Thursday, June 26, 2008

I'm a what what worker?

I had a job interview a week ago for a full time nights position as a crisis worker at the shelter where I work. The interviewer asked me how it fit with my overall plan as a professional. I gave him a quick answer about how I'd be there for at least a year, and how I wanted to get my MSW at some point, but it got me thinking about what exactly a social worker is and whether I'm doing "it" or not.

Most people think of social workers as worker in Child Welfare (DCFS, CFS, CAS etc). Other people think of social assistance or housing when they first hear "social worker". In fact, while social workers do those things, they also work in hospitals, clinics, geriatrics, schools, counseling centers, crisis lines, large companies, health care services, insurance agency, shelters, churches, and well, pretty much everywhere. Social workers are often part of multidisciplinary teams working in palliative care, aging, and mental health as well as education. As a student I learned as much from the psych nurses and occupational therapists on our team as the social workers, if not more, about working with serious and persistent mental illness.

I tend to think that social work is more of an attitude then a profession title. When I did a practicum in mental health, the nurses, occupational therapists, and support workers were all "social workers". Some people in the profession would get upset with me saying this, but I believe it to be true.

Social workers are people who look at situations holistically. We consider the whole person, the biological, the psychological, the social and the spiritual. We are people who realize that problems do not exist in isolation. It's very important to consider a persons entire "system" when looking at the health and mental health. Whereas some people see health as simply biological, or depression as a person struggle, social workers work to see the entire picture and all the factors that contribute to personal well being. Social workers go beyond the person and pay attention to the political and systemic issues at work in situations. We advocate for social justice and policy change. Social workers are advocates. We help client's work their way through society's systems, to understand, and to have their rights fulfilled. We interact on a sometimes daily basis with nurses, doctors, lawyers, advocates, parents, children, families. We are people people (well except those who work in policy analysis and stuff, but that will never be me. And even then, they're doing it for people).

So is my job now social work? I would have to argue that it is. Though I work a lot of nights, don't carry a case load, and am called a "crisis worker", I am still a social worker. I care about people. I realize that though they are coming to a shelter they have greater needs then food and shelter. That being said, I also realize that though they have other needs, it can be hard to work on things on an empty stomach with no sleep. I realize that winding up in the drunk tank is more then personal failure and yet client's need to take responsibility for their actions. I understand that our chemical detox unit is both an end and a beginning. I recognize that in order for things to change there must be change in society as a whole, and yet I recognize that change must come from within. I have realize that I have huge power to effect change and yet I realize that I can't do everything.

In my job right now I have the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives. And that, is what I think social work is all about, no matter what area of the field you are working in.


cb said...

A lot of really interesting points there. I left my 'Dictionary of Social Work' at work but it sounds as if the work you are doing fits within the 'definition' criteria. The thing is that 'social work' is a very broad category - just like a doctor can be a cardiologist or a psychiatrist! I find that most people relate social work to children and families work and on meeting new people it is one of the questions I get asked most! But there's a lot more to it than that.
Here, in the UK, there is relatively new legislation that means that only people with Social Work qualifications (undergraduate or postgraduate) can call themselves 'social workers' in an attempt to regulate the profession - and it is an offence now to call yourself a social worker if you are not registered with the General Social Care Council (that regulates these things) as a social worker so it makes things a lot simpler!
I think social workers are pretty much as you say, people who look at situations systemically and draw on a theoretical bases to draw positive outcomes. But a lot of days, it feels that social workers are people who drown in pieces of paper and argue over who used who's mug/coffee/stapler.
The other thing I think it really is important to do as a social worker is to reflect on what you are doing and why.. anyway, I'm gabbling a bit now and its been a long day.. but it's a great post with a lot in it.

Still Dreaming said...

Yeah, my province is trying to pass that same legislation now. It was also bring in manditory registration with the Institute of Registered Social Workers much the way nurses and doctors must be registered. I think it's good legislation, so I'm hoping the election isn't called before it passes, sigh...politics!

puppybraille said...

Wow! It's great to see another social work blogger. I'm working toward my BSW, and hoping to eventually get my MSW as well. I definitely agree with your definition of social work. I'm lookingforward to reading more of your posts.