Mickey Skidmore, AMHSW, ACSW, MACSW

For some time now, I have been thinking and reflecting about the topic of strength. There are many aspects and dimensions of strength. There is of course brut, physical strength. Often this is associated with and depicted largely as a masculine characteristic. Yet certainly, women can also exhibit physical strength as well. As a man I marvel that females have been ascribed with the gift to give birth and ensure the propagation of the species. I feel that it is an obvious oversight that the level of strength and endurance required for childbirth is taken for granted. Whether you consider this as a burden, or a responsibility, if it fell to men I can’t help but imagine that the perceptions and conversations around this would be considerably different.

There is also emotional strength. Again, many cultures tolerate and permit women to be more emotive in their public expression. Yet, this natural display of emotional intelligence is still often viewed (and frequently dismissed) as a weakness. Throughout my lifetime (and likely significantly longer) the “strong silent type” often depicted in the movies (i.e. John Wayne) was the gold standard of emotional strength for men. In recent decades, there has been gradual recognition that has exposed this view as a brand of “toxic masculinity” that has roots in a militant brand of white evangelical masculinity as a reaction to feminism, the anti-war movement and civil rights. It is a view of masculinity that is neither realistic nor psychologically healthy.

While I imagine there may be a more detailed scientific way to describe it, in general, via narrative and/or metaphorical ways I relate to clients in therapy that tears (crying) is one of the body’s natural ways to discharge pain. Toxins, pollutants, unwanted or undesirable stress can be released or discharged in the form of tears as a physical expression of relief. Even childbirth includes elements of pain that is endured before eventually giving way to (tears of) joy. Throughout my career, whenever I can, but especially to men, I attempt to reframe their perspectives around “strength”, or at least offer an alternate view. I attempt to convey that being confident enough to access, share and express the emotional aspects of themselves — even to the point of crying or exhibiting vulnerability in other ways — are not signs of weakness, but rather a different type of strength and intestinal fortitude. Although in many respects it is still an exercise of swimming against the tide, every now and then some of this gets through and registers in small ways.

Of course there is also political strength which is often underpinned by economic and military might. The cultural wars are a distraction and political vehicle that ultimately is a manoeuvre for power. As a result, democracies around the world are increasingly at risk of their strength being eroded by authoritarian overtures.

Closer to home, reflecting on my own professional experiences and as a casual academic preparing the next generation of registered Social Workers in Australia, I am mindful of how much strength is involved in undertaking the work of this challenging profession. On one hand, too often in the course of what would appear to be common, straight-forward or mundane experiences Social Workers often find themselves navigating tricky and grey ethical circumstances. On the other hand, my own experiences in Australia have reflected in my view, an alarming level of unethical conduct and even systemic corruption where the political forces of the status quo strongly encourages to look the other way (“nothing to see here”). 

Thus, when Social Worker’s are merely doing what they were trained to do (advocacy – for their clients, for their systems, and for social justice; to promote and facilitate systemic change from within in order to improve and increase efficiency as well align with social justice efforts; and to provide clinical care and interventions via a bio-psycho-social approach underpinned in a strength-based model) there is often an unwelcome reaction. Again in my experience I have encountered a broad and systematic effort to discount, devalue, disrespect, degrade, demoralise, and disempower both my professional efforts and the profession in general. And in a worse case scenario there have even been attempts to weaponise these efforts against me to defame or discredit me and my professional reputation.

In my exposure to health care system’s in particular, I find it shocking that the majority of professions that are included in an interdisciplinary approach (as well as administrators) have no real idea what the Social Work profession does in their setting. Perhaps even more alarming however, they are not interesting in learning or listening to find out the unique contributions the Social Work profession has to offer or contribute. Additionally, is it further disconcerting that the healthcare Unions seem to do very little if anything on this front (for the life of me, I can’t see what the labour Union provides for Social Workers or why anyone would pay to be a member). And while the AASW has made some efforts at increasing awareness of the profession overall, a much more concerted campaigning effort is warranted in my view if the Social Work profession is ever to be elevated beyond a second-rate profession. 

For too long there has been a lazy assumption where welfare workers and social workers are referenced in the same category. While I have great respect for the work that welfare officers provide, they are not the same as Social Workers. I am quite clear about my professional practice — what I do and what I don’t do. I am NOT a welfare officer. I am NOT an escort. I am NOT a real estate agent or housing officer. I do NOT oversee or manage the financial details of a FMO (Financial Management Order); and I am NOT a “gatekeeper to the give shit away for free store”. I AM a Clinical Social Worker — a clinician first and foremost, providing focused psychological strategies and psychotherapy interventions for individuals, groups and families. I also possess managerial and administrative expertise and skills for inpatient psychiatric hospital services and programs. And I AM a casual academic that incorporates my significant professional experiences in practical manners of teaching and preparing students in accredited Social Work programs.

It is not my intention to frighten or dissuade those embarking on a Social Work career, or over-emphasise a negative or dark sided view. However, those entertaining a Social Work career deserve to be prepared for a wide range of challenges that will require a significant level of strength in order to be successfully grounded and maintain a healthy emotional and psychological balance in such efforts over the span of a career.