Struggling Well

By Angelo McClain, PhD, LICSW

Angelo McClain

Several years ago, I taught Leadership I in Simmons School of Social Work’s Urban Leadership Program. During the first class each semester, I asked students to write on the whiteboard words or phrases that were important to their life journey. Invariably the students of color, especially African Americans, included the word struggle — often in big bold letters.

Reflecting on these classroom experiences reminds me of the time I was on 106.7 FM in Boston taking calls from people in the community and discussing how the Department of Children and Families had implemented a new practice model that sought to empower families. Callers wanted to know what they could expect differently from interactions with DCF social workers.

One caller asked, “Are you willing to help families that are struggling?” My answer surprised the caller and the host: “Yes, we are more than willing to help families who are struggling.” In fact, I said, we stand by you through your struggles, and we’ll help you turn them into strength.

I discussed the ongoing assessment social workers make to distinguish between “struggles” and “suffering.” We would stand with families during tough times, but would have to step in when it degenerated to children suffering.

During NASW’s recent work on the PREVENTS Roadmap, a project to reduce suicide among veterans, I was reminded of the importance of standing with people during their struggles — and how powerfully healing a culture that honors struggling would be in improving veterans’ and service members’ mental health.

Struggling is defined as striving to achieve something in the face of difficulty or resistance; it’s about endeavoring to make every effort and being strenuously engaged with an undertaking. Struggling well is about transforming struggle into strength. It involves being open and accepting to the vulnerabilities of life without self-judgment or internalized feelings of weakness.

Social workers know that times of struggle can serve as a catalyst for growth and transformation. Every day social workers help people find strategies for struggling well and help them understand that there is still hope. We play an important role in creating a culture where there is no shame in struggling and struggling well is celebrated—a culture where “It’s OK not to be OK.”

Contact Angelo McClain at