The Importance of Self-Care for Social Workers

Interview with Lindsay Griffin, MSW, Author, and Youth Suicide Prevention Counselor.

Successfully overcoming her own issues with depression, Lindsay Griffin knew she wanted to combine her personal experience with her desire to help youths who were struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. Today, she is a social worker and supervisor of the CARES program where she works with youths who are leaving inpatient hospitalization to help them prevent future hospitalizations. Because social work has the potential to be physically and mentally demanding, Griffin stresses several “must-have” self-care tips for those pursuing the field. Griffin points out the necessity of having fun and relaxing—whether it is a vacation or trying a new hobby—so that she can best assist her clients.

Self-care and a career in social work- Interview with Lindsay Griffin MSW

Griffin began her college education by receiving a Bachelors of Science in Psychology from the University of Houston. While studying there, she also completed a certification in nonprofit management through the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (NLA). She then continued on to the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated with a Masters of Social Work. Griffin is licensed in Delaware as a Clinical Social Worker, giving her access to more opportunities to work in the field. She shares her first position after college as a Crisis Clinician helped prepare her for her current role as supervisor.

During her career, she has given presentations on suicide prevention to students and parents using the Lifelines Curriculum, a nationally recognized evidence-based suicide prevention program. Griffin has also recently published a book titled, From Darkness to Light: Poems for Encouragement, Hope and Healing, which shares her story of overcoming depression—a part of her history that helps her relate to her clients.

Enjoy our full interview with Lindsay Griffin, social worker and supervisor, as she discusses multiple self-care tips for those in the social work field.

GradSchools: Tell us about your background and education. How did you get initially get involved in social work?

I received my Masters of Social Work from the School of Social Policy and Practice (SP2) at the University of Pennsylvania. I received my Bachelors of Science in Psychology from the University of Houston. While an undergrad at University of Houston, I also earned a certification in nonprofit management through the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (NLA), formerly known as American Humanics. The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance gave me my first exposure to the social work field. The Nonprofit Leadership Alliance is offered at various colleges and universities nationwide. The NLA program at University of Houston is housed in the Graduate College of Social Work, so I was able to take some of the courses alongside students who were pursuing their MSW. I decided to pursue the MSW degree after I researched other social service/counseling degrees. I felt the MSW degree was the best for me because it reflected my values of meeting people where they are at, including clients’ decisions in their treatment, and taking a strengths-based approach to solving problems. The MSW degree was also appealing to me in that it prepared me for clinical licensure and there are various opportunities in different sectors for employment as a social worker.

GradSchools: You’re currently a clinical social worker and a supervisor working with suicide prevention in youths. Can you discuss some of your previous positions and how they led you to where you are today?

My current position works with youth who are stepping out of inpatient hospitalization, some of whom may have had suicidal thoughts which led to their hospitalization. The goal of this program is to prevent future hospitalizations by working with the youth and family in their community, while also helping the youth to connect to an ongoing treatment resource.

All of my positions have in some way included suicide prevention for youth, but my very first position out of grad school has had the most impact for my career and led me to where I am today. My very first position after I graduated with my MSW was working as a Crisis Clinician. In this role I provided assessments to youths who were making threats to harm themselves and/or harm others. For youths who were not an immediate risk, I was able to provide short-term individual and family counseling along with case management services to help them connect to ongoing outpatient counseling. In this role, I was able to come in contact with a variety of youths and their families from various backgrounds. I loved it, because I knew every day I was making a difference in their lives.

Because I would sometimes provide two or three assessments in a day, I got very comfortable in asking about and talking about suicide and suicidal thoughts. I learned very quickly about the importance of safety planning and the importance of collaborating and establishing a good working relationship with parents/caregivers. I left this position to become a contracted short-term counselor in a middle school. While I worked in the middle school, I gave presentations on suicide prevention to the staff, students, and parents using the Lifelines Curriculum. Lifelines is a nationally recognized evidenced-based suicide prevention program. I was offered my current position when the agency I previously worked for as a Crisis Clinician received a contract under a grant for the new services to be offered.

GradSchools: Based on you and your colleagues’ experiences, what are some of the stresses and challenges of careers in social work? What are some methods for self-care in social work that you use to combat the affect those stresses have on you personally?

In the field of working with children and youth, things that I have experienced and things I have heard my colleagues experience that have been the most stressful include: when a parent/guardian is not in agreement with a recommendation/referral for ongoing services; times when we have to make reports of alleged child abuse/neglect; and when you feel that a client would benefit from a certain service but they get denied. It is also never pleasant when a parent/caregiver starts yelling at you.

In regards to methods to manage self-care in social work, one thing I try to keep in mind is that I can only do what I can do. I tell colleagues and friends that it is important to know how to improvise in this field and to not get too set on one plan. It is important to be flexible and know how to adjust quickly when plan A does not pan out. I try to keep in contact with the parents/guardians of the clients as much as possible to make sure they stay engaged also and to maintain a good working relationship with them as much as possible. While those are the methods I implement at work, I also try to make sure that I have time to myself away from work. I love going to my church, and I am an active volunteer in my church. I make a point to have time set aside for my husband and me to have quality time. My husband likes to joke and have fun, so he makes me happy when I am around him. Aside from spending time with my husband, one of my favorite things to do is snuggle with my Miniature Schnauzer, Mozzie. Mozzie is my nap buddy and he is constant entertainment at home!

By focusing on things that are not work related, it helps me to get a break from the stress at work. I think it is important for anyone in this field to always keep a healthy work/life balance. I try to stay healthy and happy, because I believe happiness is contagious, and I want all of my clients to be happy too.

GradSchools: You recently published a book of poetry, From Darkness to Light: Poems for Encouragement, Hope, and Healing. How does your work as a social worker influence your creative writing?

Very interesting you bring this up! This book is a collection of poems that I had written from the time when I was a teenager to the present. In the past, I had my personal struggles with depression and this book, through my poetry, tells my story about how I was able to get help to overcome the depression. As a social worker, there are times now that I will be inspired to write based on the things that I see some of the families going through. There is research that shows that writing is very beneficial and therapeutic, which is why I also try to encourage my clients to try to write out their thoughts and feelings. Part of the reason I decided to publish my book was to talk about my own background, as my past is what fuels my passion to work with youth. I think a lot of social workers somewhat “hide” their past and history; however, for some social workers, their past is what brings them to this field in the first place! Fortunately, I no longer have struggles with depression, which is why I felt comfortable to publish this book.

GradSchools: Is there any advice you wish you had received early on in your education or career as a social worker? Are there any missteps to try avoiding?

I think something big to know is to realize that social work is not a benign experience. I remember one of my professors made this statement during orientation for grad school. There are times when some of the cases are really sad and can provoke thoughts and feelings within us. I think it is important during times when you are feeling overwhelmed to go to your supervisor or a trusted colleague to discuss what is happening. That’s part of self-care for social workers. Early on, I had a difficult time with a couple of my cases, and I was able to get a better perspective on those cases by talking to my colleagues.

I would tell others considering this field to avoid feeling like they have to have all of the answers when they are first starting. Be honest with your clients if you do not have an immediate answer. If you are unsure, tell the client you will check and let them know, and make sure to actually follow up. Anytime you feel stuck or overwhelmed, try to seek some support from your supervisor or colleagues. Another important thing to learn is how to communicate with your co-workers and be a team player. I think it is important to always be able to have good working relationships with co-workers, as their advice and guidance can be crucial at times when you are not sure of something.

GradSchools: Can you outline some of the particular challenges to working with youth in crisis and suicide prevention?

For me, the biggest challenge in working with youth in crisis is to make sure that everything reasonably possible is being done to reduce risk of harm for the youth. As you are trying to make sure the youth is safe, you are also protecting yourself legally from liability. For me, this is one of the biggest reasons documentation is so important. In documentation a social worker is outlining her decision-making process in the steps she takes to make sure that particular youth is safe. Unfortunately there are times when there is poor or improper documentation which can leave a social worker at risk of lawsuits and being held liable if a youth makes a suicide attempt. It is important to know good documentation practices. If are unsure about documentation policies, make sure to review them with your supervisor.

GradSchools: What are some tips about self-care in social work that you have for those interested in pursuing careers in social work?

First tip I would give someone is to know healthy ways to relax. Everyone relaxes differently, but it important you know what helps you to let go of stress, whether you enjoy walking, yoga, dance classes, writing, or watching a funny television program. Whatever it is, make sure to take note of the things you enjoy and make sure to do them! Our field is filled with stress at times, and it is important for a future social worker to know how he/she can relax.

Second thing I would encourage a person to do is to recognize your boundaries and limitations and know when to seek help. The clients we work with in the field are usually coming to us with some problems they could not figure out on their own, and these problems can be pretty complex. If you are not sure about which way to go on a problem, go to your supervisor or colleagues for help. Always know how to utilize and access the resources around you! In the long run it will save you a lot of stress and headache.

Lastly, I would tell a person to know how to leave work at work. Unless you are absolutely expected to, do not take any work-related activities home. If you have a work phone, turn it off when you are not expected to be working so that you are not taking calls. Also, remember to take your vacation time! A vacation gives us a brief break from the hard work we do every day. Even if you do not go on an expensive trip, think of vacation time as your “recharge” time in the work you do. I think it is important to realize that if you are happy and taking care of yourself, you are better equipped to help others.

GradSchools: Are there certain traits or qualities that you think make a person while suited to social work?

I think four important qualities/attributes to have are to be genuine, compassionate, to have a positive attitude, and to have the ability to know how to separate yourself from the client’s situation. As a social worker, you want to be genuine and authentic in your interactions with clients, no matter what population you serve. All people can tell when someone is being genuine with them, and with being genuine, you have to be honest. You also want to be compassionate and to have a positive attitude. One of the biggest things we do for our clients is to offer them hope, it is difficult to offer hope with a negative attitude or dismal outlook. At the same time, you do not want to get over-involved emotionally to the point you are bringing your client’s problems home with you. If you tend to get over-involved emotionally with clients to the point it is altering your mood, this might not be the best fit for you. It is important you know how to implement boundaries. It is important to emphasize that a social worker-to-client relationship is a professional relationship, we are not meant to be the client’s friend. Social workers work with vulnerable populations and boundaries need to be put in place as they protect the client from harm.

GradSchools: In your opinion, is this a good time for students to pursue careers in social work? Why or why not?

I strongly feel it is a good time for students to pursue careers in social work! The social work field is very broad, and the MSW degree helps prepare you to pursue various roles within the social work field. Social workers can be found almost anywhere and with various populations—schools, nursing homes, hospitals, correctional facilities, counseling agencies, work with youth, veterans, and families. I think more people and employers are starting to understand that social workers come with a strong skill set, which is helping the social work field to be more recognized and respected. Even though some of the work can be tough, make sure to surround yourself with other knowledgeable professionals, and seek support from them when things get tough. This is a very rewarding field, and I could not imagine working for any other industry.

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