In my work as a teacher, I have the great privilege of meeting with people who make huge personal commitments to be the most skillful and respectful helpers possible. They invest preciously scarce time and money to honor their desire to develop their professional craft so the people they meet will have the best possible experience. Heartbreakingly, in this context I also get an intimate view into the forces that are working against these beautiful commitments.
How can it be that people so willing to do extraordinary work to learn how to meet people with dignity, skill, and accountability are so often left feeling like they are not enough? What does it say that these people are exhausted and disheartened because what they care most about is not what seems to matter most in the workplaces that employ them? Who does it benefit to drown these people in excessive responsibilities that have nothing to do with meaningful engagements with people who are hurting?
Let’s be honest. Who are we as a society? Do we give a shit about people who are hurting, lonely, sad, or lost? Do we care more about nicer cars or social injustices? Do we care more about bigger TVs or economic inequalities? Do we care more about social media or institutionalized racism? Do we care more about sports or gender violence?
In the United States, we have people who have committed their lives to caring more about people than things. These people are social workers, family therapists, counselors, nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters, etc. Yet these people are suffering because there is not enough support for them. There is not enough care for the people in our society who are suffering and thus not enough support for the people who choose not to put their heads in the sand, or TV, or Facebook, or Sports. Not enough support makes these helpers vulnerable to conclude either they are personal failures or the dreams they had about helping are not worth it.
Helpers are not the problem. They are enough.
Clients are not the problem. They are enough
The problem is the ongoing institutionalization and commodification of the American, Capitalist, Individualist, Patriarchal, Heterosexist, White Supremacist story.
Where will it start? How can it start? What will it take for a new story to emerge, to be compelling enough to care about relationships and communities as much as anything else?
We know what would have prevented the shooting that just happened at the high school in Florida. Stopping the NRA and Republican greed would have lessened the likelihood of the deaths that occurred, but it wouldn’t have prevented the shooter from a relationship with hate and a desire to hurt.
The idea that mental health professionals are equipped to have prevented the shooting from happening is a lie. That lie just helps keep everyone pacified and comfortable. The lie keeps us from having to look at how our societal choices are implicated in what happened.
Graduate schools and academic institutions profit off good people’s desire to become helpers. Graduate programs offer these people professional degrees, huge debt, opportunities to do jobs that pay very little, and minimal preparation to know how to truly help people.
Employers profit off new professionals who are put at the front lines of working with people who are experiencing the life-crushing effects of social injustices, isolation, and marginalization. Employers don’t know how to train helpers to have the skills they need to make a difference, but do know how to teach helpers how to do the diagnostic and bureaucratic work that protects everyone from possible liability.
Hospitals profit off the institutionalization of people as the primary way of “caring.” Insurance companies profit off the tactics that pay helping professionals as little as possible and limit their numbers.
Despite invitations to succumb to despair and burnout, many of these professional helpers who are paid too little and are inadequately trained scrape together what money they do have, skip that nice dinner out or the repair their car needs, and pay for extra training on weeknights or weekends after an exhausting work day or week. These are the people hoping to help that kid everyone refers to as “a bit off,” so that kid might be met with the kindness, non-judgment, love, and skillful engagement that could keep him from killing 17 people and spending the rest of his life in jail. These are the people hoping to help his mom, and the neighbors, and, now, the distraught families who are experiencing the worst thing imaginable.
We know what that kid needed. He needed something that does not currently exist in our society. He needed what we all need. He needed a community of people who don’t think what is most important is the stuff in their house or big game hunts or botox treatments. He needed a community that thinks what is most important is to make sure every person is helped to know they matter.
That kid needed a community that loved him hard every day and related to him in ways that left him feeling like he had dignity and value. He may never have become “a productive member of society,” but whatever “mental illness” he may have would not have resulted in him having a primary relationship with hate and guns. We know that is true.
I read that blame is being put on a “multi-systemic” failure because there were so many “warning signs” missed by counselors, police, the FBI, etc. That’s a lie. The truth is there is no place for people like that kid to go when they are identified as “at risk.” One-hour therapy appointments, in-patient hospitalizations, and psychotropic medications are not enough.
To grow communities of care that are ready for individuals who get noticed as “in trouble,” the people willing to do that work need to not be so financially and emotionally burdened. We have enough people in this country willing to do whatever it takes to learn how to do that work. They are willing to stand alongside and tolerate the profoundly difficult work of helping. We just don’t have enough other people who desire to give these helpers what they need to offer it.
We need a narrative revolution that shifts everyone away from thinking individuals are reflections of essential selves and toward an understanding that all individuals are community achievements, and therefore, community responsibilities.