This Monday was World Mental Health Day. The purpose of which was to raise positive awareness in relation to mental health and emotional well-being. As most of us will know, Statutory Mental Health Services are a ‘hit and miss’ in terms of effective service deliver. This is due to a lack of relevant funding, a void between transitional services from youth to adult and the continued stigma attached to mental health and well-being across society.
However, World Mental Health Day did get me thinking. It got me thinking about the importance in understanding that everyone at some point in their life will experience mental health or, more appropriately, emotional well-being issues. As a social worker, I have worked with some of societies most vulnerable at their time in need or crisis. Often, these experiences triggered significant emotional well-being issues, either at the hands of loved ones or others. I worked as hard as I could to support them during this time and often took a lot of emotional ‘baggage’ home. My friends would say that I needed to ‘take off my social work hat’. This is a lot easier said than done!
As a result, I’ve recently found myself pondering about if society truly understands the emotional trauma social care professionals will go through in their careers. The answer, in my humble but honest opinion is no. Why would society want to know about some of the horrors my colleagues and I have witnessed? As the saying goes “out of sight, out of mind”. Yes, there are copious amounts of negative media attention when things go wrong. But not of the day to day experiences we deal with. Although, some forums are trying to improve this – think the Social Work Tutor & Damned (see it for what it is… a comedy).
I want to make it clear here now that there are many elements of being in the social care profession that is rewarding. For example, recently I was stopped by a mountain of a lad (easily 6’4 and 18 stone). As he began to talk, I realised I had worked with him about five years ago. He told me that I had stopped him from getting into trouble and that he was very thankful of my support (we managed to get him into college and on an apprenticeship course).
However, due to the very nature of the role, there are lots of occasions where I have witnessed hurtful, horrendous and evil behaviours exhibited by human beings. I regularly meet budding student social workers and care professionals in colleges and universities. During these presentations, I give real life experiences and, as a result, I often get asked the same question: “how did I cope?”
Well, actually, I don’t know if I did cope all that well.
In my time I have dealt with a teenage death and subsequent inquest, baby deaths, serious sexual offences and significant child protection cases/concerns. All of which I will never really forget.
In writing this, I remember (and can see it play over in my head) having to respond to a section 47 enquiry in relation to a three year old child that had been picked up by his face and thrown across the room by his mother’s partner. He landed on a glass coffee table which caused it to smash. He was full of cuts and bruises. I remember having to leave the mother and child at a women’s refuge whilst the police were searching for the perpetrator. I remember how similar he looked to my nephew (age, facial features and same colour hair). I also remember crying in my car for about 15 minutes. When I arrived home, I didn’t tell my friends or partner at the time. I offloaded to my colleagues – those that had similar experiences. Unfortunately, the event I have just described here is not an isolated incident and one that will be played over many times by social care professional, often on a daily basis.
So, what point am I trying to make here? Well, really I am reflecting on the fact that as social care professionals, we will all have traumatic experiences associated to our work, which in turn will cause us major or minor emotional well-being, or more brutally, mental health issues/distress. For this not to occur would remove the very nature of what it is meant to be a human being. Yes, it is true that as professionals in this sector you do become desensitised. This however, is more of a coping mechanism byproduct rather than lacking empathy.
With this in mind, and as I have written about previously, without understanding the true nature of our profession, increased support and the removal of stigma attached to both mental health and social care professionals – like me, we will never really cope all that well. How can we expect a profession to help those deemed most in need if we as a profession are not valued, supported, protected or safeguarded?
Written by Matt Hughes – Social Worker & Director for One Stop Social – A Health & Social Care Hub.