Why Taking Care of My Own Mental Health Is Difficult as a Foster Care Caseworker

I’ve been contemplating writing on this for a while now, but I’ve held back. I work a lot on this in therapy but I’ve never written it down for everyone else to read. I’m trying to be brave and hopeful that there will be no retaliation. It is a real fear.

I am a foster care caseworker. I am responsible for putting families back together, for helping parents do programs which would enable their children to return to their custody and for helping ensure the safety of the children, both in their foster homes and with their parents. I work with a litany of service providers including but not limited to substance abuse treatment professionals, therapists, psychiatrists, parenting instructors, attorneys, relatives, advocates, schools, foster families, Early Intervention and gazillions more. It’s basically what you would do to help your own family member in crisis multiplied by the fact that most people tend to dislike you because of your job coupled with the fact that you have a bad reputation perpetuated by negative press. The community tends to dislike me and no one is happy to see me. I’m viewed as the person who breaks up families and when children die, people believe I didn’t do anything to protect them.

What everyone tends to forget is I am also a human being. I have feelings. Lots of them. I value my clients. I personally feel their pain, I adore their children. I desperately want people to have their kids. All of this weighs on me also as a human being. I struggle along with them.

I work in the helping field and I live with mental illness. I have bipolar disorder. This diagnosis has been exceptionally hard for me to accept.

I work in an environment that does not value the mental health of their employees. Probably not uncommon, yet I spend days with my clients discussing the importance of their own mental health. However, I work in an office that views mental illness as weakness and values strength in terms of how emotionless one can be. I am undervalued, overworked and demeaned. Of course my many bosses would never admit to any of that. When something happens, my co-workers and I are on the front lines facing the firing squad. We have to be strong. Tough. Formidable. Emotions are viewed as pathetic. They have no place in a work environment. No feelings and absolutely no talk of mental illness or self-care.

But I work with people. Parents and children who are struggling. Secondary trauma is huge and very real. But it feels like no one cares. Well that’s not totally true. I care. My family and friends care and my co-workers care. And that is how I stay afloat.

My family struggles due to my long days and nights, my constant worry about things that could be going wrong or my distraction when I am home about what else needs to get done the next day. I missed my son’s preschool graduation, have never made a field trip, parent teacher meeting or any special days at school. My health suffers as a result of my job. I have insomnia, I don’t usually get a lunch (or breakfast or dinner until at least 8 or 9 p.m.) and I live on coffee.

But most of all, my mental health suffers. About my only self-care now is me attending therapy. It’s a start. It’s been a long road and I have thousands of miles ahead of me, but it’s a start. Someday I will advocate for people like me in environments like mine. I’m getting there.

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Thinkstock photo via arianarama.

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