Social workers are perceived as people who work with individuals and families, supporting them on either a short or long-term basis through a difficult time – this can include family problems, bereavement, addiction or mental health support – and also supporting those with special needs or the vulnerabilities of old age. However, the role of the social worker is changing. While they certainly do work with individuals and families, they are also taking on roles in the community. Through their interventions, they can help the community become healthier and, through this, happier places to live, work and study.
The Social Determinants of Health
When social workers assess a person, they focus not only on the individual but also on their environment to see how healthy it is. There are five social determinants of health that can be used to assess an environment to see how it will shape a person’s health, health risks and outcomes as well as their quality of life. These determinants are:
- Economic stability – Unemployment and poverty make it harder to access healthy food, healthcare and safe housing.
- Education – Children who cannot or will not access education are likely to face lifelong problems.
- Access to healthcare – Lack of affordable healthcare has a detrimental effect on people’s health.
- Neighborhood environment – Areas with high levels of crime and violence can impact a person’s health both directly and indirectly through risky behavior.
- Social and community – Positive relations help support a person’s emotional well-being.
For people who come from an environment where one or more of these social determinants are lacking, individual support is not enough. For them, improvements need to be made at a community level.
Becoming a Social Worker
Social work appeals to those who want to make a difference on both an individual and a community level. If this is a career path that interests you, social work degrees are widely available. Typically, a Master of Social Work (MSW) is necessary to secure employment. On social work degree programs, you will learn the necessary skills and expertise to become a social worker, including social work in the community. During the field placements, you will see some of the different initiatives that social workers run in the community.
If you lead a busy life, fitting in to study can be difficult. Fortunately, you also have the opportunity of online study, which is more flexible and is easier to do at a time and place of your choosing. When choosing a course, make sure that it is fully accredited and take a look at the curriculum to check that it covers areas that interest you. For those keen to know more about how social work impacts local communities, a good online option can be found at Florida State University. Its traditional online MSW program includes a course that focuses on the reciprocal relationships between human behavior and social environments, and there is also an Advanced Standing Online MSW program for those who already hold a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Through your study and field placements, you will gain expertise in all areas of social work and the ways that social workers can support healthier communities.
School Social Work
Social workers work in many different places, but a common one is in schools. With education one of the social determinants of health, this is an environment in which they can make a big difference. As well as being ideally placed to notice problems with an individual child’s family background or to support an individual with special needs, they can also see where initiatives are needed to help benefit a group and the wider community.
Students with special needs, whether it is a physical need, a learning difficulty or a developmental disorder, can often find it hard to access education and may face many challenges when attending. To reach their full potential, they may need support with social interactions, or there may be physical measures that are needed. Social workers can develop intervention strategies within the school to provide staff with guidance of when and how they should act with students with additional needs. They can also develop in-house staff training programs to develop teachers’ skills in supporting those students. Particularly able students are another group who would benefit from teachers having guidance and training in how to meet their needs, allowing them to reach their full potential.
Children with poor attendance at school have their own unique needs, but ultimately it is a problem that needs to be addressed. Through failing to access education, they may suffer lifelong economic problems and can be more likely to fall into crime or take part in other risky behaviors. Reasons for non-attendance can be varied. Students may avoid school because of special needs that make them struggle to function in the school environment, or they may have suffered bullying. There may be issues at home. For example, they may be young carers for parents or siblings, taking on responsibilities that leave them with no time or too tired for education. Poverty can also be a problem. Children can feel ashamed to come to school in ill-fitting clothes. For adolescent girls, period poverty can be an issue, with the girls unable to afford sanitary products, thus causing them to miss school for several days every month. Social workers in schools can put together programs to work with students with poor attendance, finding solutions to allow them to access education.
Regardless of the issues that students and their families face, there may be charities and organizations that can help them or financial assistance that they are entitled to, but are not claiming. Social workers can work with families, signposting them in the direction of the help available. If they identify a problem common in school students, they can also advocate for additional initiatives and support in the community.
While prison is a place of punishment, it should also be a place of rehabilitation with the aim that when the inmates are released, they do not re-offend. Prison social workers are a key part of that process.
When working with individuals, they will assess their mental state and also try to identify any drug or alcohol addiction that may make them more likely to re-offend. To help with this, they may run individual and group counseling sessions. By helping to prevent reoffending, the social workers are not only making a difference to those inmates, but are also helping to reduce crime as a whole.
Life in prison is very different from life outside and for those prisoners who have been incarcerated for a while, the adjustment can be difficult. Social workers in prisons can run training programs in life skills, helping the inmates reacquaint themselves with life outside of prison, or in some cases, teaching them these skills for the first time. Inmates who are able to function outside of prison are more likely to seek employment and build a new life for themselves, while those who cannot are simply likely to commit further crimes or spiral into substance abuse.
Supporting the Elderly
Old age is a time when change can come suddenly, where an accident or an illness can change someone from an independent adult to a frail one needing care. If an elderly person is being discharged from hospital, social workers can help them and their families access the support services they need and help with the communication between the patients, their families and medical professionals.
Outside of a hospital or a residential facility, a social worker will be able to provide information on organizations and activities that can help, particularly free or affordable services. Caring for an elderly person is a demanding role that is often not properly valued by society, leaving many struggling. Social workers can offer support to carers, making sure that they know of any organizations that can offer respite. If the burden of caring truly becomes too much, then they can help with the move to a residential facility like Valley Oaks Hospice.
As professionals who work with the elderly, social workers may carry out research and give guidance to governments on how they can best support their elderly population and what facilities would benefit them. In nursing homes, a social worker might work with management, reviewing their policies to ensure that the homes are offering the best standard of care.
By putting in place support to encourage the highest possible quality of life to the elderly, social workers help them enjoy a healthier, more stimulating life. However, even the healthiest people will eventually die and social workers can help in end-of-life care. Gerontological social workers can work in hospice settings, helping with the non-medical aspects of care. These can include facilitating the communication between patients and their families with the hospice staff and answering their questions. They can also help families come to terms with the loss of their loved ones so that they are able to say their goodbyes with sadness but without regret and are able to grieve in a healthy manner.
Addiction and Substance Abuse
Addiction and substance abuse can be a serious problem for individuals, families and communities as a whole. Addicts are often reluctant to seek help, with the reasons ranging from denial to shame. Additionally, addiction and substance abuse can go hand in hand with other problems such as crime, poor mental health, prostitution, domestic violence and poverty, all of which can have a knock-on effect on the community, rendering it a less healthy place to live.
Social workers can help addicts in a variety of ways. They may be the ones who first identify the problem or they may recognize some of the associated problems, helping to signpost the best way to offer them treatment.
The social worker may work in a drug addiction center, hospital or clinic, collaborating with the other professionals involved in their care, and can act as addiction counselors for their patients. As well as individual counseling, they may offer group therapy sessions.
As with many problems, catching addiction early can make it easier to treat – and, of course, better still is to prevent an addiction from even starting. Social workers may go into organizations such as schools, colleges, homeless shelters, and community outreach shelters, giving talks or running programs on avoiding addiction or on guiding people on how to get support if they are already experiencing addiction.
In doing this, they can promote an environment with far less addiction and substance abuse, which in turn can reduce the crime rate.
Poverty is one of the key determinants of a community’s health. It can also impact on other aspects of community health, such as addiction, crime and poor physical and mental health. Additionally, for children growing up in poverty, there may be issues in accessing education, particularly the further education necessary to gain higher-paid work.
There are assistance and benefits to help struggling individuals and families, and social workers can work with them to make sure that they are claiming everything to which they are entitled. They may also be able to identify churches and other organizations that can help with the basics, such as food parcels, second-hand clothing, or the items needed for a new baby.
Social workers can also help make more permanent changes through action on a macro or large scale. Through community organizations or political activism, they can encourage changes that will benefit the poor. They can also empower those from poorer areas to advocate for themselves through the organization of fundraising, protests and local organizations.
If there are associated problems such as gang violence, crime or substance abuse, social workers may run community initiatives to help tackle them, reducing them through education. They may also identify practical problems such as a lack of affordable childcare, which means that parents are trapped in poverty rather than being able to work. Social workers can then work within a community to address these issues.
Relationships and the Community
Relationships within the family and the wider community as a whole can impact that community. Social workers can often intervene in families when necessary to encourage healthy relationships between partners, spouses, parents, children, siblings, and beyond.
Working in a community, social workers often gain a greater understanding of the different cultures, religions and backgrounds of those who live there and can encourage them to work together to better the community, making it a happier, healthier, safer place to live.
Making Communities Healthier
Social workers work in such diverse settings, often with the most vulnerable in society. Through their work with individuals and families, they not only make a difference to them, but also help those individuals and families to form part of a healthier community.
Social workers not only work with individuals but also with groups. These can include group counseling sessions or presentations and programs on different aspects of community health. As prevention is better than cure, the purpose of these can be to stop problems such as gang violence or substance abuse starting in the first place. Additionally, social workers can work with organizations such as schools or nursing homes, helping to keep their policies relevant and up to date, taking into account the diverse needs of everyone in the community. They may also be instrumental in setting up training programs for those who work in the community to allow them to hone their skills.
Social workers are also advocates for their community, using their vast expertise to influence policies and decision-making on a local, state or even federal level. In doing this, they can help make permanent, beneficial changes to enable communities to become healthier areas.
With the ability to make a difference in all of the determinants of health not just on an individual level but also the community as a whole, it is not surprising that social work is an attractive profession for those who want to help others. There is a considerable demand for social workers, making this a career that offers good long-term job security and opportunities for advancement.
Being a social worker is not a single career but rather covers a range of different jobs working in many different settings. For example, those who enjoy working with children may opt to work in a school or with families, while those keen to help the elderly may work in nursing homes or hospitals. If social work is a career that interests you, it is worth taking a look at your training options. Generally, you will need an MSW to become a social worker, but this does not mean having to attend a physical place of learning or having to give up work and fail to meet your financial obligations while you study. Instead, a good option can be an accredited online program from a top university that will give you the thorough preparation you need.
Regardless of how you study, once you have gained your qualifications, you will be well prepared to face the challenges and rewards of work that makes a difference every day and encourages healthier communities.
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