As a social worker, I would frequently get asked by people outside the human services field (and sometimes those within it) whether working with survivors of intimate partner violence was “depressing” or “sad”. (When I worked at a community mental health center in Michigan, I was frequently asked whether working with people with mental illness was “dangerous” or “scary”.) This question doesn’t usually bother me coming from people whose day job involves something so totally outside the realm of my own experience and interests that it seems genuinely curious. For instance, I often wonder how people who design websites can sit behind a computer for hours on end, every single day, typing and cutting and pasting little pieces of code into little windows. I’m further impressed by people who work in offices, sell real estate, or find fulfillment as a restaurant chef. The fascination is there because, well, the idea that your day job involves low pay and long hours with people who have been brutalized (and who can often be fairly brutal themselves) doesn’t compute for many people who went to school for marketing.*
However, I was recently asked this same question by a fellow member of my cohort at the university where I am (supposedly) getting my PhD in social work. Glancing over my stack of readings, all from journals that have titles like The Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment and Trauma and Violence and Victims and Substance Abuse, this woman–a trained social worker who lived and worked in a pretty rough neighborhood before coming to school herself–inquired, with an eyebrow cocked, “Don’t you ever find this kind of stuff so depressing?” When I said no, she offered a placating explanation: “It’s just that what I study has nothing to do with this sort of thing, so I wonder how I’d react if I just had to think about this kind of stuff all the time.” (She is interested in the achievement gap in urban schools.)
I am definitely not a robot, and I definitely have moments–and had moments, when I worked in the field–where I cried and got angry and frustrated and fantasized about what my life would have been like, how much easier my work would be, if I had gone to cosmetology school or become a tattoo artist or followed my dreams as an eight-year-old, which were to become a ballerina and synchronized swimmer. But the fact is that I do not find working with trauma survivors depressing, and I don’t find working with people who have schizophrenia scary. I find it invigorating and purposeful and I derive tremendous amounts of meaning from it. In fact, I’m convinced, perhaps against all evidence to the contrary, that being a social worker is one of the best careers one could possibly have (if you’re doing it right, that is. As my favorite professor at Michigan used to say, “There’s a lot of dumb-ass social workers. Don’t be one of them.”).
Why do I delude myself in thinking this? I guess because underneath it all, I honestly believe that working for social justice, social change, and equity, side by side with the people who are in most need of all the above, is (to hijack some church language here) a high calling. What could be more fulfilling, both personally and to others, than striving every day to make the world a better place for the least of us? I’m not sure.
As a younger woman, I got accused of being a starry-eyed idealist/bleeding heart/hopeless optimist, often by people who had little experience with social workers other than (falsely) believing these were the people who took your kid away if you spanked them too hard down to the Wal-Mart parking lot. I don’t believe that I’ve ever been an optimist. My limited knowledge of medical science tells me that a heart full of blood is a good thing. As for idealist, maybe I’ll cop to that. If it’s idealistic to believe in full-scale social change tempered by the realization that it’ll have to be done incrementally and with a great deal of pain, setbacks, and hard work, then I’m guilty. And I can say this now and you have to believe me, because I’ve reached an age (30) and a level of experience (11 years in the field now!) where starry-eyed idealism alone would have long burned itself dry.
So what DO I find depressing? I’ll tell you: the incredible amounts of money that are wasted every year to fund mediocre research on major social problems: addictions, violence, education, health disparities, child abuse, human trafficking–that never leave the dissertation defense or institution to which they were granted. In the interest of incrementally effecting social change, and understanding that gathering a body of research to support evidence for new policy directions or programs means gathering numbers to support these causes, I realize that money must be spent and it may not all be spent in the ways that I would choose. I am not anti-research or anti-evidence base. But when I look around at all the social service agencies who are running out of food for hungry people, running out of places to house homeless people, and fighting with each other over meager scraps of funding that the state occasionally tosses in their direction, I have to wonder what kinds of investments in social problems should be prioritized. So far it seems to be research that attempts to hold itself to a medical/epidemiological standard, and as far as I can tell that research is doing little to end poverty, end violence against women, stop human trafficking, improve education, grant reproductive equity and universal health care, and end homelessness. I think it’s time to ask the tough questions and read the journals with sad titles and talk to the people who have been through the worst shit life has to throw at them and figure out a way to start spreading the wealth (knowledge AND financial) around.
*No hating here. My BFF is a marketing major, and I love her to bitsies.