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Genocide Survivors: Contributors not Victims

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Polish-born Holocaust survivor Meyer Hack shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm during a news conference at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem June 15, 2009. A 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor, Hack, donated jewellery he took from the clothing of Jews who were gassed to death at the Nazi camp to Yad Vashem on Monday. Hack, who now lives in Boston, found the gems while sorting the clothing of victims sent to die in the gas chambers, which was his job at the camp where his mother, brother and two sisters perished. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM CONFLICT SOCIETY) - RTR24OVC

Polish-born Holocaust survivor Meyer Hack shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm during a news conference at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem June 15, 2009. A 95-year-old Auschwitz survivor, Hack, donated jewellery he took from the clothing of Jews who were gassed to death at the Nazi camp to Yad Vashem on Monday. Hack, who now lives in Boston, found the gems while sorting the clothing of victims sent to die in the gas chambers, which was his job at the camp where his mother, brother and two sisters perished. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (JERUSALEM CONFLICT SOCIETY) – RTR24OVC

Listening directly to survivors and learning from them have provided me with the most powerful, inspirational and insightful lessons. Individuals who witness the dark side of humanity have much to teach us about coping and adaptation. In the words of Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel peace prizewinner, “Listen to survivors, listen to them well. They have more to teach you than you them!”

Unfortunately, genocide and war did not end with the Holocaust. People continue to be displaced by global armed conflict. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that in 2015, over 60 million people have been displaced. Holocaust survivors are among the oldest living survivor populations of genocide and war. Lessons learned from working with them as they recovered from and transcended victimization can benefit survivors of other mass atrocities around the world who are trying to recover from similar ordeals. It sends a message of hope to these communities that recovery is possible.

In my work, I focus on strengthening and leveraging their coping skills that have remained strong and intact, and minimizing limitations and handicaps. Practicing from a strengths perspective begins with the premise that every individual, family, group, and community has strengths (positive attributes and abilities, knowledge, resources) which are mobilized to achieve their goals and visions (Saleebey, 2006). By changing our perceptions, and seeing them as survivors rather than scarred victims, we move away from the traditional deficit model of mental health to one that is competence and strengths based.

When I first started this program 18 years ago many survivors cried when we had entertainers and music. They missed their families during happy occasions. They were still grieving their losses and did not give themselves permission to experience joy because it was difficult to detach from their suffering. Some survivors felt that living with painful memories helped them keep memories of their murdered families and friends alive. They believed letting go of their pain and suffering would betray those who were murdered during the Holocaust.

In recent years, we noticed that group members were able to recovery from the after-effects of their horrendous ordeals. They are able to laugh and give themselves permission to have a good time, demonstrating their detachment from their suffering. In fact, they request lighthearted and fun-filled programs so they can enjoy themselves. They are also aware of their needs and are able to modulate their emotions when these are triggered by an external event that reminds them of their war experiences, e.g. terror attacks in the media.

My approach led to the development of a Drop-in Centre for Holocaust Survivors that I refer to as a group trauma recovery model. This program provides a safe environment where survivors interact with their peers and learn coping strategies that include a holistic approach to well-being. They grieve their losses together by participating in commemorative events and creating mourning rituals. They also participate in activities that bring meaning and purpose to their lives such as publishing a book of memoirs and experiencing themselves as “witnesses to history” through intergenerational programs. This program takes place in a community setting and is run in partnership with survivors where they serve as the Board of Management.

As service providers, it is essential to have a theoretical framework for practice to guide our work with individuals and groups. It is imperative we acknowledges survivors’ coping abilities and resilience that co-exist with their post-traumatic symptoms such as intrusive recollections, sleeplessness, anxiety and depression.

Reference

Saleebey, D. (2006). Introduction: Power in the people. In D. Saleebey (Ed.) The strengths perspective in social work practice 4th ed., 1-24). Boston: Pearson Education.

Myra Giberovitch, MSW, PSW is an adjunct professor at McGill University School of Social Work. Myra’s book, Recovering from Genocidal Trauma: An Information and Practice Guide for Working with Holocaust Survivors (University of Toronto Press), describes a strengths-based practice philosophy that guides the reader in how to understand the survivor experience, develop service models and programs, and employ individual and group interventions to empower survivors.

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Getting Stuff Done

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I used to manage a wonderful multidisciplinary team in East London, who prided themselves on going the extra mile for families on their teamwork and joined-up support. I remember an imposing senior manager visiting, and the staff sharing with her descriptions of their casework.

As she listened intently and I idly read the screen-saver on the computer behind where she was seated, I realised with dawning horror that it was repeatedly scrolling across the monitor “The East Welford Team* gets S*!%T done!!” It didn’t take long for me to find an excuse to show her another part of the office, making dagger-eyes at my team to get them to change the message to something more positively corporate-sounding pronto!

But I was very proud of that team, and I was reminded of them last week when I walked into the Project Room at work to offer to make a round of tea. I found Marianne (one of our team co-ordinators) talking excitedly with Emma and Theresa (two of our Family Workers).

The subject of the discussion was the intensive afternoon-into-early evening they had had the day before, “holed” up in an office at a GP surgery with a parent, supporting her and making phone call after phone call to get the various agencies to respond to the crisis she and her children were dealing with. The excitement didn’t arise from anger or triumphalism related to the battle with other services; it certainly wasn’t taking satisfaction in or credit from someone else’s misfortunes.

But what those team members were remembering and celebrating was a job well done and achieved through team work and partnership. Just for those 15 minutes, Emma and Theresa deserved their place under the spotlight, although to be honest most of their weeks are filled with unheralded skill and hard work to help parents, children and even other professionals achieve their potential. Marianne said that from this point on she would call them Starsky and Hutch because of their partnership, dynamism and commitment to getting the job done – even under intense pressure.

That made me smile, but also reflect on at what point we in the voluntary sector stopped talking about the “work”? And by the ‘work’ I mean the hands on engagement with and support given to our service users and beneficiaries. Don’t get me wrong – I know there are lots of people involved with charities whose work is little acknowledged and often not recognised.

A voluntary sector bulletin recently dropped into my inbox from a major national newspaper, and to judge from its contents, charities like mine are increasingly effective in our campaigning about we do, striving to identify outcomes for what we do, tweeting and blogging about it, and of course fundraising for what we do. All the people who undertake those tasks and who support the aims and values of their charities deserve to be appreciated and applauded. But lately, it doesn’t seem (purely a hunch – no hard research was undertaken) that we explain what it is we do exactly “to help”. Or that we celebrate that work.

Yes, we do talk about outcomes – but rarely about how those outcomes were achieved, even if it was only by simple but vital acts such as providing a space to talk, enabling respite for carers by finding children a holiday scheme, or setting up an awards ceremony and disco for young disabled volunteers so they can party and have fun like many of their non-disabled peers.

Under the stress and pressure, our wonderful staff carry on talking the talk and walking the walk. Sometimes in the face of hostility, but also receiving more gratitude and thanks from our service users than people would ever expect was expressed. Last month I conducted the final observation of our social work student on a visit to a parent and family she had supported during her placement.

Amongst lots of really concrete outcomes achieved by the student, including getting the children into an afterschool club and linking the family with advice around a child’s special educational needs, the parent told me that “you couldn’t wish for a better person to work with you”. When I passed it on I saw how my student positively glowed at that piece of feedback. And what could be a stronger endorsement than that someone is willing to open up some of the most private areas of their own or their family’s life to you?

If something is not talked about it is effectively unseen and unacknowledged. What we do – the day job – is a big part of our identity and people need to feel able to be proud of it. They may not look or act like Starsky and Hutch, but every day voluntary sector staff contribute to thousands of supportive conversations in bedsits, flats, living rooms, hostels, interview rooms and group work sessions to create the opportunity for positive changes in people’s lives. And we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about how they are getting sh…I mean STUFF! done.

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Code Therapy – A Mental Health and Technology Documentary

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Code Therapy is a short documentary about how technology is changing the way mental health services are delivered.

Mental illness, such as depression, is one of the leading causes of disability worldwide. 1 in 4 adults in the United States experiences some type of mental illness every year, yet over 100 million people across the nation lack access to sufficient mental health services. In countries with less developed healthcare systems, the situation is even more troubling.

Code Therapy is a documentary short about the application of digital technology in the field of mental health. Behavioral intervention technologies, such as online programs and apps that teach evidence-based therapy skills have the potential to make mental health support more accessible and affordable. Websites and social media platforms provide another way to disseminate mental health information, particular to an increasingly connected generation of millennials around the globe.

Speaking on the barriers to receiving treatment and the benefits and limitations of emerging technologies in this space are entrepreneurs, researchers and mental health providers including:

  • Alejandro Foung, Co-Founder of Lantern
  • Rob Morris, Co-Founder of Koko
  • Steve Schueller, Assistant Professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and Faculty Member at the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technology
  • Jen Hyatt, CEO of Big White Wall

The film is narrated by Carl O’Reilly, a London-based architect, mental health advocate and author of the new book Defeating Depression, available on Amazon.

Code Therapy was filmed in the US and UK in 2016 and has since screened at festivals in England, Ireland, India and the United States.  We were honored to be awarded Best Documentary at the 2016 Dublin International Short Film and Music Festival and has received commendation and nominations at other festivals around the globe.

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BASW and SWU launch ‘Respect for Social Work’: The Campaign for Professional Working Conditions

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With half of social workers intending to leave their jobs soon, BASW and SWU launch ‘Respect for Social Work’: the campaign for professional working conditions

The recent UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing study paints an extremely worrying picture of ‘spun out’ social workers at risk of leaving the job they love through high demand and austerity cuts. They are often invisible while other public-sector workers get noticed in the media. If social workers are to continue protecting and supporting children, adults and families, they need good professional working conditions.

This is why, the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and Social Workers Union (SWU) are launching a new campaign ‘Respect for Social Work: the campaign for professional working conditions’

BASW and Swu are heading into parliament, to employers, to the press and to their members to get improved professional working conditions for social workers.  There is urgent need to stem damaging levels of stress amongst social workers and the risk of vital, skilled staff leaving the profession.

‘Respect for Social Work: the campaign for professional working conditions’ is being launched today at the Social Worker’s Union’s AGM in London. It will see BASW discuss issues with MPs at the upcoming Labour and Conservative party conferences, with MPS and Peers in Parliament, with employers at the national Directors’ Conference in October. It will also link with members’ participation in anti-austerity demonstrations in October.

BASW is taking this important action because of the alarming findings from July’s UK Social Workers: Working Conditions and Wellbeing study which highlights that increasing demand but diminishing resources has created a crisis in many social service departments, and social workers are bearing the brunt.

This has led to record-high sickness levels and over half of those surveyed reporting intention to leave the profession early.

The independent study by Bath Spa University’s Dr. Jermaine Ravalier was produced in conjunction with the BASW and SWU. Over 1600 social workers were questions about what is happening in the profession, how social workers are feeling and how they are reacting. It found social workers love their job – but conditions for practice are pushing many away.

It was the first research to look solely at the wellbeing of social workers, and the results are concerning.

A standout finding was that 52% of UK social workers intend to leave the profession within 15 months, this increases to 55% for social workers working specifically in children’s services.

The study also revealed that UK social workers are working more than £600 million of unpaid overtime.

Making the connection between the two facts isn’t difficult. The study went further, by shining a light on the chief reasons social workers gave for wanting to leave the profession.

High, unmanageable caseloads, a lack of professional and peer support and burdensome red-tape and bureaucracy came top for over 70% of social workers surveyed.

On behalf of BASW, Mike Bush, member and user of services following work stress and independent mental health consultant said:

“The concept seems to be that social workers can give endlessly to others and not need anything in return. Cars breakdown if they are not properly serviced and maintained – so do people in caring professions like social work.

“A burnt-out social worker is no good to anyone. Nobody is winning from this situation. We need to address this now and it would be wise for the Government to listen to what BASW and SWU are saying and take heed of the solutions they recommend.”

So how can we reverse the conveyor belt of talent leaving social work?

As the professional association for social workers, BASW’s manifesto is to work with partners across the sector to ensure social workers have manageable workloads, effective organisational models and the right working conditions for excellent practice.

Another cornerstone to the manifesto is to end austerity policies that cause harm to children, adults and families with care and support needs

BASW and SWU believe it is possible to create professional working environments to keep social workers in practice.

“We know the key elements of success: access to professional supervision, manageable caseloads, good leadership and management, fair pay, reduced unnecessary bureaucracy, time to spend with individuals and families, and access to ongoing professional development and wellbeing support,” says BASW CEO Ruth Allen.

“Peer support amongst social workers is also crucial and protects against burn out, as the study showed,” adds Allen.

“It is essential social workers are supported, both through SWU their dedicated Union and the professional body, BASW, because this combination ensures social workers are empowered to improve their working conditions and their standing as skilled, dedicated professionals.” Says John McGowan, SWU General Secretary.

Which is why BASW and SWU are leading a new drive to work positively with employers and politicians, and social workers in practice, to promote these solutions.

  • Treat social workers like professionals who have solutions as well as legitimate concerns
  • End management regimes of unmanageable workloads to reduce stress and attrition rates: employ more social workers, ensure good caseload management, enable flexible working and smarter use of technology
  • Ensure time for reflective supervision to work through complex cases
  • Ensure all social workers have access to good continuing professional development
  • Ensure social workers’ managers have completed relevant training for their job
  • Provide administrative support to enable social workers to focus on people they serve
  • Lift the public pay cap for social workers, as for other public professionals
  • Ensure social workers have independent professional support, through their professional body (BASW) and other resources, readily accessible through various touch points such as a ‘hotline’.

“A stable and well-trained workforce, with replenishment of new joiners as well as ongoing development of advanced skills is essential to meet social care and social work needs of children and adults,” says Allen.

“Less experienced social workers need mentoring from experienced staff. We must stem the risks of losing – and wasting the skills – of experienced staff.”

Together with the author of the report, Dr. Jermaine M Ravalier, BASW will be meeting MP’s over the next couple of months to press the case for a government rethink on its continued austerity measures regarding social services, as well as to challenge further barriers to good social work practice.

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