Learn More About Social Work

Social work is one of several disciplines that offers the requisite training to provide psychotherapy or counseling to individuals, couples and families. Social workers that provide psychotherapy are referred to as psychotherapists and/or clinical social workers. The other types of professionals that offer therapy services are psychologists, psychiatrists and master's level counselors, typically referred to as marriage and family therapists (MFTs) in the state of California. While there is much overlap in the training offered in each discipline, there are also some differences that are particular to the field of social work that are worth noting.

Holistic Model
One of the strengths of the field of social work is that it emphasizes a systems or person-in-environment perspective, rather than focusing primarily on the individual. Social work uses a comprehensive “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” model for understanding human behavior. This is critical to determining what’s working well, what needs to be changed and what can be changed. “Bio” is short for “biological” and refers to analyzing health factors, such as general wellness, medical conditions and disability. “Psychological” aspects include emotions, mood, thoughts and behaviors. “Social” refers to interpersonal functioning and environmental factors related to things like family, culture, work and education. “Spiritual” refers to one’s relationship to spirituality of both a religious and non-religious nature. I believe that it’s important to look at client situations from this holistic, contextual perspective, in order to fully understand what’s going on and to identify the best ways to make lasting, effective change.

Understanding Social Conditioning and the Role of Identities in the Healing Process
The person-in-environment perspective of social work is important, because a person’s situation cannot be understood outside of its context. This is particularly relevant when it comes to understanding the impacts of social conditioning on level of functioning. For example, homophobic, racist, and ageist thinking are all products of social conditioning, which unfortunately, still exist to varying degrees in our society. These erroneous beliefs contribute to stereotypes, misinformation and sometimes even direct mistreatment of individuals who identify as part of these groups.

With this in mind, I help clients develop and strengthen not only their internal psychological tools, but when appropriate, also help them identify the negative social conditioning that may be at play and contributing to their problems on both a micro level (self, one-on-one, family, etc.) and macro level (within institutions, society, etc.).

For example, If I’m working with a client that identifies as a person of color, LGBT, or an elder, I will partner with them on ways to understand their situation in the context of these identities and help them heal from any related negative influences and experiences. This can be done internally, through cognitive understanding and emotional processing. In addition, external actions can also provide effective remedies. For example, social isolation can exacerbate the pain associated with the coming out process for LGBT clients. Supporting a client to connect with members of the LGBT community can decrease emotional distress and increase self-esteem.

I'll share another example related to elders. Stereotypes exist about elders being less physically and cognitively competent in comparison to younger people; this is a type of ageism. In an institutional setting, such as a nursing home or assisted living environment, this belief system, if internalized by the elder, can lead to depression, anxiety and passivity in care decisions; all at a time in their life when active participation and input about their healthcare is of the utmost importance. In addition to working on the psychological impacts of aging, such as grief related to less independence and losses of loved ones, empowering the elder to take a more pro-active role in their care can improve emotional well-being and may even lead to better outcomes in terms of physical health and functioning.

Without an understanding of the contextual reality, undue blame can be placed on the individual. This is unfortunately something that traditional Western psychology has been guilty of in the past. Accordingly, my intent is to help clients bolster and develop their internal psychological tools, while at the same time strengthening their ability to understand and relate to their environment in a skillful, empowered and self-supportive way.

To learn more about my psychotherapy in San Francisco practice, please review my psychotherapy, approach and about pages.