I had a discussion the other day with a colleague about social workers and the social work profession. This colleague is someone who has been working as a social worker for many long years. We were talking about public opinion of social work and my colleague said, “Sometimes I just want to explain to people that we’re more than baby snatchers in this profession.”
Her comment causes me to stop and reflect because that too is not my first thought when I think of social work. But in the past, many came to associate social workers with just that—those who worked with the Child Protective Services (CPS) process of removing children from unsafe environments. Admittedly, it is an antiquated notion.
Social workers just like therapists, attorneys, law enforcement, and medical workers get involved with the CPS process at times, but by the same token it’s the same for social work as each of these other professions. There are many different subspecialty areas to go into.
When I think of social work today and social workers, in general, I think of peopl who are knowledge workers. They know where to go for resources—in many instances we are intermediaries between the populations we serve and the community and outer world at large.
In this way, social work is a bit like—well librarianship? At one point in time I thought that might be a profession I would want to go into, as well. I’ve been spending a lot of time in libraries lately for the research that I’m doing.
What industry doesn’t need the value of someone who has the knowledge of where to go to get information?
While I’m working on this doctorate in social work at the University of Southern California (USC), I still think of myself in many ways as an LPC or psychotherapist, sure. I’m a licensed professional counselor--that first, I suppose. I’m someone who has many years of experience studying psychology and sociology and working with clients.
I got my undergraduate degree in both subjects. But I’m also someone with many years of experience in the business world as a proposal writer and analyst. This social work degree at USC is focused on practice and entre or intra preneurial practice at that.
We’re learning about how to lead the public discourse around issues related to the public welfare, about data-driven methods, and design systems thinking. Let me throw some other buzz words out—leadership principles, problem-solving, thinking outside of the box.
This thing about knowing where to go for information and resources. That really resonates with me. It always has. Ask me a question, and I’ll typically be able to tell you where you can go to find the answer. My ability to do this along with the ability of billions of others to do the same has gotten much easier in the 21st century days of Google.
As it turns out, in the research that I’m conducting on resilience this is a key quality for a resilient lifestyle, as well, which is why the topic for this post.
In order to grow, one would have to know not only where to go for resources, but then trust that those resources will carry them through. Growing up in a family living on the margins, I learned early on about the importance of community resources.
The thoughts I went through in relying on community resources as youth such as “free lunches” can be a strange and stigmatizing feeling. They are not unlike the thoughts that anyone would go through in similar circumstances–-am I really this bad off? Surely there are others that need this more than I do? Do I even deserve this type of help?
These thoughts coupled with, well, but it’s for a purpose and maybe I’ve met that purpose and maybe it’s my turn. Then the thought who really cares at the end of the day, I’m hungry.
I’ve met those times as an adult too, of struggle.
And then I think what a strange life. If in my own life, things have fluctuated so much between wealth and poverty—between opera at Lake Tahoe and waiting in line with the homeless to receive assistance myself.
I have this to say though, that I am grateful for my life. I’m grateful for all of these strange opportunities--the people that I’ve met along the way and the places that I’ve been.
So, back to the resources part. One of the books that I read recently by a man named Robert Sapolsky at Stanford noted that it’s not socioeconomic status or SES alone that causes health disparities but the lack of protective factors or access to needed resources. Similar SES gradients occur even in those countries with socialized healthcare.
But protective factors alone also don’t explain fluctuations in health as we see that even amongst the wealthiest there is ill health.
What then causes ill health? Perhaps stress.
Sapolsky states that we are more likely to activate a stress response in the body and are more at risk for ill health and disease if one of the following is present 1) if we feel as though we have little control over whether or not we experience the stress 2) if we don’t know for how long the period of stress will last or at what intensity 3) if there are few outlets for our frustration regarding the stress 4) if we have a sense that the presence of the stress means that our circumstances are going to worsen 5) if we lack social support for the strain caused by the stress.
Now think about this in terms of needed community resources. Resources are meant to 1) put people back in control of their lives 2) shorten the duration and intensity of a crisis 3) provide an outlet for frustration 4) stop the bleeding 5) provide social support.
Researchers are still looking for better methods of testing for the effects of psychosocial stress. Many psychotherapists will point to higher levels of cortisol to explain the stress that is causing depression etc. but investigators are also looking at other indicators of disease for example in this paper researchers at Princeton are looking at serum levels of antibodies to a herpesvirus known as cytomegalovirus (CMV) which has links to Alzheimer’s disease, inflammatory processes, and cardiovascular disease.
Marmot here traces the causes of ill health to lack of freedom, autonomy, and empowerment. These are also the things that we promote in providing therapy. With William Glasser’s Choice Theory and Reality Therapy the following have been identified as the five basic needs we humans have. They are 1. The need for a sense of self-worth, empowerment, achievement 2. The need to feel part of a loving community 3. Freedom, independence, autonomy 4. Fun (needs no explanation) 5. Survival and knowing one’s basic needs of food, shelter, transportation are met.
Sapolsky, R. (2005, December). Sick of poverty. Scientific American, 293(6) 92-99.
Dowd, J.B., Aiello, A. E. & Haan, M.N. Stress and the SES-Health Gradient: Getting Under the Skin. Unpublished manuscript.
Marmot, M. (2006). Health in an unequal world: social circumstances, biology and disease. Clinical Medicine, 6(6) 559-572.
Monica A. Ross, LPC is a Licensed Professional Counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Monica can help you to foster resilience. To schedule your appointment with Monica, you can reach her at (512) 572-0055 or request an appointment with her on the Empathic Psychotherapy Scheduling Calendar.