‘Why Don’t They Just Go Get Help Themselves?’ Illustrating the Challenges of Accessing Social Services

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Jennifer Morazes, MSW, Social Welfare

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2009

Teaching Issue Encountered: I was a GSI for the undergraduate social welfare practice course (Social Welfare 114) in the School of Social Welfare in 2006 and 2007. Over the first few weeks of the course, I discovered that although some students had some previous volunteer experience that gave them a glimpse into the arena of social work practice, many students did not have any previous exposure at all. In section one day, when we were discussing some possible challenges a person might confront that would lead them to seek a social worker, a student raised her hand and said, “I am not sure why social workers are needed. When I need help, I try and find a solution. Why don’t they just go get help themselves?”

Solution to this Issue: In order to address this question, I wanted to create an interactive lesson which illustrated why someone seeking help might find the assistance of a social worker useful. I found three websites that provide gateways to social services that people would want to access: one from Alameda County; one called “211,” which has been set up by the United Way; and one from a city on the East Coast. I also created three scenarios involving people who might require support and services: a woman leaving prison, a teenager talking about suicide, and a family in danger of becoming homeless.

For this section activity we met in the computer lab, which I reserved for the class. We created teams of four, and each team received one of the scenarios. I asked them to look at the websites and find three services that the person/people in their case might find helpful in the situation. I then asked them to actually call the agencies (introducing themselves as social work students) to find out what the process was to make a referral for services at the agency they called. Every student had to attempt at least one phone call.

Assessment Method: This exercise made a big impression on the students. When we debriefed, students reported that some of the agency calls had been straightforward: an agency representative gave them the appropriate information they sought. Other students, however, were given an unending chain of phone numbers, and felt they were being given “the run around.” One student was very concerned that the suicide crisis information line she called went to an answering machine, and the message stated that the counselors “were on lunch break”! After this initial debriefing, students continued to refer to this lesson in both their midterm and final course evaluations. Some students said it illustrated for them that accessing services could be very challenging, and a social worker had the skills and resources to build bridges for clients. Many also observed that when someone is in distress, it can be even more challenging to follow-up on seeking help, especially given different barriers the client might experience. These insights underlined the need not only for social workers, but for competent, trained social workers. Finally, one student exclaimed that the exercise showed him that “social work is not just about services. It’s about relationships, and relationships are about life. Social work touches all aspects of life.” These student insights are very consistent with the self-image of social work as a profession, and the exercise therefore was an effective tool for answering the student’s question about the value of social workers.