By: Jeff Baxter
I am currently in my first year of a master’s program in social work that is tailored to working professionals. While reflecting on what I have gained from the program thus far, I came to one main conclusion: the importance of practical experience is paramount in this field. Sure I have gained knowledge about social work practice, about problems in people and in society and how they intersect. But I believe the most important lesson I have actually learned is more about the process of learning than the actual material and knowledge gained. I have come to appreciate the truly significant synergistic result of combining education and real-life experience. There really is no substituting the quality of learning that is achieved by actually being immersed in the realities of the work being studied.
This likely applies to all fields of work, but to me becomes more important when working in a helping profession that involves the panoptical complexities and responsibilities of working with human beings, as a human being. One of the most influential books I have read is Carl Rogers’ On Becoming A Person. In this book, he said, “The only learning which significantly influences behavior is self-discovered, self-appropriated learning.” The more I work and learn in this field, the more I agree.
Before I began to work in the field of mental health and addictions, I was simply a student—and a naïve one at that. I had feebly established opinions, goals, and core beliefs. I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world and not just be a corporate slave willing to sacrifice my morals to compete for dollars in the rat race. I pictured myself accomplishing this as a brave police officer. At the time, I had rigid beliefs. I thought things were either right or wrong, there were problems and solutions, things were black and white—and I wanted to be part of the solution. However, as I began my program in criminology and psychology at the University of Ottawa, I began to find out that things were a bit more complicated than that. My eyes began to open. I heard that volunteer work was good on the résumé for applying to be a police officer, so in my third year of university, I began to volunteer as a tutor for homeless people at the Sheppards for Good Hope Mission in downtown Ottawa. My eyes blew wide open, and now I can’t seem to close them. These were not the stupid, lazy, ignorant people I had previously envisioned them to be. In fact, in my mind they never were people—they were fixtures of an illusionary society that represented little more than a point of social comparison. But there, in the shelter, I was meeting Terry the schizophrenic Inuit trying to learn grade seven math and Rudy the hopelessly destitute alcoholic. I was getting to know them, understanding who they were and where they came from. Suddenly, and ever since, when I read the word homeless, I don’t see eight letters forming a word with no meaning; I can picture people, and it means a lot.
As I finished my undergraduate degree, I remained aware of the importance of experience going along with my education. I endeavored to volunteer at a mental health hospital and as a research assistant, and then worked part time at an addiction treatment center. The more I worked in this field, the more I realized how little I actually knew, how much more there was to learn, and how much I wanted to learn it. Dealing with people who are in crisis is a great way to motivate the pursuit of knowledge.
When I began working in mental health, I was thrust into a world of people who were desperate, hopeless, and confused. Each day of work filled my mind with endless questions: Did I help that person? How can I be more efficient? How can I be more effective? How can the system be improved? What therapeutic intervention is best? How did they come to be this way?
I was finding that my undergraduate degree had provided me with a vast array of general knowledge, and I was able to apply a lot of it to the work I was doing. However this general knowledge was often of little assistance to the person in tears of desperation sitting in my office telling me a story and seeking resolution. So I eventually accepted the fact that my undergraduate education, while beneficial, also left me limited in my abilities.
My re-education began with working directly with individuals, as part of a professional team, and part of the system as a whole. I have heard many clients tell me their stories, many of them terrible and traumatic. At first they were shocking, interesting, and depressing. I would be completely mentally and emotionally drained after a long day of interviews with clients. Eventually, I got to a place where the stories started to repeat themselves and I became acclimated. I began to appreciate that while individuals are all unique, their problems typically carry commonality. The more work experience I had, the more I began to find connections between the things I was seeing and the things I had learned. However, I was also finding out that there was much more for me to learn. It was at this point that I became charged with motivation to take every opportunity to further my education so I could alleviate my feeling of helplessness and be a more active and effective contributor to the field of mental health to help these individuals.
I have now worked within various aspects of the addiction and mental health system. As a result, I have learned in depth about how politics and budgets play a role in the lives of others. In learning about the system at school, there were well organized and nicely laid out graphs depicting the organization of the system. It looks nice, it looks well thought out, and it looks inclusive. It can appear as though “if this is the problem, here is the solution, clear, simple, effective.”
However, working and experiencing this system is something completely different. The reality of the mental health and addiction recovery system is that there are vast disparities between the services that are provided based on the institution from which the individual receives the service.
Classroom knowledge does not prepare you for the emotional highs and lows of working with people within this system. I have seen people go from barely surviving to thriving, from depression to elation, and from crippling self-deprecation to self-confidence. I have seen the appreciation and heard the expressions of gratitude. I have also seen people lost within the system, falling through the cracks because they don’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to ensure they can obtain the treatment they need. I have worked with people who literally died waiting to get into treatment.
Similarly, I learned a great deal in University about the criminal justice system, how it is structured, how it operates, and how the individuals it caters to are affected by it. I felt as if I had a good understanding after three years of reading books, articles, and watching shows. I worked for two years in a role that involved working directly with the penal system.
Statistics and theories do not lend credence to the visceral experience of existing within a prison environment. I have been privy to the dirty, cold, hard, unforgiving sights that were as much characteristic of the people inside the institutions (both staff and inmate) as they were the structures that housed them. I have heard the sharp and confusing echoes of ambient background sounds that reverberate through the units and corridors on an endless cycle. I have also been able to experience the humid, odorous scents reminiscent of male perspiration combined with burnt rubber that are detected somewhere between the senses of smell and taste. My time in these places was fleeting; I can only imagine what an environment like this does to a person over months and years.
Textbooks, theories, depictions, this article included, do not come close to establishing an appropriate understanding. From this environment, I have worked directly with people who have committed all types of crimes, including murder, sexual assault, and property and drug-related crimes ranging from weekend to life sentences. Through this work, I have come to understand the complex, multidimensional psychosocial qualities that characterize these people, as well as the challenges that face them in their struggle to return to society.
I have worked now with many different personalities as co-workers in the field of mental health. I have worked with some amazingly passionate and talented people who make a real difference in the lives of others—some because they are very intelligent and knowledgeable, some because they have experience and natural ability, and a select few exceptional cases that have both. As a young professional in this field, I have taken every opportunity to learn from co-workers who have seen and experienced more than myself. Be it through informal conversations, formal supervision, or just by observing how they conduct their work, I am endlessly learning new things from the people I work with.
So, I began to take courses related to mental health and addiction treatment whenever and wherever possible, eventually enrolling in the Master of Social Work program. As I took these courses, read books, and attended seminars, I was always able to connect what was being learned with real life clients and experiences. I was also able to bring more to the in-class discussions, and as a result, was able to take more away. These were no longer forgettable theories and facts that would sit fleetingly in my short-term memory bank. They were tools and resources I could actually use, and they related to people I actually knew! The theories were now being tied to people and experiences I had stored in my long-term memory, to be drawn upon when back in similar situations. Through this process, I began to develop more meaningful and permanent insights into the world of mental health and addictions.
What informs 95% of the work I do today are the things I have picked up from clients, co-workers, and my own trial and error along the way...things like the little sayings and phrases, relevant knowledge and connections to resources, and very specific intervention techniques that are agency specific. Most clients I work with don’t care about generalist practice, psychodynamic theory, or stages of human emotional development. They want to stop going on 2-week long crack binges, stay out of prison, stop ruining relationships, and some are just desperate to survive.
Similarly, what informs the things I learn today are the experiences I have gained from the work that I do. In a field as broad as social work, I find that I focus my concentration on elements of the material that are most relevant to the work I am doing currently or the work that I want to be doing in the future. There were days during my undergraduate education when reading was difficult. It was actually physically painful to do the work, and retaining information was a cumbersome process. These days I am insatiably eager to learn so I may become more knowledgeable and competent. As a result, the consolidation of knowledge to memory and consequent incorporation into practice has become much more natural and fluid.
This discovery was something that I came upon; it was not suggested to me. If I could do things over again, I would have become involved in the field of social service right from the beginning of my education. When I talk to students who are beginning their undergraduate degrees in a similar field, I always tell them to get out there! Get active in either a volunteer or part-time capacity while in school. It may take away some free time, but it will save time and energy in the long run. It will inform them of their interests and strengths within this broad field, and it will improve their academic and vocational success as a result. So I write this with hopes of expressing what I have learned, so it will inspire others. As I write, I realize I am only scratching the surface. However, I will go back to quoting Carl Rogers: “Such self-discovered learning, truth that has been personally appropriated and assimilated in experience, cannot be directly communicated to another.”
Rogers, C. (1961) On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Jeff Baxter has a Baccalaureate in Social Sciences (concentration criminology) from the University of Ottawa, an Honours Bachelor of Arts (concentration psychology) from the University of Guelph, and is currently completing a Master of Social Work from the University of Windsor. He has volunteered at a homeless shelter in Ottawa, Ontario, and a mental health hospital in Guelph, Ontario, and has worked in the field of addictions for six years.
This article appeared in THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER, Spring 2013, Vol. 20, No. 2. Copyright White Hat Communications. All rights reserved.