Misunderstanding Social Work and the Helping Professions

Misunderstanding Social Work and the Helping Professions

During my first supervision as a social worker, a psychologist asked what I like about being a therapist. I replied: “helping people.”

The psychologist providing supervision replied: “that’s a bit nebulous, help how?”


Well, to this day, I’ve always felt strange about that psychologist’s response. 

I still don’t believe the psychologist understood what I meant or the nature of social work as a profession. He asked me about “therapy” and providing psychotherapy as a professional on the level of supervision. But social work is more than providing therapy. In fact, many social workers never provide therapy during their careers. Many are case managers or go into macro-level social work. They work at a larger level and provide community consultation or are administrators in non-profits. 

Context, right? I was sitting down for supervision, and he wanted to know about how it was going? But how can I take myself out of the equation and my profession? Psychology has had a much longer tenure in academia and the world of established discourses. Generally, people understand where a psychologist is coming from in terms of their approach. A social worker, now that that is an altogether different story. If a family member hears a social worker is coming to their house, it could mean just about anything – from a CPS (Child Protective Services) call to in-home therapy or behavioral skill training for developmental disabilities.

Back to the supervision session. Deep down inside, I also might have been a little upset about the world’s status regarding altruism. I generally thought the idea of “help” is unclear somehow to this psychologist; something must also be very wrong with what is going on in this agency and others that also find a very discrete, declarative statement so confusing. Help may be specific to the person being served, but the act of helping, that is as clear as day. 

Helping someone, a family, a kid, and/or an adult is one of the most rewarding things I can think of doing in a world riddled with competition, violence, and tragedy. The act of helping, the helping profession, is and needs to be a must in a world of “nebulous” shoulds.

I wake up every morning thinking and hoping that my words will uplift a person and improve the quality of someone’s life in some capacity and/or form. It brings me joy in its most platonic form: It drives my work forward and the lives of those I serve in a manner that challenges me to tirelessly continue to practice my skill and improve my craft to do better for my clients.

The relationship between social work and psychotherapy continues to be misunderstood. People don’t go into this work for the money, and most social workers don’t go into social work for the sole aim of being a therapist. Students go into the profession to get the micro/macro “bio-psycho-social-spiritual” lens encompassing and beyond a single discourse scope. Social work is truly one of the first interdisciplinary discourses to take on a single monolithic agency within higher education and, without question, taken primacy in the human services. 

In the end, sadly, most social workers have other jobs to support the thankless, never-ending work as we march on as undervalued “helping” professionals. Make no mistake about it, social workers love to see people better themselves from their work together as therapists and clients. 

Ultimately, I am hoping all of you are helping professionals keep your heads up! Keep the work going! Continue to support people through hopeless times, instilling inspiration to all your grace with your altruistic hands.

Edited: Autumn Tompkins

J. Peters

J. Peters

Max Guttman '08, MSW '12, is the owner of Recovery Now, a private mental health practice. Through his work as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, therapist and disability rights advocate, Max fights for those without a voice in various New York City care systems. He received a 2020 Bearcats of the Last Decade 10 Under 10 award from the Binghamton University Alumni Association. Guttman treats clients with anxiety and depression, but specializes in issues related to psychosis or schizoaffective spectrum disorders. He frequently writes on his lived experiences with schizophrenia. "I knew my illness was so complex that I’d need a professional understanding of its treatment to gain any real momentum in recovery," Guttman says. "After undergraduate school and the onset of my illness, I evaluated different graduate programs that could serve as a career and mechanism to guide and direct my self-care. After experiencing the helping hand of my social worker and therapist right after my 'break,' I chose social work education because of its robust skill set and foundation of knowledge I needed to heal and help others." "In a world of increasing tragedy, we should help people learn from our lived experiences. My experience brings humility, authenticity and candidness to my practice. People genuinely appreciate candidness when it comes to their health and recovery. Humility provides space for mistakes and appraisal of progress. I thank my lived experience for contributing to a more egalitarian therapeutic experience for my clients."

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