Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – Should you see the movie?

The Bridge of the Gods, Cheryl Strayed's destination on her PCT hike.
Why would a woman hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) from California to the Washington border fairly unprepared and alone? The movie, Wild, about a woman who did just that, is coming out in December.

Many are eagerly anticipating the film including those who read Cheryl Strayed’s  book. I can only superficially relate to the hike. I walked just a little of the Pacific Crest Trail myself and hung out around The Bridge of the Gods on a sunny afternoon.  But the book is about so much more. It is about personal struggles and a journey of healing. I CAN relate to that.

But I am wary. I am wary because I can’t figure out if I want to see the movie. After all, I enjoyed the book, the story and Cheryl’s writing style. After reading Wendy Bumgardner’s review (she read the book a couple of years ago), I realize more than ever how an author’s words can lead us to self-reflection. 

We overlay so much of ourselves and our own personal stories as we read. Wendy’s reaction, for the most part was negative. She just didn’t like much of Cheryl’s fringy behavior and she didn’t like Cheryl’s lack of preparation for her journey. Wendy is a walking expert and writes tons of articles on walking, hiking and how to be prepared. So I can see where she is coming from.

I just saw Cheryl Strayed as troubled. Well, maybe, tortured. I thought of those I had encountered in my personal and professional social work life who were equally as troubled.

As I read Wild, I thought about my life. As Cheryl pounded her way along the PCT, I reflected on walking parts of the trail in the Lake Tahoe area and, recently, in Oregon. I remembered dragging along after a hot, six mile hike wishing it would end and looking forward to a cool Diet Coke when I returned to my car. Multiply that feeling by a hundred and I might only begin to empathize with Cheryl’s pain.

Throughout Cheryl’s accounting of her PCT backpacking experience, I said to myself over and over, “I would never do that… I would have quit.” But I am not carrying the personal pain that Cheryl carried. And, I am not feeling the need to endure the suffering that Cheryl brought upon herself.

It was through the lens of my own life experience that I interpreted Cheryl’s writings and her struggle. I believe that is why she is a highly acclaimed author. She makes us think, to feel her pain through our life experiences and, make comparisons and try to understand those with different life journeys.

So should we see the movie? A movie may just remove most of the personal interpretations from the experience. They will show us what Cheryl’s toes looked like after hiking in too-small boots. They will show us what her encounter with a fox felt like and show us what happened when she ran out of water. We won’t need to use our own minds and creativity to picture her experiences.

I believe that what I saw in my mind when I read the book has to be more powerful than any actress and director can portray on the screen for us. What I experienced was highly personal and what I experienced of Cheryl as I read was very subjective. When I put the book down each night, I reflected on the strong feelings the author had led me through. While it was her journey, the feelings were mine.

Black letters on white pages make us do that. We are forced to use our own creativity and to color the story with our own box of paints. I may or may not see the movie. Haven’t decided yet!

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Social Group in Turmoil: Dealing with a Personality Disorder in a Social Setting

There are many articles written for professionals who diagnose and treat people with Personality Disorders but very few for those in social settings where the dynamics surrounding a person who may have a disorder such as Borderline Personality Disorder, are ripping apart a social group. This article is written for those who find themselves in this confusing, sometimes enraging, social situation.

Here's An Example
Mary belongs to a women's group at her church. It's always been a supportive place for her and she's gained much from the Bible studies. Everyone seems to get along and easily accepts newcomers. It was one of these times, after a long summer, when several new people joined the group and they began a new Bible study.

All went well through the Fall. Newcomers made new friends and the group selected Bible studies and activities for the upcoming months.

But by November, the dynamics of the group were changing. Gossiping was going on via text and phone calls between meetings. Hurt feelings ensued. One of the members challenged the group leader, loudly, emotionally, and some of her closer friends rallied around her. It seemed like some of the group got along well and enjoyed social events outside the women's group while others expressed anger and hurt at not being included.

The group couldn't agree on much of anything, including the Christmas party planning. During one meeting two women stormed out of the room, red in the face... seething at what the group leader had suggested they do for the holiday. Some of the group members couldn't believe the level of anger they were feeling. Where was this coming from?

The group just wasn't that supportive, encouraging place anymore. There were factions, cliques and lots of "drama," especially around one of the newer women. Several women eventually quit. Others threatened to start their own group... and maybe even quit the church!

Mary's reaction was to just stay home from the group. She made excuses for not attending their weekly meetings.  It was just plain uncomfortable to be there.

What is Borderline Personality Disorder and Why is it Important in a Social Group?
Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is a mental health diagnosis. Individuals with this disorder, have had problems since childhood, life-long patterns of stormy relationships, and difficulty managing their emotions.

The National Institute of Mental Health describes the disorder ... A pattern of intense and stormy relationships with family, friends, and loved ones, often veering from extreme closeness and love (idealization) to extreme dislike or anger (devaluation). The person is also described as having a distorted and unstable self-image or sense of self.

It is a much more complex disorder than this of course. One of the dynamics of BPD is termed, "splitting," and this can affect social groups. Splitting describes the way that people with BPD may see themselves and others. People can be perceived as "good" and "bad." All good or all bad. The person with BPD often cannot see that an individual is both good and bad, and can be right some of the time and wrong some of the time. This can affect the group as the person with BPD is often persuasive and downright seductive. They can engage others in this "splitting" behavior. They can pit one person against the other.

People with BPD can also easily and unrealistically have feelings of abandonment, express very strong emotions and sabotage relationships. This is not an easy person to have in a group, although they may, initially, develop what looks like some strong positive relationships (remember, they can be seductive).

What Mary experienced in her Bible group is not unusual for a group that includes a person with untreated BPD. Things can get very chaotic, disagreements are not unusual and the level of anger expressed is not easy to take. The divisiveness can tear a group apart.

What to Do?
If you have access to a human services professional like a clergy person, counselor or human resources person, it is handy to get some perspective by talking with a personal outside the group who may have some knowledge of group dynamics and mental health issues. They might be helpful to the group in getting some distance from the issues and returning to the original purpose of the group... their common goals.

First, realize that this is a social situation and not a mental health setting. You can't diagnose or treat the problem. You can, however, set some limits on behavior in the group and you can suggest that a person who seems to be spiraling out of control, emotionally and behaviorally, gets some help.

Second, feel free to set some ground rules for your group, with their input. Ground rules, which apply equally to everyone, often cover showing respect, how to communicate, and how to handle disagreements.

Third, you may have to ask a person who consistently challenges or disobeys the ground rules and is disruptive,  to leave the group or you may suggest an alternative for them.

Not all negative group dynamics can be attributed to a person suffering from a personality disorder such as BPD. External change, stressors such as financial limitations, change of leadership, etc. can also bring on some difficult group dynamics.

And not all people suffering from BPD are going to be disruptive. Many are in treatment and can lead fairly normal lives. People with mental health disorders can be helped, of course, and it is important not to jump to conclusions just because a person is living with a mental health condition.

But if you have looked at all possible causes and still have divisiveness, high levels of anger and the feeling of being torn apart by a tornado in what was once a peaceful, supportive social group, please consider how a person's pathology can negatively affect those around them.

More Information
National Institute of Health Borderline Personality Disorder

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Social Work Job in Alabama - NASW Executive Director

NASW Alabama Chapter Seeks an Executive Director

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) - Alabama Chapter, a professional association with over 1,000 members, is seeking a dynamic and energetic leader to serve as its part-time (.75 FTE) Executive Director. 

The successful candidate will be responsible for all aspects of administering and leading a nonprofit association. Qualified candidates will possess a minimum of two years of managerial experience and a bachelor’s degree, MSW preferred. Proficiency in communications, financial management, MS Office, conference and event planning, member services, and volunteer management is required. 

Additionally, the ideal candidate should have experience in membership marketing, social media and website maintenance, nonprofit board development, and public policy advocacy. Our executive director must demonstrate a strong commitment to the NASW mission and social work values. 

The position requires a self-directed executive who is capable of being actively involved in the day to day operations as well as all executive management functions. Some travel is required. Salary range is $35,000 to $38,000, with an excellent benefit package. There is a strong potential for growth in salary and full-time status with success in this position. 

NASW- Alabama is an equal opportunity employer. Qualified applicants should e-mail their cover letter and resume by April 28, 2014 to Nancy Francisco Stewart, Search Chair, at Please direct any question to us via this e-mail address.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Music and Alzheimer's Disease: A Social Worker Facilitates iPod Program

My father, a musician who loved to entertain with his portable keyboard, knew of the gift of music to those with memory loss.

As a volunteer he went around to nursing facilities to play for the residents, many of whom were memory impaired. He told us of the lights that would come on in the faces of those who responded to the 20's, 30's, and 40's tunes he played. Some danced, some moved... but they all responded.

So it was not a surprise to me to hear the ABC news story about the Social Worker who saw the importance of music in the lives of the memory impaired. ABC news reported:

Dan Cohen, a social worker in New York, came up with the idea in 2006 to take unused iPods and make them available to those suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia. He started by creating playlists for residents at a local nursing home. In 2010, Music & Memory was created and iPod donations by the thousands poured into Cohen’s organization. He has found that the music has a very positive impact on the lives of these patients.

Click here to find out how to donate old iPods.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

March 2014 is National Professional Social Work Month - Ideas, Celebration, Social Work Gifts Galore

March is National Professional Social Work Month 

Social Work Month will be here before you know it. Along with this yearly recognition comes a great opportunity to promote and enhance the visibility of our profession.

We need to take off our clinical hats and don our marketing hats in order to understand what wonders we can accomplish.  First decide what audience you wish to reach.   Will it be the social workers in your organization, legislators, administrators or, the general public?  And what message do you want to carry to them? Will this be a time of recognition, a time to reach out into the community with a new service, or a charge to right the wrongs promulgated by the media?

Once you decide on your audience and your focus, it will be time to draw up a plan. When planning, it is important to consider those you hope will support your endeavor.   If you plan to ask your administrator for financial support to put on a recognition luncheon, go to that administrator and ask what their thoughts might be regarding how to best recognize the staff. Work together to creatively finance the effort.

If you want to have your colleagues join you, it is best to involve them from the beginning. Be open to their ideas and feedback. Encourage them to participate in a committee effort.

Once you have others involved and have heard their ideas, develop a plan with concrete tasks and deadlines. If you are fortunate and have a group of people working with you, allow them to select tasks they wish to complete. The more involvement, the better.

Give yourself and your group plenty of time. Hurrying around at the last minute, when you have a full caseload, will not bode well for your health or your nerves. Plan ahead, develop a list of tasks, involve others, and meet frequently to update each other and look for loose ends.

It has been a rough year. Perhaps your agency has gone through a major change, laying off staff.
You decide that the focus of National Professional Social Work Month this year should be recognition of the staff.

Here are some ideas:
  • Involve the leadership of your organization in putting on a special breakfast or luncheon honoring social workers. Appoint an administrator to give a brief speech of gratitude and support.
  • Develop and place posters honoring the social work staff in key places around your organization. Visibility is rewarding.
  • Organize and host a "Caring for Yourself" retreat. Send the staff off-site for an afternoon of relaxation, self-care tips and even neck and shoulders massage.
  • Work with your organization's public relations department to devote an issue of the organization's newsletter to social workers and their work. Encourage staff photographs and highlight their accomplishments.
  • Purchase National Social Work Month buttons or design them yourself. Imagine seeing the physicians in a hospital sporting "I Love Social Workers" buttons all month!
There are some unique and interesting ways you can celebrate Social Work Month with an educational focus:
  • Set up a "professional resource fair" and invite vendors and agency representatives to come and provide poster sessions and hand-outs covering their products and services. If you work in a hospital, for example, you might invite some of the local DME, transportation and assisted living companies. In addition, consider a vendor from the local bookstore. Often vendors are so thrilled to participate they will offer a doorprize or two. (Hint: check your agency policy on gifts).
  • Invite an inspirational speaker to make a presentation to your staff and others whom they might want to include.
  • Purchase some new books for your departmental resource library and notify the staff that the titles have been added in honor of National Professional Social Work Month.
Want to reach out to your community, share a program or promote the skill of your staff? Here are some good outreach ideas:
  • Proclamation. Arrange for a proclamation to be written by your Governor's or Representative's Office. It is easy if you give the staffers enough time and information. Ask for their format way ahead of time. Include the proclamation in a news article or present it at a community meeting.
  • Community Presentation. Invite local community leaders to a Social Work Month presentation. Whether it be a new program or a review of your services, this month is an excuse to promote your services.
  • Community Resource Fair. Organize a fair of consumer-oriented resources. Ensure that your programs are represented, literature available to hand out and social workers staffing the tables. Ensure a good turn-out by writing letters to community groups and promoting the event in the local newspaper.Serve refreshments!
  • Informational Publication. Develop an informational hand-out. (Hint: Perhaps you can obtain a small grant to cover the printing.) Your hand-out could include the services social workers provide, where to call for assistance, and the community agencies available. Mailings could target community members and groups.
Image Enhancement
National Professional Social Work Month, just by virtue of the title alone ensures that our professionalism is promoted. Social workers seem to be a mis-understood group of professionals. The media's portrayal of our work doesn't help. But we don't do enough to promote our work, either!  Some ideas promoting our professionalism are:
  • Speakers Bureau. Set up a Social Work Month speaker's bureau. Let local schools, community groups and churches know of your availability. Select a range of topics that represent our profession well.
  • Career Fair. Organize a career fair and invite students. Ensure that the Social Work booth has information on the education and training needed to become a social worker. (Aside: When staffing a booth at a local high school career fair, students were amazed that social workers needed to attend college. One even said, "I thought your work was done by volunteers!")
  • Media.  The local print and television media can "be your friend." Engage a local reporter in an interesting story showcasing the talents of your staff.
Excuse Busters
Haven't we heard them all? The excuses for not doing anything about our professional month are many. However, an optimist can find an "excuse-buster" for each excuse!
  • Excuse #1: We don't have time.
    Excuse-buster: It seems as though there is considerable time spent grumbling about the lack of recognition social workers get and about the lack of knowledge people have about what social workers do. How about putting some of this negative energy into positive action?
  • Excuse #2: We don't have enough staff.
    Excuse-buster: If the idea is wonderful enough, people will adjust their workloads to help. What are you doing now that can be put aside? How about canceling a staff meeting? Consider using volunteers. One social worker I know organized a community resource fair and enlisted her husband to make and serve popcorn!
  • Excuse #3: What's the use?
    Excuse-buster: If the celebration is well planned and targeted and if you use some of the proven ideas here or new exciting ideas from your staff, you can and will make an impact.