Q - Don't social workers make their living off the suffering of
A - No,
absolutely not. We make our living by fulfilling a need. Yes,
our patients are suffering in some way. But I look at our work
in a positive light. We alleviate suffering. We help people
solve problems and cope with feelings. We strengthen individuals
We are not ghouls
who prey upon society's unfortunates in order to get a paycheck.
Quite the contrary. We help people whom society has often
forsaken. We treat everyone with dignity and respect. There is
a quote from Shakespeare that really sums it up for me.
I will go root away
noisome weeds which without profit suck
soil's fertility from wholesome flowers.
Richard II, Act 3, Scene 4
Whether we are
providing psychotherapy or advocacy or some other service, we are
trying to help people fulfill their life responsibilities and
their individual potential while overcoming obstacles.
Q - What is the
purpose of social work?
A - The
purpose of social work follows the purpose of life: to have a
positive impact on others. This could be true of any career, but
it is more direct in social work. There are some careers, like
teaching and nursing, where people have a direct and immediate
impact on others. I believe, however, that all jobs involve making
the world a better place. For example, a friendly and efficient
cashier makes the customer's day more pleasant and manageable.
Q - Let's go back
to the concept of suffering. What if all the alcoholics got
sober? Then what would social workers do?
A - Great.
Perhaps someday there will indeed be a medical cure for alcoholism.
But there would still be suffering. That is our human condition.
Most of us are struggling in some way. A medical cure for
addiction is not going to stop all psychological and sociological
problems. Some people would still want to get high. Some people
would continue to abuse alcohol, or they would find some other
chemical to abuse. If we follow a biopsychosocial model, medical
advances alone will never be enough.
So, what would
social workers do? We would still be employed in the helping
professions. We would adjust our specialties to fit society's
Q - Why do
social workers and teachers get paid so little compared to other
Considering our education and our responsibilities, we should get
paid as much as doctors and we should have the same status as
doctors. We save lives. In the fields of alcoholism and drug
addiction, probably especially within the drinking and driving
population, we save lives. In the field of psychiatry, we prevent
suicides. This is not career fantasy or personal
grandiosity--this is fact.
Q - Why do
doctors get paid so much? Why do doctors seem to have much less
difficulty getting insurance reimbursement?
A - I can
only express my opinion on that. First, I think society does not
understand or value social work. Insurance companies should
realize that good mental health has a positive impact on physical
health and on employment stability. Doctors should make more
referrals to mental health workers for their patients with serious
or chronic conditions.
Second, some people
think that social workers lack self-esteem. I have heard it said
that we over-identify with society's victims and the powerless. If
you compare this to the medical profession, however, this argument
does not hold up. Doctors deal with sick and aging human bodies.
Doctors have to touch the parts of bodies. They have contact
with bodily fluids, odors, and so on. This does not seem to have
a negative impact on their self-esteem.
It is more likely
that social workers lack a good business mind. We are more
altruistic. I think we are too focused on the care of others.
Because of this, perhaps our sense of self is slightly askew. We
ourselves place less importance on self-care, including a healthy
Social workers have
pretty good self-esteem. We are a very purposeful people. We
just need to be as conscientious about caring for ourselves as we
are about others.
Q - Why does
society misunderstand social work?
A - Denial is
probably always a factor. We deal with the kinds of problems that
many people cannot face. It is just too painful. It is extremely
difficult, for example, to face that your father committed incest
on you. This just is not the same process as going to a doctor
For those of us
working in the field of addiction, we know there is much
related behavior which addicts feel guilt and shame over. Most
addicts are not going to run to a social worker to reveal buried
secrets. Human nature is just too ridden with defense mechanisms.
Sobriety and mental health require an investment of time.
As Americans we have
a strong belief in responsibility for self. I think there is a
misconception that social workers coddle irresponsible people or
make psychological excuses for people who behave destructively.
We try to understand behavior, but it is illogical to think that
we approve of ripping off the welfare system. Nobody can achieve
good mental health if they behave in ways that hurt others.
Social workers try to move people toward self-actualization and
away from dependency or criminality.
Q - Why do
people become social workers, knowing the disadvantages?
A - I'm not
sure that social work students really know the disadvantages.
For some students, getting an M.S.W. means a step up from a B.A.
level job. From that viewpoint the increase in pay and status is
significant. The disadvantages become more noticeable as the
years pass by. Students might not think in terms of how much it
really costs to support a family, or about whether their
prospective employer is going to provide pension benefits.
A career in social
work is personally satisfying. The desire to learn about human
behavior and to make the world a better place overwhelm the
disadvantages. This does not justify or minimize the
disadvantages, but personal fulfillment probably gets us defocused
from long-term financial survival.
Q - What
would happen to the world if more people went to social workers
A - The
impact could improve our entire society. America has become an
addicted society: alcohol, drugs, nicotine, sex, food products.
If everyone really got sober there would be a major shift in how
people make money. Social workers would be in greater demand.
Drug pushers would have to get other employment. Farmers who grow
poppy fields would have to grow corn, and there would have to be a
market for corn. Some countries would have a difficult time
surviving this change.
If everyone had
good mental health, there would be reduced risks of disease and
accidents. People would be focused on self-care and on
meaningful relationships. There would be less need for hospitals,
and some medical employees would lose their jobs. There would be
less need for medical insurance, and an increased need for mental
Q - So everybody
should have a therapist?
A - That's
probably not a bad idea. What if we took care of ourselves as
well as we take care of our cars? We could take ourselves in for
a three-month checkup, a six-month checkup, and so on. If there
are no problems, fine. Just change the oil. If there are repairs
to be made, then the therapist could make a diagnosis and
recommend a course of treatment.
Q - We could
write, or re-write, the direction of the future?
A - Yes,
Q - Are you
thinking in terms of a utopia?
A - No, I'm
just making a comment, at worst a prediction, on how drastically
different society could be if mental health were a priority.
Disease and accidents would decrease. The economy would initially
become imbalanced and would require adjustments in the job market.
It would also follow that there would be a positive impact on the
quality of our education system and on the criminal justice
Q - Is this
something that you would consider writing more about?
A - Yes,
Q - Why
A - Some
truths are better expressed through a story rather than through a
documentary or a testimonial.
Q - When will
A - Right
now. I am always working on several projects at the same time.
In order to get something finished, I have to choose one project
and make that my priority. Getting ideas is a matter of
inspiration, but getting something finished is a matter of
discipline. I have different projects at different stages of
I'm getting closer
and closer. One sentence at a time. (Written 12/06/04)
Until we meet