Being a Social Worker: Not Just a Counselor


One of the things that I have always valued as a social worker is that we are concerned about the “big” picture.  By that I mean that we are aware that when a client comes to us and with a problem about stress, we don’t just develop a concern about the symptom, but we recognize the more profound causes of that stress---which usually lead us to societal forces.  Although stress is an individual reaction to stressors; our society does an outstanding job of creating those stressors.


In the 21st Century we have observed a “…serious erosion of trust and confidence in our business, educational, health, and political institutions” (p. 3 in Barbara Okun’s Effective Helping, 6th Edition, Brooks/Cole: Pacific Grove, CA, 2002.  Other page references in this handout are from this same source.)  The dichotomous way Americans view life tends to create powerful stress creating tensions between those “…of privilege versus underprivilege of different ethnic and socioeconomic groups; inclusion or exclusion of populations with special needs, such as mental and physical disabilities; disparities between federal and state governmental policies; individualism/group as opposed to community cohesion; and expedience versus quality of human and social services” (p. 4).


When we work with individual clients, families, groups, and communities, we bring that comprehensive aware of causes to the helping process.  A person with emotional pain is seen as a person who may well be a victim of powerful social forces.  That does in no way eliminate that person’s need to learn how to deal effectively with the results, the pain, but it changes how we might help them deal with the causes.  An example of this is the following case:


“Client: My husband is getting more and more depressed.  He never thought, after 26 years of working for the same company, that he’d be laid off with no notice, and now he doesn’t think he’ll be able to find another job. And they replaced him with a younger person at half the salary.  Just one week after a fabulous job review!  They were so horrid and nasty the way they did it.  Our health insurance runs out next month.  I’m scared---I don’t know what to do.  We may not be able to get insurance because I had breast cancer five years ago.


“Helper: It really is frightening to have the rug pulled out from under you.  You both are experiencing real stress and I can appreciate how helpless you feel.


“Client: It’s so unfair.  I can’t reassure him, because I’m not so sure he will find a comparable job.  He really has been so responsible and so good I just don’t understand how this can happen.


“Helper: Sounds like you guys need to find out more about your options.


“Client: What do you mean?  There’s nothing we can do.


“Helper: I’m not so sure.  First of all, I’d talk to the unemployment people about possible benefits, talk to other people who’ve been laid off from that company and see if together you can find some patterns, and certainly talk to a lawyer about your rights---the state may have some laws about your right to health insurance.  You may want to talk to the antidiscrimination people if there seems to be a pattern of ageism.


“Client: I’ve been thinking of talking to some of the other wives.  My husband doesn’t want to make waves---he’s frightened and terribly hurt. 


“Helper: Let’s go slowly, but at least begin some exploration and see what’s going on.  He may find that taking some steps to learn more about his rights will make him feel better.  At the same time, I’d suggest he see his doctor to be certain there are no medical issues contributing to his depression.


“Client: Well, it can’t hurt if I talk to a few people.  And you’re right, I never thought about talking to the unemployment people, and I know he hasn’t even thought about applying for that.  It seems so demeaning.


“Helper: You’ve worked hard and responsibly all your lives.  And this isn’t your fault or his.


Client: “It doesn’t feel that way” (pp. 200-201).


More than anything else, social work is about having an attitude.  For example: think about the attitude the teacher has in this example:


Ms. Smith is a teacher supervising children.  Another child, Tommy, runs up to Ms. Smith and angrily accuses Steven of stealing his yogurt.  These are preschool age children.


“Ms. Smith: Steven, why did you take Tommy’s yogurt?


“Steven: I dunno.


“Ms. Smith: Don’t you know that it’s wrong to steal?


“Steven: Uh-huh.


“Ms. Smith: I’m going to have to tell Mr. Singer about this.  You go sit in the corner until he comes back.

“Steven: O.K.” (p. 36).


“Ms. Smith was not helpful, since she did not help Steven to retain his feelings of self-worth and dignity or to understand his own behavior.  (Frost would add: Assuming he even took the yogurt!)  Nor was Steven helped even to begin to verbalize what the problem really was all about, much less to understand what he could do about such problems in the future.  Ms. Smith was apparently not concerned with Steven’s feelings, nor was she concerned with trying to understand him.  Behaviors that she used are judging, punishing, threatening, and blaming.  She also asked a ‘why’ question, which ensures defensiveness.  If people knew why they did things that cause trouble, they would not have to get into compromising situations.  Questions such as those of Ms. Smith cut off communication and encourage denial and withdrawal.  Exploration and understanding cannot occur if communication is cut off” (p. 53).


Exercise: So you become a more caring Ms. Smith and rewrite the brief case study.  Remember, I expect you to show your attitude and that attitude should reflect your awareness of why a child might take another child’s food.