I want to start this post by expressing my sincere sadness at the loss of three mental health professionals’ lives last week at The Pathway Home in California. Christine Loeber, Jennifer Golick, and Jennifer Gonzales were killed doing their job, helping people in need. They worked with traumatised veterans, using their expertise to improve the lives of people who had seen too much, knew too much, and couldn’t get their “normal” back.
And they were shot. One of them was pregnant.
I don’t want to talk about the perpetrator. I’m sorry for his family and friends, but I don’t want to talk about him. Not today. Today I want to talk about all of us who work in the field. We do what we do for many reasons. We love helping people, we are fascinated by human behaviour, or we are committed to improving the world one client at a time. It might sound lofty, but this is the truth.
We regularly walk into a quiet room with people at their worst and close the door, letting them explore the depths of their feelings in privacy. Distressed, angry, psychotic, anxious, traumatised, grieving, personality disordered, suicidal, or just not coping. We see them all. We provide a safe space for them. We sit with them alone, and we do our best, relying on the training and experience that we bring with us into that room. We know that sometimes the simple act of doing our job may place us in harm’s way. But we do it anyway. We’re not martyrs, we just love our work. And I’m sure the women of The Pathway Home were no different in that regard.
I worked in a prison setting years ago, and my colleagues and I were referred to by the guards as “the warm and fuzzy brigade”. A team of highly trained men and women (but mostly women) in a men’s prison providing psychological assessment, treatment, and reports to parole boards and the court. We were given the least secure office to practice from and were left alone with inmates, often with no one checking on our safety.
Far from being “warm and fuzzy”, much of our work involved setting boundaries, challenging beliefs, testing psychological symptoms, and being ever watchful for risk. I once had to negotiate a blade from a naked man, bleeding and crying in the shower. On the one side I had him not wanting to hand over the blade, not wanting to give an inch. On the other side I had an exercise yard full of inmates offering to give me the whole “six inches”.
I’ve had male clients leap out of their chair to kiss me. I’ve had male clients insinuate that paying to talk to a female psychologist is akin to paying for attention from a prostitute. I’ve had male clients try to exert their power and authority over me by tone of voice, physical stature, and threats of harm. And I’m not special. We all deal with these things in our work. And so is the life of women (and yes, men) working at the coal face in the mental health professions.
For the women of The Pathway Home, I salute the incredible bravery that I know you displayed on that day, as you no doubt tried to de-escalate the situation. You may have softened your voice, you probably consciously slowed your breathing, I’m sure you took a non-threatening stance and talked as calmly and empathically as you could. Because that’s what you were trained to do.
For those of us working at the coal face, the deaths of these three women shines a light on the seriousness of the work we do and what’s at stake. It encourages us to remember and respect the potential risks we face. We are privileged to be trusted by our clients. To be their secret keepers. The vast majority of our clients are good, honest, respectful and kind. But sometimes one who wishes us harm can slip through the net. In work as in life, we can’t completely avoid risk. We make our assessment, we form our opinion of risk, we use our training, we take precautions, and we do our job. Because if we live in constant fear of that risk, if we let it hold us back from doing the work we’re trained to do, we would help no one.
Rest in peace Christine, Jennifer, and Jennifer. May your families, your friends, your colleagues, and your clients find comfort in knowing that you made the world a better place, if only for a little while.