There is something magical about people in the social work industry. Most of the time, we work for almost nothing, and we willingly agree to go on a journey with the disillusioned, abandoned, impoverished, unhinged, and misfortunate. And while some would react that we get paid to do this, most of us in this field would tell you that we do it for not very much. But it isn’t about the money; people in social work are typically aware that you aren’t going to be Bill Gates wealthy from what we do (well unless you marry some one Bill Gates wealthy). It takes a special type of soul to work and stay in this field, someone with the patience of Buddha on a mountain top. But what society doesn’t really know is the emotional burden of the social worker, how hard it is for a professional helper to not only ask for help but to receive it.
People in social professionally take care of others on a daily basis but struggle personally with taking care of themselves. If you don’t believe me, I dare you to look at the rates of burn out and compassion fatigue, also known as vicarious trauma or secondary trauma (the compiled emotional residue of others’ pain), among the helping professions; one statistic states that 70% of therapists and social workers show symptoms of secondary trauma. That’s an insane number! This number is telling:
- People in social work aren’t exercising the self-care that they so preach. We talk coping skills all day long but seldom of us actually have time to practice it.
- People in social work aren’t doing the personal emotional work needed to remain level-headed and self-aware of acknowledging that we are humans with our own problems outside of work.
- People in social work aren’t talk about their emotional pain not only from the job but the general struggle of being a spouse, significant other, parent, friend, child, sibling, etc. while still retaining a sense of self.
We work in mental health but struggle with our own, but why? About a month ago, I met with my good friend Jamie who like me has been working in social work for what feels like eternity, and I posed that exact question. Jamie, in one word, pointed it out; “stigma” she said. A long time veteran of this field, Jamie admitted to me that she had been recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder but that she knew for a long time that there was something wrong. And that despite having all the resources to get help and knowledge on coping skills and therapeutic tools, the stigma of a professional helper, a mental health counselor nevertheless, getting mental health help prevented her from seeking treatment sooner. “We are the helpers; we’re expected to have our shit together. No one just sees us as regular humans walking around with problems of our own. It’s the stigma of what we do.”
I know Jamie’s logic to be the universal truth of the world we work in. The expectation is we take care of everyone (our clients, our families, our friends) but taking care of ourselves and acknowledging our own pain, our own needs, and our own humanity is not what the world expects from professional helpers. Care for others yes; self-care is for the birds. But this stigma is exactly is what is causing us so much burn out, so much secondary trauma, more depression, more anxiety. Mental health awareness isn’t just for everyone else; it’s for us in the field too. As a professional helper, the pain we feel isn’t less important than the clients we help; as a professional helper, the needs of our clients, our families, our friends are not more important than our own; and as a professional helper, you need to acknowledge your own humanity to fully embrace others’ humanity.