by Christina Gerard
My job is a rare one. Even after two years, I’m not sure I understand what it is I really do. Every day is different than the last. Every day leaves me with something to be in awe of. Every moment is of significance. I am a case-manager in a nursing facility that specializes in the treatment of mental illness, and, still, this says nothing. It is a bunch of words strung together to form a sentence that says very little about what I really do.
When people ask me, I find myself listing off my daily duties: paperwork, counseling, reorienting residents to reality, cueing residents on coping skills and adequate sleep, assisting residents with just about anything they need, and the list could go on and on and on. Still, this says nothing. It doesn’t portray the remarkable relationship I have with the residents, the impact I have on them or them on me, and it doesn’t come close to telling the story of social work.
When I think of social work, I think of my friend Reginald. Reginald trained me in my current position, and has constantly been a source of inspiration in the realm of social work. He taught me how to be patient, how to fill out paperwork, and how to be effective with each resident.
It is my hope that the following interview with Reginald Edwards will demystify some of the misinterpretations of social work, stigmas of mental health, and the roles of social work, because even I hard time summing them up.
Me: Thank you for taking the time to meet with us today.
Reginald: No Problem. I’m happy to be here.
Me: First off, why did you choose social work and what was the biggest motivator in your decision?
Reginald: I believe the biggest motivator is coming from a “family full of helpers.” I come from a family of educators. I grew up watching my family. They were always lending a helping hand in the community. It was just very motivating. I definitely thought, “Man. This is what I want to do. This is awesome.” It was just very motivating to always see my family reaching out and helping those in need, and to see them be rewarded spiritually from it, really motivated me.
Me: What prompted your decision to specialize in mental health versus the areas of social work?
Reginald: Honestly, my first job was in the mental health field in central Illinois. It was the first job to give me the opportunity to work in this field, and I thought it was interesting. I grew to actually like it. So, I really want to go further with it now from that first experience. Mental health is not my first choice, at all. I thought I would be working with kids or with DCFS, but everything really changed for the better.
Me: Why was mental health not your first choice?
Reginald: I didn't know much about it. I never even thought about mental health as being a profession I would go into. When I thought of mental health I just thought of depression, and that’s all I knew about mental health. I wasn’t really educated about other mental health diagnoses. It just wasn’t brought to my attention until then.
Me: What do you do on the average work day? What are some of the roles you take on and how do you fill them?
In my profession, especially where I work now, I do it all. I am not only a social worker. I am also a counselor. I am also maintenance. I am security. I do it all. You really have to be able to reach out to other departments, because you’re going to be needed. Especially as a male social worker, you’re going to be called on. You’re going to be called on to do all the dirty work.
Since there aren’t a lot of male social workers, you get called on to break up the fights, to cue people on their meds. You get called on to do a lot of counseling with the male clients.
You definitely have residents you have to be the authority figure with. A lot of the clients I work with have dual diagnoses, like schizophrenia and a drug abuse diagnosis. I really wasn’t very educated on illegal drug use. So, I really had to educate myself about different drugs and different coping mechanisms to help them stop using. I have to continue to educate myself, even after graduating school.
You are also a friend. A lot of these residents don’t have friends or families to contact, and they just want somebody they can have a general conversation with. You also have to be that person and let go of your clinical side, and just talk to them like they are one of your friends. It changes every day.
Me: What are some biggest hurdles you face as a social worker?
Reginald: I think one of the biggest hurdles that I face right now is the lack of awareness that social services has in the community. Right now, everyone needs to know that Illinois does not have a state budget for these services. So, that cuts off a lot of programming. That cuts off a lot of our clients from moving on, because we have services that help these people move out into the community, and once those services are lost they aren’t able to move on and live productive lives.
It becomes frustrating when you’re counseling and motivating and educating them on the importance of becoming more independent, but then we don’t have anything to back it up with. All our services are being ended, because Congress can’t come up with a set budget for them. I just think the lack of awareness, over all, in mental health can be hard to deal with. Unfortunately, it seems like it’s only going to get worse.
Me: What are, in your opinion, the most prominent stigmas in terms of the mental health field?
Reginald: A lot of people think when you have a mental illness, it’s not real. I have friends who suffer from depression, and people just tell them “snap out of it,” but a person can’t just snap out of it. They can’t just get up and go to work, it interrupts their daily routine. People have schizophrenia and hear voices, and people say, “Well, just ignore them.” It’s not that easy to just ignore voices. How would you feel if you heard voices in your head twenty-four seven, knowing they aren’t even real. It’s still affecting you every day. They tell you to kill yourself. They tell you things like “don’t work.”
I have a client who wants to work, and every time he goes to work the voices are telling him to walk off the job. He was so sick of the voices telling him that, he just walked off the job. He was tired of listening to the voices. Some people think that people with mental illness are just lazy, but they have a mental illness. There’s a reason.
Me: In your time as a social worker have you noticed any differences, stigmas, or marginalization related to mental health in the black community?
Reginald: There is a lot of stigma in the black community in regards to mental health. We have a lack of awareness. Personally, I also feel like in the black community families are really close-knit, and sometimes it can be a problem, because they don’t want people to know. So, they’re afraid for their loved ones to seek help, because they will be viewed as crazy. Unfortunately, that’s how people view them in the community, is as being crazy. I think a lot of people in the black community don’t want to be looked at in such a negative way when we have so many other negative stigmas against us.
It’s definitely seen as a weakness. I have a few friends who have a diagnosis and it goes back to the other question about stigma. It’s “You can still do this. You can do that.” It’s “Just take this medicine. You’ll be alright, and get over it.” It’s a Band-Aid. You can’t just put a Band-Aid on mental illness.
Me: What effect do you think these stigmas have on the community as whole, as well as those in need of help?
Reginald: If you watch the news, a lot of people who have mental illness are found committing crimes, shooting up schools, murdering people. Usually the doctors know this beforehand, and they don’t really address it or take it seriously. Then they end up doing something detrimental and tragic in the community, and it becomes like a revolving door.
Then it goes back to the lack of services in the community. If we continue to cut off services to mental health, then people are going to lack mental health services which will stop them from taking their medications and being educated on their diagnosis, like when to go to the doctor, or what to do when they are experiencing certain symptoms. They think it wastes tax dollars, and that’s why services are being cut.
Me: Have you witnessed any situations in which a person(s) was marginalized due to their mental health?
Reginald: I see it all the time in regards to new admits that we receive at the facility. When we receive a new admit, we read about them from a piece of paper that just puts them in a box. Then we have to be cautious when we first meet them, because we really don’t know. We’re going off their diagnoses and two or three sentences that tell us why they are coming to the facility.
I once had a new admit, and, when I read his paperwork it said he was really violent and complaining about hearing voices at that time. He had even, without going into too much detail, thrown a chair out the window. So, when I did his paperwork, I had to be very cautious. I was wondering, “Is he going to become violent. Is he was hearing voices?” So, already, I had put him in a box due to his diagnosis. When I asked him about the instance, he said he couldn’t control himself and he wasn’t that type of person. Then I talked to his family and they said they had never seen him act that way. It was not normal behavior for him, at all. They never saw him act like that. First off, I went off that diagnosis and was judging him on those first three lines I read, and because he had mental illness. I think we all do that. We just have to be more cautious about doing it in the mental health field.
Me: How do you think socioeconomic factors play a role in further marginalizing mental health patients?
Reginald: Basically, if you have money, you receive the treatment and the necessary education in order to treat your mental illness. If you don’t have money, your mental illness is just going to get worse, because you don’t have that treatment. You don’t have the services to provide you with the education about your mental illness and the importance of being med-compliant. You need money in order to receive the services for your mental illness and to be treated.
I am finding it hard for people to get social security now. I have clients on my caseload who truly have severe mental diagnoses, but they are twenty-two or twenty-three years old. I think they judge them off that age, as a factor. Like, “You’re twenty-three you can go work.” They have a mental illness. They should be able to receive Social Security. We should be able to work with them in order to get the necessary work done.
Me: How do you utilize your position as a social worker to be a positive influence in the workplace and/or the community?
I definitely try to lead by example. I tell my co-workers all the time that it’s really important to treat these clients as if they were your own loved one. It should bring out a really good working relationship with the client.
Me: Do you find that you are generally one of the few, if not the only, male social workers in your department? How does this impact your daily routine?
Reginald: I am the only male social worker at my job right now. I definitely get called on for all the hustle and bustle in the facility. I get called on to break up the fights. I get called on to counsel more residents because they are male, or I get called to counsel a resident just because they’re black. Like, “You can talk to this guy, because you have something in common.” I get called on a lot. Especially where I work now, which is a predominantly black neighborhood and we have a lot of black clients. I get called on just for being male, and for being a black male. As I’m able to help in a positive way, it really doesn’t bother me. It just that I get burnt out, because I’m called on more than anyone else.
Me: Not only are you one of few male social workers, but also one of the few Black/African American social workers. Does this impact your position in or out of the work place?
Reginald: Usually when I tell people I am a social worker I get like, “Oh my gosh! Wow!”, because there just aren’t a lot of black male social workers. I usually get, “Can I take your number down just in case I need any help?” Usually, I try to say no, but I end up saying yes. First, I’m young, I’m black, and I’m a male. So, there aren’t a lot of us out there. I think I am looked at as a positive role model, and I get told that all the time.
Me: Have you experienced acts of racism or gender role issues in the workplace?
Reginald: I’ve been called every name in the book. So, even when I get called the n-word by a, maybe like a white resident, it doesn’t affect me. I consider it a part of their mental illness. They are there for a reason. They are mentally ill. It just does not affect me. I don’t really pay attention to racist remarks in the workplace, especially by the residents. Ninety-nine percent of the time it doesn’t affect me. When it does, it’s because I’ve worked all day. I do it for them, and I make one mistake and then they will start name-calling.
Me: Have you ever feared for your safety in the work place?
Reginald: Starting off in the mental health field, I definitely did. I got chased around, because of accusations of me, thinking I stole money. People would just have delusions of me doing things I didn’t do. First I got scared, but, after a while, you become really close with the residents. You build some sort of working relationship, and usually they can separate their delusional thoughts about you from the real thoughts about you. I don’t really fear for my life. I don’t think I am in a dangerous situation. The only situation I don’t like to encounter is breaking up fights. I have broken up fights between six women, and it’s just me.
Me: What is your favorite memory or experience in the work place? Why?
Reginald: It was actually with a resident at my last job. He wanted to go to his home, and he was at that facility for about nine months. He became really discouraged, but I really wanted to get services for him. I wanted him to go back to his community, because it’s what he knows. I had to go through almost every loop-hole to get him there, and, when the time came for him to leave, he broke down outside and started crying. He said he thought I would’ve given up on him, but I stayed by my word. He said, “You are really meant for this profession,” and he told me, “I love you, Man.” I even still keep in touch with him every once in a while, he tells me he’s doing well. Just knowing I got to make some kind of positive difference in his life really makes me happy.
Me: How do you separate your work life and home life, and do you find it difficult to do so?
Reginald: I don’t find it difficult at all because once I’m home I have a hundred-and-one things to do anyway and can’t focus on work. Once I’m at work I have a hundred-and-one things to do, and can’t focus on stuff at home. I definitely believe in going out and having a good time with my friends, and being around friends and family definitely helps me with that. And traveling. I love traveling. I try to do that at least every three months. I try to go somewhere. I try to take it day by day, and just have fun. That’s all it is, just having fun outside of work. When I’m at work I have too much paperwork to worry about. It doesn’t affect my life whatsoever, they don’t cross boundaries.
Me: What can we do as a community to deviate from the stigmas and misperceptions surrounding mental health?
Reginald: I kind of joke around with my coworkers now. We joke, but mental illness is real. A lot of people think mental illness is just something you take medicine for and it goes away, but it’s not. People with a mental diagnosis with always have that diagnosis. They have to take medicine to maintain that diagnosis and lessen the symptoms. Basically, educating people on mental illness and the medicine and side effects. Just taking medicine every day isn’t not going to solve mental illness, either. That’s why we have psychosocial programming, or groups, to help with that.
Me: Do you have any plans to deviate from social work? If so, why?
Reginald: I will always be in the helping field. This is my passion, but I don’t think I will always be called a social worker. I have looked at other job opportunities, such as being a nurse or police officer. I look at those as “helping professions.” I will still be able to advocate for people, while making a difference in their lives.
Me: Define social work in your own words.
Reginald: I get asked this every day. I like to classify social workers as counselors. We are supposed to be providing resources, counseling, basically helping people get through their day-to-day. We do it all. We are helpers.
Reginald Edwards received his MA in Social Work, with a concentration in Family & Child Services, from Illinois State University. He has interned with DCFS, volunteered with Big Brother Big Sister, and currently works in the south suburbs of Chicago, IL as a social worker.