Sometimes when you work in the educational system or the mental health system (or in my case, both) you start to feel a little like blah blah blah broken system blah blah blah. (In case you weren’t sure: yes, that is an official feeling. I looked it up.) When you’re working in a system that the media and politicians and everyone’s grandmother is describing as broken, the flaws are so in your face that talking and hearing about them can feel exhausting and ineffective. There are clients to see and students to teach. So if I’m whining in the break room about how I need more resources and time to help them, how is that helping them? You know?
Some days I have vivid fantasies about researching, developing, advocating for and implementing ideas for policy changes. In the end, someone somewhere always benefits! But even my fantasies usually exist on a small-scale. Even when I dream about change, my dreams are limited by the limitations of what feels realistic.
You’ve heard of the broken windows theory right? If not, wikipedia does its thing. Basically, the idea (oversimplified, perhaps) is that if we quickly fix small problems like broken windows, there will not only be fewer broken windows (and other smaller-scale problems), but also to less crime (and other larger-scale problems).
And then there’s this thing called (social) systems theory. It is one of the first things I remember learning about as a social work student and it is a foundational theory in the field of social work. Individuals are viewed as systems in their own right and as part of other systems: families, communities, schools, cultures, etc. Smaller systems like families are viewed within larger systems like communities and so on. People do not exist in a vacuum. (Did anyone else just picture an awesome cartoon of a person trapped inside an old school vacuum? Just me? Cool.)
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of systems being broken. It’s not the first time, but I think the idea has been on my mind more since I started my new job. The challenges and obstacles present in both the education and mental health systems are incredibly apparent in this brand new program that is attempting to integrate the values, ideas, goals and staff of a public school district and a non-profit social service agency.
The thing is, it’s not the job. The work I do each day is leaps and bounds closer to what I want to be doing with my degree. I have great coworkers and enjoy working with my clients. But there are a lot of things that are unknown, undecided, undetermined. Every day I ask a question that no one knows how to answer. Every day someone tells me to do something I should have done weeks ago.
Some days it feels like I am playing a game of Jenga. At the start everything seemed more stable and exciting. I felt ready to tackle the challenges.
I should say: many days it still feels that way. And despite the frustration, I still believe it’s only a matter of time before the program starts to run more smoothly. I have a lingering and strong sense that things are being done to resolve mistakes that have been made so far and to improve upon the process we have started.
But even when I hold tight to this optimism… even when I imagine an ideal version of this program… all I am hoping for is a place that keeps trying. The program was established because nothing like it exists for this county. In theory we will help our clients and their families and in turn help their communities and schools and in turn, maybe even help the county.
I’m not sure I believe that fixing broken windows can save something as huge and ingrained as the mental health system or education system. Perhaps a window repair can change a neighborhood. Not a country. Hopefully a program can change a community. Maybe a county.