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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.