Words of Wisdom from a Social Worker

By Wayne Munchel, LCSW
Director of Transitional Age Youth Services
Star View Children & Family Services

When I was asked to write a brief article for the NAMI South Bay newsletter providing advice on how best to support ongoing growth and responsibility in a mentally ill relative – I hesitated. I hesitated because I remembered all too well the advice I freely dispensed when I was a new Social Worker and knew everything.

My first job was as a member of a psychiatric Emergency Team (PET) and I would frequently interact with desperate, stressed out families about how to best deal with their mentally ill loved one. (It’s probably worth mentioning that I had this job prior to having children of my own.) The help seeking families were often struggling with difficult issues pertaining to their child’s ability/willingness to respect limits and housing rules, and manage their own illness and behavior. Common questions about when they should protect and when to push expectations; when to accept their loved one’s diminished capacities and impaired judgments and when to confront them.

I recall with some embarrassment, giving some speech about “tough love” that I must have learned on Oprah. Demand cooperation, expect compliance or else show them the door. If I were to hear such counsel now that I’ve raised a couple of lovely daughters with my wife, I would respond by telling a professional to go do something anatomically impossible (pound sand?). I can only ask for forgiveness for my past displays of arrogant ignorance.

Today, I would respond much differently. First of all, I would acknowledge and credit these families with all they have done, often with very little support and understanding, to continue loving and supporting their son or daughter. I would want to listen carefully to what they’ve tried that has been working and what hasn’t. I would want to elicit their assessment of exhaustion and resilience, of when they recognize opportunities. To expect more and when they need to conserve energy, this calls for the kind of wisdom that we would all hope to have for our children – but it’s even more complex and challenging when the adult child has a disability.

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