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Complacency Leads to Risky Ethical Dilemmas for Social Work Students

Social work is an eclectic field composed of many soft skills.  Regardless of the therapeutic approach, a social worker must be fluent in a multitude of theories that can help a client open up and reach their goals.  As part of the learning process, internships encourage various methods, which may lead to risky ethical dilemmas for social work students.

“ Regardless of the therapeutic approach, a social worker must be fluent in a multitude of theories that can help a client open up and reach their goals.”

This post is not to scare you about what can happen in social work practice.  As a student, I want to encourage your growth while being mindful of boundaries!

Disclaimer: This post contains affiliate links. I may receive a commission based upon your purchase, which does not affect the price you pay. It is my intent to provide affiliate links that you might find useful!

As a social worker, you are ethically bound to continue learning.  We must improve our skills to impact others more significantly.  As your foundation becomes more eclectic, you can better support your clients.  If you don’t believe me, give it a shot.

Ethical dilemmas for social work students are not necessarily uncommon.  However, I want to share 4 skills to prevent risk to you.  It is important to push through your comfort zone to become a better practitioner.

It is critical to understand whether discomfort is relate to your learning or disruption of boundaries.

1. Integrate Multiple Perspectives

This is extremely important!  When you integrate perspectives, your ability to problem solve improves.  Ethical dilemmas for social work students often arise out of complacency.  If you have a client that you continually use your traditional method, there is risk of allowing superficial talk.

Integrating perspectives keeps you conscientious of the words, phrases, and implications of your client.  Also, using only one approach under-serves your client!

 

“One tool that I have used is Feedspot.com.  I can easily set up my account and choose what blogs, resources, and news are of interest to me.”

How can you, as a busy practitioner or social work student, find the time to research and read about new techniques?  One tool that I have used is Feedspot.com.  I can easily set up my account and choose what blogs, resources, and news are of interest to me.

Social Work Interviews and Resumes!

As a hiring supervisor for a Community Mental Health, it’s evident that those who think they know how to write a resume really do not! It wasn’t too long ago that I really struggled knowing what to put into a cover letter and resume.

Feedspot.com provides an easy to view homepage allowing you to effortlessly find information that you need.  There also is a Gold, paid subscription level, that is dirt cheap.  I paid less than $25 for the year.  This version allows me to follow as many resources I would like and allows customization even further of how I view them.

As any student is learning new techniques, they must make them a part of their therapeutic style.  Ethical dilemmas for social work students can be greatly minimized through your use of new research.

Learning is also a matter of social worker work ethics.  And we cannot be proficient without researching and using a new style.

Once your integration of perspectives becomes more seamless and fluid, those discomforts will begin to diminish.  Practice makes perfect.  And practice can also help you remain keen to any change in boundaries.

 

2. Stay in Your Lane

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Simply put, do not speak to something that is outside of your scope of practice.  This may seem intuitive, right?  Of course as a social worker, we can’t prescribe medications or perform surgery.

So how could we overstep?

Quite easy, in fact- whether you are a social work student or not!

Every state defines a scope of practice for healthcare professionals.  If you haven’t realized this or looked it over, consider this notice to do so!

As you progress as a social worker, there will be many fun facts that you’ll learn: medications, dosages, psychological tests, behavioral analysis, and neuropsychology.

Do not perform any approaches you are not licensed to perform!  Speaking to something that is outside your scope of practice frequently creates ethical dilemmas for social work students.  That doesn’t make it normal or OK!

Malpractice insurance will not cover you if you’re found to be “outside your lane”.  Most universities cover you for malpractice insurance during internships.  Supervisors and insurances understand you are learning.  However, if you are grossly out of scope, there will be reprimands.

Working with people is a very dynamic and ever evolving process.  During your sessions, clients may ask you about medications.  It is your responsibility as a student practitioner to be aware of this progression and stay in your lane.  So, how can you talk to about medications while maintaining your scope of practice?

You can advocate.

Tell your client their symptoms may be helped by medication.  You can even go as far to say an antidepressant or antipsychotic could be helpful including their side effects.  This information is well within your lane and helps support your client’s self-determination.

Do not tell a client that their symptoms would be best handled by specifically olanzapine.  That is outside of your scope of practice.  You do not have a license to prescribe medications.

Ethical dilemmas as a social work student can be frequent.  When you know what information you can use, boundaries can be maintained.  Telling a client this specific kind of information is outside of your scope and will

“Maintaining your scope of practice also allows you to focus on what you do know.”

Maintaining your scope of practice also allows you to focus on what you do know.  We must also know our limitations and when to link to another provider.

Work with that other practitioner to holistically treat your client.  That is, in fact, best practice and supportive of integrated treatment.

3. Retain Boundaries and Professional Authority

Have you ever been to a therapist?  I have- a few actually.

There are two kinds of therapists that I’ve found: the professional therapist and the professional friend.  Whether you are a student or fully licensed professional, which do you think is best to embody?  The answer to this question is central to the ethical dilemmas for social work students within this skill.

A professional therapist is an authority in a specific field of practice.  Therapy sessions are conducted in a conscientious manner and are goal driven.

Your goals are established in the first session and revised throughout your time together.  While working with a professional, your goals are evident because they are discussed frequently.

Your progress also should be discussed and the conclusion of therapy known evidenced by that progress.

 

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A professional friend is a good listener.  During session, you are able to vent about your day.  Professional friends serve as an hour long verbal day spa.  As you leave the office, you feel refreshed and void of frustration for a short time. However, you have not improved in any way.

Therapy goals are loose if established at all and are not relevant to your sessions.  And as a result, the end of therapy is unknown and likely will continue indefinitely.

Well, that is until you lose interest and begin canceling appointments last minute.  Of course, why would you go if you don’t want your ego stroked today?  Soon thereafter, you simply never reschedule.

Remember this when you’re no longer a social work student!

“Did you go to graduate school to provide day spa services?  No.”

Did you go to graduate school to provide day spa services?  No.  You went to learn specific interventions to support behavior change and improvement of coping strategies.

You want to help improve people’s lives.  That is what a professional therapist does.  It might be easy to fall into the habit of becoming a friend, but you are not their friend.  You are not going to get a beer with them after work.

It may seem obvious, but ethical dilemmas for social work students have and will be created this way.

When the therapeutic relationship crumbles to become professional friends, it may well translate down the road to a blurry relationship.  Your license and professional reputation are on the line.

4. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it

Your gut is usually right.  Let me explain what I mean.  Don’t force emotions!  Your client will know.  There is nothing worse than fake empathy.

If you’re not feeling it, don’t say it.  If you’re so hardened to emotion, maybe social work isn’t for you.  You must generate some emotion working with clients.  It may not be tears of emotion when they tell you their life story, but it hopefully is some kind words of understanding.

Expressing emotion is not the only thing that can be forced or fake.  Do not quote a movie during an emotional session.

As an example, some years ago when I was seeing a therapist, he mentioned at one session about watching the movie Goodwill Hunting.

Believe it or not, I hadn’t seen the movie.  I also did not follow the recommendation.  Not following recommendations is also pretty common when seeing a professional friend by the way.

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At the next session, we talked about some issues that bothered me through young adulthood.  The therapist began to repeat “It’s not your fault”.

I continued to look at him not feeling any emotional connection or even getting the reference since I didn’t watch the movie (either way it was inappropriate).

Some months later when I was no longer seeing that therapist, I saw the movie.  In a way, I felt robbed of my time and experience with him.

“Within our professional role, we have a tremendous amount of responsibility and influence over those we serve.  Do not sully it by forcing awkward moments or insincerely referencing movies.”

Within our professional role, we have a tremendous amount of responsibility and influence over those we serve.  Do not sully it by forcing awkward moments or insincerely referencing movies.

Ethical dilemmas for social work students can embody many different situations.  When you force emotion, it isn’t a problem of allowing someone to get too close.  It’s inappropriately pushing the therapeutic relationship away.

That is key!

Your task as a social worker is to create a therapeutic atmosphere.  With your skill set, change should occur through your assessment and treatment plan.  Emotions do not have to be excessive.  But, you should have a bare minimum level of human empathy.

These four skills are not an exhaustive list.  Ethical dilemmas for social work students can seemingly arise out of the blue.  When you maintain conscientiousness through these four skills, you are likely to prevent many from occurring.


What do you feel is essential for social workers to understand?  In our development, we all can become complacent in whichever role we work.  We must strive to better ourselves and our practice to prevent becoming a professional friend or unskilled social worker.  Incorporate all the knowledge that you learn and utilize it every chance you get.

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4 Risky Ethical Dilemmas for Social Work Students
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4 Risky Ethical Dilemmas for Social Work Students
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Ethical Dilemmas for Social Work Students are sometimes unavoidable. Use these 4 skills to keep appropriate boundaries and prevent risk!
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The How to Social Worker
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Ben Barrett

First, thank you for reading The How to Social Worker- my alter ego.  My name is Ben Barrett and am first a mental health advocate and secondly a clinical social worker. My personal experiences with mental health have shaped my professional perspective. Through my struggles both personally and professionally, I hope you can improve your own quality of life.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Good post! Social care is hard work that requires a lot of special skills.

    1. Thank you! It’s absolutely under-rated and under-appreciated.

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