At the end of this week, I meet a long-held goal; I graduate with a Masters in Social Work. The dream has not revolved around the degree as much as the fact that the degree allows me to work in the mental health field. That is the dream–to work with people who have mental health issues with hopes that I may play a small role as they find lasting help and relief.
I know from personal experience how debilitating and just shitty it is to have a mental illness (mine was depression); I know from personal experience that mental health professionals can also provide enormous help. I believe passionately in what I am getting ready to do! And aren’t those awesome words to be typing?
I haven’t blogged much while in school, because there has been a lot going on, a lot of what I have been exposed to has been confidential, and I have required a lot of self-reflection and time to process what I have learned. But here are some of the most important take-aways that I have from the last two years:
- Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity. And dignity and kindness are not the same thing.
I used to think that I needed to be kind to everyone. I still choose kindness over many options, but treating people with dignity, i.e. to treat them as if they are worthy, as if they matter, as if they are due respect, is much more powerful.
You can be kind to someone, but with a condescending air (“Oh, homeless man, aren’t you thankful that there are people who are willing to give you new shoes?”).
Treating someone with dignity means recognizing that a person is an individual, with a brain, capable of making decisions, and capable of surviving to this point in his/her life (“Mr. Man who is currently without a home, we have some resources available for you, including shoes. Does that interest you?”)
2. Racism exists. It is all around, it happens everyday. It is perpetrated by white people who are happy to tell you that they believe they are better than people of color; and it is perpetrated by white people who do not believe that they are better than people of color. In this country, racism is institutionalized, systematized, and often personalized.
I have realized that I have said, thought and acted in ways that could be defined as racist in my past. My guess is I will do so again in the future. Yet, I have no intent in my heart to do so. My goal now is to be an ally to people of color, to open my eyes and recognize when access and opportunities are limited based on skin color, or when choices and options are restricted for the same reason. Then I must speak up for change, protest where there is wrong, and use my voice to demand action. And as mentioned in #1 above, everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity, and where I do not see that happening, I have to speak up.
Want to understand racism a little better, especially from a white person’s viewpoint? Read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh.
3. I am blessed. I feel it everyday as I work with clients. I have or had so many advantages or privileges that many people do or did not have, including loving and supportive family, consistent and nourishing food, stable housing, and no exposure to persistent violence. These are things that many people take for granted as givens, but others are in desperate need for them.
But I have also learned over the last two years that the majority of people feel blessed. I have found this to be an amazing and wonderful discovery.
I have met people in what I would describe as just horrific situations — staggering poverty, legal trouble, chronic illness, intense family conflict — and so often they will talk about how lucky they are in spite of their situation. “At least I have my kids/my husband/my grandchildren/my God,” they’ll say. “I have had such a good life, and this is a rough spot,” they’ll tell me. I will leave someone’s house feeling uplifted because their attitude is joyous.
4. Our Baby Boomers have now all officially entered the age of retirement. Our second (next to millennials) largest population is 65+. For the next 30 or so years, America will have to face some huge decisions as by 2040, just over 1/5 of the US population will be 65+. Healthcare costs, retirement and employee replacement needs, medical research needs (Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other older-age onset diseases), assisted living facilities, Hospice and Palliative care, depression and mental health needs (elderly white men commit suicide at the highest rate than any other population), sex education needs (STDs are growing faster in nursing homes and assisted living facilities than any other institutions), legal needs, etc., will all need expanding and funding. In a current environment and culture where the elderly are not highly valued or esteemed.
I have a personal stake in this because I will hit 65 in less than 20 years (just before that 2040 mark), so yes, I want to know if my elected representatives, my doctors, people on the street, etc., are going to give a shit what happens to my aging self. Have I spent the first 40+ years working hard so that my last 40 years can be spent being ignored? I hope not. I hope not for my sake and for all seniors. Seniors are AWESOME, and they deserve a lot of respect (and dignity!) for living, surviving and thriving all those decades.
5. I like me. I had stopped liking myself until I went back to school. My last job almost killed me. Not literally, but almost literally. I felt emotionally abused; no project was ever good enough, praise could only be delivered sandwiched between “areas of opportunity”, constant restructuring meant constant anxiety about job security, opaque-ness was the culture, and sexism was tolerated.
I was convinced that I was stupid and unqualified for most any position. I was almost convinced that I was unqualified to be a good person.
What the last two years have taught me is that none of that crappy, self-defeating thinking was true. I am not stupid. I have a lot of good qualities. I am not only as good as my last PowerPoint; I am worthwhile regardless of my last PowerPoint, my last tax return, my last grade, my last mistake.
As Katy Perry would say:
Now I’m floating like a butterfly
Stinging like a bee I earned my stripes
I went from zero, to my own hero
6. Social workers are cool. Just watch these to see the proof.
I end this with another quote by my one of my heroines, Beyonce:
I break chains all by myself
Won’t let my freedom rot in hell
Hey! I’ma keep running
Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves