As National Professional Social Work Month nears its end, we wanted to take a moment of appreciation for the thriving social worker community in SimplePractice.
Ultimately, we wanted to start a conversation around topics like what’s current in their work, what’s changed, and what advice they have to offer others in the social worker community.
Ellen Goldwasser is a clinical social worker who works for an organization called the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC), a Los Angeles-based re-entry program, which focuses heavily on policy and advocacy around criminal justice reform. Ellen is a full-time therapist in the ARC Sacramento office, where she provides mental health services. Ellen also works part time as a contract therapist with Goal Driven Counseling, using SimplePractice to work with clients in Missouri and California.
Jason Levin began his social work career in the child welfare system for the State of Maryland. He performed his undergrad field placement in relatively suburban Annapolis, his graduate one in Baltimore (like the set of “The Wire” but in real life), and his first professional job was in a rural county of about 20,000 people. In Maryland, each county is its own jurisdiction, and the job positions are allocated in proportion to the population. So while technically a Resource Home (foster/adoptive home) Recruitment and Retention Worker, he also did CPS, family preservation services (trying to keep them in the home), foster care, adoptions, intakes, homelessness, you name it. As overwhelming as it was, it helped create his clinical approach. Jason works as a therapist in Middletown, Delaware.
Annette Acosta works with psychiatric patients at Kaiser Permanente and in the emergency room at St. Francis Medical Center completing a variety of tasks.
Social Worker works in community development for a non-profit and asked that, due to the nature of their work, their name not be used.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Ellen Goldwasser: There is no typical day, for me. My day is mainly spent providing individual therapy to members, facilitating groups, connecting with allies in the community, and providing support to our Sacramento staff. I work with individuals who are coming back to the community from prison; they may have been incarcerated for one year or for 40 years, or anywhere in between. Our members have a range of different needs as they’re acclimating to being back in the community, looking for housing, reconnecting with family, and identifying social supports.
I also collaborate with our policy team, which works on improving the criminal justice system through reforming bills and legislation. ARC does a lot of community engagement, outreaching to community organizations and individuals who are investing in supporting our members, building community service initiatives for our members, and advocating for a more just system. We do in-reach programs with individuals who are incarcerated in the youth detention facility, the county jail, and in several prisons. We try to provide consistent support to individuals while they are incarcerated and when they return home, by providing mental health services and creating a community of other system-impacted individuals, with whom they can connect and engage.
Jason Levin: A typical day is going to my office, working with too many clients, and then using SimplePractice (#notheydidntmakemesaythat) 10 or 11 hours later to do my notes/billing. It’s exhausting and done five days a week. That, I’d say, is the hardest part of my job.
When starting a practice, your business model is to get more clients, and I just never changed mine. I’ve tried to make it known publicly that I’m not able to accept new clients, so that’s why my website hasn’t been updated in over a year. I am very blunt in the office, but I have a very hard time saying “no” when I can just find a way to fit someone in (even if I genuinely don’t have room).
Annette Acosta: St. Francis is my primary place of work at this time; therefore, I will share the day in the life of a social worker at St. Francis. Quite honestly, no day looks the same for me at St. Francis. We have homeless patients whom we encounter. We provide resources, clothing, and food to patients prior to discharge. Unfortunately, I see domestic violence and child abuse cases that require my assistance in providing resources, complete psychosocial assessments, and make calls to Child Protective Services, if needed. I have a variety of tasks to complete, each day is VERY different.
Social Worker: Everyday looks different. In my current role, I am responsible for grant writing, event planning, donor relations, marketing, presenting on the organization when requested at events or clubs, and I oversee the volunteer program.
What are some of the challenges you face in your work? How do you overcome them?
Ellen Goldwasser: The biggest barriers that social workers face is de-stigmatizing therapy and mental health services. I think that is changing, but it is still particularly significant for people of color, especially for men. I think there is a stigma around accessing mental health services among the system-impacted population. Another challenge is that, the system is set up for individuals on probation and parole to fail. People with felony records face barriers when accessing housing, employment, getting loans – nearly everything necessary to survive in our society. So regardless of whether I’m providing therapeutic services, there are a lot of other systems in place that aren’t supportive to my clients’ success.
With regard to Goal Driven Counseling, when I first heard of teletherapy, I thought, “That’s weird.. How do you work with a client who you’ve never met before? I don’t know how I feel about that…” And the more I talked about it with the founder of GDC, Melissa Douglass, the more I started to recognize how teletherapy breaks down a lot of barriers in the way of transportation, child care, or even discomfort around walking into an office to receive therapy.
Initially, Telehealth was a challenge for me — what would it look like? How does it work? But I think that ultimately it’s been a good learning experience for me and for my clients and we’ve found ways to connect even more through teletherapy.
Just like in-person therapy, Teletherapy really depends on the individual and his/her needs. I think homework is an important component, because for change to really happen, a lot of the work has to be done outside of the appointment, beyond our therapy session. I do encourage clients to reach out as needed and to let me know when they are having a tough week, and also when we need to celebrate their success.
I work with clients who may be experiencing anxiety or depression and a significant part of our work is setting reasonable goals that they feel are obtainable and recognizing their work each work toward achieving those goals.
Jason Levin: Work/life balance is my greatest weakness by far. Even my Fitbit yells at me that I’m not walking around as much as I should, so I went from being fairly in shape to literally having trouble keeping up with my three-year-old and one-year-old.
Another difficulty is the loneliness factor. While my friends and family go out to happy hours with their co-workers, I literally don’t have any. At least when I worked in child welfare my boss would kick me out of the office, but here, it’s just me. Definitely, something to consider if going into the field.
Annette Acosta: More than anything the emotional attachment a social worker builds with a patient or client is the most difficult for me. As a human with various feelings, social workers are let in on some of the most devastating and unbelievable situations that occur in the lives of the people we serve. At the same time, it is one of the most humbling services to be in to see the definition of resilience in others. Emotional regulating on the way home and separating work life and personal life is the hardest to overcome. However, in completing my own individual therapy and constant supervision with my supervisor, I can work through all the emotions.
Social Worker: Challenges in social work include lack of resources and broken-down systems. For example, lack of transitional housing programs that support individuals with evictions. Abusers are often the cause of an eviction, and then it is used against victims when they are trying to start over.
In what ways has social work changed since you first started?
Ellen Goldwasser: I think that the stigma around accessing mental health services has decreased in the last decade. I think that part of that is a due to celebrities sharing their own experiences and normalizing mental illness and therapy.
Mental health is being talked about much more in the media by athletes, artists, and in mainstream music. Celebrities like Jay-Z talking about personal mental health issues and accepting therapy has brought a lot of attention to issues around mental health. Certainly, the stigma still exists, but I think that we are making progress in that therapy has become more accepted.
With regard to Telehealth, I hadn’t heard of it until a few years ago. I think that we’re getting more creative about the way we are able to provide health support and particularly mental health support so that it’s accessible to people – regardless of how busy they are and regardless of whether they can pay.
Jason Levin: The thing that I’ve noticed change the most in social work is the number of programs popping up. It’s good to see social workers being recognized for who we are, people who just want to help other people in every aspect of their lives, rather than just baby snatchers. We are called upon in private practice, in public service, in hospitals, in the criminal justice system, in natural disasters, everywhere. There’s a massive pride in deciding that helping someone work towards independence is a worthy choice, not just one for bleeding hearts.
Annette Acosta: I truly feel that the title “Social Work” is misunderstood. Understandably, social workers wear various hats. Social workers can be your therapist or the person providing resources to you and your family. However, I have noticed that when I tell others I am a social worker they usually respond saying “Oh, so you work for Child Protective Services and take kids away.” Yes, that is a type of social worker, but also the biggest misconception of a social worker. Social workers protect children and adults from any form of abuse and neglect. They provide the safe place to be and the resources you need to get there. What’s changed most for me since first starting is informing those closest to me, friends and family, the type of work many social workers can complete.
Social Worker: I have seen the implementation of trauma-informed care. Trauma-informed care looks at service providers removing barriers to better support clients, while creating environments that promote healing. For example, domestic violence shelters used to not serve male victims and had a strict 10:00pm curfew. If you were not in by 10:00pm, you would lose your bed, making it difficult to have a job far from where you were temporarily staying. Today, all domestic violence shelters accept survivors of domestic violence, regardless of their gender and there is no curfew. Removing these barriers allows for more people to be supported without being retraumatized.
What do you most love about your social work?
Ellen Goldwasser: I love working with people. I would say that my approach is very strengths based – I believe that every person, regardless of where they’re at in their journey, or what they’re experiencing, has strengths. It is incredibly rewarding for me to help people identify their own strengths and feel better as a result.
Oftentimes, when people are experiencing mental health issues and/or significant life challenges, it’s hard for them to identify personal strengths. Through the therapeutic relationship I am often able to help individuals identify their strengths, which can increase their confidence and empower them to make significant life changes.
I am hopeful that even after we terminate therapy, they’re able to tap into their toolbox of therapeutic techniques. For me, that’s a powerful piece of the work is just being able to work with clients to develop their own toolkit for addressing challenges they may face in the future.
I also love connecting people. Whether it’s connecting individuals to jobs or to community resources I think there are a lot of people who want to give back and affect change and I love making those connections.
Jason Levin: My favorite part, easily, is telling my clients my four favorite words, “I told you so.” To be clear, it’s never for them making a decision that turned out to be detrimental, ever. I would much rather be wrong than right when it comes to that. At the beginning of my work with clients in my practice, their confidence in themselves is not proportionate to their abilities. While I never, ever promise them any given outcome, I do tell them what they’re presenting as capable of. With my teens, it’s always an eye roll in response. Then graduation day comes, and I’m not going to see them because of senior week and going away to college. That’s when I get my, “I told you so.”
Annette Acosta: Tears of joy and relief. More than anything, I love to meet a resilient human being.
Social Worker: Seeing success in the people I am serving, whether that means they got a new job or got a good night of sleep for the first time in years.
What advice would you share with your colleagues and/or with social work students?
Ellen Goldwasser: Pursue your passion, but take care of yourself along the way. Social work a thankless job. If you’re immersed in social work and inspiring social justice, you’re doing hard work — you’re advocating for your clients, you’re building a supportive team, and you’re working to change the system. It’s tough work, and I think that if you’re burnt out, clients recognize it. You are setting an example for other social workers and also for your clients, so it’s important to take care of yourself. You just can’t help anyone else unless you take care of you, so make sure to identify what self-care looks like for you and practice it!
Jason Levin: The absolute biggest thing I would advise anyone considering the field is to deal with your own stuff first and continue to do so in perpetuity. Your job is to work with people who are in positions they’d rather not be in; your job is NOT to deal with your own issues from being in similar situations. Countertransference can be very discrete, but it’s our responsibility as social workers to make sure we are not there to reconcile our own issues. Rarely is someone in this field who doesn’t have first-hand experience in some kind of trauma, experience with “the system,” mental health, poverty, etc. Just make sure you’re doing the right thing for the right reason.
The other biggest thing is remembering that it’s really hard to see the difference that you make. We’re in a field wherein your ultimate goal is to never see any given client again because they no longer require services. It’s thankless when it’s over, and it’s blameful when it’s present. You’ll never get the credit that you deserve, and that’s the point. That’s why I’ve woken up every morning since undergrad telling myself, “Work yourself out of a job, Jason. Work yourself out of a job.”
Annette Acosta: Be a safe place. Invest in yourself to prevent burnout. Be kind and gentle.
Social Worker: Balance. Leave work at work so you can continue in the field for a long time. We need you!
Keep this conversation going, through March and beyond
If your experience is the same, or even if it’s considerably different, we’d love for you to add your voice to this discussion by joining the SimplePractice Facebook community today.
Some related articles to consider regarding self-care and burnout:
- How to Avoid Therapist Burnout in 5 Daily Steps
- 5 Self Care Activities for Groups that Promote Overall Wellness
- Why is Self Care Important to Mental Health Practitioners?