop.

Because it doesn’t harm just us, it harms our clients, too.

If we can’t be human, how can our clients be? If we aren’t allowed needs, how can our clients be vulnerable with us about theirs?

These are the attitudes, too, that we bring into our therapy offices — whether we want them there or not. Our clients know when we see them as lesser or weak because we see ourselves in them.

When we’re not able to have compassion for our own struggles, how can we have the emotional capacity to extend that compassion to someone else?

And even if our clients weren’t suffering as a result, we would still be.

And this is the fundamental problem that I see with social work: We’re discouraged from humanizing ourselves.

So I left.

It wasn’t simple and it wasn’t easy and I still miss it. I still find myself reading papers and keeping up on new research. I think about my old clients a great deal and I worry about how they are.

But the worst times are when I have to look another social worker in the eye and explain why I left the field.

How do you tell someone the culture they work and live in is toxic and harmful to you?

If we care for others, we must also care for ourselves without shame. That’s part of why I left: I had to learn how to care for myself without being in a work environment that reinforced all the reasons why I couldn’t.

Some of my colleagues hoped and thought maybe I could stay if I just changed jobs or supervisors. I know they meant the best, but to me, this puts the blame on me and not on the culture of social work as a whole.

It wasn’t a place I could heal, because it was partially where I got sick.

Helping others doesn’t need to be a war, with social workers as the expected casualties.

In reality, I think social work as a whole has to change. If we can’t talk about the higher rates of burnout in our profession, for example — one of the very same struggles we support our clients with — what does that say about the field?

It’s been 3 years now. I’m a great deal healthier and happier.

But I shouldn’t have had to leave in the first place, and I worry about those who are still in the field, being told their lunch break isn’t “productive” and taking time to laugh with a coworker is “stealing” from their workplace and their clients.

We are more than emotional labor machines.

We are human beings, and our workplaces need to start treating us as such.

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