Social Work/Helping Profession/Mental Health

The Importance and Value of Social Work

What I love about summer is the relaxed pace of life. The days seem longer as there are more daylight hours. I am a reader and over the past few weeks have lost count of the number of books I have read either for pure fun or work related reasons.

I just finished The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. This was chosen as a light read (meaning not work oriented), but the topic itself makes one put their own life into perspective and appreciate living in North America. The book is about Kamila Sidiqi and other women of Afghanistan before, during and after the Taliban’s rise to power. The book is about a young woman who reinvented herself as an entrepreneur (becoming a dressmaker) to provide for her family while bringing hope and employment to dozens of women in war-torn Kabul who would otherwise have been unemployed.

I found after reading this book that my thoughts turned to social work. Should we like many professions narrow our niche or should we continue to become more entrepreneurial? Social work has grown by leaps and bounds over the years and covers so many different areas, populations, employment opportunities and in a sense territory typically covered by other helping professions. While often the various mental health professions complement one another-it could be viewed from the outside that social work has entered the area of another. Some social workers may not be happy to see this in writing, but it is true. The social work profession is becoming divided, we have lost our true calling/unifying goals as a profession; our cohesion in a sense because of all that we can do: clinical social work with a focus on counseling and therapy, case work, case management, intake, medical social work, group facilitation, individual and family work with all demographics from infants/youth to seniors, along with research, teaching/education, to macro level work and influencing regulations and policy. This in turn has led to social workers wanting to be recognized and appreciated as a needed profession which has further led to dissatisfaction by many re: pay and value as a professional within the helping professions. Social workers are one of the lowest paid in the mental health or helping professions and there have been many discussions on LinkedIn and other social media sites focusing on this dissatisfaction along with licensing requirements. To be a ‘jack of all trades’ on one hand shows adaptability and flexibility, but on the other, shows the profession is not neatly and narrowly defined and perhaps this is part of the problem. According to PayScale, a Psychologist in NY with 1 year experience earns $55,000 median, a Mental Health Therapist in NY with 1 year experience earns $41,000 median, a Social Worker with 1 year experience earns $40,000 median. Notice the range in salaries and that SW is the lowest paid although not by much and I did not differentiate whether the social worker was a BSW or MSW. Because of our diversification, is this why we are not as highly valued re: pay scale?

Any person who has entered the profession has done so because of a connection to others, the desire to make a difference, to see social justice occur, to assist in providing all with the basics and beyond. There is importance and value to be registered and prove the degree held (BSW or MSW) and to show work experience within the profession (title protection). Clinical social work is all together different and is for reimbursement purposes for insurance for those providing therapy or counseling. If one is not performing clinical work, they should not need to be licensed or undergo hours of supervision by one who is licensed along with paying to do so. This indicates a need for two different levels of licensing; one for clinical and one for general social work.

Social workers need to clearly and succinctly define themselves. According to the International Federation of Social Workers the definition for the profession is, to promote social change, problem solving in human relationships and the empowerment and liberation of people to enhance well-being. Utilizing theories of human behavior and social systems, social work intervenes at the points where people interact with their environments. Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work. According to NASW,  social workers help people increase their capacities for problem solving and coping, and they help them obtain needed resources, facilitate interactions between individuals and between people and their environments, make organizations responsible to people, and influence social policies. Social workers may work directly with clients addressing individual, family and community issues, or they may work at a systems level on regulations and policy development, or as administrators and planners of large social service systems.  According to the Canadian Association of Social Workers, the profession is concerned with helping individuals, families, groups and communities to enhance their individual and collective well-being. It aims to help people develop their skills and their ability to use their own resources and those of the community to resolve problems. Social work is concerned with individual and personal problems but also with broader social issues such as poverty, unemployment and domestic violence. Human rights and social justice are the philosophical underpinnings of social work practice. The uniqueness of social work practice is in the blend of some particular values, knowledge and skills, including the use of relationship as the basis of all interventions and respect for the client’s choice and involvement. In a socio-political-economic context which increasingly generates insecurity and social tensions, social workers play an important and essential role.

At least there is some overlap in these three definitions, but there are differences, note the words/language used. Also, NASW does not mention the words social justice at all. I was taught in graduate school and by my supervisors over the years that social justice is a core value of the profession. What do others think? Should social work become more succinct as a profession? Are we currently too diversified? What are your ideas to better define the profession and show/prove the value of a social work degree?

By Victoria Brewster, MSW

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