In October of last year, I stood in front of my peers at Glad Day Bookshop to propose that folks like us, working on the frontline of community services, need our own form of emotional support.
The event was organized as a frontline workers’ appreciation night.
I didn’t have a solution. Neither did the three other workers who volunteered their Friday night to share their experiences and insights on working in community spaces.
What made us organize the event was the need to talk freely about our unfiltered experiences.
The GTA is weathering some of the most devastating effects of both the housing crisis and overdose crisis. Those of us working in the community services and homeless sectors are stretched for time and funding, causing many to question what we can realistically deliver.
Travis Lupick has covered the overdose crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside extensively while writing his recent book, Fighting For Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction.
He says, “There’s still a huge problem in recognizing the scale of the problem [the overdose crisis] and having it understood by the general public, and one of the primary reasons is people do not want to talk about it. A lot of people have experienced overdose among family members or friends, and they are afraid of what they saw, to the extent where they want to just put it out of mind. My experience is that workers don’t want to talk about overdose for very different reasons. After eight hours on the job at an overdose prevention site, they’re tired of talking about drugs! They don’t want to talk about drugs anymore.”
Lupick says support groups for frontline workers started popping up in the Downtown Eastside to discuss what was happening. But he says that they weren’t a very popular initiative.
“It turned out that a lot didn’t immediately want to sit in a circle and talk about what they experienced – even if they knew it would help them. What they wanted were tickets to a Drake or Iron Maiden concert. They wanted an escape… which is totally fair!”
Since our initial October event, the Frontline Workers Collective has assembled online and more recently through our meet-ups and workshops.
Our starting point has been to create dedicated time to share experiences and develop new skills. Our events have encouraged participants to be frank and hopeful about our need to continue in the work.
Many frontline workers are both providers and recipients of community supports, and that’s why community support roles are so accessible and appealing: they allow us to be frank about our own experiences with folks who share our lived experience.
Support work builds connections and relationships that can help vulnerable communities that are seeking equity find the resources and supports that they need to thrive.
But our workplaces also have a reasonable expectation that frontline workers are taking some responsibility for self-care outside of work hours. That is easier said than done.
An essential part of our self-care is debriefing about how our work affects our mental health. The Handbook Of Community-Based Clinical Practice by Anita Lightburn and Phebe Sessions offers that, “the goal [of debriefing] is to restore hope and enhance group survivorship and community recovery from devastating experiences where the social fabric that holds people together has been torn.”
Lightburn and Sessions reference the impact of debriefing with communities who have experienced event-based trauma like natural disasters or the Columbine high school massacre. But the notion of group survivorship rings true for frontline workers who deal with traumas that are often more nuanced and deeply rooted in systemic inequalities.
The value of debriefing goes beyond immediate crisis response. It’s also a way for frontline workers to evaluate our work with the aim of providing better and more informed community services.
The Harvard Business Review describes it as: “more than a casual conversation to discuss what did and didn’t go well, debriefing digs into why things happened and explores implications for the future. The conversations may be uncomfortable, but participants realize that the discomfort of getting things out on the table is minimal compared to the pain of making the same mistakes again.”
As community support workers, one of our greatest strengths is the ability to provide space for the trauma experienced by our communities. Debriefing should allow us to process, be vulnerable with how we are affected and hopefully be able to re-engage back into our lives.
Positive outcomes are not always met – some crises take longer to process than others. There’s also the reality that not everyone works in a supportive and communicative workplace.
What happens when we are unable to debrief at all? How are we re-engaging back into our own lives when we are too tired or too traumatized to absorb the intended benefits of debriefing within our scheduled hours? What could successful, outside-the-workplace debriefing look like? We’re still pondering these questions together at the Frontline Workers Collective.