Self-Defense and the Helping Professions Part II – Alan Jensen

The Different Mindset between Social Work and Self-Defense.

Clinicians and self-defense practitioners have a very different mind frame and changing between the two can be difficult without training and real world experience.  Most individuals in the helping professions have a mind frame of providing assistance in different forms.  Whether it is therapy, substance use, case management, or meeting basic needs, the idea is that people are inherently good and we can help and because of that, we are safe.  This leads to two false beliefs: the person served will respect and reflect the work that the clinician is trying to do and that the clinician will most likely not be assaulted.  They may be “difficult” or “resistant to treatment” but engaging nonetheless.  An example of this is the clinician working in an area known to have gang activity engaging on their own terms (i.e. in gang neighborhoods).  The assumption is that the clinician is safe because they are trying to help.  This can be a big mistake.

The self-defense practitioner has a different frame of mind.  He, or she, understands and knows, sometimes too well, of the issues facing us today and is training to face it.  It may not be the best training, or the most realistic, but it is something.  In an assault, some individuals freeze, the best advice is to do something, anything.  If you’ve been training, hopefully it will come out when you need it most.

I’m not saying that clinicians or substance abuse counselors are not aware, it’s quite the contrary with multiple systems in place.  When doing outreach they go out in pairs, when doing home visits, they are available via phone, and when in clinics they have methods for addressing emergencies.  Clinicians know to be aware of their surroundings and assess for safety.  But many times, clinicians do not trust their gut or are told to continue working with an individual even after voicing their concerns.  Recently, I expressed concern when working with an ex-convict with PTSD who was sweating and becoming increasingly agitated mid-session.  When discussing his anger and my safety concerns, I was told that they could be “intimidating” and to continue my work.  My work did not continue as he was arrested less than a week later.

At this point I want to address therapeutic counseling and the inherent potential danger and why I, and others, do what we do.  We are here to help in any way, shape, or form.  We believe that humans, by nature, are good, and that sometimes people express emotions in different ways and sometimes in violent ways.  However, these instances are slim, but very real.  According to, most people with mental health issues are more likely to be victims than aggressors and that is why we need to do what we do.

This brings us to the crux of the topic.  What is the difference and what are the concerns?  Why does clinical work not mix with self-defense?  One reasons can be illustrated in a training of skills to use when physical aggression occurs.  The instructor says, “How many of you have taken self-defense or martial arts classes?”  A few people raise their hands.  “Okay, that’s good, but this is different.  We don’t fight back.”  What I am about to write is going to anger many, but to write it simply: fight back!  I do not care how good you are at blocking, or getting out of the way or trying to remove yourself from the situation.  Something is going to fail and your life is now at risk.  I would rather be alive and lose my job than to lose my life or end up in the hospital.  These situations are made even worse when you have no training or have training that provides a false sense of security.

My last point comes from a situation I had a few years ago.  I was working as a street outreach worker.  I came back to our hub/program to do documentation and any other tasks.  A young adult present asked me about studying psychology at a local community college.  Naturally, I engaged her in conversation.  While talking, a homeless youth runs out the door, stating that he is late for work.  He comes back in the building, gets a drink of water, and pulls a knife.  Why he did this, I do not know.  Was he trying to prove something?  Intimidation?  Maybe he was happy that he had a knife?  Or needed it for protection in a shelter?  We will never know, mainly because I don’t remember what happened next.  All I know is that I got that knife in my hands.  I may have blacked out.

My point is this: all of your trainings and understanding on why people hurt or why they express themselves through violence goes out the window when facing a life or death situation.  Compassion or empathy will not save you.  Your primate and mammalian brain is likely to shut down. Your survival drive takes over, and hopefully what training you have kicks in.  Even if I had a knife, a gun or any tactical gear, it would not have helped.  I was at the mercy of this individual.  Sometimes weapons do not help (a subject for another article), but your training does.  My brain went from clinical work to self-preservation in an instant.  Can other clinicians do the same?  Can they shut off the need to help others and protect themselves?  Can the clinician who brushed my arm at a training and profusely apologized for “assaulting” me do the same?  I know that when I train, I have to shut off that caring aspect, such that some people either do not know or do not see how I could be a clinician.

We need to be able to make that switch from helping others to protecting ourselves.  This means a shift in paradigms.  We will continue to help, regardless of the situation, we will be there to celebrate when things are good and to help you when you fall.  We will support you in your choices, even if we do not agree with them.  But, also that we are realistic and ready for when things become unsafe.

I hope that I have not increased the stigma of mental illness in this article.  I am painting with a small brush, capturing specific instances of aggression in my ten plus years.  We need to address mental illness and substance abuse as we do with any physical illness.  Mental illness and substance abuse is a serious concern with suicide being the 10th leading cause of death in the US.

Alan Jensen, MSW, LICSW

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