Soulless services destined to fail

For four years I worked as a social services assistant in a
multidisciplinary rehabilitation team for people with severe and
enduring mental illness within the community. I loved my clients
and I enjoyed working with my colleagues and being part of a team.
But I left because there was something fundamental missing.

Our team consisted of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, an
occupational therapist and her assistant, an educational
psychologist, a supported living officer, a group home worker, a
social worker and myself, as assistant social worker. We were a
good team, and we worked hard on behalf of our clients. Many of
them lived constructive lives as a result.

What was missing for me, however, was a lack in one important
dimension of life; the spiritual. I am not talking about religion
or a particular faith or denomination but rather about active
working with existential questions. Most of my clients were deeply
unhappy because they could see no purpose or meaning in their

Although staff talked about these things with their clients to the
best of their ability, there was no member of staff who was trained
and experienced in this area. But why? The physical, psychological
and social aspects were all attended to by specialists, so where
was the specialist in the matter of the soul?

The decision to leave came to me one day, when a nurse came into
the office and said that a client was going downhill again because
his voices were plaguing him with the same things he had heard for
the past 20 years. I asked whether anyone had ever asked him what
the voices might mean, to which the nurse replied: “They mean he’s
barking mad and we need to step up his medication.” Other team
members laughed and the subject was changed. I knew then that I
could not go on working solely with the medical model of mental
illness. Medication can be beneficial at certain times but other
treatment is necessary on many different levels.

Mental illness is often a cry from the heart that needs to be
answered with love, compassion, understanding, and in some cases
spiritual guidance. The writings of religious or other profound
writers can give hope, meaning, inspiration, comfort and direction
to people, particularly when introduced by someone with deep
knowledge and wisdom in matters of the spirit. We fail to provide
this as a vital part of recovery and growth. I believe this issue
must be addressed.

Judy Clinton is a former social work assistant in community
mental health.

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