Today's Topic



Essay No.78

Natalia J. Garland

Print Version

Q - Don't social workers make their living off the suffering of others?

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 and families.

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
The noisome weeds which without profit suck
The soil's fertility from wholesome flowers.

---King 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 needs.

Q - Why do social workers and teachers get paid so little compared to other professionals?

A - 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 six-figure salary.

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 bronchitis.

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 for help?

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 health coverage.

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, ideally.

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 system.

Q - Is this something that you would consider writing more about?

A - Yes, as fiction.

Q - Why fiction?

A - Some truths are better expressed through a story rather than through a documentary or a testimonial.

Q - When will you start?

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 completion.

I'm getting closer and closer. One sentence at a time. (Written 12/06/04)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

Find More Topics in the Table of Contents

Return to Homepage


Copyright 2004 Natalia J. Garland