Helping People from All Walks of Life Cope, Confront, and Overcome

James M. Loy, Miami University

“Today was actually pretty good,” says Chelsey Gates. And as someone who often helps people get through their worst days, she is someone who knows when to appreciate the good. 

Gates is a social worker and outpatient community mental health therapist for Butler Behavioral Health Services. And on this particular day, she had been working with a client who was once a healthy young adult . . . until a car accident caused a traumatic brain injury, vision loss, and impaired cognitive functioning. 

That accident happened decades go. But he’s been struggling with mental illness ever since.

“He’s in his 60s now and chronically depressed and suicidal,” Gates says. “But today, he finally has a positive outlook on his future. It was a really great moment. Just to see that spark in him was amazing and you just know there is more to come.”  

Gates currently works with over 130 clients who suffer from a range of mental illnesses including anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, schizophrenia, and more.

“You name it,” she says, and it’s the type of work that is part of a growing trend across the field.

 “People think it’s psychologists and psychiatrists, but actually social workers provide the majority of the mental health services in the country,” says Anne Roma, a Miami University visiting professor of social work. “And our graduates mirror that.” 

After graduating from Miami with her master of arts in social work (MASW), Gates chose this path as well. And it’s one she’s continuing to pursue while working to become a licensed independent social worker (LISW). 

Earning this licensure requires at least two years of additional experience and a separate exam beyond a master’s degree. But a LISW allows social workers to offer therapeutic and mental health services without working under a supervisor, including as a private practitioner. 

It is also another way this field provides ample opportunities to work directly with many different kinds of people. 

More than just children and families

It’s a common myth that social workers take abused children away from neglectful homes. Some do, of course. But not many. “I think we have one student out of 60 who works for child protective services,” Roma says.

Instead, it’s actually an extremely diverse career. Social workers routinely help a tremendous range of individuals who -- regardless of race, gender, or age -- may need some level of support.

Jason BaileyJason Bailey “People don’t really understand that it is much larger than children and families,” says Jason Bailey, a current Miami MASW graduate student. “You can do the medical field. You can work with older adults. You can work in nursing homes. There are so many other populations that you can focus on.”

Bailey’s specialization is working with elderly adults, and he is currently completing a field placement at the Dayton Veterans Affairs Medical Center, where he provides case management services, comfort care, and assists in end of life planning and procedures 

Most of his experience involves some level of hospice care. But it’s also work that’s allowed him to form meaningful relationships with those he serves, which is the part he finds most rewarding.

“They have a lot of history to share,” Bailey says. “It’s a great feeling being able to connect with veterans who have gone through these combat experiences in WWII. You look at them and it’s like, wow, you are a hero. You’ve been through so much and you’ve survived. It gives you this greater appreciation.”

Anybody can need support

As its core, social work is about advocating for and helping others, especially underserved or vulnerable individuals. And that’s why so many caring and proactive community-minded people are drawn to the profession.

But social work is not only about working with marginalized or elderly populations. And it’s more than just helping the poor or the homeless or the addicted, the unemployed, or the victims of violence, abuse, or neglect.

Sometimes social workers also cross paths with the everyday lives of many others, especially those who suddenly find themselves in an unfortunate medical situation. 

Elizabeth Burnett is a clinical social work fellow at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, where she connects patients to the resources and support they need. Since graduating from Miami last year, she has already rotated through several clinics as a part of her fellowship, including pediatric primary care, liver transplant, and the emergency department. Her current rotation is in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.

Elizabeth BurnettElizabeth Burnett “If the family is struggling with a new diagnosis, or they have a child who is chronically ill, and they need support emotionally, we provide the patient with that support, but also serve the family as a unit,” Burnett says. “Sometimes that means just providing active listening [Or] if they have concerns regarding their medical treatment, collaborating with providers to ensure continuity of care is key.” 

These are families who often find themselves in critical situations through no fault of their own. And yet, one of social work’s dominant false narratives can still make them question the situation.

“Sometimes families think they are suspected of doing something wrong, because, well, why else is there a social worker in my room right now?” Burnett says. 

This, of course, is not the case. But Burnett’s work is another example of how social workers can touch the lives of others in unforeseen ways. 

And there are many others. 

“Our graduates are all over the place,” Roma says. “They are in public and non-public schools. They are in hospitals. They are in non-profit agencies. And are also doing community-based services. They are doing home-based services. They are doing agency-based services. They are doing clinical services for people who are struggling.” 

This kind of help is often about providing actual emotional, physical, and logistical assistance. But it’s more than that. Because social work was founded on the ideals of social transformation, it is also about promoting positive changes on a much larger political and cultural level.

So beyond just clinical service providers, social workers are also leaders and activists. Their efforts, for example, have helped Americans gain a minimum wage and unemployment insurance. They have helped establish social security and voting rights, and they continue to fight for human equality and dignity on numerous fonts. 

They are the dedicated individuals striving to make this world a better place for everyone.

“Advocacy is our duty,” Burnett says. “It’s one of the things that ethically we do as a part of our careers. Advocacy can look differently in a lot of different settings. Social workers aim to build interventions on all systematic levels to inspire positive change on the macro, mezzo, and micro scale. We strive to build solid foundations in our communities in efforts to strengthen and unify them.”