"I think it's difficult, and probably unhelpful, to be void of all emotion in this field."
Jerrold Jackson is a social worker in New York City. He's also a Ph.D. candidate, consultant, volunteer, and all-around nice guy. Somehow he ties it all together. In our conversation, Jackson explains how to seemingly do it all while remaining both sane and gracious.
Social work is a fairly broad label. What is your particular area of focus, and what does that mean on a day-to-day basis?
For me, no one day is ever the same. My overall goal is to improve the lives of low-resourced children and families, but my interests are fairly diverse. Clinically, I do community-based outpatient psychotherapy with children and families through the Child, Adolescent & Family Services Clinic at Mount Sinai Medical Center. Academically, I'm a Ph.D. Candidate in Clinical Research at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, with a focus on community mental health services research. As a pre-doctoral research fellow through the National Institute of Health, I'm also learning more about the prevalence of inter-generational mental health issues within low-resourced communities. And I volunteer as the research strategist for ALEGRIA: Hope Through Art, a nonprofit that uses creative arts to empower children living in orphanage communities in South America. I also occasionally lecture and consult on the side. That's a lot, I know, but I enjoy all that I do, and I'm motivated daily by the challenges that lie ahead.
Can you tell me about some difficult cases? Do you get emotionally involved?
It's especially difficult to hear about things such as abuse, neglect, and trauma that involve a kid, but some of my most difficult cases involve intergenerational mental health concerns that are complicated by exposure to chronic, generational, and/or systemic issues—neighborhood violence, domestic violence, substance use, exposure to lead and other toxins, family history of medical and epigenetic problems, HIV/AIDS, financial stress, etc. These factors and others can easily complicate any therapeutic approach toward positively intervening to address mental health issues. I think it's difficult, and probably unhelpful, to be void of all emotion in this field. Ideally, I hope to become emotionally "involved" in an empathetic, versus sympathetic, sort of way that motivates me to put my best foot forward for the family without becoming swept away in their story and losing my clinical judgment. This is definitely a skill that improves over time.
Is it hard to balance and separate this very personal work and your private life?
I personally think it comes down to clinical judgment, having effective boundaries as a clinician, and having a strong support system. Trainees within mental health are often told by supervisors to "never work harder" than your client, meaning that as the mental health provider, one approach is to "meet your client where they are" to avoid burning out or promoting behaviors in the client that aren't rooted in their own motivation to change. In many ways, I think it's my job to help stimulate clients' motivation towards change, and in most cases I find it helpful and ethical to take a client-centered approach toward channeling frustrations about a particular injustice towards motivation to change. I want to be motivated to invest the appropriate time and energy into a weekly session with my clients. However, this cannot be effectively done without effective boundaries. I also find it extremely helpful to have a support system in place outside of work.
Do you find that keeping yourself immersed in a number of different avenues related to social work, you are able to keep a fresh head about your patients' cases, your research, and what got you interested in social work in the first place?
Absolutely! I’m constantly being challenged to remain curious about how to best aid real people with “real world” issues, especially as a social worker within the field of community mental health. Also, my simultaneous involvement in clinical work, academic work, and research keeps me motivated and reminds me why I became interested in social work in the first place. My motivation to pursue several avenues at once is probably intrinsic to an extent, but also, I’m inspired daily by an incredibly supportive cast of colleagues and mentors to keep digging deeper and deeper into the issues I’m passionate about. At the same time, I feel extremely blessed to have an exceptionally supportive family, girlfriend (also a social worker), and group of friends. It’s one thing to be really busy chasing lofty goals and dreams, but I’d stand no chance at seeing these things come to fruition without such a supportive group of people investing in me, my wellbeing, and the pursuit of my goals.
I'm sure it helps that your partner is a social worker as well, but do you both find it hard sharing similar professions that it is sometimes difficult to separate work from home?
There are obviously both benefits and challenges of being in a relationship with someone who can so closely relate to you professionally, but I find it to be mostly rewarding—words such as supportive, understanding, and empathetic come to mind. Ultimately, personal relationships with those who are closest to me will always be a priority, as it’s those people who help create moments of inspiration as well as brief moments of escape from what would otherwise be a fairly mundane pursuit of goals and dreams. Balancing personal relationships with the demands of work, school, and research is definitely tough, but I’ve learned that it’s paramount to take care of oneself, which for me includes maintaining an active social life.
Do you want to still see clients once you have your Ph.D? In other words, is social work like other disciplines, wherein once you get a doctorate, you are free to never associate with the real world again?
The terminal degree in social work is the masters degree, so yes, having a doctorate in social work can be a stepping stone to a career that's composed of mostly research. My Ph.D. is in Clinical Research, which as a discipline seeks to bridge the gap between research and clinical application by translating and applying knowledge from "benchside to bedside." In the long run, I'll likely see less clients than I currently do, but I chose this degree program because of its emphasis in bridging research and practice. My work with the “real world” is what inspired me to get into research in the first place, so I'll never forget that. Clinical work keeps my research fresh.
How did you become involved in this field? Was it an early interest or something that developed later?
My interest in working with children began fairly early, but I remember gaining quite a bit of clarity during the summer months of 2005, when I worked as the director of arts & crafts and music at a summer camp in Florida. During the following months, as a senior at Florida State University, I expressed my budding interest to one of my favorite psychology professors. I was not entirely sure what “helping” looked like at the time, but for whatever reason, he took an interest in my potential as a “professional helper,” and we began meeting regularly to discuss what it might look like for me to pursue a career in a field where I could actually help make substantive changes in people's lives. I debated a couple of different career paths initially, but I resonated strongly with social work’s emphasis on leveraging peoples’ strengths toward change within their existing environment, so I pursued graduate school training toward a master's in social work at Florida State. My interest in research preceded formal clinical training as a social worker, but I managed to secure two research assistantships while pursuing my master's degree, which began the process of me integrating research and clinical service.
How do your mentors and colleagues inspire you?
I’m constantly being exposed to new thoughts and fun ways to integrate ideas or practices, largely because my friends and colleagues exist within various professions and fields of study, including social work, psychiatry, neurobiology, epigenetics, social entrepreneurship, ethnography, music industry, theology, marketing, digital media… the list goes on. Whether by regularly scheduled mentorship meetings or something less structured, I seem to find myself participating in cross-disciplinary conversations that bring about new ideas and fresh insights. Some of the best advice I ever received was to stay curious. Recently, one of my mentors told me to “make sure you nail down all the edges of the tent.” That pretty much sums up what I aim to do.