Social work and me

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social work monthShe was only nineteen, apparently old enough to experience homelessness, single motherhood, domestic violence and the judicial system. As she sat quietly in my cubicle, I tried to obtain some basic information, the colors of her designer handbag echoing louder than any voice in that cold, sterile building. My task: Help her find a job before her welfare benefits expired.

He was alert and oriented, standing at the sun-baked bus stop, blue eyes squinting through a shaggy, white beard. A Vietnam veteran with a history of traumatic brain injury and chronic homelessness, he answered my questions in a polite, friendly tone. My task: Help him find housing before his next visit to an emergency room.

Ah, social work, the profession of champions.

It’s been about two years since I “left” the field to pursue a calling in pastoral ministry, but social work has never really left me. My career changed not because I disliked social work, as much as it brought me to new places. If anything, I hope to bring it wherever I go. So in honor of National Social Work Month, here’s a brief word about the impact social work has left on me.

In short, social workers get it.

Forgive my bias, but I think social workers understand the real world better than most folks. They know the good, bad and ugly of how society operates. They deal with systems that chew people up and spit them out. They have an astute grasp of the powerful influences we don’t get to choose: our family history, culture, privilege, opportunity, discrimination, and access to resources, just to name a few. Ask any social worker, and they will tell you about the underlying causes of poverty, addiction, delinquency, violence, racism, homelessness and inequality. They are society’s unheralded custodians, cleaning up social messes made by others.

You would think all this would make social workers a cynical bunch, but they’re actually some of the most positive human beings I’ve ever worked with. They don’t just chatter about what’s wrong with the world, but demonstrate what can be done about it, step by daily step. Social workers ask the right questions, listening for untold stories. They link people with resources, advocating for our most vulnerable citizens. In the face of relentless bureaucracy, paperwork, politicking, program changes and budget cuts, social workers will stop at nothing to make a human connection, bringing hope and dignity to those our society has given up on.

Without social workers, we would see more people wandering the streets with untreated mental health issues, more children victimized in abusive homes, and more veterans committing suicide. There would be more people utilizing costly inpatient medical services instead of appropriate community-based care options. Without social workers, a greater burden would fall upon our schools, police, hospitals, prisons, employers and churches to pick up the pieces when someone’s life falls apart. By simply doing what they love to do, social workers help the rest of us flourish.

At its best, social work is about making connections and building bridges, not unlike the task of a pastor. It’s not about having a bleeding heart as much as dirty hands working to make a difference. It’s about entering deeply enough into someone’s life to understand their perspective and guide them forward, beginning at noisy bus stops and in frigid cubicles. 

So go ahead, thank a social worker today.

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Jesus is my mental illness

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“It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick.” –Matthew 9:6

True story. Last night, the instructor for my mental health practice course referenced the fact that people who are diagnosed with a severe mental illness will sometimes wander into churches because “they want to see Jesus.”

Makes sense, I thought. If the sick, afflicted and oppressed were brought before Jesus in the first century, why would they not continue to seek him today? Having worked as a mental health professional in a variety of settings, I have observed such phenomena first hand. Hallucinations and delusions with spiritual content are not uncommon, although the underlying factors are multifarious and complex. In any case, I would hope one could seek an encounter with God without necessarily being deemed psychotic.

Now back to the classroom. After describing a case in which a mental patient claimed to hear God telling him to do this or that, my social work instructor offered the following explanation for why mentally ill persons are often drawn to Jesus, the Bible and places of religious significance. Direct quote: “People are socialized to read the Bible for comfort.

Hold on a second, I wanted to say. Is that really the main reason why people choose to read the Bible? Inherited societal norms? Seriously?

But just like that, the most influential, poetic and bestselling text in all of human literary, archaeological and theological history was reduced to a coping mechanism. Apparently, human beings are not reading the Bible because of any actual comfort, wisdom or good news to be found in its pages. Rather, the Bible merely serves a cultural function akin to double fudge ice cream, video games and Chicken Soup for Soul spinoffs—a childish security blanket the enlightened have now outgrown. According to the skeptics, this explains why the mentally ill look for solace in the escapist fairy tale of God rescuing the world through the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf.

To be clear, I’m not saying socialization theory is a complete myth either. Despite my instructor’s naïve assumptions regarding the Bible’s multifaceted significance, she is correct in alluding to the myriad of psychological and societal factors impacting human behavior within the social environment. We are each undeniably shaped by our families, life experiences and prevailing cultural norms.

This points to something else about the human race: we are quick to adopt simplistic cause-and-effect formulations whenever something threatens us, be it the scourge of mental disorders or the vast implications of the Bible’s claims. For some, mental illness is too disturbing to be explained by complicated social and environmental factors. It’s much tidier to say that supernatural forces are pulling every string behind the scenes to the point where mental illness and demonic oppression become one and the same. The study of behavioral and psychiatric health is then dismissed as “psychobabble” since we’re more comfortable framing the discussion on a moral level of good and evil while automatically viewing every mental illness as a manifestation of spiritual warfare.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the notions of God, morality and the spiritual realm evoke intense suspicion (especially where Christianity is involved). Belief in a omnipotent Being gets written off as a regressive and unenlightened form of superstition designed to perpetuate discrimination against vulnerable minority groups. In this framework, Scriptural inspiration and devotion to Christ are viewed as socially conditioned coping mechanisms concocted to escape reality or preserve cultural dominance. If my instructor’s assumptions are correct, my Christian faith can be largely attributed to brainwashing by parents who taught me to ingest Bible verses like psychotropic medications. The beauty and richness of the Great Tradition are excluded from the equation.

But what if the mentally ill have it right, desperate for divine rescue, stumbling toward the church hoping to approach the Lord’s Table? What if the ancient texts are indeed the compass pointing to a True North found in the person and work of Christ, the ultimate display of unconditional grace and unmerited acceptance?

And what should be my diagnosis if I, like a vagrant street wanderer, long to see the face of this Jesus and find deep comfort in his words? What if I wish to talk to him aloud or hear his voice in my head? What if I want to touch his cloak or share a drink with him? What if I choose to ground my hope in the Resurrection story and throw my life at his feet? Does this make me mentally sick or spiritually alive?

If following after Christ is a mental illness, then let me be acutely sick. If Jesus is a coping mechanism, may he socialize my soul.

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