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UCLA School Mental Health Project
Center for Mental Health in Schools
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Continuing Education: Unit II
The Rescue Trap
So you want to help! That's a nice attitude, but it can sometimes lead to trouble -- especially if you aren't aware of the interpersonal dynamics that can arise in helping relationships. Several concerns have been discussed in the psychotherapy literature. One that almost everyone has experienced has been described as a "rescue."
A rescue is helping gone astray. Rescues encompass a cycle of negative interpersonal transactions that too commonly arise when one person sets out to intervene in another's life in order to help the person.
Think about a time when someone you know told you about a problem she or he was having. Because the person seemed not to know how to handle the problem, you offered some suggestions. For each idea you offered, the person had an excuse for why it wouldn't work. After a while, you started to feel frustrated and maybe even a bit angry at the person. You may have thought or said to the individual, "You don't really want to solve this problem; you just want to complain about it."
In rescue terms, you tried to help, but the person didn't work with you to solve the problem. The individual's failure to try may have frustrated you, and you felt angry and wanted to tell the person off. And that may only have been the beginning of a prolonged series of unpleasant interpersonal transactions related to the situation.
If you were ever in such a situation, you certainly experienced the price a person pays for assuming the role of rescuer. Of course, you know you didn't mean to become involved in a negative set of transactions. You wanted to help, but you didn't realize fast enough that the individual with the problem wasn't about to work with you in order to solve it. And you didn't know what to do when things started going wrong with the process.
If you can't remember a time you were the rescuer, you may recall a time when someone tried to rescue you. Perhaps your parents, a teacher, or a good friend made the mistake of trying to help you when or in ways you didn't want to be helped. The person probably thought she or he was acting in your best interests, but it only made you feel upset -- perhaps increased your anxiety, frustration, anger, and maybe even made you feel rather inadequate.
Rescue cycles occur frequently between teachers and students and parents and their children. Well-intentioned efforts to help usually begin to go astray because someone tries to help at a time, in a way, or toward an end the person to be helped doesn't experience as positive.
Let's take the example of a teacher, Ms. Benevolent, and one of her students, Jack. Ms. Benevolent is a new teacher who has just begun to work with a group of students with learning problems. She sees her students, Jack included, as handicapped individuals, and she wants so much to help them.
Unfortunately, Jack doesn't want to be helped at the moment. And when he doesn't want to be helped, Jack is not mobilized to work on solving his problems. Indeed, efforts to intervene often make him feel negative toward his teacher and even toward himself. For example, he may feel anger toward Ms. Benevolent and feel guilty and incompetent because of not working to solve his learning problem. Ironically, not only doesn't he see the teacher as a helper, he also feels victimized by her. In response to these feelings, he behaves in a self-protective and defensive manner. Sometimes he even assumes the stance of being a helpless victim. ("How can you expect me to do that? Don't you know I have a learning handicap?")
Because Jack continues to respond passively or in ways the teacher views as inappropriate, eventually she becomes upset and starts to react to him in nonhelpful and sometimes provocative ways. She may even have a tendency to subtly persecute Jack for not being appreciative of all her efforts to help him. ("You're just lazy." "If your attitude doesn't improve, I'm going to have to call your parents.")
The more the teacher pushes Jack to act differently and attacks him for acting (and feeling) as he does, the more likely he is to feel victimized. However, sooner or later he is likely to become angry enough about being victimized that he reacts and counterattacks. That is, if he can, he shifts from the role of victim to the role of persecutor.
When interveners who see themselves as benevolent helpers are attacked, they may tend to feel victimized. Indeed, the experience of having been unsuccessful in helping may be sufficient to make some interveners feel this way. As Jack shifts to a persecuting role, Ms. Benevolent adopts a victim role. ("After all I've done for you, how can you treat me this way?" "All I'm trying to do is help you.")
Of course, interveners are unlikely to remain victims for very long if they can help it. If they do, "burn out" may well occur.
Sometimes, after the fighting stops, the parties make up, and the intervener starts to see the other person's behavior as part of the individual's problems and tries once more to help. However, if great care is not taken, this just begins the whole cycle again.
How can the cycle be avoided or broken? One of the essential ingredients in a good helping relationship is a person who wants to be helped. Thus, it is necessary to be sure that the person is ready and willing to pursue the type of help that is being offered.
If the person is not ready and willing, interveners are left with only a few options. For one, the intervener can choose to give up trying to help. Or if it is essential that the individual be forced to do something about the problem, the intervener can adopt a socialization strategy. Or effort can be made to explore with the individual whether he or she wants to think about accepting some help. In effect, this last approach involves trying to establish motivational readiness.
Regardless of how long you have seen a student for counseling, if a relationship has been established, you will need to deal with termination. This involves discussing the fact that the counseling is coming to an end, exploring any anxiety the student has about this, and reassuring the student about how s/he can deal with subsequent problems.
If the student is being referred for more counseling, you will want to provide support for a smooth transition, including clarifying what you should share with the new counselor. (This is a good reason for keeping a confidential Chart Record on the student.)
If the student will not be receiving additional support, you will want to try to connect her or him with an appropriate support network to draw upon (e.g., staff, peers, family).
If feasible, extend an invitation asking the student to let you know periodically how things are going.
Finally, a cautionary note about taking care of your own mental health:
In schools, the end of a school year may result in many students leaving all at the same time. For the counselor, this may produce a major sense of loss that adds to the frustrations of the job and contributes to feeling "burnt out." Burn out is a problem for all school staff.*
Contents of Section B
Ongoing Case MonitoringRemember that from the time a student is first identified as having a problem, someone should be monitoring/managing the case. The process encompasses a constant focus to evaluate the appropriateness and effectiveness of the various efforts. That is, case monitoring is the process of checking regularly to ensure that a student's needs are being met so that appropriate steps can be taken if they are not. Such monitoring continues until the student service needs are addressed. It takes the form of case management when there must be coordination among the efforts of others who are involved (e.g., other services and programs including the efforts of the classroom teacher and those at home).
Case monitoring involves follow-ups with interveners and students/ families. This can take a variety of formats (e.g., written communications, phone conversations, electronic communications).
All case monitoring and case management require a system of record keeping designed to maintain an up-to-date record on the status of the student as of the last contact and that reminds you when a contact should be made. An example of a form used to facilitate follow-up on referrals is included on the following page.
Form Used to Aid Follow-Up on Referral Follow-Through The following form should be used in conjunction with a general calendar system (a "tickler" system) that alerts staff to students who are due for some follow-up activity.
Student's Name: ___________________ Today's Date:_____
DATES FOR FOLLOW-THROUGH MONITORING
Scheduled date for Immediate Follow up_______ (about 2 weeks after referral)
I. Immediate Referral Follow up Information
Date of referral __________ Today's date_____
Immediate Follow up made by_______________________ Date_________
Service Need / Agency (name and address) / Phone / Contact person / Appt. time
A. Put a check mark next to those agencies with which contact was made;
Contents of Section B
In responding to the mental health and psychosocial concerns of students, school staff make a variety of decisions. The process begins when the problem comes to a staff member's attention.
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Contents of Section B
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