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Social Work Practice and Spirituality

As the New Year begins, many of us look to the hopeful possibilities of the future.  The New Year can be a catalyst to start over and grasp the future that will serve us best.   I am not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, but I was thinking about what I could focus on in my clinical practice, in order for me to be a better social work practitioner.  I was looking not to be a better employee or business owner but a better social worker.

I decided to focus on doing a better job of bringing spirituality into my social work practice.  Even though social workers are trained to look at the whole person, for some reason, it seems like a lot of social workers have difficulty including spirituality in their services.  Clinicians do a great job with the mind and body part of a person but falter a bit at spirituality.

Social workers are often confident with working with a diverse population so why is religious or spiritual preference any different?  Maybe a social worker is worried about offending their client.  They may be comfortable asking personal questions about their client’s sex life but spiritual life – not so much.  Sometimes social workers are so cognizant of not proselytizing or pushing their own beliefs on their client, that they just avoid asking the questions.   One I’ve been guilty of in the past is to avoid the question because I don’t want the client to feel like I’m judging them if they say they don’t have any spiritual practices.   Some social workers may just feel like they don’t have the knowledge of the individual’s religion or spirituality to provide guidance.

The field of social work has been getting better, overall, including spirituality.  Virtually any assessment tool that you find today will have questions on people’s spirituality.  Time and experience have taught social work that a person’s spiritual beliefs not only help them feel whole but can be a strength.  A person’s spiritual beliefs may give them hope or confidence for the future.  A person’s spiritual beliefs might give them a sense of belonging or connection to the community.

Conversely, sometimes there may be shame involved with religious beliefs or other barriers.  A person’s identity and history is wrapped up in their spiritual beliefs.  If we fail to ask about someone’s spirituality we are missing a part of them we may be able to help heal.

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Social Work – So Much to Love!

With Thanksgiving just behind us and continuing in the holiday season, many of us take time to express thanks and feel gratitude about the bounty we have.  Most of us are thankful for our families, friends and other loved ones.  We feel thankful for the health we may have, the material things we have acquired, laughter, children, moments of joy, and even just being alive

People often say they are thankful to have a job and a way to provide for themselves and those they love.   I rarely hear people say they are thankful for the career they have chosen because it ignites their passions.  My wish for everyone is not only do they have a job that pays the bills but a career that gratifies and feeds their soul.  I am grateful to have found that career in social work.  If you are thinking about becoming a social worker, are a social worker or even know a social worker, check below for the list of reasons I am grateful for this calling.

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Assisting Individuals with a diagnosis of Mental Illness

As a social worker, you often work with vulnerable and struggling clients.  One such group, you may work with are individuals diagnosed with a mental illness.  Mental Illness does not discriminate.  Any population you work with, will likely have some people living their life with mental illness.  Sometimes because of media portrayals and other misconceptions, working with people diagnosed with mental illness can be scary or daunting.

There are many types of mental illness. The DSM-V (where the criteria for different mental health diagnoses is listed) has about 991 pages.

Below are some basic definitions of common diagnosis you might come across.

One definition of Mental Illness I like is from the Mayo Clinic

Mental illness refers to a wide range of mental health conditions —disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behavior. Examples of mental illness include depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders and addictive behaviors. Many people have mental health concerns from time to time.

                                        (www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/mental…/definition/con-20033813)

 

I like this definition because it normalizes mental health issues.  Mental health conditions run on a continuum.  Just like people, mental illness is complicated and some people struggle with more difficult issues than others.

Specific Diagnosis Definitions (Also using the definitions from the Mayo Clinic.)

  • Major depressive disorder — prolonged and persistent periods of extreme sadness
  • Schizophrenia is a severe brain disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally. Schizophrenia may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behavior. Contrary to popular belief, schizophrenia isn’t a split personality or multiple personality. The word “schizophrenia” does mean “split mind,” but it refers to a disruption of the usual balance of emotions and thinking.                                                                                           (//www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/schizophrenia/basics/definition/con-20021077)

Those are just some of the diagnoses you may come across in your work.  Let me share some tips for a social worker to remember when working with this population.

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You are a Tea Pot. (Guide to self-care for Social Workers and Everyone else!)

A weird phenomenon in a society that is so much instant gratification and making sure “I” get my fair is that individuals are notoriously bad at self-care.  Individuals take their responsibilities seriously and want to do great jobs at being a Social Worker, Parent, Friend, Caretaker or son or daughter, that all energy is focused on this task.  It is admirable to live up to responsibilities and care for others, but there are pitfalls to not also focusing on self.

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Technology, Social Media and the Social Worker

nature-laptop-outside-macbookSocial workers run the gamut on technology and social media.  Some hate it and some love it.  I love it!  If you are reading this article – you are participating in it.  My personal opinion is that technology is the way of the world and we can embrace and utilize it or be left behind.

Social media assists the social worker with connecting with others.  People spend a lot of time on their computers and smart phones.   Social Media helps you market your practice and lets your clients know who you are.  I don’t know how many times someone said to me “Your website was so welcoming” or “the quotes you put on Facebook really help me be more positive.”  It humanizes you and you can share your message with others.

Social Media also opens up a path to communicating with other professionals. There are therapists in different states that I have never met in person but I have shared dialogue with and learned from.  It allows for perspectives outside of just our immediate circle. Randomly, it has also helped me engage with my adolescent clients.  In the world of technology I am old!  The youth I see teach me about different sites and apps and it helps build rapport. (I would have no idea how to use or even what snapchat is if it weren’t for my adolescent clients!!!)

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If I were my client I would… (Social Work and Self-Determination)

As a social worker, we care about people.  We want them to live the best life they can.  And…at least secretly – we are sure we know what the best choices are to get what we view as the best life.

It turns out though – that even though we are assisting people in finding their way – their choices and their desired outcomes aren’t up to us.  One of the main tenets of social work is self – determination.

The National Association of Social Workers states self-determination is an ethical principle of professional practice.

 “Social workers respect and promote the right of clients to self-determination and assist clients in their efforts to identify and clarify their goals. Social workers may limit clients’ right to self-determination when, in the social workers’ professional judgment, clients’ actions or potential actions pose a serious, foreseeable, and imminent risk to themselves or others.”

It is imperative that a social worker is aware of their own value system and beliefs so they aren’t subconsciously or subtly moving the client to the clinician’s goals.  You want to act for your client’s best interest but who decides what that is?

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Tips for the Social Worker Helping a Distressed Client

We all know people are complicated.  Social workers often assist individuals who are experiencing escalated feelings and behaviors and are at their most vulnerable.  A good social worker is often called in to deescalate volatile situations.  Social Workers are counted on by other professionals to jump in and calm a situation.

People tell me all the time that they couldn’t do what I do as a social worker.  You probably hear stories about working in the field and think you wouldn’t know what to do if someone is in emotional crisis.  It can be scary.  However, I bet you wouldn’t be drawn to social work if you didn’t have some knack with people already. As you gain experience you will build on your innate people skills and learn different ways to interact.  Here are some tips to get started.  (And they don’t just work with clients – they can work with all your relationships.)

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Let’s Talk About Ethics!

A long time ago, when I was earning my BSW degree, we had a journal assignment to complete each day during our internship.  Basically, I was to identify and discuss an ethical dilemma I encountered each I time I worked.  Social workers come across ethical dilemmas every day. They interact with complicated systems and people.  The decisions of a social worker impacts individual’s lives and the answers are rarely black and white.  It takes work to practice as an ethical social worker.

What are ethics?  What does it mean to be ethical?   Ethics are different than the law.

The law is about what is legal.  For example, everyone talks about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPPA.)  This is a law.  Choosing not to follow this or other laws could lead to criminal charges, convictions, prison and/or monetary fines and other penalties.

Ethics are about the “should.”  Ethics are what choice a person “ought” to make.   There are not necessarily legal ramifications for not being ethical (although there could be professional or moral consequences.)  Ethics are where a person asks- “What is the best decision in this situation.”  Unfortunately, when you are working with complex clients the best choice isn’t always obvious.  Many times a professional will have to choose between several not so ideal choices and decide which choice is least harmful.

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Do I have what it takes to be a social worker?

When I started college I had no idea what career I would choose.  Then, my first semester, the Psychology class I tried to add to my schedule was full.  Disappointed, I signed up for a Sociology class.  I’ve always thought it fateful I ended up in that Sociology class because it became the foundation for my entire career.  I told a woman in my dorm about my Sociologist dream and she said “I don’t know if there are jobs in Sociology.   You should go into social work instead.”   With that push, everything came together.  My qualities and experience meshed so well with the values of social work.  I found what I was born to do.

Are you curious about your fit as a social worker? Are you wondering what qualities are beneficial to have?   These are a few of the skills I believe are essential for a modern social worker.

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Life is meant to be lived not endured…

Have you ever heard of an elevator speech? This is a short introduction you might give someone to explain who you are or what your job is. The idea is you will intrigue someone to learn more about you in order to bring in more clients or champion your cause.

It might seem obvious that mine might start with “I’m a social worker who…” And I am a social worker and I am proud to be a social worker but that isn’t how my elevator speech starts.

“Hi, I’m Julie and I have a passion to help people live the life they want to live.”  That is it. That is what it means to me to be a social worker. I support people in their quests to live their best life.  To live their passions rather than just getting by. No matter what your role is as a social worker – you are likely helping people improve the quality of their lives and you do it by meeting them where they are and with the dreams they have. I believe that life is so much more for people who live their passion so of course I want to help everyone do so.

The thing is, sometimes people in helping professions such as social workers, nurses, teachers and many others- know how to help others reach their goals but full a little bit short of making their own goals. I am definitely guilty of sometimes forgetting to take my own advice. Below are some tips to living your passion that not only can you pass on to clients but you can remember so you are following your own passion.

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