6 Lessons I’ve Learned By Doing Social Work
I don’t write about it much, but like everyone else who has one, my job is a pretty major player in my weekly schedule. It is the way I pay my bills, the reason why I eek out only one blog post a week, and something that brings me an enormous amount of personal fulfillment and pride. In honor of social work appreciation month, I thought I’d reflect on the work that means so much to me and to so many others.
To give you a little background on the specific job that I do–I’m a clinical social worker, and work as a psychotherapist in an outpatient mental health clinic, where we treat everything from depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia to marital problems and trauma issues. I’ve only been doing this work for three years, so I still have so much to learn. Here’s what I’ve picked up so far.
1. People are more similar than they are different.
Like New York City itself, the client population I work with is an extremely diverse bunch. Whether they are 20 or 60, Hispanic or Haitian, homeless or living in a midtown condo, I’ve found that most people essentially want the same things–they want to be loved and they want to feel financially safe. Just like me.
2. Mental illness is very real and very stigmatized.
I once overheard someone say “A lot of homeless people choose to be homeless, and then that homeless lifestyle causes them to go crazy.” This is completely untrue. When someone is behaving bizarrely or talking to him or herself on the subway, this person likely became homeless because he or she does not have access to antipsychotic medication. It is heartbreaking to hear a client speak not only about how frightening their symptoms are, but how troubling it is to be faced with so much stigma about things they may not be able to control.
3. No one is all good or all bad.
One of my most emotionally sensitive clients served 27 years in prison. Some of my most hard-working, law-abiding clients have done things to others for which they are deeply ashamed. People are complex creatures, and I find them fascinating and fun to listen to. Likewise, no one’s life is either all good or all bad. We all have problems and issues–just different ones.
4. If you really want to learn about someone’s culture, start a conversation about food.
One of my favorite aspects of my job is getting a glimpse into so many cultures. I have worked with people from Sudan, Afghanistan, Ghana, Poland, North Korea, Somalia and numerous South American cultures. When I’m just starting to get to know a client, one of the first things I ask about is what dinnertime was like in their family growing up. Not only do I learn about their culture, I also get a really clear picture of what their family dynamic was like as well.
5. I am not immune to anxiety.
I once had a client tell me he thought I seemed like “the picture of perfect mental health”. I was glad that I appeared relaxed and comfortable around him, but I also had to set him straight. No one is immune to depression and anxiety, and that includes me. I do my best to create a work-life balance so that I do not become overwhelmed, but even so, when clients present certain issues–specifically, major financial problems, developing serious health conditions, and losing their significant other–I can feel my heart race, because these are things I fear myself. Anybody got a good therapist they can refer me to?
6. I have a lot to be thankful for.
My job has had a profound impact on my life and consistently helps me prioritize my needs from my wants. I am not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but I have everything that I truly need and for that I feel nothing but gratitude. My job has allowed me to communicate on a deeply personal level with people I probably would have never met otherwise. It has been a humbling and happy experience so far, and I know how fortunate I am to have a job I feel this passionate about.
Cheers to all the social workers! Also, I’m so curious to hear about other people’s jobs. What do you do, and what have you learned in doing it?