Strategic Process: Navigating Problematic Situations in Social Work Practicum Settings

The role of the student social worker is not without cognitive dissonance: a mind state generally recognized in the field of psychology as a feeling of discomfort brought about by engagement in behavior inadequately aligned with one's attitudes/beliefs. The level, frequency and intensity of such dissonance can vary, depending upon a few different things, such as the individual student's emerging (professional) identity, personal awareness around such identity and the particular circumstance(s) facing the student.

Every master's level social work program involves a practice component, which typically consists of an unpaid internship, of various design and quality; students undertake their internships (also known as practicums) in many different service delivery organizations/systems, including psychiatric, correctional and educational facilities (to name but a few). If an individual is to encounter difficulties during time spent in social work school, it is often at the practice juncture that the problems begin to arise. Sachs and Newdom discuss some of the conflicts inherent in the aforementioned systems which frequently contextualize a student's practicum experience:

Many organizations, however, contradict the progressive values of workers and/or progressive professional values. This contradiction happens most often in control organizations such as prisons or mental hospitals whose functions are antithetical to dialogical praxis and the self-determination of the people who are housed in them. (97)

The general reality for many social workers in service delivery systems, is that they continuously face dilemmas over being expected, and/or mandated to utilize high risk interventions on mental health consumers, for which they have received little formal or ongoing training, and which are at odds with some of the basic social justice values and ethics of the social work profession (Levine, 254). Given such a reality, it would appear to make sense for the social work student to enter the field practicum mentally prepared to encounter potential problems, and academically equipped to actively, and strategically address them as they occur. Such preparation is rarely proactively offered in schools of social work; it was only after much trial and error as a social work student, that I developed my own process for dealing with problematic situations in service delivery settings. The remainder of this essay underscores that process:
  1. It is a good idea to purchase a journal, prior to beginning an internship. The journal should be used to record daily events and any thoughts and feelings surrounding events that take place at the field site; such a journal would serve as a good source of reference, if later needed;
  2. Developing a general awareness of power and status differences that exist between employees and interns, prior to undertaking an internship is an important thing to do. An organization's responses, or lack thereof, to any voiced concerns, and/ or questions to administration by students can be placed into better context when the student enters with this knowledge;
  3. Keeping the lines of communication actively open between oneself, and other social work interns, in other field placements is a worthwhile thing to do, as it can serve to lessen the sense of isolation and anxiety often felt during an internship. It can be especially comforting to compare notes, get advice and generally receive support from one's peers, as opposed to solely consulting with those who are of a higher (professional) status; one is less likely to withhold the depth of what is really being experienced, as the perceived threat of superior judgment is less, therefore, it would stand to follow that greater relief from situation based stresses can be gained;
  4. Seeking counsel with student organizations and/or professors from outside colleges/universities can be useful, and even more effective than consulting with your own. Many professors and student groups are co-opted by the educational systems in which they exist, and thus are unable to authentically guide/ offer assistance to a student who may be highlighting serious inconsistencies and harmful contradictions that are being implemented by, and/or within their own academic setting;
  5. Finding out whether there are any local psychiatric consumer/survivor groups, and making arrangements to communicate with them about any practices that one is finding questionable during the internship experience can be an invaluable thing to do. If validation around the reality of psychiatric abuse is needed, it will likely be found at one of these groups. In addition, any reported concerns/complaints will be taken seriously, and different avenues through which to air, and act upon such concerns will likely be explored;
  6. Remembering that the most immediately achievable goal is completion of the internship; realizing that one, alone, cannot change a system; recognizing that there will be opportunities post internship to continue to raise awareness around concerns and knowing that one's ultimate refusal to remain silent in the face of oppression is, indeed, an act of integrity, is paramount, and can help to gain the balance, perspective and clarity needed during a stressful practicum experience.

Works Cited
Levine, James E. "Behavior Management Principles: Incorporating a Biopsychosocial
Perspective." Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal 18.4 (2001): 254.
Sachs, Jerome, and Fred Newdom. Clinical Social Work and Social Action: An Integrative
Approach. 1st ed. Haworth Press, 1999.


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