My Profession: The Reality Behind Social Work vs. What People Think I Do.

As I sit here, killing a sinus infection, there is not much to do besides knock off some Netflix, rest, drink water, and sleep again. Needless to say, I’ve been getting some writing done and this post has been sitting around for years. I decided to finish it up.

I can spot it right away. I’m at a social gathering and I’m telling someone I’ve never met what I do for a living. I tell them I’m a social worker. “Oh..” is their response. When you’re as good at reading people as I am, you try not to laugh at how blunt their reaction comes off. “Oh..” translates into, “Right, so you take people’s kids from them. You make almost no money. You’re a male in a female dominated profession. Wait…why are you a social worker?? You could do anything??”

Sometimes it’s only a few of these I pick up on. Sometimes it’s all of them, haha. Still, it concerns me that this is what people think I do, and why I chose to practice Social Work. The public perception isn’t generally a good one. They’re right. When you think of a social sorker, or there is a social worker in a movie, generally the kids parents got shot and they become a ward of the state. CUE THE MOPPY LOOKING SOCIAL WORKER to take the kid into the Evil System. Or, the parents are screwing up at home, so the social worker comes to the house and tells the parent that they have 2 weeks to clean up their act, or they’re going to take their kid away from them. Think of an example, and it’s likely that social workers aren’t portrayed in a very positive light…ever.

There’s rarely a social worker who is shown finding a foster kid a great home to live in, or a social worker helping a troubled teenager with their depression at school and preventing a suicide, or a social worker sitting with a patient in a hospital in their last hours on this earth. I get it. It’s easier to pin the trope of the Evil Social Worker on this profession. Most of what we do is ugly, hard, and right there in the mud with the people going through it. Still, the image needs to change.

Here’s a dose of truth: Social workers often work in dangerous conditions for low pay. In New York, it is a felony to assault a nurse. However, social workers are not afforded the same safeguard under the law. Social workers provide a voice for the marginalized. That type of work and the individuals who are strong enough to do it speak volumes about the humanity of care. Sherry Saturno LCSW, DCSW had this to say about her exposure to this reality in the field of Social Work:

I have seen my colleagues threatened and exposed to violence in the field. I have read with a heavy heart accounts of fellow social workers who were murdered while performing their duties. I bore witness to a shooting on the job. Every one of these acts failed to obliterate the intent of the work that was being accomplished….There are so many things that cannot be explained: the senseless acts that inflict pain upon each other, and the unexpected compassion of strangers. Even in times of darkness, social workers affirm the power of good in the world by not giving up.

To choose a profession that doesn’t pay well, a profession that is dangerous at times, a profession that takes more from you than it gives back at the end of the day, isn’t a choice that one makes on a whim. To become a social worker, you have to care, you have to endure, you have to keep moving. What we do is a thankless job and an under funded career. We created a thing called, “self-care,” because what we do almost liteally sucks the life from you. I’m being dramatic. Sort of.

To give you a final idea of what I jumped into; when I moved back to Illinois, I had hoped that my home state had gotten its act together and paid attention to the cries of the people and government workers. Instead I returned to a state that was in crisis. Their response to their massive financial woes was to cut programs of the “least importance.” A band-aid for an amputation. What were those programs? Social Services. They sent a message loud and clear. “If you’re hurting, if you need help, if you got that help from Social Workers, go somewhere else. Gone Fishing.” I needed a job, and Illinois was surely not going to help me in that arena. So I left.

A long time ago, I wrote a post on why I do what I do, and in it, I explain that people who are struggling with depression and suicide have always been on my heart. Really, it’s been the underdogs that have been my drive. The people that society counts out, ignores, makes fun of, see no value in…these are my people. These people are why I do what I do. I don’t do it for money, I don’t hold my breath to be thanked, and I certainly don’t do it because it’s easy. I do it because I’m good at it, someone has to, and I’m tired of having no answer to the question, “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?”

There’s a song by Matthew West, it’s not a new song, but the lyrics to the song, “Do Something,” pretty much wrap up this final concept. There are problems out there and we’re the ones who are going to fix them. We are. You. Me. We.

So the next time you’re talking to someone and they tell you that they are a Social Worker or Counsellor, thank them and give them a pie. They don’t get that a lot….the praise I meant.

Talkin’ About Films

So a while ago, my friend Corbin and myself decided that we wanted to try an experiment. We would make a podcast. Whether that had anything to do with the fact that we had just finished listening to a hilarious podcast about the band U2 is beside the point.

It’s always be on my bucket list to do something in radio, whether that’s being on an actual radio show, which I got to do earlier last year, or start a show of my own. I figured that starting something up on my own would take more work than it was worth. I was kind of right. This is the genesis of our little experiment.

Corbin and I talked about doing a podcast in jest, like, “Wouldn’t it be great if…” As all things start out, we didn’t really take the idea seriously. Then one day, after finishing the U2 podcast, we decided that we wanted to create one badly enough. We decided on the topic of talking about our favorite films growing up as kids. Films that aren’t necessarily Oscar worthy, but in our hearts, get al the praise. Most of them were more cheese than laughs, but all were worth talking about. Continue reading “Talkin’ About Films”

A Letter to Three Mothers

Happy-Mother-Day-Coloring-Pages

This year, I have been extra aware of the mother figures in my life. Reason being, my mother is over 8,000 miles away by sea and by land. In addition to my mother, my two beautiful sisters, who really have this whole motherhood thing down, are also in Chicago. (Seriously, I know no cooler moms). Other than Debbie Elliott, who has been my surrogate mother while being in New Zealand, the three coolest women in my life have been the best, most accurate examples of what God’s love for others truly means. Continue reading “A Letter to Three Mothers”

Chicago- Murder Capital U.S.A: What I learned about my City

chicago-skyline

When a kid grows up in a city such as Chicago, the kid has the unfortunate opportunity to take for granted of the immense fullness the city has to offer. Everything from the Museums to the parks. Aquariums to the symphony. Navy pier to The Magnificent Mile. Lights in December to bike rides in June. Cubs games, Hawks games, and Bulls games. Food from every country, buildings for miles and miles. From train rides, to bus rides, to subway rides. 5 star restaurants to your favourite dives. That little improv place you found to The Chicago Theater. City life to suburban life. The Air and Water Show to the Taste of Chicago itself….this is a great town, my kind of town. I am proud of my town. And yet, I felt like I barely knew it. This could not have been more true the day I read an article explaining how Chicago has become Murder Capital U.S.A. Continue reading “Chicago- Murder Capital U.S.A: What I learned about my City”

Suicide in New Zealand: The Story They Don’t Want Public

You’ve heard me say it before. New Zealand currently has one of the highest youth suicide rates out of all the countries in the OECD. Still, suicide, and talking about suicide, is Taboo in New Zealand. People don’t like to talk about it…more than in the U.S. Further than that, in NZ…you can’t talk about it.

If you are a citizen in New Zealand, then it is not news to you that if a sibling, parent, relative, spouse, or friend commits suicide, you CAN NOT disclose ANY information about the suicide for fear that the action will result in a “copy-cat” suicide and encourage other potential victims to kill themselves. It’s against the law in NZ to go against this. Yeah. You can be prosecuted if you talk to the media about it, write a blog about someones suicide, or print about it in the paper exposing the details.

Not only was this completely shocking to me, but it furthermore drove me to anger. Those left to grieve after the suicide are unable to talk about much of anything regarding what happened to their loved one without the Coroners permission. According to The Coroners Act of 2006:

“If a coroner has found a death to be self-inflicted, no person may, without a coroner’s authority or permission under section 72, make public a particular of the death other than

  • (a)the name, address, and occupation of the person concerned; and
  • (b)the fact that the coroner has found the death to be self-inflicted.”

I learned about this Act by having a one-on-one chat with Maria Bradshaw, CEO and founder of CASPER, a Suicide Prevention organisation created after her son died from, according to the Coroner, “self-inflicted causes.” Angered by not being able to talk about her son, she challenges the “research” done on the topic of media influence on suicide here.

With the research that I did on the subject, there were many professionals in both camps of the issue. On the side advocating that bringing up the topic of suicide/doing media pieces on suicides is detrimental, this is said:

“Graphic representation of suicides, pictures of spots and the method adopted are often the trigger.” (The Times of India)

“…the way the media presents stories on suicide can have a direct influence on the public’s perception of suicide and its related mental health issues.” (Australian Psychological Society)

“…the greater the amount of coverage of suicide in the media, the greater the increase in suicide rate.” (Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health)

And yet, on the other side, experts have this to say:

Chief coroner MacLean said the current restrictions were based on fear of copycat deaths, but he did not believe this was a significant factor in New Zealand.” (nzherald)

“A healthy person talking about a suicide or being aware of a suicide among family or friends does not put them at greater risk for attempting suicide. And mere exposure to suicide does not alone put someone at greater risk for suicide.” (SAVE)

“Talking about suicide can only decrease the likelihood that someone will act on suicidal feelings. There is almost no risk that raising the topic with someone who is not considering suicide will prompt him/her to do it.” (Canadian Mental Health Association)

“There is no research evidence that indicates talking to people about suicide, in the context of care, respect, and prevention, increases their risk of suicidal ideation or suicidal behaviours.” (Crisis Center, British Columbia)

While others are seeing the middle ground:

“Some studies find significant increases in suicide after a widely publicized suicide story, while other research finds no effect.” (Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health)

“It’s important to talk about it, but rather than suicide details, media reports could mention how to reach for help.” (Dr. Lakshmi)

According to Australian Psychological Society, “Media reporting (of suicide) can be very helpful, but I think it is also critical (to report) on how the tragedy has impacted on other people – and what was going on that led to the suicide” (Gregor, 2004). Gregor continues to say that it is how we report these stories rather than solely that we report them, that effects suicide rates.

“Psychologists have an important role to play in assisting the media with its coverage of suicide. It is important to ensure that journalists are made fully aware of the potential influence such coverage can have on a depressed person who may, or may not, already be having suicidal thoughts. In their dealings with the media on such issues, psychologists should:

Raise awareness of the mental health issues that so often contribute to suicide, highlighting the treatments and alternatives to suicide;

Encourage use of language that does not glamorise or sensationalise suicide, or present suicide as a solution to problems;

Advise the journalist to avoid explicit details of the method or location of any particular suicide;

When commenting on the suicide of a celebrity, advise the journalist to seek comment on the wastefulness of the act (an air of tragedy coupled with the celebrity’s new “legendary” status can add a perceived glamour and attraction to a vulnerable adolescent);

Provide information on support services and help line contacts (for example, SANE Helpline, Kids Help Line, Lifeline, and the APS referral service), including telephone numbers and any other contact details, so these can be included in the media report.

Finally, should you see an example of irresponsible journalism, contact the media outlet.”

I love this perspective of the entire issue, because it is only through education and “normalizing” suicide that teens can know who to talk to, where to go for help, and realize that they are NOT the only person going through what they are going through. Furthermore, education helps those people involved in that persons life to recognize the signs of suicide and know where to point the person showing those signs.

Reform is desperately needed with how we approach suicide in New Zealand; Research, education, advocation, implementation of policy, law reform, program creation, referring families, as well as not just prescribing medications without marrying that with counselling services. Too many teens and adolescents have died due to improper practice by psychologists, or counsellors. Throwing medication at problems without guiding the patient and following up with them can cause misuse of medications, and even worsen the depression. Practitioners MUST use research to find what works best instead of either: Doing what is current because it’s current, or doing what has worked in the past simply because it worked in the past.

The answer is NOT sweeping the problem under the mat and forgetting about it. To decrease rates of suicide, we need to provide resources and support, not isolate those who have experienced this tragedy. Reform is expected regarding rules around media reporting of suicide in NZ early 2014 by the law commission. I can only hope that this country starts using “Best Practice” to treat issues around suicide rather than just what has worked in the past.

A recent article on suicide was published by The New Zealand Herald recently. I recommend reading it. It’s both good, bad, and slightly encouraging. If you made it this far, thank you. This is close to my heart, and something I get very passionate about. Please be informed, as this is not an individual problem, but a shared national tragedy. Thank You.

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References:

Bradshaw, M. (2013) Copycat Suicide. CASPER. Retrieved from http://www.casper.org.nz/copycat-suicide

Coroners Act 2006. New Zealand Legislation. Retrieved from http://www.legislation.govt.nz/act/public/2006/0038/latest/DLM377809.html

Crisis Centre. FAQs about suicide. Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre of British Columbia. Retrieved from http://www.crisiscentre.bc.ca/get-help/frequently-asked-questions-about-suicide/#2

Experts: Images, details trigger copycat suicides. (Jul 31, 2013) Times of India. Retrieved from http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2013-07-31/chennai/40913991_1_copycat-suicides-third-floor-dr-lakshmi-vijaykumar

Gregor, S. (August, 2004) Copycat suicide: The influence of the media. Australian Psychological Society. Retrieved from http://www.psychology.org.au/Content.aspx?ID=1830

McCracken, H. (2013) Suicide rates rise for women, drop for men. The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11114600

Mindframe Media and Mental Health (MMMH) Project; Mental Health Branch, Department of Health and Aged Care; and The Australian Press Council.

Preventing suicide. (2010) Canadian Mental Health Association. Retrieved from http://www.cmha.ca/mental_health/preventing-suicide/#.UlXhpBaofkY

Suicide and depression. (2013). SAVE (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education). Retrieved from http://www.save.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.viewpage&page_id=705c8cb8-9321-f1bd-867e811b1b404c94

Stack, S. (2003) Media coverage as a risk factor in suicide. J Epidemiology Community Health ;57:238-240 doi:10.1136/jech.57.4.238