Social Worker Mental Health: An Ethical Dilemma?

Social work can be an incredibly personal profession- exposing social workers not only to others’ traumas but often forcing them to face triggering experiences from their own pasts while on the job. The personal experience that a social worker brings to the table can often be one of their greatest strengths. It can increase their capacity to connect with clients and to express empathy. Yet, from an ethical perspective, at what point do a social workers’ personal history or struggle negatively impact their client? What should they do if they ever find themselves in this situation?

The Dilemma

These are the exact questions that this MSW student finds himself or herself asking on Reddit. Working with parents at a community clinic in the final year of their internship, this student has quickly realized that their own childhood was riddled with significantly more trauma than they had originally thought. Still in the process of coming to terms with a childhood of neglect and emotional abuse, they are exposed to constant reminders of these experiences on the job and it is greatly affecting their mental health. Though currently in therapy to help address this trauma, this student’s situation still brings to light ethical dilemmas surrounding their ability to cope within this profession, properly distance themselves from clients and ethically serve in the social work profession.  

When examining any ethical dilemma within the social work field, it is important to use the NASW Code of Ethics as a guideline to protect both one’s professional career and clients. In this Reddit user’s case, it is important to consult the Impairment standard under Standard 4, which covers “Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities as Professionals.” According to the this standard, “Social workers should not allow their own personal problems, psychosocial distress, legal problems, substance abuse, or mental health difficulties to interfere with their professional judgment and performance or to jeopardize the best interests of the people for whom they have a professional responsibility.” This ethical standard does not imply that it is unethical for social workers to experience these difficulties, as they are bound to happen simply by nature of being human, but rather stresses the importance that these problems do not effect the social worker’s decisions or professional capability.

Deeper Issues

When examining Impairment in this case, there are a few elements of possible concern. For example, this student explains that when observing clients they make “comparisons between what they are going through and what (they) went through” and even find themselves jealous of the families that were not abusive. These feelings raise concerns about whether or not the student is able to exert enough distance to provide unbiased and informed client care. This student also experiences physical symptoms that could be indicative of a further mental health issue such as feeling drained, sad and in a bad mood upon returning home. While these symptoms or a mental health issue alone do not indicate one’s job performance, it is important to examine whether these symptoms themselves could impair decision-making capacity or the ability to consistently show up for clients. 

It is the responsibility of this social worker to look critically at whether or not these personal or mental health components allow them to ethically practice their internship. They should do this by reviewing their supervisors’ feedback, consulting with their therapist and using a significant amount of introspection. If they feel comfortable approaching their supervisor to review these concerns, they should do so, however approaching their supervisor does pose risk for potential unintended career consequences. An academic or field placement advisor could also serve as a good resource to review ethical concerns and explore solutions. If these steps do indicate an unethical situation which is not able to be controlled by the resources at hand, this student must adhere to the social work standard of impairment by “seeking professional help, making adjustments in the workload, terminating practice or taking other necessary steps to protect clients and others.” 

Widespread Problem

Unfortunately, this student is not alone, mental health struggles in the social work field pose a widespread issue both for practitioners and clients that needs to be addressed. According to a UK Community Care survey, “96% of social workers feel either moderately stressed or very stressed,” which has resulted in 76% of social work professionals considering leaving their job within the past year. These mental health difficulties are not unique to social workers in the field full time, but also apply to social work students. The University School of Social Work found that “34% of the students indicated high levels of depressive symptoms and were at high risk of clinical depression, while 6% met criteria for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).” Thus, further preventions must be put in place within the profession as a whole.

Solutions

When looking at possible preventions from a student perspective, it is important that mental health care is regularly discussed in a transparent manner and that high quality mental health resources are available. According to a study published in The Journal of Social Work Education, 23% of social work students had fear or distrust of mental health and 22% were concerned to seek services due to the quality available. Overcoming these mental health barriers are critical in creating a safe an ethical student population. Some programs might even consider the idea of mandating a certain number of therapy hours for students, so that they may explore triggering topics before they come up in field, as well as give students greater appreciation for their clients. 

Increasing internship autonomy for students could also be beneficial in allowing students to avoid triggering populations. At Boston University School of Social Work, students are able to list populations that they would be interested in working with, as well as populations that they do not feel as comfortable working with. While it is important to expose students to many different populations throughout their internship experience, allowing social work students to avoid select populations could minimize triggering social work experiences and help to prevent social work burnout. In the full time professional world, social workers are often able to choose to work with populations that do not trigger them, and students should be allowed this same opportunity. 

If you are a student in the social work field that struggles with mental health during your internship, you can use your voice to advocate for some of these changes to be enacted by getting faculty and student organizations involved. Until these preventative measures are in place, it is important that you maintain strong mental health care practices, seek support and use the NASW Code of Ethics to guide your social work practice. 

Single Father Adopts Five Siblings from Foster Care System

Back in October of 2020, single father Robert Carter adopted a set of five siblings so that they would never again be separated by the foster care system. Robert became inspired to foster after being split up from many of his own brothers and sisters when he entered the system at the age of 12. Following his emancipation, Robert became legally responsible for two of his siblings, which inspired him to continue to expand his family. He became a foster father to three of the five siblings and quickly realized that it was his purpose to adopt all five children.

A Systemic Issue

There are currently over 400,000 children in the foster care system, two-thirds of whom have a sibling in the system as well.  Many of these children are separated from their siblings for reasons including a lack of families able to foster sibling groups, diverse needs of children and lack of resources for finding placements. Other siblings may be more likely to be separated by social workers due to myths that sibling sets will not integrate as well into a new family dynamic or that it is in the best interests of a parentified older child to be removed from their siblings. 

Sibling separations, like Carter and his children experienced, often compounds the trauma that children in the system endure. In a foster care system where 63% of children are removed from their homes due to parental neglect, sibling relationships help to provide much needed stability and emotional support. These sustained relationships allow sibling sets to have greater success in school, better relationships with foster parents, more successful permanency outcomes, and better mental health. Yet, until the last couple of decades, the advantages of keeping siblings together were largely ignored from a policy perspective.

Policy’s Influence

In 2008 this changed when keeping siblings together became national priority when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed. This Act “requires a state plan to provide for reasonable efforts for joint placement of siblings in the same foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoptive placement unless it would be contrary to the safety or wellbeing of any of them.” This act also requires that children who are unable to be placed with their siblings be allowed frequent visits with their other siblings.  

While sibling placement is defined as a priority on the federal level, states may interpret the implementation of a plan differently. As of 2018, only 37 states have statutes requiring these reasonable efforts to keep siblings together during the placement process. States may often vary in their definition of “sibling” as well. While children often define their siblings as those who grew up with them, including step-siblings, often state laws only define sibling relationships in terms of blood relations. 

Certain states, such as Oregon, have a Sibling Bill of Rights to help protect children in the foster care system.  Some of these rights include being able “to live in the same home as (their) sibling if possible” and “to live with foster parents who are trained on the importance of sibling relationships.” Bills like these offer children autonomy and protection when entering the system so that they can advocate for themselves. 

As laws continue to evolve to protect children in foster care like Robert and his kids, Robert hopes that foster and adoptive parents will step up to help keep families together. Here’s what he said in an interview with Aol.com:

“A lot of people think you have to be married to adopt or be a foster parent. I want people to know: No matter the situation, as long as you have the means to take care of a child [you can] become a foster parent,” he explains. “We have so many kids still in custody, there are 400 kids in Ohio waiting on forever homes. And I am happy that I was able to help encourage and inspire other people to step up.” 

Currently, over 100,000 children are to be adopted, many of which risk being separated from their siblings. You can help to keep these children together by becoming a foster parent for a sibling set and learning more about the adoption process

If you are unable to adopt or foster right now, research your state’s sibling protection measures and help advocate for policies that support sibling reunification.

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