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

Self-Defense and the Helping Professions – Alan Jensen

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.