May 31, 2009 9

Social Work: I’m Not a Baby-Snatcher

By in Main, Mental Health

In the past week, I have been completely amazed at the number of people at work who don’t know what I do professionally. A therapist came up to the inpatient psychiatric unit I work on to see a patient recently, and it prompted mass confusion.

First, everyone referred to this person as “Dr. Such-and-Such” when she has a Masters in Social Work and is an LISW (Licensed Independent Social Worker,” not a Doctor of anything. When a discussion arose about whether or not she was Dr. Such-and-Such or just Such-and-Such, I explained to my co-workers that she and I have the same degree and training, and that while she is a licensed therapist, she doesn’t have a doctoral degree and she is a licensed clinical social worker.

This prompted a lot of Q&A:

“So, if you went back to school, you could do what she does?” (No, I already HAVE the schooling and license to do what she does. If I went to work in an outpatient clinical setting, I would be doing what she does.)

“So, she’s a social worker, not a therapist?” (*ahem* She is both, and so am I.)

“So, wait… you could be a therapist too?” (I am a therapist… what do you think I do when I take a patient into a room and we’re in there for an hour?)

“But, I didn’t think social workers did that kind of thing. Don’t you just do discharge planning?” (I do discharge planning as part of my overall role in this particular setting, but I also do individual therapy, family therapy, and occasional group therapy. What do you think I do in those ‘family meetings’ I conduct on a regular basis?)

It’s amazing that people who work with me on a daily basis don’t know what I do because of the common misconception about what social workers do. Everyone on the planet thinks that social workers take people’s children, put old people in nursing homes, and help homeless people find food and shelter.

Sure, some of us do those things, but the field of social work is a very broad umbrella that encompasses several specialized fields. Here is the basic definition of social work, as described by the Indiana University School of Social Work:

Social Work may be defined as the applied science of helping people achieve an effective level of psychosocial functioning (Barker, 1991, p.221). The National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the largest professional association of social workers in North America (1973, pp 4-5), described social work as:

“…the professional activity of helping individual, groups, or communities to enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and to create societal conditions favorable to this goal. Social work practice consists of the professional application of social work values, principles, and techniques to one or more of the following ends: helping people obtain tangible services; providing counseling and psychotherapy with individuals, families, and groups; helping communities or groups provide or improve social and health services; and participating in relevant legislative processes. The practice of social work requires knowledge of human development and behavior; of social, economic, and cultural institutions; and of the interaction of these factors.”

Social workers are expected to get their degree, pass a test for licensure, and then work within a field of competency (a chosen specialty that they’ve had additional training in, through hours/years of practicum and licensure supervision). Some of us are able to work in more than one of these area, depending on our training and experience.

Those chosen fields include (but are not limited to):

Mental health, disaster relief, military social work, rural social work, adoption & foster care, child welfare, family preservation services, homeless assistance, eating disorders, genetics, hospital social work, crisis intervention, school violence, hospice/palliative care, developmental disabilities, advocacy, consulting & planning, employee assistance, veteran services, child abuse & neglect, domestic violence, political development, parent education, school social work, family planning, HIV/AIDS, gerontology, addictions, criminal justice, housing assistance, public welfare, and employment services. (from Social Work Profession, NASW)

Those of us who are social workers in mental health (clinical social work, whether it’s private practice, inpatient, or community mental health) are licensed mental health professionals, or as most would describe it, therapists. We engaged clients/patients in individual therapy, group therapy, and family therapy, and unless we’ve been trained and are competent in additional areas of competency, we can’t come to your home and take your children, and we can’t get you food stamps or low-income housing.

With my experience, training, and practicum hours, I am competent to work in the fields of mental health and developmental disability, (with specialized knowledge in dealing with inpatient psychiatry, inpatient geropsychiatry, addictions, crisis intervention, and self injury). I have no idea how to help a person with an adoption or with school issues, and have only basic knowledge about pubic welfare assistance and low-income housing, and a child welfare social worker or a medical social worker would not necessarily be competent to engage a client/patient in psychotherapy. Level of education plays a factor as well, since a Bachelors-level social worker has different limitations that a Masters-level social worker doesn’t have.

Despite being labeled with the broad term “social worker,” I am specifically a clinical social worker, a therapist, and sometimes it’s honestly just easier for me to say that I’m a therapist than explain that I don’t take people’s babies away. The only reason you would ever have for keeping your kids away from me would be due to the fact that I don’t know the first thing about kids (as a newlywed non-parent) and they usually just freak me out. ;)

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  • Christopher Masto

    And all this time I thought “Social Work” was a euphemism for prostitution.

  • brandice

    I'm sure it's easy to make that mistake when one's brain has been addled by Java on a daily basis.

  • Jason Martin

    That sucks. I kind of feel your pain. Although I think most people that I work with are clear on what I do, when others find out I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, they mistakenly assume that means I can't/don't do psychotherapy with individuals. I can and I do. I understand their confusion, however. The name of my license is misleading, harkening back to the 1960s and 1970s when MFTs did most or all of their work with couples and families. That is not the case today, however, and my training and legal definition of my license support that; only the name does not. To ease this confusion, I usually just say I'm a psychotherapist. It's accurate and seems to cover all of the bases.

    I think I'd scream, though, if I worked with people who were that clueless about what I did. (and how can Such-and-Such get away with being referred to as Dr. Such-and-Such? If she encourages it, isn't that an ethical violation?)

  • brandice

    I don't think that she encourages it, simply allows it, which bothers me. I'm not sure it's an ethical issue, but it would really be against my own ethical ideals to behave that way. I feel you on the MFT misconceptions… we have some MFT interns on our unit and they deal with the same thing, although at least the patients and staff understand that in SOME manner, they are actual therapists. ;) lol

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    What can she do with her masters degree in International Law/Relations?
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