I asked a new social work student yesterday how their classes were going. They expressed that there is no mental health focus in any of the classes (which is their passion) and that majority of the courses focus on race. They said that they’re not racist which to me said that since they are not racist they do not need to learn about race and racism. I strongly disagree and would think that to think you do not need to learn about race because you are not racist might be heading into the territory of oppression.
When I entered my social work education in 2007 I thought I knew things. With each passing year I realized how little I knew in terms of the history and harmful current repercussions. In my first year I remember saying that Canada’s aboriginal populations needed to “get over it” and accept that what happened in terms of colonization because it was a long time ago. I did not intend anything mean by that statement, it was made out of pure ignorance. I then began learning about the process of colonization, the residential schools, the Indian Act and the state the Reserves. I spent a lot of time crying and being angry. You can bet that “get over it” is something I will never say again and in fact I draw attention to the severe issues facing many of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. Even if we believe we know a lot on a certain topic (ie: mental health), unless you are actively researching you may be completely unaware of the history, the different movements and the current state of our mental health system. We always need to be learning!
Currently, much of social work (and activism in general) is focusing on INTERSECTIONALITY. Intersectionality is about understanding that people have multiple identities that intersect with each other in unique ways. These unique ways can produce risk and protective factors, privilege and oppression which shapes the persons life experience. For example, I my intersecting identities are that I am White, a Woman, a person with a Mental Health Issue and I am Low Income. History tells me that being White is a privileged identity whereas being a Woman, having a Mental Health Issue and being Low Income are oppressed identities. How intersectionality would look at this is how do these different identities help or hinder me. Even our current society tells me that I am not as privileged as a White Man but I am most likely more privileged then an Immigrant Woman who is of Colour.
So, as you can see it is impossible to look at a person and just see their one issue. To do so would be a disservice to them and their community. Many in the helping professions are realizing how a person’s many identities interact. A Black Youth may develop severe anxiety because they are experience racism at school, a Gay Russian Man may have fled to Canada because his life is in danger back home due to homophobia and a Person with a Disability may be living in poverty due to poor accommodations in their job. We cannot just look at the mental health of the youth when they are being called racist slurs, we cannot just use the potential safety of Canada to dismiss the man’s trauma at being beaten by the police, and we cannot just hand the person with a disability social assistance checks when they could work to their full potential with accommodations.
Social Work education is lacking. Despite teaching interestionality and viewing the person holistically it does not demonstrate this in it’s courses by narrowly picking and choosing what it teaches. This is why I told this new social work student that if they want to bring in mental health they can find a way in their essays or to go to the head of his University’s School of Social Work and put positive pressure on them to develop a social work mental health course.