Are We Being Honest About the Mental Health of Social Workers?
For years, I have maintained a few hypotheses: 1) the prevalence of mental illness among social workers is higher than we think, and 2) the percentage of mental illness in social workers is higher than the prevalence in the general population. I believe that part of the reluctance to share this information is likely grounded in society’s long-held stigmas about mental illnesses and the fears of labeling that are associated. Additionally, I think many people feel called to social work due to a personal experience, which could include their own mental health journey and a desire to help others with theirs. The other component of my hypothesis comes directly from my interactions with fellow social workers (in both professional and academic settings), where some have openly talked about their diagnoses and others have indicated the existence of mental health concerns without blatantly stating it.
I suppose before I continue on this subject, I should share in full-disclosure that I have Generalized Anxiety Disorder and have been blessed with it since early childhood. Up until a few years ago, I had a hard time feeling comfortable about discussing my anxiety, because I was afraid that professors would think I would not be a good social worker or that supervisors would deem me unfit to perform.
What I now know is that talking about my experiences has allowed other people to feel safe enough to talk about theirs, and that my work performance doesn’t suffer because of my mental illness.
I am in the process of creating a podcast to talk more about my own struggles as well as the supports and resources I found most helpful, in hopes that someone else can benefit from hearing my story. Stay tuned to SSWN for more details on that soon!
Coming Full Circle
I have always wanted to see data that supports my hypotheses (or rejects them, I’m open to letting the data speak for itself!). In preparation for this article, I was quickly discouraged at the lack of research around this topic, both in terms of quantity and timeliness. You may be thinking: Why does it matter who has a mental illness and who does not? Because we know that social workers are helpers in stressful and traumatic situations, and if those helpers don’t have adequate supports or self-care strategies, they are more likely to experience burnout or secondary trauma.
In a study by Bride (2007), the prevalence of secondary traumatic stress was studied in 282 social workers in the southern United States in which respondents completed a self-report survey about their experiences in working with traumatized populations. When looking at results for the presence of Secondary Traumatic Stress (STS): “70.2 percent experienced at least one symptom in the previous week, 55 percent met the criteria for at least one of the core symptom clusters, and 15.2 percent met the core criteria for a diagnosis of PTSD” (p. 67). Interestingly, in a response to my ‘lack of research’ claim above, this article does also state: “This study is the first to document the extent to which STS, at diagnostic and sub diagnostic levels, is a problem faced by social work practitioners” (p. 69). If the prevalence of this one stress-related disorder is so high, what could that indicate for all of the other mental illnesses that exist NOT explicitly in relation to work?
Another study collected data from 751 social workers in North Carolina and assess their depressive symptoms, coping strategies, level of impairment, and level of support received. Siebert (2004) was able to determine that 19% of respondents met the criteria for depression, 46% of respondents experienced past depression, 20% were taking medication for depression, and 16% had “seriously considered suicide at some time in their lives” (p. 34). Also startling was the comparison of survey respondents to some NIMH data: “sixty percent of respondents self-assessed as depressed at some point in their lives, which is three times the lifetime depression rate in the general population of women” (p. 37).
This tells me mental illness isn’t just developed because of the work, but that people with mental illness are entering a difficult profession without appropriate supports. Armed with data, however, strategies can be developed and implemented to reduce distress among our colleagues and ourselves.
I do think it would be negligent not to highlight the recent special issue journal produced by Social Work (January 2020, volume 65, issue 1) about practitioners’ self-care, as it is a frequently discussed topic in connection to our line of work. The journal issue provides insights on what self-care is, how to implement it, when it is necessary, and what barriers exist to its implementation. The article by Martin et al. (2020) examines survey responses from practicing social workers about their self-care systems, they were able to ultimately conclude: “Despite knowing how important self-care is to personal and professional well-being, it can be difficult to implement self-care in everyday life” (p. 79). Even though social workers often know what they need to do to care for their wellbeing, it’s easier said than done.
What Do I Need and Why?
It is important to delineate between stress/burnout and the need for self-care with having a mental illness that requires multiple forms of support. Surely, not engaging in self-care could exacerbate issues for anyone, but the same cannot be said for the opposite: not everyone will improve their mental state solely by engaging in common self-care practices. To me, that is where the difference in self-care and mental health care appears.
Engaging in self-care practices will not solve your mental health diagnosis, just as filling your car with gas won’t fix a broken engine; it’s helpful, but not the only thing it needs to run.
As the articles referenced above highlight, there are social workers with mental illnesses who need more support than just general recommendations of self-care and ignoring that is unfair. Unfortunately, society has not been open to considering that idea, and as such, people in this profession feel isolated despite their professional knowledge on the very topic.
The Bottom Line
Your own coworker could be the one struggling silently while doing their best to serve clients, even if they do not self-disclose that to you. Or maybe that struggling person is you.
If we (as a profession) are affected more than the general population and we’re expected to help others with their mental health needs, extra attention needs to be given to the practitioners so that they can heal as well.
Alternatively, it could be that the coworker isn’t struggling anymore due to response to treatment, but still lives with a disorder that impacts their practice, even positively. Personally, my anxiety has taught me additional advocacy skills that weren’t developed in school, and I have more compassion and empathy for clients going through medical or therapy processes, having lived it myself.
My recommendation from this data is simple: reach out to others. Whether it be for your own struggles with mental illness or to check on a coworker who seems to be having a hard time, let’s create a culture where mental health practitioners can talk about their mental health without fear of judgment. How are you connecting and supporting your colleagues and/or yourself? Connect with me on SSWNetwork and share more!
Bride, B. E. (2007). Prevalence of Secondary Traumatic Stress among Social Workers. Social Work, 52(1), 63-70.
Martin, E. M., Myers, K., & Brickman, K. (2020). Self-Preservation in the Workplace: The Importance of Well-Being for Social Work Practitioners and Field Supervisors. Social Work, 65(1), 74-81.
Siebert, D. C. (2004). Depression in North Carolina social workers: Implications for practice and research. Social Work Research, 28(1), 30-40.