Social workers take people’s children away. Social workers are nosy people who come around to see if the bruises on grandma’s legs are because I’m not taking good care of her. Ever heard these statements? If you are a social worker you have! And if you are not a social worker, you probably thought them. Maybe instead of a negative view you may think that social workers work in homeless shelters in the soup line making plates for the homeless. A noble cause, but not something that takes a college education to do.
Even other professionals who work alongside social workers don’t know what we do. I’ve been confused with a sociologist, rarely with a psychologist, (but not too often because most people don’t know the difference between psychology and psychiatry and I’m definitely not going to be mistaken for a psychiatrist by anyone who knows any better), and I have had my opinion passed over or my judgment call reversed for an uninformed decision by someone who doesn’t have nearly the level of training that I have and thought I was one of the secretarial staff. I have been utilized as a secretary. I get asked to pass out pamphlets, or call someone a cab, or walk to the supply closet to get a shirt or a blanket. I get asked to fetch someone a cup of water. When I mention I have a Master’s degree and two years post-graduate experience, I usually get astonished looks. When someone actually asks me what I am trained to do, I get incredulous looks when I answer. Social workers can do all of that?
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “child and family social workers protect vulnerable children and support families in need of assistance. Social workers help people solve and cope with problems in their everyday lives. One group of social workers, clinical social workers, also diagnose and treat mental, behavioral, and emotional issues.”
I think it’s that last part that people are surprised about. “You can do therapy? Like, be a mental health counselor?” someone close to me once asked me. I was shocked. This person who knew I had a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a heavy research experience done voluntarily outside of my regular classwork in which I co-authored scholarly articles, presented research presentations at conferences, and helped create diagnostic tools, and knew I worked in a mental health facility, had no idea that I was a psychotherapist. It still didn’t seem to register with this person what I actually did for a living, even when I talked about opening my own clinic and going into private practice. Yes, I can diagnose and treat individuals with mental health issues. I’m trained in trauma therapy, group therapy marriage and family therapy, drug and alcohol addictions, geriatrics, adolescents, individual therapy, and could still get additional certificates and training in many specialized areas too numerous to list. I’ve even written a book about it. Who was this person who didn’t know what social workers do? My husband.
When people hear social worker their eyes immediately get a distrustful look or glaze over. Don’t get me wrong; I am not seeking others’ approval or a pat on the back in order to feel good about what I do for a living. I love my job and find it very rewarding. However, because most people don’t know what I do (or can do) for a living, even the people I live with or work closely with, it impedes my ability to actually do my job. A Master’s level social worker in a place of employment with other specialties is being grossly underused because others just don’t understand what we are trained to do, so our training is wasted by spending time doing jobs that the techs or the secretaries could do. The low pay also reflects society’s view of a social worker, making it not fiscally feasible to work at these low rates if you are paying back six years of student loans. Compared to what individuals in other fields with a master’s degree make, the master’s level social worker usually doesn’t make the equivalent, and most are below, at, or barely above the poverty line for their family size. Many are collecting food stamps and have their children on Medicaid because of this. I knew going into school that I wouldn’t make as much as a psychologist and was still starry eyed enough to think that it didn’t matter because I just wanted to help people. I do love to help people, but I also like to be able to pay my bills, get tires on my car when I need it, and not have to choose between the mortgage this month or buy my kids school clothes. I naively assumed that with a Master’s degree I would at least be making enough to get out of the welfare bracket.
One problem with the common misconception is that there are different levels of degrees in social work just as there are in many fields, but the view that most people have of social workers as a whole seems to most closely reflect the lowest level of social work education, which is the bachelor’s degree. There are four more educational and credentialing levels above a bachelor’s degree. Someone may be a BSW, MSW, LMSW, LCSW, or DSW. The DSW is newly formed and at this time still not licensed by state boards, but hopefully it will be soon. Each credential has its own set of requirements as far as yearly training, a test to pass, and standards to uphold. Just as there are different levels of nursing and each one can do more than the level below them, social work is the same, with different levels and different responsibilities with each.