Question: How many social workers does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: one - as long as it is willing to change. As a social worker, I’ve heard this joke many times. Only I don’t really think it’s funny. Especially now. Many of us go into the field of social work with a strong sense of idealism. There is no shortage of problems in this big world of ours, and we take it on as our mission to fix them. In social work training, they actually spend a significant amount of time trying to instill within us a healthy dose of reality and prepare us for the fact that, as much as we want and as hard as we try, we will not be able to fix everything. But we are young and committed and we know better. We really are going to make the world a much better place.
There are definitely satisfying moments during which we social workers can bask in the glory of the fruits of our labor. We changed something! We improved the quality of somebody’s life in some small way. Maybe we even moved a small mountain. Maybe we effected a change in the system which filters down and touches many lives. It can happen. But, unfortunately, with the population with which I work, we don’t always succeed. I work in an assisted living program for adults with mental illness. We meet with our clients, with their doctors, psychiatrists, and employers. We create programs and incentives. We hold their hands and push them to progress while simultaneously cheering them on from the sidelines. But often, due to the severity of their illness, they are unable to accept the help we offer. When we observe such a situation, it is frustrating, upsetting, and at times, absolutely heartbreaking.
Tal*, one of our residents, did not have an easy life. This can probably be said about all of our residents. His father died tragically in a freak accident and he was diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder at a young age. Despite everything, he always had a very loving relationship with his mother and family. Tal, a very warm and giving person, would share his food and treats with his apartment mates. He would invite one of them to his room to watch TV together and he would happily do more than his share of cleaning his apartment. Whenever I met with him, he would graciously and wholeheartedly offer me a drink. With all of his positive qualities, and there were many, Tal was not able to overcome the hurdles of his illness and engage in the various activities that our residents are typically involved in. He did us a favor by going to work on occasion, he only reluctantly came to his individual sessions, and he would not participate in group leisure activities. All he wanted to do was to go visit his mother which he did several times a day. And she does not live close by. He led a decent life but we thought it could be even better. But it was too difficult for him to make any changes.
Over a year ago, Tal’s emotional stability began to decline. He experienced a number of difficult events which were far from simple for even the healthiest of people to deal with. First, one of his apartment mates passed away from cancer. Tal was very connected to him and, of his own initiative, took it upon himself to devotedly look after him. When his apartment mate passed away, Tal lost one of his only (if not only) friends. Several months later, another apartment mate physically attacked Tal. That apartment mate was immediately removed from the apartment, never to return, but the experience was a traumatic one for Tal. Soon after this, the world was hit with the coronavirus. The lockdown was extremely difficult for Tal. As he was used to independently traveling to his mother and wherever else he liked, being confined to his apartment for an extended period of time with little social outlet was very challenging for him.
All of these experiences caused a great deterioration in Tal’s emotional health. There were hospitalizations, phone calls, visits, consultations, letters, and meetings. We reached out to him in so many ways but he was unable to grab on to the lifeline that was extended to him.
Last week, Tal finally agreed to meet with the staff. We had hoped that this would be a turning point and that his situation would gradually improve. But much to our shock, just a few hours before our scheduled meeting, Tal’s body was found lifeless behind an apartment building down the block from where he lived. We have not yet heard the results of the investigation, but many assume that his death was a result of suicide. We are stunned, shaken, and in a state of utter disbelief. As opposed to other clients in our care, Tal never gave any sort of indication that he would take such a drastic step. Such a waste of a life. So unexpected. So profoundly sad.
All of our staff, including the ones who weren’t working at the time, met at the office on that terrible day to grieve and support each other. We tried to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that Tal is no longer suffering. We are trying to come to terms with the events of last week, but it’s not easy. Recovery will take a long time. But we are slowly getting back to work. I am meeting with my clients and trying to help them. One is talking about returning to work on a regular basis. Another is planning to take off from work and treat himself to a short and well-deserved vacation. Another client, who has had few recreational opportunities due to the coronavirus, is contemplating leaving her comfort zone and joining a gym. They are taking steps in the right direction. We may not be able to fix everything in the world, but every drop of light that we - and anyone for that matter - can bring to another, can enhance their life in a positive way. For that alone, it’s all worth it.
- Name changed to protect confidentiality
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.