Overheard at a party: What do you do for a living? Oh, social work? That’s so hard.” Conversation ends.

The stories social workers (and other caregivers) have can be buzzkills at parties. Our work is tough, and most folks don’t want to hear about it. This isn’t to paint us all as saints. We knew it was tough when we chose our line of work. But it can be very lonely to sit with our experiences, especially when you get secondary traumatic stress (STS).

STS is the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caregivers can get after helping someone who is suffering. I got it bad back in 2016-17 when I was doing a lot of trauma psychotherapy for locked-up youths. I had nightmares that I was living out my client’s traumas. I was skittish all the time. I felt like I couldn’t do basic job tasks. My family said I was acting differently, and my friends said I seemed spacy. I felt so alone in my experience of STS, like no one could understand it.

“Well, you should leave your work at your work,” the physician I saw about my sleep problem suggested.  I thought to myself: “I would love to leave it at work, what a luxury!” But STS  just sticks on you. I couldn’t get through what was happening to me despite my self-care (like reading for fun, going for a run). STS had me stuck – how do I keep going with a job that means so much to me but also in a job where I hear about bad things so much? Over the years, I’ve had too many clients die from gun violence or get hooked on opioids. How do you keep going when it seems like it’s never going to end?

It’s people that keep you going. My supervisor had my coworkers talk more about what was happening to us. Being able to talk about it, feel less alone about it, was the start of my way through it. I got a new therapist to give me a different perspective. I got back on my treatment for my mood, but really, people are what make the difference – professional and personal.

“Oh, social work? That must be so hard to do…”

“It can be, but I love it. It’s great to see people bounce back after tough times. And I have such great people in my corner.”

About the Author: Sean Snyder is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who works in community mental health. He enjoys seeing all the dogs in Washington Square on his breaks, and loves Phillies baseball.