In the ten plus years I’ve been in the social services field, I have had multiple confrontations and aggressors. However, I have also had the good grace to train in traditional martial arts and self-defense for almost twenty years. On the other hand, most clinicians in the field or in out-patient settings have not. Most agencies, such as my own, understand the risks that we take on a daily basis and have some form of self-defense programs. Some have been implemented for years, others were created after the deaths of other clinicians. I can emphatically state that these programs do not work and many times, instill a false sense of security for the clinician. But what system does and how can it be implemented?
I cannot remember how many seminars or talks I have attended where I was told by a man with a microphone and long credentials how to act in the moment, lacking an understanding of real world interactions or verbal de-escalation training under stress. This is followed by a supposed “expert” explaining in multiple steps how to protect oneself, e.g. hair pulling, allowing staff to practice only a few times, before moving on. This does not teach anything. There is no practicing verbal de-escalation and no movements are done to become ingrained or could be done under pressure.
My current agency has a program called S.O.L.V.E.: Solutions of Limiting Violent Episodes. It was developed by a former Law Enforcement Officer (LEO). There are two trainings for the SOLVE, twelve and twenty four hours, depending on if you work in a group home. A yearly recertification is required. This training includes verbal de-escalation and self-defense techniques, cumulating in a written test and mock real world scenario. It sounds like a good program on paper. In reality, you cannot fail, all answers are given before the test, and you need to demonstrate the skills with an agreeable aggressor. The verbal de-escalation advice is sound, but not stressed. Once you pass the course, the recertification is around skills only. Again, you cannot fail. I’ve seen them pass people who don’t know their lefts and rights. How does this help clinicians in the field? It hinders them. “I passed SOLVE, I must be okay.” This is akin to the person who just got their black belt. “Because I’m a black belt I can defend myself.” No, you, most likely, cannot. When that client becomes verbally aggressive, can you remember what someone said months ago? Can you remember a skill you practiced five times? In almost all circumstances I can say “No!” It is a false sense of security. The big question I have, is what can?
Many years ago, I was trained in the “spear” technique: observe and act. It worked. However, I quickly realized, that I would hit many of my clients when they got close in a session with no malicious intention. The goal is psychiatric rehabilitation, not to hit someone who is already traumatized. Recently in a master class with Sensei George Mattson, he was taking about aggressors and how much distance one should have between yourself and the aggressor. I have some knowledge about keeping space, I have an idea of what to do if someone makes me aware that they are an aggressor, I can work with that. It’s when people are close that I don’t know what to do; I have had physical contact multiple times before I could respond accordingly. So I asked Sensei Mattson about this. He told me that there was a lot of “infighting” that one could do, and continued on with the class. What does one do when in close contact but is trying to help? Identifying the threat and being attune to situations helps.
Gavin de Becker is right, fear is a gift. However, those in the helping professions tend to ignore this gift. How many times does a clinician from a psych triage program go alone into an unknown home to do an assessment? How often does a clinician go to a new client’s home without reading anything about the person, regardless of the safety issues? We, many times, talk ourselves out of these feelings, stating that we are in the helping profession. I teach listening to oneself and removing oneself before the situation escalates, but only filed a Harassment Prevention Order (HPO) after twenty-four logged voicemails, multiple threats, and a death threat. He broke part of my car and I continued working with him. What, do we in the helping professions have to rely on to keep ourselves safe in our work? This is the big question for me. We are out in the home, in the community, in the school every day and there is no adequate way to address the safety issues that we encounter. What there is to rely on is not sufficient. Spend some time, talk with a social worker, talk with a psychologist, or a clinical nurse. They all will have stories and their own take on this issue.