I am where I need to be not where I want to be

calmAs many of you know, I have been on a very interesting journey since I graduated with a degree in social work five years ago. I have tried and failed to find work in my field. To recap for those that don’t know, this was down to the French province I was living in at the time, the fact that I was supposed to relocate to the UK and the lack of lasting connections I made while I was student ( which was down to the fact I thought I was leaving the country). Lastly, it was the lack of employment opportunities and over-saturation within the field where I am living now. This all added up to four very frustrating years which impacted my finances and my health. I finally had to re-evaluate my plans.

I came to the conclusion that sometimes we are exactly where we need to be in life and not where we WANT to be. It took me almost 5 years to come to that conclusion, but once I did, I felt a sense of freedom and even empowerment. Stress, anxiety and fear all stem from the real or imagined belief, that we are powerless. I definitely felt that way when my career objectives fell apart like a row of dominoes. I came to understand that sometimes things happen for a reason.

At 36 years of age, I no longer have the luxuries I had in my twenties. Which was a cheap apartment and the freedom to take contract or part-time jobs to make ends meet. I now have school loans and bills to pay. Sometimes we have to hunker down and take responsibility. As much as social work is my passion and I still believe inherently it’s my career of choice, it’s not a feasible one. I now have a permanent job. It may not be enriching my soul, but it is giving me the financial stability to pay things off and to save some money. Having health benefits has also been a welcome blessing. As a result, my health has improved immensely. Weekly massages do tend to do that!

I am also keeping one foot in the door. I volunteer within the sector and continue to read up on legislative changes and news within the field of social work. I am also going to re apply for my Masters. I was accepted a year ago but had to give my place up. I may now choose a different route and complete it part-time. My hopes and dreams are still the same. I still hope to one day work in the field of social work in the UK. But I may have to take a dusty back road to get there. Sometimes we have to allow our dreams and goals to take on their own shape and direction. We can’t always be in the driver’s seat and stubbornly ignore all the road blocks, closures and lane changes in our path.

Don’t get me wrong. I have good days and bad days. Just yesterday, I went up to the social work floor at our local children and families services. I had to make copies of the case notes I had made and distribute them to each child’s social worker. The floor was quiet and in semi darkness. I stood silently and looked out at the rows and rows of empty brightly colored cubicles adorned with each workers name. Each desk had its own unique personality. Some were covered with  motivational stickers, Children’s drawings, photographs and stuffed animals. I leaned my head against the wall and sighed deeply with longing. Then I heard my inner voice say quite clearly, ” Jamie, you are exactly where you need to be right now, not where you want to be. It will come when the time is ready.”

I truly believe that.

Every path has the potential to teach us and to show us something new about ourselves. I have gained so much from taking this detour. I find I am more confident, professional, reflective, assertive and humble. Maybe I needed to work on those qualities first.

Everything happens for a reason. It won’t always be a pleasant journey but if you let it, it can enrich and guide you in ways you never thought possible.

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The Elephant in the room

elephantI want to bring the elephant in the room out into the open for a minute. In fact, I think I’ll pull out a giant comfy chair for it. There that’s better. Now let’s be frank. We know who this elephant is and why its here.

Its usually silently following you or a colleague down the hallway shuffling its feet, eyes averted, appearing exhausted and overwhelmed. It may be hiding in the last stall of the washroom crying silently trying to muffle the sound. Its also cheerfully standing behind your supervisor in the break room laughing at the joke you just told or its in the faint smile you just received from behind a stack of case files in the cubicle next to you. But behind that cheerful demeanor, is the feeling of deep sadness, anxiety or a darkness that can only be felt behind the eyes.

That elephant, is Mental health in the workplace. Not just any workplace. YOUR workplace. I am talking to you. The social worker, The nurse, the mental health professional, the first responder, the doctor. I am talking to those in the helping profession. This is an important discussion. One that was recently highlighted by a mental health nurse who has struggled with depression herself. It was an insightful and thought-provoking read. Her story is one of many. One that rarely gets told. The elephant is still taking up space in the room and we have to ask ourselves, why are we still struggling with the issue of mental health in the workplace?

FEAR.

Fear that we won’t  know what to say when we see a coworker struggling with an anxiety attack. Fear that the depression our coworker is dealing with,will bring us down too. It could be fear and judgement that our colleague should be able to get a grip on things. After all, they work with service users and patients all day long with severe mental health issues they should be able to handle this.

Sound familiar?

Fear is at the root of everything. That fear is not always baseless. Our own experiences shape our fears. We may perceive our own struggles with mental health as a sign of weakness. It could be that we look up to one of our colleagues and are disappointment when we see them struggling with an illness that they have spent years supporting others with. We also may fear that the nature of our work requires immense resiliency and any sign of it cracking under pressure is a danger to those we serve.

There is some truth to the above. We need to be fit to practice. Our health is not only crucial for our own well-being but it can affect service delivery. So does this mean we can’t work within the helping profession if we have previously or currently struggle with a mental health issue?

A while back, a social worker wrote a brilliant piece in The Guardian about her own struggles with depression. Not only was she frank about her journey, but also how it guided her towards her chosen career path as a mental health social worker. Her story is nothing short of inspiring. I think this is something we fail to appreciate. That our own struggles can inform practice in a POSITIVE way. It can increase our understanding and empathy towards those we serve. However, in order to do this, we need to tackle the stigma attached to mental health in the workplace. Furthermore, we need to face our own deep-seated fears around mental health.

How can we bring about these changes and what would you like to see happen? Moreover, What can we do to better support our colleagues that may be struggling?

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How we view “space” in social work

space_2

**Recently updated 2016

Many of us are aware of how our environments can impact our moods, how we interact and move. How we act at home is different from how we act at work. At home we may spend the evening for hours on end with our feet up, simultaneously playing on our phone or tablet while watching TV. We may yell across the room asking our partner to bring us a drink while telling the whining dog to be quiet. At work, we might be sitting upright, professional and focused on our work. Our language will probably be more guarded and we may engage with more eye contact and hand shakes. The space itself, though familiar, will be more sterile and we may be mindful of how we behave in that space. If we are sitting on a company couch, we aren’t likely to suddenly throw our legs up under our feet, grab a magazine and lay back and relax. We are mindful that this space is not ours. This is a professional public space.

This isn’t news to most of us, but in the context of social work and observing families in their current environment, how we view space can play a major role in our assessments and can influence decisions made in the best interest of the child. Professor Harry Ferguson, in (Walks, Home Visits and Atmospheres: Risk and the Everyday Practices and Mobilities of Social Work and Child Protection, British Journal of social work, 2010) and ( Performing child protection: home visiting, movement and the struggle to reach the abused child, 2009) brilliantly explores how movement and space can impact a social worker from leaving the office, to the car, and then entering a family’s home and how each step plays a role in how we reflect and engage with the service user or family. Moreover, how access or lack of access to families, can affect our interventions. Professor Ferguson highlights how when we enter a home, we are walking into a family’s “atmosphere” We breath in their world so to speak (Ferguson,2010). Each room in the house has a story and how that space is utilized can affect our interactions and our ability to gain as much knowledge as possible of a family’s routine.

When we do a home assessment, we are observing a family in their environment to the best of our ability. We are aware of body language in the home and the dynamics between family members and how they utilize their familiar surroundings. Furthermore, how objects are arranged, manipulated, used to conceal or to highlight something. Home visits tend to give us a glimpse, whether staged or not, of daily life for the family in question. With all this is mind, how does this affect our engagement and assessment outside the home? This is what I have been reflecting on in my work with families in a contact centre.

I currently observe families for hours on end while they interact together in rooms designed to mimic the comforts of home but which are obviously institutional. Families will choose a room that usually has a sofa, lamp, a breakfast table, boxes of toys in the corner, a changing station and occasionally a television set. Most of these objects and comforts can probably be found in their homes. Yet it’s not their home. These are not their things. The toys do not belong to the children. They have no personal attachment or relationship with the objects or the space they find themselves in. They are expected to interact with each other and with the objects around them, as if they are at home. The space is meant to offer the illusion of familiarity so that we may observe them, to the best of our ability, as if they were in their own home and “atmosphere”.

These observations are meaningful. Our observations will be used alongside home assessments, and meetings to determine whether a child will return home to a parent or if one parent can be alone with the child unsupervised, or to monitor a weekly visit between a parent and child who is up for adoption or crown wardship. Our case notes need to be objective and to reflect what we see and hear without assumptions. The challenge is of course, the environment. During one such observation, my supervisor was reflecting on how one family was sitting and watching TV and playing on their phone/tablet devices during the entire visit. I remember remarking how it was too bad that they weren’t using this time to engage with each other more since they only had a few hours together. My supervisor’s response was, “but this is what they would be doing at home.” He is right.
Most households would be sitting around together watching TV or playing on the computer or phone. We had to take that into consideration. To a point. These families were using the space as they would at home. However, equally and crucially, they were not at home. This was a chance to have quality time with their children for a very short amount of time.

I also discovered how the environment could work in their favour. Some families took advantage of the toys and games and spent a good amount of time engaging with their children. One parent remarked “look at this! I wish we had something like this at home.” They seemed genuinely interested in the objects around them. Some of these families had limited economic resources and as a result, limited stimulation at home other than television. Therefore, these objects were sometimes welcomed and unconsciously used as attachment building tools between parent and child.

The concept of space and environment is unique to each person. It can be challenging for families to find comfort in the space they are given to enjoy quality time together. Furthermore, the dynamics can be influenced by the fact they are being observed. When we observe families at the centre, this is done in three ways; through one-way windows, cameras, or physically going into the daycare room every ten minutes to observe them. The latter is for families that have the least amount of supervision requirements. I have noticed that with more seasoned families that come into the centre, many will choose the rooms with no windows. They are still aware we can see and hear them via cameras; however, the lack of a one-way window gives them the illusion that they are on their own and are not being observed. This isn’t at all uncommon. Think about when you are in the subway or walking down the street. You may notice CCTV cameras everywhere. Eventually you forgot they are even there. Yet, our every movement is captured.

In the context of a supervised visit, the illusion of being alone, whether in a room with or without one way windows can sometimes determine how attachment and behaviour is played out. Many families begin to relax, act, and speak as if they were in their own home. This can work both in their favour and sometimes against. Some families may forget they are here to work on their relationships with their children and they may not engage with them directly or make an effort. This can affect the visit immensely as well as the child’s view of the visit. It is interesting to observe the families with the one-way window. Most are aware they are being watched directly and depending on lighting, can see into the observation deck quite easily. I have noticed that a few families welcome our observations. Especially those that are currently close to regaining custody of their children and new kinship adopters. Some of them seem to find this a very supportive environment or one where they have a chance to demonstrate their affection and attachment towards their children. Moreover, if they are feeling nervous or overwhelmed we are there to pop into the room and support them if needed. This is especially true of families with very small children. Of course, this isn’t always the case. Some families find the one-way window hostile and will attempt to block it.

When families find our observation intrusive they will use the space and objects differently. I had one family that would constantly close the blinds. We could still hear them but could not see them. Depending on their supervision order, we may or may not accommodate that. Some families would use the objects around them to conceal. Not unlike something you may come across in a home visit. One family I had, put a family movie on that had adults and children in the film. They then put the volume up to maximum. I could hear a conversation between child and adult, but only from the film itself. It was interesting to see how the space and objects in the centre could be used to mask, hide, and alter the situation. I really began to reflect on environment and space and it’s role in how we engage and interact and how it can affect dynamics. I think that sometimes we focus too much on verbal and behavioral cues without giving much emphasis as to how those cues may be influenced by space and environment. Moreover, how the environment may suppress or energize the dynamics between adult and child. Here is one mother’s experience  with supervised contact visits. I would highly recommend reading it.

What are your thoughts and experiences around the concept of space when working with clients or families? How has the environment and atmosphere influenced your thoughts and emotions? What positive or negative assumptions have you derived from your observations and how can it better inform practice?

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From Child service user to Social Worker-What World Social Work Day means to me

cropped-innerlight1.jpgToday is World Social Work Day. A day to celebrate the men and women who spend countless hours advocating, empowering and trying to keep safe thousands of individuals and families. It can be a thankless job at times. It can be draining, exhausting, Exhilarating and inspiring. Social workers work in so many areas. From hospitals, mental health facilities, care homes, schools, agencies, non profits, charities and even the armed forces. Social workers engage in safeguarding for adults and children. They are the machine that whirls in the background attempting to keep all the parts together. We sometimes have an image of what a social work is, and it’s usually only a tiny fraction of what they do.

I am inspired daily by the social workers I have had the pleasure to work with and meet.  They are the reason I chose to become a social worker. It is the personal stories of so many clients and service users that continue to ignite that fire in me to continue down this rewarding career path. I am also a child service user. I have not spoken about it often. It’s a part of my life I still find difficult to talk about. I watched my brother live half his life in care. Bouncing from one children’s home to another. I watched as social workers turned up at our home with care packages of food and toys at Christmas. I experienced spending 30 days in a children’s home and the fear and confusion that came with an unfamiliar bedroom and routine. The feeling that you were not wanted or too difficult to handle. That feeling that this was somehow your fault.

Social workers were there. I remember one kind social work student in the children’s home I stayed in. I looked up to her thinking she was pretty hip for a social worker. I was 14. I remember when I found myself homeless at 18. I remember a hospital psychologist telling me it was not safe for me to return home. I equally remember not being offered any services or housing. The only question asked was ” Do you have somewhere to go tonight?” I did. I was blessed with people I knew that could take me in for short amounts of time. Then I was blessed to find a consistent roof over my head. But that fear and disruption of routine. That feeling of not knowing where you were going or how to survive alone. The guilt of asking to stay with friends. Having to find your first job and having to drop out of school to make ends meet. That constant feeling of fight or flight…

I get it.

So many people have been through a lot worse. But that feeling of chaos and uncertainty is one that thousands of children go through. That is why social workers are so essential. That is why care leavers deserve support until they are 21. Social workers are unique. They are there at every life cycle. From birth to death. They are advocating and seeking out resources for you, your child, your parent. They are fighting the system daily. Begging for one more food voucher or bus ticket so you can make that job interview or dentist appointment or sitting in on inter disciplinary meetings trying to find a bed for your mother in a care home that will treat her with dignity. They are taking children to loving Foster care homes or group homes to keep them safe. This job is not easy. Social workers are faced with aggression, anger, and sometimes violence. They walk into unsafe neighborhoods and homes. They deal with trauma and grief from families and sometimes, their own. They have to make hard and life changing decisions.

But it’s a calling. One that many would not change for the world. One that I would not change for the world. So today, on World Social Work Day, lets take a moment and thank all the social workers for their unwavering dedication to humanity.

THANK YOU for all you do.

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