Social Workers often work with trauma survivors and enter into the deepest parts of a victim’s psyches in an effort to help them transcend the often dark and debilitating symptoms which stem from trauma. Social Workers also experience direct and indirect trauma as part of their jobs and yet are often left out of the conversation with other first responders.
Last year, the Province of Ontario in Canada, passed The Supporting First Responders Act, which acknowledges and provides a host of benefits for the high rates of PTSD amongst Police, Fire, and Ambulance personnel. Police officers in Ontario also have the benefit of a five-year earlier retirement benefit due to the toll of their work.
I personally support all benefits for first responders, however, I remain mystified as to how social workers have been left out of this group. It almost seems absurd to have to argue the ways social workers are in fact first responders. One need only to look at the fields of crisis response, critical incident response, child protection, mental health intervention, and the like to realize that most direct practice social workers are in fact employed as first responders.
Many researchers have documented and quantified the nature and degree of trauma in the helping professions, however not as much qualitative research has been done. This is not surprising when one considers the stigma and shame associated with mental illness and especially mental illness among helping professionals.
In my twenty years of experience as a front line social worker in Child Protection, Domestic Violence Services, and School Social Work, I have observed too many times how colleagues have suffered in silence and have often been ostracized due to their struggles.
As a social worker and trauma survivor, I have worked much of my life to understand the impact of trauma on people’s functioning and I have searched far and wide for ways to ameliorate the symptoms which often erode one’s core positive beliefs about the world and about oneself. Stories and narratives about trauma are important and legitimate tools we can use to learn about the intricacies of trauma in people’s lives. As professionals, disclosing one’s story, however, is not encouraged, and helping professionals often suffer in silence.
As professionals, disclosing one’s story is often not encouraged or supported, and helping professionals tend to suffer in silence. Disclosure is scary business, and many social workers fear repercussions such as being viewed as weak, unstable, or unfit to perform our duties.
We feel the stigma that surrounds all mental illness and that serves to perpetuate silence and an ongoing lack of recognition and understanding of the cost of caring. There is a profound lack of ongoing dialogue surrounding the impact of the work we do on our own lives.
Most social workers would not trade or change their careers and lives despite the cost of caring. In fact, there is a core of altruism, dedication, ideology, and core values to improve the lives of others in this world that keeps helping professionals on the job during times of personal pain and suffering. We generally are a group that does not exercise good self-care and the organizations that employ many of us do a dismal job of protecting us and supporting our self-care.
While self-care initiatives exist, they tend to lose focus very quickly and they are not progressive in the sense of using cutting edge strategies to seriously help mitigate that stress that is inherent in our work. One need only look at the tech sector and the organizational and occupation health literature to realize that our work culture continues to be largely punitive based and continues to see employees as needing to be controlled.
Trauma refers to not only full-blown PTSD, but it is also the continuum of symptoms associated with experiencing horrific events – events that overwhelm one’s physiological stress response. A debt of gratitude is owed to the trauma sufferers who have allowed researchers to study and understand trauma which is one of the best understood mental health disorders of our time.
In particular, sexual assault survivors, natural disaster survivors, and veterans have shared their experiences over the last several decades and we must honor them continually. And, last but not least, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Center for PTSD and the PILOTS database must be acknowledged for the research, support, education, and dissemination of information about trauma.
Trauma survivors have the gift of strength and perseverance. I hope it goes without saying that living through and with trauma requires constant effort, energy, and strength. This strength leads to endless opportunities for survivors that can learn to harness their experience and strength toward future goals and achievements. While not always possible for all, finding the gifts and strengths associated with trauma is an area that does not seem to be talked about enough.
My hope is that this article can offer even glimpses of hope to those of you who have experienced trauma and for those of you who offer treatment and compassionate services to victims.
I will not give up strategizing and fighting for change in our organizational and political structures that need to recognize and provide reprieve and benefits to those in our profession who experience trauma like other first responders.