VA Social Worker Mocks Veteran Suicides

Last night, I came home from work to find this article trending on my Facebook feed: VA manager's email mocks veteran suicides. Disappointingly, I've found little discussion about this situation among social worker blogs and social media groups. As much as I've hardened myself against negative media attention, I was extremely bothered and angered by the actions of this particular social worker. When one of our own violates our Code of Ethics and embarrasses the entire social work profession, it's something that SHOULD be discussed and examined.

To summarize, the article discusses the outrage over a work e-mail sent by a licensed social worker managing the Seamless Transition Integrated Care Clinic at the VA Medical Center in Indianapolis. In the e-mail, sent over the holidays, an elf is pictured in the following scenarios:
One photo depicts the elf peering between the legs of a female doll. "Trying his skills as a primary care provider (doing a pap)," the email says.
Another shows the elf next to a sticky note with the words, "Out of XANAX — please help!" A caption says, "Self-medicating for mental health issues when a CNS would not give him his requested script."
A third photograph shows the elf hanging from a strand of Christmas lights. "Caught in the act of suicidal behavior (trying to hang himself from an electrical cord)," the email says.
While the VA claims to have addressed the situation, the social worker in question continues to be a manager at the facility to the outrage of various veterans groups. On a personal level, I feel conflicted as to how this social worker remains an employee of the VA. Here's my breakdown on everything wrong with what this social worker did:

First, the picture of an elf performing a pap smear is perverted, unprofessional, and inappropriate. If I ever sent out an e-mail at work with such content, I would likely be accused of sexual harassment.

Second, the picture of the elf with the Xanax sign not only makes fun of individuals with anxiety problems, but also mocks and stereotypes those with benzodiazepine addiction. I doubt that veterans suffering from anxiety, PTSD, or substance withdrawals find it a laughing matter.

Third, the picture of the elf hanging himself angers me so much that part of me hopes that this social worker has her licensed revoked. Yes, I'm willing to go so far as to say that. As any social worker knows, the licensing process is an arduous one that requires thousands of supervised hours, continuing education courses, and passage of licensing exams.  Additionally, moving up the ranks at a VA hospital requires years of work, which more than likely involves providing counseling services to countless veterans. Let's not forget that entry level social work jobs at the VA typically require a masters degree. One would think that someone with this much education and experience would know better.

I'm not licensed, not a manager, and probably haven't been in the field as long as this social worker. However, I've provided counseling services to a fair share of adults, adolescents, and children who have attempted suicide.  I've never found it funny, and struggle with how someone can derive humor from such a situation. We live in a society where mental illness and suicide are stigmatized enough as it is. While platitudes about suicide (i.e. "People who commit suicide are selfish") and jokes about suicide/self-harm from laypersons can be explained, I cannot excuse the same behavior from someone who's spent enough time in social work to obtain its highest licensing credential.

As we all know, social work has a reputation problem. Hence, we have to hold ourselves to a higher standard of ethical practice. To quote our Code of Ethics:
The mission of the social work profession is rooted in a set of core values. These core values, embraced by social workers throughout the profession’s history, are the foundation of social work’s unique purpose and perspective:
  • service
  • social justice
  • dignity and worth of the person
  • importance of human relationships
  • integrity
  • competence
When one of our own decides to throw that out the window and act in a manner that is completely contrary to the values set forth by our predecessors, then we should all have a problem with it.

At this time, I'd like to ask all of you to reflect and reevaluate your patient/client interactions and how you practice social work. While humor is an important part of managing our stress levels, it should not be at the expense of those we serve.


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