Helping People Help Themselves
Wherever and whenever help is needed, social workers are there
When it comes to helping people, perhaps no profession is more people-oriented than social work. Certainly, no profession provides more opportunities for allowing individuals to help those in need. No matter what stage of life an individual is at, no matter the issue or problem being faced, a social worker can help. That ability to help is the reason why hundreds of Bluffton graduates have chosen careers in social work.
Bluffton has been educating social workers since the mid- 1940s. Graduates serve a wide range of people in a myriad of fields, including aging, child welfare, mental health, family services, corrections, disabilities, domestic violence, schools, hospitals, public welfare, substance abuse, community organization, disaster assistance, rehabilitation and more.
"At its core, social work is about people connecting to people," says Jennifer Hughes, MSW, LISW, assistant professor of social work and director of Bluffton's social work program. "It's an applied science that is about enhancing strengths, developing solutions and connecting people with community and resources."
With social workers trained to problem-solve and connect people with community and resources, it is no surprise thattheir demand is on the rise as individuals and society as a whole face increasingly uncertain times. Social workers work tirelessly to provide the resources and tools to help instill hope in individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities. They work to better lives and, subsequently, better society.
Mind and spirit
Mental health is by far the most frequent specialty practice area of licensed social workers, reports a 2006 study conducted by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Center for Workforce Studies, and social workers now make up the largest group of clinically trained mental health providers in the United States, says the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). They work with addictions, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, grief/loss, relationships, stress management and suicide prevention to name a few.
Patricia (Metzker '68) Graber, MSW, LCSW, chose the mental health sector at a time when the social work profession wasn't fully understood: "At that time, people didn't understand what social work meant or what I wanted to do with it." Working during the early days of community mental health centers, Graber focused on treatment and prevention education, serving as a counselor at such a facility in Versailles, Mo.
In the past year, nearly 50 percent of the U.S. population, ages 15 to 54, reported having at least one psychiatric disorder (NASW report), and approximately 9 percent of youths aged 12 to 17, and 7.6 percent of adults aged 18 or older, experienced at least one major depressive episode (SAMHSA report). Graber says more public awareness and acceptance of mental health issues has led to increased treatments, but more education is necessary for greater public understanding.
"In an age when outcome measurements are so critical, people have great difficulty understanding why we can't cure or fix people," says Graber, who retired after 32 years in clinical practice and administration with the Missouri Department of Mental Health. "They understand that those with developmental disabilities aren't going to get well, but have a harder time grasping why mental illnesses, substance abuse issues and the like can't be cured. We have a tremendous challenge in educating people about the whole range and realm of mental health illnesses, and how we can help those individuals while not necessarily curing them."
Jeff Steen '00, MSW, LCSW, was attracted to the mental health field because of the opportunity to hear people's stories and work with them to bring about healing. He works in Chicago, Ill., with homeless individuals who have co-occurring mental illnesses and substance abuse disorders. Recently he spent nine months establishing behavioral health programs at public clinics on the big island of Hawaii.
"So often, folks have multiple layers of marginalization because of their economic status, because of their race, because of their unfortunate life experiences, because of mental illness," says Steen. "There are so many stigmas associated with those experiences. It's beautiful to be part of partnering with people for a process of healing, change and recovery—building one's self back up. That's what prompted me to enter the field in the first place: to be able to bring about change in individuals' lives." While health and wellness issues typically conjure up images of doctors, nurses and fitness trainers, social workers are actively looking out for the health and wellbeing of society's members, as they work with disabilities, those living with illness, cancer care, HIV/AIDS care, family genetics, healthy lifestyles and more. Additionally, social workers look beyond individuals' physical health to the health of the communities they live in.
Health and wellness
While health and wellness isues typically conjure up images of doctors, nurses and fitness trainers, social workers are actively looking out for the health and wellbeing of society's members, as they work with disabilities, those living with illness, cancer care, HIV/AIDS care, family genetics, healthy lifestyles and more. Additionally, social workers look beyond individuals' physical health to the health of the communities they live in.
As a service and support associate with the Allen County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, Karen McCullough '01, LSW, coordinates services for individuals with disabilities, working closely with residents, their families and guardians and service providers.
"I work with individuals with a wide range of disabilities, from mental disabilities to cerebral palsy to dual diagnosis of mental disabilities and mental health issues," says McCullough, who visits weekly with individuals at their homes to ensure that they are receiving proper care. "The healthcare and safety of my clients is my ultimate concern."
While McCullough works with client care on the micro side of health and wellness social work, Cari (Carter '98) Pierides, MSW, has opted to explore the macro side, working in community development. As a community organizer for Citizens for Economic Opportunity (CEO), Pierides is active in promoting statewide healthcare in Connecticut through the healthcare4every1 campaign.
"I'm working with labor groups, community members and activists, getting people involved in the campaign so that we can influence our legislators and pass legislation that will create quality, affordable healthcare for everyone in the state," says Pierides, who has been working with the organization since 2006. "More and more, people can't afford their healthcare. The need for this legislation is an increasing reality for people."
Community organizers like Pierides work to empower a community of individuals or individuals within a community. "We do that by educating communities and individuals to understand that they are part of a solution," says Pierides. "From there, we figure out what talents or gifts they have and then encourage them to use them to promote the issue at hand."
As a neighborhood specialist for the city of Lima, Ohio's Department of Community Development, Connie Dershem '97, MSW, LSW, serves as a liaison between the city and residents to create and maintain healthy neighborhoods and neighborhood associations.
"It's important to listen to people in the community and not make decisions as an individual," says Dershem, who connects residents with services the city provides. "Being on the macro side of social work, I can focus on community development— promoting social justice, facilitating public information advocacy and promoting cultural diversity and nondiscrimination. It's not the first thing you think of when you think 'social worker' but it's social work, just the same."
Children and families
Most commonly, social workers are known as individuals who give a voice to those in society who are heard the least— children.
Social service agencies go far beyond maintaining healthy relationships between parent and child to include adoptions, early childhood development, family safety, healthy parenting, schools and communities, youth development and corrections.
These days, families are more susceptible than ever to splitting apart due to a range of factors such as poverty, homelessness, alcohol and drug addiction, child abuse and neglect. In fact, fewer than half of America's children live in a traditional "nuclear family," one with a mother, father and children, reports the National Association of Social Workers.
Nicole Christy '07, LSW, began working as an on-going caseworker with Allen County Children's Services in Lima, Ohio, days after graduating from Bluffton. "I work a lot with courts, custody cases and protective supervision cases," says Christy, who spent seven years as a preschool teacher before returning to school for her social work degree. "I've always had an interest in the well-being of children."
With an average caseload of 14, Christy provides direct services to children and families, conducting risk assessments to determine whether or not a child is safe in his or her environment. She develops case plans for families. "I follow along with families, continually checking in with them and monitoring their progress," she says.
Mark Moser '83, LCSW, LMFT, has always been fascinated with how individuals and family systems work together. "I've always been curious about how individuals incorporate structure that they get from their families and put that into practice in their lives," he says. Moser worked with children and families at a mental health center in Ocala, Fla., before opening Moser Family Therapy in Lake City, Fla. In the past two years, he has scaled back on his private practice and joined the VA Medical Center in Gainesville, coordinating a program that treats individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Many of my clients at the beginning of my career were children who had been sexually abused," says Moser. "I was treating individuals whose defense mechanisms aren't as integrated as those individuals I see now. It can be really hard to do a thorough job of treating a child if you don't have a thorough perspective on his or her family system."
Understanding family systems played into the work done by Ed Coleman '86, during his 14 years as a juvenile parole officer with the Ohio Department of Youth Services in Toledo, Ohio. Coleman is now a correctional program specialist with the Toledo Correctional Institute. He's active in case management, working with courts and families, handling visitation and preparing individuals for parole or re-entry into their community. "Unfortunately, I've seen some of these individuals all the way through the system: first at the children's services level, then at the juvenile parole level and now as an adult," says Coleman. "Some can never quite break the cycle."
However, Coleman says that he does see success stories: "I see individuals who ended up graduating from high school, got jobs and now have families. They're productive members of society. That's the rewarding part."
Interested in making a difference in her hometown community, Sarah Masek '05, LSW, returned to Ashtabula County in Ohio after a two-year stint with Mennonite Voluntary Service in Vietnam. As executive director of Spiderweb, a small nonprofit agency, Masek coordinates three programs for youth ages 5-18: a free-distribution clothing closet, a tutoring/mentoring program and a prevention program, which encompasses a number of education-support groups. She trains and supervises 30 volunteers who have a common mission: creating healthy youth.
Masek is keen on "giving back and bringing back." "I love working in my hometown because I feel like there's a lot of 'brain drain,'" she says. "By getting my education and coming back to my hometown, I'm reinvesting in my community. I love bringing the places I visit overseas back home with me— to my family, to my church and to those who can't travel themselves."
Caring for seniors
By 2030, the number of people aged 65 and older is expected to double, rising to 70 million, reports the National Association of Social Workers. This growing population of older adults will create an unprecedented demand for aging related programs, policies and services. Social workers provide a variety of aging services, including advanced care planning, care giving, lifespan planning, and residential and long-term care.
"The field of aging is changing rapidly," says Jared Lehman '97, MAOM '02, executive director of Otterbein Cridersville Retirement Community in Cridersville, Ohio. "We're about to begin serving a generation of individuals who won't tolerate the way we have been doing things. They will want individualized and privatized care. We've got a ways to go to get there."
Regulations and funding are the top challenges. "Next to nuclear power, the field of long-term care is the most regulated industry in the United States," says Lehman. "Our staff spends a lot of time making sure they're complying with state and federal regulations. A lot of red tape gets in the way of providing good care."
Ultimately, Lehman is responsible for the retirement community's finances, operations and vision. "I get to ask, 'Where do we want to be in the next five to 10 years?' and then solve the puzzle," he says.
Julie (VanMeter '95) Rhodes, LSW, is a long-term care manager with PSA 3 Agency on Aging in Lima, Ohio. She primarily works with the Assisted Living Waiver Program and the Passport Waiver Program, managing 40 consumers who are 60 and older. "I case manage all of their services— personal care, homemakers, home-delivered meals, social work counseling and more," says Rhodes. "We provide a wide array of services."
Rhodes says that the Agency on Aging provides aging adults with an alternative to nursing home care. "Our programs keep people in the environment that they want to be in," she says. "It's such a reward to be able to watch people blossom in their homes."
Despite the challenges, Lehman says, "At the end of the day, we get to build relationships with the residents we serve and their families. Family members entrust us to provide care, safety and service for their loved one. Our goal is to focus on quality of life and give residents a chance to socialize and interact with one another and with our staff and to live life to the fullest, no matter how much time they have left."
Elevating the greatness in all
According to the the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics the need for social workers is expected to grow twice as fast as any other occupation in the next decade, especially in gerontology, home healthcare, substance abuse, private social service agencies and school social work.
"We've entered a new political arena were service is first and foremost," says Hughes. "Social workers are the trained service providers. In good times and bad times, social service agencies provide a safety net for people in need. Our society is only as strong as our weakest links. If we're not focused on helping our community members in need, what does that say about our society in general?"
The message that the National Association of Social Workers wants every member of society to understand is that wherever and whenever help is needed, social workers are there. That's the same principle that graduates of Bluffton's social work program stand on.
"My mission as a social worker is to elevate the greatness that is in every single person and to celebrate that greatness," says Steen. "Sometimes we forget how great each of us is, how great our capacity is in life. That's what is greatest for me—in a way that's completely accepting and non-judgmental—to use my skills to help make the changes that individuals want to make."