Psycho-WHAT? (Part Five: Social Workers)

Social Workers have been around in one form or another for about a hundred years in English speaking countries.  The profession has changed remarkably over time and come to encompass a large numbers of career choices or specialties, ranging from:

-child welfare and adoption
-hospital and medical social work
-community organization and change
-administration of non-profit and community programs
-psychotherapy ranging from families and groups to individuals
-social policy analysis
-research and teaching

While many in social services agencies call themselves social workers, many states are now restricting the term to those licensed in the field, at least those with a Bachelor’s degree, but often a Master’s degree.  The Master’s is considered the “terminal” or final degree for the profession, with those holding a Ph.D. or less often, the D.S.W. (Doctor of Social Work) being those usually teaching in universities or working in government agencies on larger social problems and policy planning.

For mental health counseling, the largest number of licensed professionals offering services in the U.S. is probably social workers.  Most social workers concentrate in areas that have to do with counseling of one type or another, but even those who focus on administration have to take classes in human behavior and development and techniques for individual or family counseling.

While its often a goal for a social worker to start a private practice, this is often easier said than done.  Most licensing boards require at least two years of work under supervision before you can work on your own and few social work programs actually teach what is needed to do the business of a private practice.  More often than not, social workers find themselves in hospitals or agencies, but, because of their education, they may move in their careers to the point of management if they aim in that direction.

Mental Health professionals often “carve out” certain territories for themselves.  Psychologists have testing as their focus: IQ tests, ink blots, neuropsychological tests and vocational testing are some of the things they are trained in.  Family therapists work with families and couples in counseling.  Psychiatrists have control of medications, putting them in the top position in the often medication obsessed western culture.  Social Workers, on the other hand, look at problems that people find themselves in and analyze the larger social conditions that they find themselves in.  The community resources of an area are one thing that most social workers familiarize themselves with, connecting people to specialized agencies or hospitals as needed.  While all mental health professions work with the poor, social work does so more than any other specialty, both through tradition and training.  As for who they work with, they may find themselves working with any population that the others work with, depending again on their training in family therapy, individual therapy, group therapy or child guidance and psychotherapy.

As with any other profession, the level of knowledge, expertise or competency varies widely.  My own experience of social workers that I’ve worked with has gone all over the board.  I’ve seen some hospital social workers that hid in their office and were only available when a patient needed to go home (discharge planning), others were internationally known presenters and trainers in their field, with most falling in between.  Graduate education, while standardized with certain classes that are needed, can also vary strongly, with some schools demanding more academically than others.  Before I transferred to the University of Michigan (a top three school at the time), the first year of my Master’s was at a school in the top 20.  I noticed the difference in work load, intellectual expectations and level of teaching ability in professors almost immediately.  While my first year had a few, inspiring, good professors, my second year had a professor who even made Human Service Organizations interesting (a class I was dreading and thought would be terribly boring!)

My next entry: who are those people who help people WITHOUT degrees?

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