Abstract: Surviving Social Work & Suicide: An Autoethnography of Encounters with Racism, Sexism, Hetero-Centrism, and Mental Health Stigma in the 1st Year on the Tenure-Track (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Surviving Social Work & Suicide: An Autoethnography of Encounters with Racism, Sexism, Hetero-Centrism, and Mental Health Stigma in the 1st Year on the Tenure-Track

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Maxine Davis, PhD, Assistant Professor, University of Texas at Arlington, TX
Background: Critical race theory suggests anti-blackness permeates American life, making racism present in every system and organization regardless of individual intentions. The social work/psychiatric/mental health/nursing fields and institutions that train providers are no exception. Experiencing oppression is directly related to worsened mental health. There are few published first-person accounts that capture the experiences of patients admitted to the hospital for psychiatric care, especially ones who work as health educators. Furthermore, accounts of Black women’s experience as first year tenure-track faculty are limited.

Methods: As a Black-woman who experienced multifaceted oppression from graduated mental health professionals, I used autoethnography to examine my experiences in the context of academic and health services cultures, connecting these details to existing literature. The purpose of autoethnography is to “retrospectively and selectively write about epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity and analyze these experiences” p. 276 (Ellis et al., 2011). “Autoethnography is not about focusing on self...but searching for understanding of others (culture/society) through self” p. 49 (Chang, 2008). Upon selecting book-ending points for data collection/analysis, I examined literature on topics salient to my experience (the trials of black women in academia, mental health stigma, racism as trauma). I collected data including journals, emails, drawings, health-records, text-messages and video-recordings. I reconstructed events, using the data to confirm or challenge reflections. I provided findings to colleagues for feedback and solicited Black-women scholars to identify areas for improvement and examine verisimilitude.

Results/Excerpt: This autoethnographic account documents and analyses patterns of oppression in a school of social work, which trains healthcare providers. The study also offers patient experiences of racism while receiving in-patient and out-patient psychiatric care. “By the time I completed the end of the first year on the tenure-track, I felt I had been through enough trauma to last me an entire academic career....Ultimately I left the end of that first academic year surviving my lowest point in life. I wish I could recount moving from survival into thriving, but I cannot. I learned first-hand the consequences of failing to cultivate a healthy departmental culture, abusing power, and creating a culture of intimidation. However, I also realized I held a position of power valuable for advancing social work and I would not be silenced. I reached from the depths of my soul for my faith in God to guide me and to the ancestors, to uplift me.”

Discussion: In line with evidence demonstrating the positive effects of having contact and hearing the stories of people who live with or have experienced mental illness, this work offers a contextualized yet rich account of a lived experience as strategic resistance to stigma and oppression. Helping professionals must be intentional about recognizing and dismantling systems of oppression by first examining how these evils manifest within themselves. Neglecting to engage in assessment, planning, intervention and evaluation of organizational culture as it pertains to oppression, has far-reaching consequences including exposure to trauma, exacerbating risks among marginalized populations.