March is social work month. While the month celebrates the contributions and hard work of social workers across the nation, it also provides the opportunity to clarify what it means to be a social worker. There is often a misconception about what social workers do. Introducing yourself to someone and telling him or her that you are a social worker usually kills a social conversation. Often I am met with responses like, ‘Oh, so you take babies away for a living?’ or similar questions that reflect an inherent distrust of the profession. Once someone awkwardly thanked me without really understanding what it was that I did. Why is there such a misunderstanding about social workers?
There is a stigma unfairly attached to mental health. The media sensationalizes the dangers of mental illness, which creates fear and ignorance of mental health and the helping profession. In truth, a very small percentage of individuals suffering from mental illness are violent, and those who are, are more likely to inflict harm upon themselves than others. Yet the stigma continues and even exists in mental health treatment. Some clients tell me that they are embarrassed to share with friends and family that they are engaged in therapy, even when therapy has been helpful in their healing and recovery.
Perhaps a clearer understanding of what it means to be a social worker would help combat some of the stigma. The profession of social work has been around since the 1900s and pioneered by influential women, such as Jane Adams (1860-1935), Frances Perkins (1880-1965), Edith Abbot (1876-1957), and Mary Ellen Richmond (1861-1928). Originally, social work was associated with charitable and rescue societies, deemed as feminine or mothering work. As a profession, social work has evolved greatly, now attracting both men and women to pursue careers in social work. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), social work is the fastest growing career in the United States with almost 650,000 diverse members in the profession.
Social workers can wear many different hats. Social workers can work in hospitals, schools, substance abuse treatment facilities, private practices, inpatient units, outpatient units, residential treatment programs, detention centers, counseling centers, mental health clinics, homeless shelters, legislations, community organizations and many more.
One of the things that attracted me to a career in social work was the tenacity and adaptability of this work. I have had and have many roles as a social worker. I have worked in hospitals, outpatient clinics, agencies and private offices. I have served diverse populations of children, adults, teens and pregnant and postpartum mothers. I have worked in poor neighborhoods and affluent communities. I have been a crisis worker, case manager, therapist, supervisor and group facilitator. As a social worker, I once helped run a theater program for children with emotional and behavioral issues to promote socialization skills. Currently, I work in at a metropolitan hospital on the postpartum units and as therapist in my private practice.
As a social worker, I have confronted some of the most challenging issues facing individuals, families, and communities, including vulnerable and marginalized populations. I have focused on solutions that help people to overcome hardships, restore functioning and seek balance. There is a feeling of peace when finding the perfect placement for a foster child after months of searching. There is a satisfaction of coming up with an agreed upon discharge plan after hours of deliberating with my medical team. There is a profound honor of witnessing an individual client gain new insights in her life. I have experienced these victories because I am a social worker. This is not to say that these solutions come easily, or without their own set of challenges and pains. But in many cases there are resolutions.
I share all of this now because most of the time I cannot. When I have sat with a client during a particularly powerful session, I cannot share the details with my family. When I am feeling stuck on a case, I cannot seek advice from my husband. Social work is a profession where there is so much support within itself, but not always the same available support outside of the field.
I am proud to be a social worker. I am grateful to the clients and their families that allow me into their lives, even if briefly. I am challenged and inspired by this work. I am sometimes frustrated by this work. But I am glad to be a social worker and for the many opportunities that this profession has allotted me.
Submitted by Jamie Kreiter