Helping to deal with stress of modern life

Today is World Social Work Day, Shanghai has registered 16,912 certificated social workers, who are employed in areas such as drug rehabilitation, mental health and psychology.
Ti Gong

Fiona Douglas, a British social worker, speaks to international school staff on child protection issues. 

BRITISH social worker Fiona Douglas, 30, has been listening to the problems and concerns of international school students and expats in Shanghai for more than three years, trying to help them find effective solutions for distress in their lives.

“Being non-judgmental is the most important trait in a social worker,” said Douglas. “That means accepting people for who they are, for what they believe and for actions they have taken.”

Douglas has been working for ELG, a special education and therapy provider, since she came to Shanghai in 2014 to join her husband-to-be, who was employed here. As services director at ELG, she leads a team of psychologists, counselors and other therapists.

Today is World Social Work Day, highlighting the dedication of people like Douglas, who strive to make people’s lives happier and safer.

Shanghai has registered 16,912 certificated social workers, who are employed in areas such as drug rehabilitation, mental health, psychology and behavioral science, according to the Shanghai Civil Affairs Bureau. Fifteen universities in the city offer degrees in social work, turning out about 1,000 graduates a year.

ELG was established in Shanghai in 2006 to provide a range of services, such as behavioral, occupational and speech therapies in over 12 languages to children and adults suffering from depression, anxiety, domestic violence or other marital and family problems.

“There is a lot of academic pressure in many international schools here, which can cause a lot of stress and anxiety,” said Douglas. “Students feel they have to get straight As. They need to be good enough to be admitted to Harvard, Oxford or other top universities.”

Her advice to them is to spend more time looking after themselves.

“I try very hard to promote the message that sacrificing your sleep, your eating and your social life for a good grade is not always a good idea,” she said.

Douglas said many foreign children in Shanghai have trouble adapting to a different culture and to the transience of the expat community. They find themselves constantly saying goodbye to friends who return to their home countries after school term ends.

“The challenges are quite specific to this group of children,” she said. “Many expats families are always on the move, which is hard on children. They may never feel a sense of home or identity. And some of these children have never even lived in their home countries. They are called ‘third-culture kids.’ Living abroad can be very hard and confusing, particularly in the teen years when young people are searching for their identities.”

Douglas took her undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol in England and went on to earn a master’s degree in social work at the University of York.

Ti Gong

Fiona Douglas watches students take part in an activity at an international school fair. 

Children at risk

She worked as a child protection social worker for authorities in York, Leeds, Maidenhead and Windsor, investigating any reports of children being harmed or at risk.

“Many times, I had to have children taken away from abusive parents,” she said.

If no extended family could be found to care for them, the children were commonly put in foster homes.

“It’s very sad because sometimes it seemed impossible to do anything to help them,” she said. “They don’t necessarily want to live with strangers and can feel rejected and unloved in a foster care setting. But at least they are safe.”

Douglas said she is all too familiar with the problem of youth suicides.

“When someone says they are thinking of suicide, their family often doesn’t believe they will really do that,” she said. “But expressions of a wish to commit suicide actually signal very high risk. The most important thing is to hear, believe and then institute safety measures.”

She said she would like to see more focus on child protection in China.

“Many problems in life stem from the first few years of childhood, and the best way to help prevent adult mental health problems is to do more to give parents early help,” said Douglas. “I would love to see more social workers and organizations in China focus on training parents how to manage their children and how to give them all the support they need for lifelong emotional resilience.”

China has taken major steps forward in recent years to enhance child protection. The Anti-Domestic Violence Law of 2016 sets out legal protections for children who suffer abuse or live in a household where there is domestic violence.

This law makes it clear that harm to children within a family can no longer be considered a private matter. Rather, it is a public issue and there is a public duty to intervene.

Douglas has developed a sharp insight into the lives of adult expats in Shanghai.

“Expats often experience relationship challenges,” she said. “Often, at least one partner is overworking and has to travel a lot, and the other feels a sense of loneliness and isolation. Friends and family are suddenly on the other side of the world, and those back home can’t understand their life in China or help them.”

Extra-marital affairs only worsen situations, she said.

Expats are often under social pressure to show they are having a wonderful time, sharing the joys of their perfect lifestyle in Shanghai via Facebook and Instagram. But, in fact, they might be feeling terrible and lonely. “It is hard for them to tell other people the truth, especially when they might be making good money, their kids are going to an international school and they have an ayi who helps with cleaning,” she said.

She suggests that expats throw themselves into things like volunteer work and community groups to make new friends and develop a sense of contributing to the society around them. It’s important not to hide themselves away.

Douglas said there is much to celebrate on this World Social Work Day.

“I have met many social workers here who are intelligent and amazingly skilled,” said Douglas.

“I can feel the growing energy of this emerging profession, and I am very glad that influential people here are choosing to do this kind of work.”

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