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Self-care for social workers

4 ways social workers can build resilience and why it matters

Yesenia Fermin, Bethany’s director of culture and belonging

Black, female social worker counsels a teenage girl

Yesenia Fermin—who has worked in child welfare for 20 years—offers four practices for social workers to build resilience as they serve children and families.

When I first met Veronica as her social worker, she rarely talked or made eye contact with me.

A young teen at the time, she had nightmares and flashbacks as she relived the trauma of being trafficked by her grandmother in Panama, traveling alone as an unaccompanied child through Central America, the sexual assault on that journey that left her pregnant, and the lonely wait in a U.S. shelter while authorities searched for her mother.

Hypervigilance and panic attacks became her norm. She felt paralyzed on most days. And on her worst days, she contemplated suicide. As I recall the abuse Veronica endured, I can still picture the panic in her eyes.

But I also know how far she’s come. After graduating from college, she began volunteering with unaccompanied minors at a group home that has a program for sex trafficking survivors. She has a beautiful open adoption with her daughter and her family. Although she still has incredibly difficult days, she continues to heal.

Why we build resilience

As a social worker, I love the work I do with clients and will never take this privilege for granted. But people often ask, “Don’t you take the work home with you?” The short answer is, yes—even after 20 years in this field.

To help others like Veronica work toward writing a healthier next chapter of their lives, those of us who have answered the call to serve in child welfare also need to be healthy—emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.

As child welfare professionals, we can easily find ourselves wrestling with compassion fatigue, burnout, or vicarious trauma as we fight what can often feel like a losing battle.

The pandemic exacerbated these heavy feelings and left many of us wondering how we can take care of ourselves, so we can better serve children and families.

At Bethany, we believe everyone deserves to be safe, loved, and connected. And we believe the same for our staff.

Building resilience looks different for everyone, but there are common practices we can incorporate into our daily lives to lift each other up and better serve children and families.

1. Look to your team members

The people serving alongside you are some of the only people who can truly understand and empathize with what you are walking through on any given day.

Processing a tough case with someone who has been there can be part of a team’s open and healthy communication. Listening to one another’s shared fears and hopes for the future reminds us that no one should carry what weighs on their heart alone.

2. Feel what you feel

Many child welfare professionals enter the field after witnessing or experiencing their own trauma. While these individuals are uniquely positioned to help others due to their lived experiences, it also means that their own past traumas may be triggered by a client’s trauma.

We can name and normalize the myth that social workers and other helping professionals often think that they should “have it all together.” But we’re not immune from the social and emotional challenges we’re trained to help others navigate.

This “physician, heal thyself” mentality is unhealthy and unrealistic. We remind our clients that what they’re feeling is a valid and normal reaction to an unnatural and abnormal situation. We must also remind ourselves that our feelings are equally valid.

3. Prioritize self-care

By making space for and prioritizing self-care, we can address the trauma we’re wrestling with, as well as restore and refresh our souls.

As the pandemic compounded the stress in all of our lives, depression and anxiety skyrocketed. Child welfare professionals—considered essential staff—found little opportunity for self-care.

We have to be intentional about caring for ourselves and creating margin in our lives. Go for that walk, make the overdue appointment for your physical, or create a plan with your therapist. Please. It’s important.

4. Be in community

During COVID-19, we all had to reimagine what community looks like.

That time in isolation forced us to be intentional with our relationships and pursue creative ways to stay in touch with each other. We quickly adapted to weekly Zoom calls or phone calls when we couldn’t see each other face-to-face.

No matter how your communication has evolved during the past 18 months, it’s vital to keep those lines of connection open—perhaps by attending a virtual wellness session, joining a peer support group, or talking with your pastor or a spiritual director.

As social workers, we truly make an impact on those we serve—offering healing and support. But it’s important to remember we can’t do this work alone. Attending to our own health and wellness is critical to providing the best possible care for others.

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