‘Social workers must not just talk about anti-oppressive practice, we have a duty to make it real’

If we don't challenge oppression, no-one else will, writes a social worker from a mental health team

Picture credit: Rex/Cultura. Posed by model

By Libby, a social worker in a mental health team

Anti-discriminatory and anti-oppressive practice are words that us social workers are told and told about during our training and used throughout our practice. However sometimes I think we need a reminder about what oppression and discrimination is, where we come across it, and a gentle reminder about not just talking about anti-oppressive practice but actually making it real.

I remember supporting a person my team works with at a job interview. Five minutes before I collected them I had phoned ahead. The company said they were expecting us. The person lives in the community independently and manages her life well. At the interview, the person stated to the company that she had a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

In the next breath the company told us that the job had been filled. I asked why and the company started talking about risk. They said the person I was supporting would be unable to make the cups of tea and coffee that the job required. It was nonsense. There was no more risk that this person would be unsafe with a kettle of water than I would have been. I managed to push this as far as I could with the company but, being mindful of the person I was supporting, I felt that I had to respect her dignity and leave at that point.

On another occasion I supported a person to an appointment to determine if she had a terminal illness. On arrival I was asked who I was by the doctor. For the rest of the appointment the person who was facing distressing news was totally ignored. Instead all the information was directed at me. Although I kept directing the doctor to speak to the person it appeared that from this doctor’s point of view that anyone with a mental illness would be unable to comprehend the conversation.

During another contact with a professional I was asked about another person I was supporting. “Is she violent”, I was asked. “Is she locked up?” (in a psychiatric hospital). In other circumstances, people I have been with have been called ‘schizophrenic’ rather than their name – “the schizophrenic over there…”.

I have also experienced people being ignored when they express physical pain. They have simply been dismissed as being delusional or having psychosomatic pain. On one particular occasion, a person’s arm had been set incorrectly and it was putting pressure on the nerve, which could have resulted in long term problems.

On a final note a member of our own profession – a social worker – recently asked me “how do you work with those people?”. I knew straight away what she meant but persisted in asking “what do you mean?” until she had to acknowledge what she had just said to me.

Unfortunately most of the experiences discussed above (which are only a handful of many) have been with other professionals. The volume of oppression and discrimination we see in our jobs every day means it can at times feel normal and less shocking. It is for this reason that I have felt compelled to write about it. It is our duty as social care workers to identify and fight this level of discrimination and oppression at every level. If what we witness is only a small percentage of what is happening every day, think how it must be to experience this day in day out?

You would think that people would be more educated in their views regarding mental illness but it appears that isn’t always the case, even among some professionals working in the caring sectors. I suggest that we all need to take on some responsibility in addressing this. How we go about it is up to us as individuals. I wanted to write this to remind and reaffirm our core beliefs to every social care worker out there. If we don’t stand up and fight discrimination and oppression nobody else will.

Libby, a mental health social worker

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