What it Means to be a Social Worker

Posted on: Thu, 03/24/2022 - 12:15
By: Richard Stagliano , CEO, Center For Family Services


Social work has been part of my life for over forty years now. Part of what led me to the path of social work was the social unrest of the 1960’s. I found myself wanting to help advance social justice and better the lives of marginalized groups of people. My religious beliefs and family upbringing also motivated me to get involved in the field of psychology and mental health. When it comes down to it, I, like many others, was inspired to become a social worker because I wanted to make a difference, and have meaning in my life.

The profession of social work is over 100 years old and has evolved to include elements of social justice, individualized therapeutic services, and professional development. Social work began with a focus on disenfranchised people, immigrants, the poor, individuals struggling with mental health issues, and their families. We have the social workers of the past to thank for the many services and social programs that we have in the United States today. 

The beauty of social work is in its breadth. Social work is a unique field, because it has several different tracks, touches many fields of social needs, and includes a number of helping professional roles. Social workers can work on the micro level and help individuals in need, or work on the macro level of social policy and advocacy issues. Social workers are in family service organizations, mental health centers, hospitals, prisons, homeless shelters, schools, and their own private practice. We work with every population imaginable! Whatever you’re passionate about, you can directly help that cause through a career in social work. What every social worker has in common is the desire to help people solve and cope with life’s challenges.

Social work, to me, is more like a passionate journey than a job. I think many helping professionals would agree that the work you do blends into your personal values and gives you the ability to bring meaning to someone’s life. As social workers, it’s our duty to advocate for better resources for our clients, create systematic changes, and do our best to level the playing field for all. Because of social work values, beliefs, and advocacy, the public has a greater understanding of the fact that people should not be blamed for their circumstances and that there are many social determinants of health, wellbeing and behavior. Social workers have always used a trauma informed lens when looking at an individual’s behavior. Social workers are also the country’s largest group of mental health services providers and are therefore key in destigmatizing mental illness. 

As a helping professional, it’s easy to become mentally worn down by the intense situations our clients face. Remember to always create space for self-care practices you enjoy most in order to avoid burnout and compassion fatigue. Self-care has even been written into the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics. You cannot pour from an empty cup. To best help others, you must set aside time for yourself. No matter how your day went or what you have yet to accomplish on your to do list, you are deserving of self-care. 

The time is right for social work. As our country confronts a variety of issues including income inequality and systemic racism, social workers have proven themselves to be an essential force for good. We need social workers, their services, and their advocacy now more than ever.

To all future social workers, I say think big. Do more to educate yourself and advocate for those you serve on the micro and macro levels. Show up for your clients by influencing policy makers within communities to create structural change. Always advocate for social change and systemic changes that will better lead to social justice, and the prevention of many social problems. Become a policy maker in your own life by participating in civic engagement, community planning and legislative processes. On the direct service level, be sure to provide quality care that is professional, ethical, and respectful. When things seem daunting, don’t give up. Always remember, you have the special ability to help set someone on their best path in life.