Depression in the context of social work

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In this blog we will discuss Depression in the context of social work and social workers. 

We will also discuss the prevalence of depression in the field of social work, what causes depression amonst social workers, and what can social workers do to cope with depression.

Depression in the context of social work

Reseach finds that depression is ramplant in the context of social work and social workers. 

A recent study published by Cambridge University Press found that social workers exhibit higher levels of depression than the general population. 

The study found that a large number of social workers are dissatisfied with their job and their job situation and were reported to experience burnout. 

Social work is an incredibly rewarding career, but the high stress and pressure of the profession can lead to mental health problems. 

The profession itself is not to blame: social workers are often put in situations where they must try to help others even when resources are limited and the odds are against them. 

Workers often face complex and difficult cases, and they can be expected to work long hours under challenging conditions. 

It’s no surprise, then, that social workers are at a higher risk of developing symptoms of depression and anxiety than the general population. 

Depression is often characterized by feeling hopeless or down for extended periods of time. Anxiety is characterized by feelings of worry or fear that are excessive or beyond the scope of what the situation warrants. 

Both conditions can cause physical symptoms like headaches, nausea, restlessness, fatigue, insomnia, and more. Left untreated, depression and anxiety can lead to substance abuse, trouble with relationships and work performance, poor physical health outcomes, and even suicide. 

The combination of high-stress jobs and limited support systems make it difficult for social workers to find effective care to treat their mental health issues. 

Social workers are often underpaid and overworked, which can contribute to depression and burnout. Social work can be emotionally taxing—social workers often deal with clients who are struggling with poverty, abuse, violence, trauma, and other issues that have a major impact on mental health. 

In addition to dealing with clients’ struggles, social workers must also navigate administrative work like filling out paperwork and navigating bureaucracy. This can cause a lot of stress for social workers. 

Previous research has shown that social workers are in danger of experiencing a high frequency of alleged burnout disorder. Social workers are at high risk for developing mental health issues and are more likely to be depressed, anxious, and develop PTSD than the general population.

A study conducted in 2016 found that over 40% of social workers suffer from depression, while an additional 34% suffer from anxiety. 

The study showed that social workers do not seek treatment for their mental health issues as frequently as their counterparts outside the profession. 

Social workers are exposed to trauma every day. It’s not just a tough job—it’s often dangerous, and it’s consistently stressful. It’s not surprising, then, that social workers have a high risk of developing anxiety and depression due to the nature of their work. 

One study found that social workers experienced a high rate of mental health issues, with 30% experiencing depression and 35% experiencing anxiety. 

Social workers in child welfare are at an especially high risk for these issues: 68% experience emotional exhaustion, 56% experience depersonalization, and 28% experience burnout. 

These numbers are concerning because they can also lead to higher rates of substance abuse, eating disorders, and chronic stress-related illnesses. To put it simply: social workers need help managing their mental health. 

What causes depression amongst social workers?

Here are a few possible causes of depression amonst social workers:

High levels of stress

Depression has many possible causes. One of them being chronic stressful life situations  that can increase the risk of developing depression.

Stress is a normal psychological and physical reaction to situations in your life. It is neither a bad thing or a good thing. However what is dangerous is continuous or chronic stress in your life that you are unable to handle. 

Depression can be caused when you are unable to cope with the stress in your life because stress has a variety of mental and behavioural symptoms. These symptoms include: insomnia,  trouble sleeping, excessive sleep, and changes in appetite and eating habits. 

Being in a state of continuous stress with these symptoms can lead to deteriorating health, continued low moods, decrease in productivity which can impact your occupational life and also cause strain in your relationships. 

These negative impacts can lead to feelings of hopelessness, dread, doom, and also feelings of worthlessness and the sense that one is a failure in their ability to cope with life all of which can be internalised, leading to developing depression and anxiety. 

Unresolved Trauma

Unresolved trauma, be it experienced first hand or being a witness to it can cause individuals to develop depression as well. 

Social workers are exposed to trauma every day. It’s not just a tough job—it’s often dangerous, and it’s consistently stressful. It’s not surprising, then, that social workers have a high risk of developing anxiety and depression due to the nature of their work.

Social work can be emotionally taxing—social workers often deal with clients who are struggling with poverty, abuse, violence, trauma, and other issues that have a major impact on mental health. 

Trauma survivors can become so scary that they develop a generalised anxiety or panic disorder which can limit their lives, cause a sense of hopelessness and despair due to the dysfunction it causes in one’s life and relationships thus leading to depression. 

Low pay

Social work is perhaps one of the lowest paid jobs within the helping profession and for most social workers, It’s hard to pay bills when you’re making a low salary, and that pressure can lead to sadness and anxiety.

The stress of havign to deal with work that is emotionally taxing as well as dealing with the pressure and stress of not making enough money can become too overwhelming for an individual leading to burnout and depression. 

How can social workers cope with depression?

Here are a few things social workers can do to cope with burnout and depression:

Getting professional help

It is important that you do not take your mental health struggle lightly, it is not “normal” to be stressed and tired all the time to the point where you cannot sleep well, eat well, and focus. 

While most social workers might think this stress is “part of the job”, there is no rule that you as a social worker cannot put yourself first. Putting yourself first is getting the help that you need. While you can make lifestyle changes on your own, if you do have depression or are severely burned out, it is likely that the issue will not go away on its own. 

Getting professional help can help you gain insight into why you are feeling depressed or burned out and can help you build treatment plans with the professional that you trust that can help you make your life better.

Seek out support

Seek out support from your family and your trusted friends by opening up about what you are going through and what they can do to help you. 

You can also disclose your struggle with fellow social workers in an attempt to destigmatize mental health issues, this can create a conclusive environment which can help garner support and awareness about this issue since burnout and depression can happen to anyone

Get physical

It is important that you get started on improving your physical health but taking part in various activities that get you off your chair and moving. 

Running, paddle boarding, going for a walk with a social worker friend, doing aerobics, or yoga are only a few of the ways that you can get active which can result in higher spirits, healthier relationships, and less isolation.

Take action

As discussed, it is not only an individual problem but depression and burnout in social workers is also a result of ineffective systems within the workplace. 

While Taking action can be very scary and even seem impossible in some settings you and your colleagues can begin with a conversation about stress, social work, and well-being. 

You and your colleagues as a team can talk with the administration to streamline better strategies to help you as a whole cope with stress so that the social workers are happy, social workers are healthy, and the social workers performance as a whole improves. 

Set boundaries

Taking a closer look at what boundaries are can help you acknowledge your own limitations without judgement and plan your life around it. Boundaries do not limit you but rather it can mark the space upon which you can grow and flourish. 

Identifying and setting your boundaries involves understanding and awareness of what you can and cannot do- emotionally and physically. It is about stepping back and letting go  when you know that holding on or pushing through- even if it is for your students or the administration- is only going to hurt you.

Building boundaries is not giving up or shutting people out. Rather it allows us to take stock of what we do have and what we can do to get better results rather than following tradition and old ways of being. 

Make Changes

When we talk about change we are talking about making changes in your lifestyle- the way you manage your time, your priorities, your balance between work, family, and you.

Make changes in ways that are feasible, small changes that can possibly have a big impact in the long run. For example, 15 mins of yoga in the morning, or a walk in the evenings. 

Make changes in your perspectives, about the world, you, your job, and others. Make changes in the way you think as you get ready for work, and the way you talk to your students. You cannot change them but you can change how you perceive them and that might make a difference. 

Change your career course

This can be a little extreme, a last resort option. But if you find yourself struggling mentally and physically it could be time that you step away from your role as a social worker- to try something else that can give you more satisfaction, or maybe take an extended break to rest and work on recovery, or to learn new skills to cope as a social worker. 

Conclusion

In this blog we have discussed Depression in the context of social work and social workers. 

We have also discussed the prevalence of depression in the field of social work, what causes depression amonst social workers, and what can social workers do to cope with depression.

References

Evans S, Huxley P, Gately C, Webber M, Mears A, Pajak S, Medina J, Kendall T, Katona C. Mental health, burnout and job satisfaction among mental health social workers in England and Wales. Br J Psychiatry. 2006 Jan;188:75-80. doi: 10.1192/bjp.188.1.75. PMID: 16388074.

Sánchez-Moreno, E., Roldán, I.D., Gallardo-Peralta, L.P., & Roda, A.B. (2015). Burnout, Informal Social Support and Psychological Distress among Social Workers. British Journal of Social Work, 45, 2368-2386.

Zamansky, A.M. (2013). Social workers with mental illness : coming out in the workplace.

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