We come across amazing people doing amazing things all the time. We thought we’d start sharing their stories and the incredible work they do since they define what it means to be a do-gooder. So here’s Kari Jennings’ personal story of what it’s like to be a social worker helping people with mental illness.

By Kari Jennings, Social Worker

My name is Kari Jennings. I received my BSW from SUNY Albany in 2000 and MSW from Cal State East Bay in 2009. I am currently completing the hours necessary to be eligible to get my LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker).  I have been working in community mental health since 2002. I am drawn to working with adults with severe and persistent mental illness. Our work together consists of supporting the adults to function as active participants in their communities and to manage their symptoms so that they can have a fulfilling life, as defined by the client.  We work together to identify goals and interests that lead the client to finding daily activities such as school, work, volunteering or being involved in projects that interest them. My work comes from a strength-based perspective and I strive to empower all the adults I work with to find their strengths and a positive sense of self.

My job is to work with adults with severe and persistent mental illness in San Francisco County that are considered the most acute.  A very common misperception of adults with severe mental illness is that they are dangerous and violent people that we should be afraid of and stay far away from. The media, like with any marginalized group, has a tendency to only report on the rare acts of violence committed by people with mental illness.

I have been in this field for over a decade and have yet to see or be on the receiving end of violence. Instead, I get to see each of these people for who they are: loving parents, supportive family members, friends, academics, artists, musicians; compassionate, kind, loving, resilient people. I have met people at the clinic who have insight and a beautiful way of looking at the world, that they share with anyone who will take the time to listen. Most of all they are just people like you and me. They are struggling with an illness and typically its one that people are afraid of or don't believe it is real. I get frustrated when I encounter people who believe that if the person would just "pick themselves up by their bootstraps" they can get better. 

I always try to share my experience of working in this field and show a personal side and give some perspective. Bridging the divide between the people with mental illness and bringing them into our community is beneficial for everyone. Psycho education of the mainstream is one of the most powerful tools we have to ending the stigma against mental illness. First and foremost, we need to end the portrayal of people with mental illness as dangerous violent people. Persons with mental illness deserve to be treated with dignity and have access to appropriate treatment and housing.

I have a hard time coming up with one story in my time working in the field of social work that gave me perspective on life. So many things over the years have shaped my life view. I don't think I could adequately get my point across. The take home lesson is how it has given me perspective on life. The people I work with impress me and warm my heart daily. The people I work with can be so kind, thoughtful and compassionate when the world has not treated them the same, in fact it has been downright cruel at times. They have shown me what the word resilient truly means.

It’s a cliché but I really have learned to laugh more and appreciate all that I have in my life. The amazing group of family and friends, my health and a job I love doing! The people I work with are so smart, funny and supportive. I love getting to know people and learning how they view the world and what’s important to them. I love to see people come together and support one another through the tough times and the good times. Doing this work has made me a better person for so many reasons. Not only does it keep things in perspective, but I have learned that you need to get to know the person and respect the aspects of their life that they choose to share with you. The people I have worked with have enriched my life and I hope I have done the same for them. It’s important to share your life with people who are different from you. It's one of the best ways to grow!

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