How is social work different from other helping professions?
There are many different helping professions and many ways to make a difference in the lives of others. Social work is unique in a few ways that distinguish it from other helping professions. These include its great variety of fields of practice, as well as its social justice and advocacy focus.
Social work is incredibly broad and includes many fields of practice
One of the unique features of the social work profession is how broad it is and how many fields of practice it encompasses. Social workers work with all kinds of people across the lifespan and in various capacities. The profession is committed to enhancing the wellbeing of individuals, families, groups, and communities. Social workers do that in many ways and through many fields of practice.
Niche types of social workers
From working with children and families, to working in legislative advocacy, mental health, forensic social work, and school social work, the field is incredibly broad and diverse. As a social worker, you are not limited to just one field of practice. Here are some careers in social work you may not have known existed:
- gerontology social work
- military social work
- organ transplant social work
- neonatal social work
- oncology social work
- pediatric oncology social work
- psychiatric social work
- ER social work
- hospice social work
Who do social workers help?
Some social workers help specific vulnerable populations, like children and families, veterans, older adults, LGBTQIA people, people with disabilities, refuges, immigrants, people experiencing homelessness, domestic violence, food insecurity, and substance abuse.
Social workers also often work with people interacting with specific or overlapping systems like the school system, juvenile justice system, criminal justice system, child welfare and foster care systems, healthcare system, welfare system, public health system, and non-profit systems.
There are also social workers who do not work with any specific population, but work across micro, mezzo, and macro levels to enhance human wellbeing.
Some social workers work primarily one-on-one with client systems, some work more with groups and communities, and some work more on macro levels to make positive social change.
Where do social workers work?
Many social workers work in clinical settings and provide therapeutic mental health services. In fact, social workers are the largest providers of mental health services in the United States. But social workers also work in administration and in the management of social services.
Social workers are leaders helping direct, manage, and grow programs that help people help themselves and make society more just and equitable.
From non-profit agencies to prevention and education programs, adoption agencies, advocacy groups, and anti-poverty initiatives, social workers are leaders helping direct, manage, and grow programs that help people help themselves and make society more just and equitable.
Social workers are uniquely trained from a social justice lens
Another distinct feature of social work is that social workers are trained to view issues from a social justice lens. In other words, they are always cognizant of how power, privilege, oppression, and marginalization may impact human wellbeing across micro and macro levels. They use knowledge from this lens in conjunction with evidence-based practices to help engage, assess, and intervene when people need help, as well as to evaluate their own practice.
The issues of human rights, social justice, and anti-racism are ubiquitous to social work practice.
Social workers are trained from a person-in-environment perspective that looks at how environmental systems intersect and interact and how to best empower individuals, families, groups, and communities in a way that helps them achieve their own goals and desires for their life. For example, social workers are uniquely trained to understand how social issues like poverty, racism, generational trauma and various dimensions of diversity may impact people’s lives across many levels.
Whether working one-on-one with clients, in groups or communities, or in management or administration of services, issues of human rights, social justice, and anti-racism are ubiquitous to social work practice.
The person-in-environment perspective social workers take means they view social issues like poverty, racism, and generational trauma as deeply interconnected with mental health and other types of challenges faced by individuals.
Social workers are advocates
Another unique feature of social work is that advocacy for social and economic justice is inherent to the profession. Social workers are committed to social, racial, economic, and environmental justice and anti-racism. From a social work perspective, it is not enough to understand social problems or issues that impact lives. Rather, social workers are engaged in making the world a better place for all people through service and advocacy.
Social workers are advocates for their clients and are often a voice for the underserved, oppressed, dehumanized, and marginalized.
Social workers are advocates for their clients and are often a voice for the underserved, oppressed, dehumanized, and marginalized. They advocate on individual levels for their clients, voicing their concerns, rights, and issues of social justice in interdisciplinary meetings within and among a variety of organizations and institutions. They also advocate on larger-scale levels, informing social policy, conducting social research, and analyzing how social policy impacts people’s lives and wellbeing, particularly the lives of society’s most marginalized individuals.
Social work and advocacy go hand in hand. This means social workers don’t just identify how systems impact individuals, but also work to improve those systems.
Social work is incredibly broad and it’s common for social workers to swim in and out of different fields of practice throughout their career. This is one of the key things that distinguishes it from other helping professions. Another feature of social work that is distinct from other helping professions is its unique training in social and economic justice and anti-racism. Regardless of what field of practice a social worker is working in, they view issues from a social justice lens and serve as advocates for their clients.