Can she make a difference?

I was in the kitchen at work a few days ago and a couple of co-worker were having a conversation about her new position coming up in a different field of work. She is studying to work, eventually, in the field of mental health services.

I walked into the conversation just as she was expressing how excited she was to work in the mental health field. How she was looking forward to making a difference and changing the system. She bubbled with enthusiasm about how she couldn’t wait to be a part of “fixing the system and changing how people get the help they need”.

Blink. Blink. Combine some deep breathing and serious willpower and I was able to not lash out at her comments. I had no idea that my reaction to her remarks would be so strong and was surprised at where they came from. Where they were hiding is more accurate for how it felt to me. The anger that I felt and the frustration that came up was fast and violent.

I tried to be calm and polite and not appear personally invested as I attempted to add my two cents. Not sure I pulled it off but the gist of it is simple.

She won’t change the system. She won;t fix it. She won’t change how people gain access to resources and she certainly won;t make a dent in the structure of mental health services. The system is unfixable on a core level. That’s sad and maybe fatalistic, but, I believe, it’s the truth. She can bring all of newly educated professional knowledge of resources and studies and what treatment option should be available and to what demographics and won;t make any difference in the day-to-day access or execution of services for a person needing help.

She will start fresh and excited and ambitious and she will, all too quickly, come to see that if things could be changed by that, then they would have been, long ago. But they can’t be changed.

I watched her face as I said a milder version of that and saw her shock that I wasn’t just agreeing with her and telling her that yes, she would, and wasn’t it exciting??!! She smiled nervously and said that she just wanted to try and that she knew she would make a difference.

Yes, I assured her, you can.

Not to the overall structure, but on a personal level. You can touch someone with your compassion and your desire to help. You can be the person who a family looks to and sees the face instead of the machine of mental health services. You can hope that one person or one family will feel that you made an impact and that you made their journey maybe a little easier or the answers a little lighter to bear. See the trees and not the forest. You can look at the small victories and see that those are all you will ever be able to get or give…and you can feel great about them. Go in with that for your hope and your expectation and you will might not burn out so fast or too often (because you will eventually, make no doubt).

I have seen the jaded and tired defeat in the faces of experienced caseworkers and nurses; of ministry employees and hospital staff; of counsellors and therapists and psychiatrists. All of them knowing they could offer nothing more and that so much more was needed. I have seen the optimistic cheerfulness of the young counsellor as she patted my son on the back and knew, really knew, that she had done all she could and that it was all going to be ok – because she so clearly believed that the system was “working”. I saw the pain on her face a week later as she explained she was taking a leave of absence after the death of my son the day after their appointment.

As one social worker explained it me a couple of years after my son died; The ship is going down and there’s no way to get more lifeboats. All we do is rearrange the deck chairs and hope for the best.