Saturday, March 1, 2008

Don't Mistake Kindness for Weakness

We may never be strong enough to be entirely nonviolent in thought, word and deed. But we must keep nonviolence as our goal and make strong progress towards it.

- Mahatma Ghandi

In honor of National Professional Social Worker Month, please indulge me in venting on one of my pet peeves: Social Workers as Gullible Wimps

Some of my co-workers ask us if we can be available to do some “hand-holding” with a complainant. I know they respect us. I know they value our work and our opinions. And – I really try not to let this bother me, but it does. I’m trying to figure out why.

I have eight years of professional training – college, graduate school, and 2 years post graduate clinical supervision. The State of Texas says I’m qualified to diagnose and treat mental illness, even open my open practice if I want to. I don’t. I like where I am just fine, thank you. Actually, I love my job and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. My clients are awesome and I genuinely like my co-workers (like one big dysfunctional family, we are).

I guess it bugs me to have my profession reduced to “hand-holding.” And, I think it minimizes the victim’s role as someone whose “hand needs to be held.” You guys sit over there and hold hands. Of course, in reality, my co-workers and I do a lot of hand-holding and we’re glad to do it.
It is a chance to help someone when they need support. However, there is a lot more that goes on. I call it street social work. Many of our clients do not seek counseling, although I wish they would because it would help them. So, this gives us the chance to go to them, to provide some supportive and educational counseling with them.

It goes along with this idea that all you have to do to be a social worker is to “be nice.” Well, you should be kind, and compassionate, and open to all kinds of people – that is true. But, you also MUST have the ability to confront, demand, and advocate. The trick is knowing when and how to do it.

The term “social worker” is often misapplied to anyone who works for a non-profit or CPS. That’s like saying a paralegal is the same as lawyer. They both do legal work, but one has the training, degree, and license and one does not. In Texas to practice social work, a person must have a degree in social work and pass a licensing exam. There are different levels of social workers, from bachelors to masters level clinical social workers. In addition, clincial social workers are required to have two years of post graduate clinical supervision.

Social workers are the most represented discipline among mental health treatment providers. We have training and skills in crisis intervention, substance abuse, mental health diagnosis and treatment, and suicide assessment and intervention. We are trained to consider a person’s culture, gender, socio-economic class, ethnicity, and many other factors. We study social and clinical theories. We are trained to work at a political level as well. What impacts you and me, probably also impacts others and we need to demand a systemic response.

Now to the idea of social worker = gullible wimp. You’ve probably seen this in the media, when “social work” is code for someone who is gullible, not willing to be tough, or hold others accountable, things like: “We aren’t a bunch of social workers.” or “This isn’t a social work office.” Grrrrrrrr I may have compassion for someone who has done an awful thing, and even try to understand how and why he got there. That doesn't mean I don't believe he should spend a long time in prison.

Anyone can be nice. Anyone can confront. The skill is confronting someone while being kind. And being aware not only of the words being exchanged, but the emotions going on – being aware not only of the content of the conversation, but also the process, being aware of the present moment, as well as the context. It is hard work. It takes a lot of training and practice. We aren’t just having a chat. All the while, we are observing, thinking, teaching, and helping our clients to recognize their strengths and acquire skills to makes their lives better.

Yes, of course, at the heart of it are compassion, empathy and connection. It wouldn’t be anything without that. But, don’t mistake our compassion and understanding for weakness. Please.


Anonymous said...

You tell 'em sister...oops I forgot I'm not a social worker...but all the same...tell 'em!

As you can see I finally got a gmail account.


CJ Social Worker said...

Well, even though your training is primarily in psychology, you are a feminist you're practically one of us.

Anonymous said...

love your blog! I can't wait to share it with students and colleagues!

CJ Social Worker said...

Well, thanks for stopping by and for the compliment.