I recently attended a creative exhibit sponsored by a friend’s nonprofit organization when one of the guests there struck up a conversation with me. Naturally, being in New York, it’s interesting how we often jump to asking someone about what they do before even remembering their name.
As social workers, because our field covers a wide breadth of roles, we may often answer this question by using our current title or role:
“I am a case manager.”
“I am an advocate.”
“I am a psychotherapist.”
Or, for those of us proud of our social work stripes, we may simply say, “I am a social worker.” You own the t-shirt.
[Proceeds to take out NASW membership card, which at one point I thought reminiscent of the Burger King kid’s club card from the 90s.]
Either way, our answer will most likely be responded to with follow-up questions, such as “Oh, you’re a psychotherapist? Are you a psychologist or psychiatrist?”
Alternatively, “Oh, you’re a social worker? Do you work for child welfare?”
Being that this was a cocktail, I deviated from my usual “social work” answer and succumbed to the temptation of the more prestigious-sounding “psychotherapist” (guilty as charged).
In any case, I was served a nice dose of humble pie when our aforementioned guest suggested something to the effect of me being a “poor man’s psychologist (!).”
This ensued into a —somewhat defensive— discussion on the state of mental health care today, with the increasing training of masters-level clinicians replacing the talking role of psychiatrists of yore, triggered my own reflection on my role-centered reflexive response, and also a reflection on, despite how much I support my friends, how I should avoid going to these types of events (just kidding, in case you are reading this, M).
The Upshot: We are fortunate to practice a profession that encompasses many roles and works for justice at various levels, but with many roles, comes much needed psychoeducation about what we do and what we bring to the table by the very nature of our values and perspective about sociopolitical struggles.
While we share roles with other professions (such as case management with human service workers, and therapy with other mental health disciplines), we are differentiated by:
1. The Person in Environment Perspective (The only PIE that’s not bad for you).
2. Social Work Values (Dignity of the person, importance of human relationships, self-determination, and social justice).
3. Jane Addams (‘Nuff said).
So, social workers, what do you do?