I spent this morning interviewing a woman who works in a managerial position at a government agency who is involved with providing assistance to people with basic needs that aren’t being met by existing systems.
Well, okay. Her name is Kate* and she works with Housing NSW, on the frontline of social workers ensuring that government spending is efficiently serving everyone in need. That’s a really hard call to be making dozens of times on a daily basis when there’s a finite amount of resources to spend on a steadily-growing list of people. Kate estimates that around 80% of her clients are women in need of assistance as a direct result of domestic violence.
I’m doing a class at the moment on personal development. Among other things, it’s about ongoing debriefing and self-care strategies for mental health professionals and social workers. It’s also a really intense, no-bullshit look in the mirror; a forced evaluation of what brings undergrads to the helping professions in psychology, social work and counselling. A lot of the training we receive is quite confronting and it’s a good look at how we can most effectively convert experience to empathy, without allowing our own maladaptive unfinished business to become someone else’s maladaptive unfinished business.
Kate estimates that around 80% of her clients
are women in need of assistance as a direct result
of domestic violence.
When asked about how many people in her large central office come from similar backgrounds to today’s clients, Kate suggests that “most” workers are there from a past involving family trauma or some other form of disadvantage. She also adds that she came from a background where she was abused by a former partner.
A recurring theme in our conversation was the sad truth that the public housing system is overloaded primarily because of the failure of other systems to care for these individuals; mental health being a massive factor in the cyclical and dependent relationship of so many people with Housing NSW.
Kate tells me that she’s considered one of the hoarding “specialists” within her department but is left with very few options to solve the cases, because compulsive hoarding is not yet recognised by the Housing NSW department as a mental health issue. This has occurred despite extensive research on hoarding as part of a standalone diagnosis and also as secondary problems that arise as an effect of recreational drug use. (To read a general description of compulsive hoarding, click here.)
Kate tells me that over the next few years we will see an end to the social problems known to take root in poorly-planned high density state housing developments.
“I’m happy to see the end of the days where we own big blocks of flats and put all these people with mental health issues together in close quarters. It’s inevitable they’re going to fight and get frustrated and have issues. And it’s our fault they’re in that situation. We put them there.
“Look at Cranebrook. We have four streets there, and Cranebrook is huge, but because of those four streets being taken over by drugs and the kids getting involved in petty crime, the entire area of Cranebrook has a bad reputation. And that’s not fair. The system doesn’t work the way it is.”
The systems they now have will in the near future be moving towards supporting tenants with subsidies as they access private rentals. Properties owned by the State Government will be sold.
Mental health problems are of course closely related with domestic violence; some like myself would suggest that the two are inextricably linked. Mental health matters in DV are always changing in nature as child experiences disruption to healthy development and/or is personality disordered, becomes perpetrator, perpetrator becomes involved with police systems and his victims then suffer PTSD and mood disorders as well as being dragged through outdated court processes. Should public health pick up these people and adequately care for many of them (both perpetrators and victims), they may never reach the stage where housing assistance or access to Victims’ Services is necessary. They may also avoid police and court involvement.
But what about the workers?
The daily experience of the social worker in this environment is that they not only have the clients in distress themselves, but constantly frustrating systems, a lack of cohesion between NGOs and government agencies and the compounded stressors that come with an overloaded system. There aren’t enough hours, there aren’t enough houses (until the system becomes fully privatised in the next 5 years, anyway) and even providing subsidies for clients to access the private market requires the client to get approval for a property. In Sydney, that’s getting really hard, and it has become a daunting and competitive market for families on low incomes.
I know how frustrating some of the clients can be. Some have been raised on a diet of welfare dependency since birth, at such disadvantage and inherited low self esteem that it is impossible to suggest in one short consultation with them that they strive for more. The objective in that moment is just to stop them sabotaging their own chances at warmth and shelter. Some of the conversations with these clients can be maddeningly circular. In other cases, it is merely a struggle to communicate at all due to language barrier, disability or perhaps an access issue due to age or circumstance. But these workers are made for this, and they have saintly patience. I am in awe of them.
“I’ll be the picture of professionalism out here in the interview room with the client, but then I’ll go out the back and offload to my co-workers and scream into a cushion,” jokes Kate. “But I don’t let them be rude or disrespectful, either. I’ll get a bit cranky with them, but I don’t ever lose my composure.”
How does she cope with this kind of work without getting depressed at the constant encounters with such sad stories and circumstances?
“I figure it’s my responsibility to watch myself; that it’s not getting on top of me. Because I’d be stupid to let that happen. It’s nobody’s job but mine to look after myself. Nobody else should have to do that for me.”