The Challenge of Sadness in Social Work

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHFrom the Director

During the last few months the world has been filled with turmoil, tragedy and unrest. We have watched countries fight for democracy, unions fight for rights and individuals fight for their lives. In a short time span, we have witnessed wars, earthquakes and tsunamis. But we have also witnessed heroism and human kindness.

Every significant world event is accompanied by indelible images. Some of these are horrific and forever etched in our memories. Who can forget the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings or pictures of the levees giving way in New Orleans after Katrina? In March, the image of the tsunami hitting Japanese villages became a permanent part of my mental photo album. Sometimes, due to 24-hour news coverage and the bombardment of pictures competing for placement, it feels like my memory album is simply too full.

Not all images, though, are negative. Many are uplifting and courageous, and while they don’t quite cancel out the visual trauma, they help to mitigate it. Take, for example, the rescue of the 33 trapped miners in Chile. The world watched as, one by one, they were brought to the surface and reunited with their families. Almost as one, we cheered on the 50 Japanese workers trying to save their nuclear power plants from destruction. We repeatedly heard they were trading their own safety and well-being for that of the citizens of their country and, perhaps, the citizens of the world.

Closer to home, social workers regularly witness the daily crises and turmoil of our communities and of our clients. We can be saddened by their situations and their losses, some of which become personal losses and have a lasting impact on us. In these cases, we need to find a way to capture the memory and put it in a proper place, so we can move on in our professional lives.

We credit our profession with using a strengths perspective, of finding the positive among the negative. And social workers have a wonderful understanding of human resilience. We witness it, we experience it and we count on it. Our professional resilience is what allows us to witness suffering and then find a place for that suffering in our minds and in our hearts. Eventually, the impact of the suffering becomes less acute, more manageable, and we move on to help the next person and to help resolve the next crisis.

Yet, like those images in our minds, we might find ourselves reaching back for what I call “remembered sadnesses.” I can touch those sadnesses at any time. I simply can’t dwell there. Each social worker develops ways to handle human trauma and most of us find it helpful to focus on the importance of the triumphs, not on the tragedies.

As a profession, we also recognize the value of giving back as a partial antidote to sadness. As we did in the aftermath of the tragedies in New Orleans and Haiti, the NASW Foundation set up a special fund to assist our social work counterparts in Japan. Our belief is that if we can help social workers get back on their feet, they in turn will be able to help others. Once again, NASW members rose to the occasion and quickly contributed $20,000.

As promised in the fundraising request, every cent went to Japan. There are four professional social work associations in Japan, and the funds were divided among them. As the president of the NASW Foundation, I want to thank all of you who contributed for your generosity and your social work spirit.