Social workers are by nature very compassionate people; they have a desire to help others. They are often faced with heartbreaking situations and must be prepared emotionally and mentally to deal with those situations. Erena DiGonis is a Licensed Master Social Worker who understood from a very young age that individuals may need an extra hand or two at some point in their lives.
As we learn from Erena's interview, sometimes it takes a unique point of view to be a successful social worker. Erena's career to this point has been full and varied, containing many different duties and responsibilities.
What is it that drew you toward a career as a social worker?
When I was 12 years old, my sister was born with many life threatening medical conditions. I was too young to realize what a shift in consciousness this was for me. So I grew up understanding that there is illness and death at every age and that there are families with tremendous emotional needs. I was aware of them, I understood fear, pain, uncertainty, I was not afraid to look them in the eye or reach out with my hand and my heart.
Can you tell us a little about what your work was like as a psychiatric social worker? What type of crisis management did this job entail?
I spent 5 years in a Residential Treatment Facility (RTF) working with emotionally disturbed and mildly mentally retarded adolescents. In a sense, these adolescents were the 'throw-aways" of broken families.....with their damage, they were still having to go through the stages of adolescence becoming adults, with absolutely no idea of how or where they fit in this world.
My unit was co-ed and had 14 adolescents. Some were more mentally ill than others. Some more behavioral and would have aggressive outbursts. I handled the case management of all 14 residents and did psychotherapy for 7 of them. I also conducted a weekly group on various topics. Working in residential, you see the best and worst of them.
Once a week, I was the clinical staff on call for crisis intervention. I had a walkie-talkie and was expected to de-escalate any and all situations. This ranged from a resident crying because their mother didn’t call to the most violent, explosive incidents. We also had residents that liked to run away. Over the fence, we all went following for sometimes miles convincing them to come back. At the RTF, we did do a therapeutic restraint (everyone was trained for this) when a resident was about to harm themself or others and as the licensed practitioner, I had to be on the scene. The worst incidents usually involved the police and EMS.
What were some of the challenges you faced in this work? Did you find it in anyway difficult or draining?
Honestly, the most disturbing experiences were working with young girls that had been sexual abused (over long periods of time). Their self-inflicted damage of cutting, suicide attempts, running away and prostituting themselves, and lack of self esteem was just so heart breaking. It is hard not to think of ourselves at that age, our sisters, friends, cousins, etc. The process of helping them is a long and difficult one and I think in general, it isn't easy to watch someone that is so vulnerable, suffer so greatly.
I gave myself fully over the period of 7 years and I was badly drained. Three years ago, I went back to school for health coaching, which changed my life and renewed my purpose and my own sense of self.
You transitioned to Senior Wellness Workshops, what exactly do your workshops entail?
I remember sitting in an Aging class in graduate school and the Professor mentioning that seniors have a high rate of depression. It seemed like very little was being done. I also remember sitting in my nutrition class and was blown away that the top 3 causes of death are preventable and 70% of deaths are attributed to lifestyle choices. I was drawn to the population and wanted to do something, not collect data.
I work all through NYC and Long Island offering fun and informative workshops on a variety of wellness topics. My most popular are healthy chocolate and green smoothies! I keep things fun but I educate them on the topic and then we try it out. I have done about 450 workshops in 2 years, directly impacting over 5000 people!
During workshops, I talk to everyone. I love hearing their stories. I have met some of the most amazing people. When I talk to healthy and happy seniors, I ask them to share their secrets with me.
What kind of changes do you see in your patients, after being a part of your workshops?
Much of what seniors live with is not a normal part of aging. The advent of junk food, preservatives and chemicals has harmed every age group and seniors are no exception. Interestingly, my oldest and healthiest clients are often from other cultures and have kept their traditions. For the most part, they have kept it simple, fresh food, simple preparation, and herbs.
I love empowering people to become more aware and go back to the way they ate as children.
Most of the seniors, I work with do not want to be on medication and feel awful. They are motivated to upgrade their nutrition and lifestyle. When I go back to a senior center, I usually hear things like, my diabetes is under control, I lost some weight, I have more energy, I haven’t been sick, I am making new meals.
I also encourage them to have fun and be even more fabulous than they already are!
Do you have a story that you can share, that portrays a rewarding point in your career?
I have had so many. When I was a social work intern, I worked in a RTF for young woman. I was deeply connected to most of my girls. I got to share their most vulnerable moments. When I left, I was crying and they were crying. I gave them all beautiful little rocks with their initials. I got so many cards and pictures from them. Every year, they have a holiday party and I went back 3 years later. A few of my girls were there and ran up to me hugging me. In tears, they thanked me for always believing in them and always being there. One young lady who was frequently on suicide watch left shortly after I did. She was in college, thriving and happy. She thanked me for being there during her darkest moments and never giving up on her!
What kind of advice can you offer to students looking to become social workers themselves?
Being a social worker is an incredible profession. You will work directly with people and make a difference in their life. My best advice is learning to detach from the outcome. Think of yourself as a gardener, you plants seeds and not take it personally of a beautiful flower doesn’t bloom.