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The Role and Applicability of Counselling in Social Work Practice

Introduction and Overview

Social work originated as a community help measure in the 19th century and has since then become an organised discipline that aims to support and empower those who suffer from social unfairness. Apart from helping the disadvantaged to live with dignity, social work aims at achieving social inclusion and has been found to be effective in correcting disparities and in helping individuals to overcome impediments that arise from different aspects of life; apart from those that require knowledge of the physical and medical sciences. Social work practice has, over the years, become integral to Britain’s working life and current estimates put the number of active social workers in the country at significantly more than one million. (Parrott, 2002)

Whilst social workers can be called upon to assist all sections of the community, the majority of their assignments concern helping individuals in stressful situations and those experiencing difficulties with issues that relate to emotions, relationships, unemployment, work, disabilities, discrimination, substance abuse, finances, housing, domestic violence, poverty, and social exclusion. Such a range of applications has necessitated the development of (a) a variety of skills and techniques, (b) methods to transfer these skills to social workers, and (c) procedures for the delivery of social work in a variety of settings, which include schools and colleges, households, hospitals, prisons and secured homes, and training and community centres. (Parton, 1996)

Social work practice focuses on dealing with the problems of service users. The maintenance and improvement of their social, physical, and mental states is often dependent upon the effectiveness of social work intervention. (Miller, 2005) Users of social work services are largely economically and/or socially disadvantaged, and the vulnerabilities, which arise from these circumstances, frequently contribute to the nature of their relationships with service providers. (Miller, 2005) Social work makes use of a broad range of knowledge and incorporates information obtained from several disciplines; it empowers social workers in practice to use their acquired knowledge and skills first to engage service users and then to bring about positive changes in undesirable emotional states and behavioural attitudes, or in positions of social disempowerment. (Miller, 2005)

Counselling forms one of the main planks of social work practice and constitutes the chief mode through which social workers directly engage service users; it is considered to be the public face of the activity and is an integrative course of action between a service user, who is vulnerable and who needs support, and a counsellor who is trained and educated to give this help. Face to face and 121 interactions between social workers and service users take place mostly through counselling activities. Apart from the directly beneficial effect that occurs through counselling, much of the social work approach that needs to be adopted in specific cases for other interventionist activity is decided on the basis of feedback provided by counsellors. This assignment aims to study and analyse the importance of counselling in social work practice.

Commentary and Analysis

Social work practice, in the UK, has evolved along with the development of the profession, and with the progression of social policy, ever since the first social workers were trained at the London School of Economics, at the beginning of the 20th century. (Parton, 1996) Whilst social policy, formulated at the level of policy makers, defines the broad routes taken to alleviate social inequalities, the actual delivery of social work occurs through social work practice, an activity carried out by thousands of social workers all over the United Kingdom. (Harris, 2002) Social work makes use of a range of skills, methods, and actions that are aligned to its holistic concentration on individuals and their environments. (Harris, 2002) Social work interventions vary from person-focused psychosocial processes that are focused on individuals, to participation in social policy, planning and development. (Harris, 2002) These interventions include counselling, clinical social work, group work, social academic work, and family treatment and psychotherapy, as well as efforts to assist people in accessing services and resources within the community. (Harris, 2002) Social workers, in their everyday activity, need to assume multiple roles that aim to balance empowerment and emancipation with protection and support. (Harris, 2002) Balancing this dilemma is often a difficult process; it depends upon the needs of service users and requires social workers to assume more than one role. (Harris, 2002) These roles, whilst being versatile and flexible, broadly consist of seven broad categories, namely those of planners, assessors, evaluators, supporters, advocates, managers, and counsellors. (Harris, 2002)

Whilst social work practice is spread over these broad functions, this assignment aims to examine and analyse the significance and application of counselling in social work, especially with reference to (a) the complexities involved in its practice, (b) combating oppression and discrimination, and (c) from the viewpoint of service users.

Counselling, whilst being a catch-all term, used for describing of various professions, is, an important component of social work practice. (Rowland, 1993) It is a developmental process in which one individual (the social work counsellor) provides to another individual or group (the client), guidance and encouragement, as well as challenge and inspiration, in creatively managing and resolving practical, personal and relationship issues, in achieving goals, and in self realisation. (Rowland, 1993) Whilst the relationship of social work with poverty and deprivation necessitates that most counselling activities relate to such issues, counselling has now become an active and interventionist method to achieve change in social situations and empower people to improve the quality of heir lives. (Rowland, 1993) The activity depends upon client-counsellor relationships and includes a range of theoretical approaches, skills and modes of practice. The British Association for Counselling defined the activity thus in 1991:

“Counselling is the skilled and principled use of relationships to develop self knowledge, emotional acceptance and growth, and personal resources. The overall aim is to live more fully and satisfyingly. Counselling may be concerned with addressing and resolving specific problems, making decisions, coping with crisis, working through feelings or inner conflict or improving relationships with others. The counsellor's role is to facilitate the client's work in ways that respect the client's values, personal resources and capacity for self determination.” (Rowland, 1993, p 18)

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Part of the confusion regarding the actual nature of counselling activity stems from the fact that the phenomenon is of recent origin and is becoming increasingly popular both as a widely sought service and as a professional career. (Dryden & Mytton, 1999) Whilst social researchers have floated a number of theories to explain the growth in counselling in social work, most experts ascribe its increasing usage to the diminishing impact of religion, the breaking and scattering of family life, and the removal of previously existing family and community social structures. (Dryden & Mytton, 1999) Priests have ceased to become confidantes and advisors; New modes of disempowerment have also led to the creation of a vast range of emotional and physical stresses with adverse effects on the psycho-emotional states of numerous people and their consequent need for counselling. (Dryden & Mytton, 1999)

Counselling has its origins, both in the past, and as an up-and-coming discipline, in various professions. It fills the intermediate gap between psychotherapy and amity, and thus becomes a particularly useful tool for intervening and touching upon the private, societal, professional, medical, and educational aspects of people. (Rowland, 1993) Whilst it grew organically, its effectiveness in diminishing distress led to its progressive assimilation in social work practice. Again the idea of the social worker as a person, who works with or counsels persons, has been a persistent concept in social work all through its emergence. (Pease & Fook, 1999) Counselling has also been connected with some of the critical principles of social work, particularly with regard to recognising the innate value of the individual and respecting the human being. (Pease & Fook, 1999) Counselling and casework also find favour with those who look at social work, in its entirety, as a process where different components work synergistically with each other in helping and supporting individuals. (Pease & Fook, 1999) Also inherent in the role of the social worker, as a counsellor, is the idea that change will be involved in the behaviour or outlook of the service user. It is in fact the diminution on the role of counselling role, which has been one of the major apprehensions regarding provision of social work through services. (Pease & Fook, 1999)

Counselling, in its basic form, involves the meeting of a counsellor and a service user in a private and confidential setting to investigate the emotional and mental difficulties, and distress, the service user may be having because of varying person-specific reasons. (Rowland, 1993) Counselling, as is evident from its increasing usage, has been found to be of great help in a variety of situations; in treating people with mental problems of varying severity; in helping those suffering from trauma, anxiety or depression; and in aiding people with emotional or decision making issues. (Rowland, 1993) Whilst it has been found to be applicable across different locales, for example, in schools and colleges, disturbed domestic settings, and in workplaces, it has also proved to be effective in helping people afflicted with serious illnesses like cancer and aids, victims of road and industrial accidents, and people in various stages of rehabilitation. (Coney & Jenkins, 1993)

Counsellors meet the requirements of people who experience traumatic or sudden interruptions to their life development and to their social roles. (Dryden & Mytton, 1999) Prominent among these counselling functions are those in areas of marital breakdown, rape and bereavement. (Dryden & Mytton, 1999) The work of the counsellors in such cases can be clearly seen to arise from social problems, namely from shifting social perceptions of marriage, reassessments of male and female roles, and new patterns of marriage and family life. (Dryden & Mytton, 1999) Counselling provides a route to helping individuals to negotiate this changing social landscape. Counselling has also been found to be helpful in the area of addictions. Specific counselling approaches have been developed to assist people with problems related to substance abuse, gluttony and for giving up smoking. (Pease & Fook, 1999) In some areas of counselling, which deal with addiction, for example, with users of hard drugs, counsellors engaged in social work practice, function side by side, with sets of legal restrictions and moral issues. (Pease & Fook, 1999) The possession and use of cocaine, for example, is not just viewed to be morally incorrect but also a criminal activity. (Pease & Fook, 1999) “The counsellor working with a heroin addict, therefore, is not merely exploring ‘ways of living more satisfyingly and resourcefully’ but is also mediating between competing social definitions of what an acceptable ‘way of living’ entails.” (Pease & Fook, 1999, p72) Some of the different objectives counsellors try to achieve in their dealing with service users relate to (a) providing them with an understanding of the origins of emotional difficulties, (b) enabling them to build meaningful relationships with other people, (c) allowing them to become more aware of blocked thoughts and feelings, (d) enabling them to develop a more positive attitude towards their own selves, (e) encouraging them to move towards more fulfilment of their potential and (f) helping them in solving particular problems. (Pease & Fook, 1999)

The following example provides an instance of how counselling helps individuals to overcome serious personal traumas.

“Paula had been driving her car. Her friend, Marian, was a passenger. Without any warning they were hit by another vehicle, the car spun down the road, and Paula thought ‘this is it’. Following this frightening event, Paula experienced intense flashbacks to the incident. She had nightmares which disturbed her sleep. She became irritable and hyper vigilant, always on the alert. She became increasingly detached from her family and friends, and stopped using her car. Paula worked hard at trying to forget the accident, but without success. When she went to see a counsellor, Paula was given some questionnaires to fill in, and he gave her a homework sheet that asked her to write about the incident for ten minutes each day at a fixed time. In the next counselling session, she was asked to dictate an account of the event into a tape recorder, speaking in the first person as if it was happening now. She was told to play the trauma tape over and over again, at home, until she got bored with it. In session 3, the counsellor suggested a way of dealing with her bad dreams, by turning the accident into an imaginary game between two cartoon characters. In session 4 she was invited to remember her positive, pre-accident memories. She was given advice on starting to drive her car again, beginning with a short five-minute drive, and then gradually increasing the time behind the wheel. Throughout all this, her counsellor listened carefully to what she had to say, treated her with great respect and was very positive about her prospects for improvement. After nine sessions her symptoms of post-traumatic stress had almost entirely disappeared, and she was able to live her life as before.” (Starkey, 2000, p37)

Counsellors need to keep in mind that socialisation leads to the development of perspectives on issues like race and gender. (Moore, 2003) Many of these perspectives are assimilated to such an extent that people have little control over them and are bound to impact the working of counsellors if not understood, isolated and overcome. (Moore, 2003) “In an anti-oppressive framework, these views are broken into six main lenses; racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, ageism, and class oppression.” (Moore, 2003) People are regularly excluded on account of their colour, gender, sexual orientation, abilities, age, and class. (Moore, 2003) Most of these factors do not occur in isolation and thus lead to multi-oppression, for example an aged female from a minority background could face oppression because of three factors, the whole of which becomes stronger than the sum of individual components. Oppressive perspectives occur through a common origin, namely economic power and control, and employ common methods of limiting, controlling, and destroying lives.

The PCS model developed by Thompson, in 2001, argues, in similar vein that inequalities, prejudice and discrimination operate at three levels, Personal, Cultural, and Structural, and by constantly strengthening each other, create powerful mental biases and prejudices against members of out-groups, people who are disadvantaged by way of colour, race, ethnicity, religion and language. Individual views, at the personal level, interact with shared cultural, historical and traditional beliefs to create powerful prejudices. (Thompson, 2001) Dominant groups within society constantly reinforce their superiority by driving home the inferiority of other groups through a number of overt and covert methods. (Harris, 2002) Whilst movements that aim to dismantle such stereotypes are emerging slowly, the biggest conflict is still within. (Harris, 2002) Internalised oppression is the oppression that we impose on our own selves due to environmental pressures. (Harris, 2002) The oppression is internalised from the prevailing society’s message through various institutions like the media, existing religious infrastructure, and other forms of socialisation. (Harris, 2002) Examples of such oppressive practices are the pressure put on working mothers to run an efficient household, in addition to putting in a full day at the office, or expecting mothers who stay at home to work from dawn until late night. (Harris, 2002) These prejudices are further strengthened by structural discriminations that are created by social and governmental structures, (as evinced by diminished employment opportunities for people with histories of substance abuse or the refusal of landlords to rent houses to members of certain communities), and create a complex web of mutually reinforcing social processes. Counsellors are prone to be oppressive because of assimilated perspectives, stereotyping, and because they hold power over service users. It is imperative that they recognise these imbalances and work towards eliminating them in their work as well as in the promotion of change to redress the balance of power. Looking at social issues through the perspectives of service users is thus critical to counselling activity. Social workers often face ethical challenges in their dealing with service users. There are many instances in social work where simple answers are not available to resolve complex ethical issues. Clients, for example, can inform counsellors about their intention to commit suicide or inflict physical harm on their own selves, ask for reassuring physical contact in the nature of hugs, and confide about their intentions to harm others. (Langs, 1998) There is a strong possibility of sexual attraction developing between counsellor and service user. (Langs, 1998) Such situations can lead to the development of dichotomies between personal and professional ethics, and to extremely uncomfortable choices. (Langs, 1998)

Conclusion

Counselling is a complex and demanding activity that demands knowledge, experience and people skills, as well as compassion, empathy and understanding. Above all counselling activity, as an integral component of social work, requires commitment to social good. Counselling theories have evolved over the last half century; they have multiple origins, are complex in their formulation, and whilst having common features, need to be individually adapted to the needs of service users. Whilst it is not easy to grasp and apply these theories, their comprehensive understanding and application are essential to the effectiveness of counselling work. Counsellors, by virtue of the nature of their work and their power in counsellor-service user relationships exercise enormous influence over the decisions of service users.

The diversity and heterogeneity of counselling reflects the sensitivity of counselling to the enormous variations in human experience. Whilst understanding of theory helps in discharging of responsibilities, counsellors are also limited by assimilated perspectives on oppression, career and money demands, and their own emotions. Their responsibilities are manifold, and include duties towards service users, towards the profession, and towards the wider community. Apart from being challenging, satisfying and rewarding, counselling also provides the opportunity to make profound differences to the lives of other human beings.

References

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Counselling saves British business millions every year, 2003, British Association for Counselling and Therapy, Retrieved December 3, 2007 from www.instituteofwelfare.co.uk/downloads/welfare_world_24_full.pdf

Dryden, W, 2006, Counselling in a nutshell, Sage Publications Ltd. London

Dryden, W., & Mytton, J, 1999, Four Approaches to Counselling and Psychotherapy, London: Routledge

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