Letters to ...

Re: the risk for mental health care workers

... Reflections on the recent tragedies in mental health care facilities

by Scott M. Bock, President and CEO, Riverside Community Care and Somerville Mental Health Association

An open letter to the community

February 1, 2011

Thirty-five years of experience working in the mental health field has taught me a lot. Much of what I have learned contradicts the growing worry about the danger inherent in our work and the fear of mental illness. Scary photos have been splashed across the headlines since the tragedy in Arizona took over newscasts and the front page of national magazines. Following soon after, two incredibly sad deaths of human service workers, apparently at the hands of people with mental illness, have brought a growing fear very close to home for all of us in Massachusetts.

Before we begin to make changes in how services are provided or arrive at judgments about people who live in our community, it is important to look beyond the headlines. We all need to understand that the people who choose to work in the mental health field are quietly doing caring and important work. None do this work for the money, and no one gets their picture in the paper for the, often uplifting and critically important, work they do. These caring people roll up their sleeves and do whatever is necessary to help people struggling with a mental illness take back their life or build a new one. We need these wonderful men and women to keep doing this work.

What may surprise you is that people with a mental illness are doing valiant work too. Despite what are often daunting odds, when asked about their goals, it is most common to hear two things. "I want to have real relationships and my own place to live." And, second, "I want to find a job." You might be surprised to learn that, according to the 2001 MacArthur Community Violence Study, these men and women are not inherently more violent than their neighbors. And, a 2005 study found that people with serious mental illness are anywhere from 2.5 times to nearly 12 times more likely to be the victim than the perpetrators of violence.

And, these individuals are not abstract beings. Each is a member of a family, lives in our neighborhoods, and works in our workplaces. And each person has to fight through their own personal hell to build a better life. They frequently decide to work in human services to give back and to use the skills they have developed.

So, what do we take away from the tragedies that have brought so much suffering recently? I suggest that we can always learn from them and find ways to do a better job. We owe this to the wonderful people who lost their lives while doing heroic work. At the same time, we also have to remember that these are very rare occurrences and that we should not tell our children or, in my case, my niece, to walk away from the jobs they love and the people they are quietly helping everyday. And, finally, we cannot lose sight of the incredibly hard work people do every day to move forward, in the face of what can be a debilitating illness.

Scott M. Bock, President/CEO of Riverside Community Care
and Somerville Mental Health Association
450 Washington Street Suite 201
Dedham, MA 02026
Click this link to visit the Riverside Community Care website: www.riversidecc.org


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