Over thirty years ago I trained to do a very demanding, stressful job as a social worker. During my training there was nothing taught on the course relating to the importance of looking after ourselves. All the emphasis was on understanding and meeting the needs of service users and carers and of course although this is our raison d’être it is all to easy to forget about our own needs in the pressure to meet the needs of others and to do so can lead to drastic consequences.
This is not an academic reflection, in 2000 I suffered a very severe mental breakdown due to an intolerable combination of extremely stressful work-related pressures, problems and a bullying boss. I felt like a dead man walking. The body machine was still working but there was no one at the controls anymore. It had been a very abrupt change- one moment I had been a Senior Mental Health Social Worker, a very busy “together” professional- the next I was designated a mental health service user, feeling utterly useless, extremely vulnerable, powerless and terrified.
This one-year of living hell launched me on a journey of light years in my mind in understanding and taught me so many things about severe mental distress. Amongst the lessons I learnt in the hardest possible way was the great importance of understanding and looking after my own mental health. This led me to develop a teaching session on strategies for promoting and protecting the mental health of social workers, which I have been teaching for the last five years at universities in the Yorkshire area. I am told by senior social work lecturers that my sessions have been highly evaluated, and valued by students. On asking students, some in the third year of their course if they have done anything on this subject before I have been astonished to find that they have not. I asked myself the question, why? I came to the conclusion that it’s a bit like the nose on your face it is so obvious it gets missed!
There are some really important fundamental lessons here for social workers around recognising your own humanity. We are not a separate superman or woman species to service users and carers. A social work degree is not a suite of armour. Cut us and we do in fact bleed! We are part of the human family and so we should be if we are to be fully human and understand and empathise with the needs and problems of other people. Together with this we need to recognise our own needs review these and have a care plan for ourselves. Even the toughest, most resilient people can have mental health and other problems that if not accepted and dealt with will lead to breaking point. Is prevention not better than cure?
Sadly I am not the first social worker to have had a breakdown and this also applies to others in different caring professions who also do difficult demanding stressful work. Convinced as to the great importance of the need for this, I have launched a national campaign to ensure that this is incorporated into the National Curriculum for social work courses. I think the case for it is indisputable as it is in best interests of employee, employer and service users and carers.
Visiting Lecturer in Mental Health
Mental Health Consultant
Retired Mental Health Social Worker