Fear and the Social Work Response

by Marc Herstand, MSW, CISW

“…the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”

Franklin Delanor Roosevelt, Presidential inaugural address, March 4, 1933

In late November I testified at a hearing on a bill that would prohibit transgender students from using the bathroom or changing room of their gender identity. From listening to the proponents of the bill, it is clear that the bill was based upon the fear that without the bill boys would enter girls’ bathrooms “on a dare” without consequences and that transgender students would expose their genitals to the opposite sex in changing rooms. Of course in the Wisconsin school districts as well as in states and school districts nationwide that allow transgender students to use the bathroom and changing facilities of their gender identity, this has never happened.

Another fear based issue is whether we should accept Syrian refugees in this country. Despite the fact that current screening procedures can take up to two years and are extremely stringent, the Republican presidential candidates and many Governors (mostly Republicans) have used the fear of terrorism to try to block any Syrian refugees.

In an article I wrote for our newsletter over the last year I described the irrational fear of Ebola experienced by a Madison friend of mine who had returned from Ethiopia (3,000 miles from any Ebola cases) and the irrational fear of HIV/AIDS when my family was denied an apartment in San Diego in the late 80’s because I was working at an AIDS organization.

It is unfortunate when fear and ignorance drive public policy and public attitudes and actions. As I often state in presentations I make at social work programs, social workers work with clients and societal conditions that the average citizen and most legislators have no understanding of and often no compassion for. Whether it is a victim of domestic violence (why don’t they just leave?) a perpetrator of domestic violence or sexual assault, an ex-offender, or an undocumented immigrant there is tremendous ignorance and often fear for these individuals.

It is our role as social workers to counter the fear and ignorance that is so prevalent in our society. With enough effort and community education over time we can make a difference and improve the lives of our clients and society as a whole.