Immigrants struggling to access resources and skills to achieve economic and social prosperity helped spark the birth of the social work profession in late 19th-century America. Modern-day social work practice continues to support vulnerable populations to overcome the burdens of economic and social poverty.
But social work is an evolving profession, as every generation faces different challenges. For example, current trends in social work often focus on helping people with trauma, integrating technology, and fighting racial injustice.
A hundred social workers may have a hundred different reasons for entering the profession. But they may find common ground in this: Social work aims to affirm that every individual has dignity and worth.
For those who aspire to change people’s lives through social work practice, the willingness to do something is the most critical element. The next step is pursuing an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Social Work, to build essential skills.
Addressing Trends in Social Work
Society faces many challenges today, but three are driving major trends in social work: trauma, technology, and racism. Social work practice can help address them in various ways.
1. Increased Emphasis on Treating Trauma
Trauma is an event that causes physical, emotional or life-threatening harm to an individual. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, most Americans experience trauma at one point — about 60% of men and 50% of women.
Trauma can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. Trauma also does not discriminate on the basis of a person’s socioeconomic standing. Causes for trauma can include physical or sexual assault, combat, sexual abuse, and injury. Worldwide events can also cause trauma. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic caused more trauma than World War II did, according to the World Health Organization.
Trauma can have long-term effects on individuals’ mental, physical, and emotional health throughout their lives. The increasing recognition that individuals need help to overcome trauma is a primary reason it has become a major trend in social work.
Social workers help individuals overcome trauma by:
- Understanding the individual’s specific form of trauma. An individual can be dealing with complex trauma — that is, ongoing personal exposure to traumatic events. People can also experience intergenerational trauma, which accumulates over time to impact subsequent generations.
- Creating an environment that makes them feel safe. Safety can include implementing physical and psychological safeguards to help patients feel at ease and build trust.
- Promoting a sense of control. Trauma patients often see life as unpredictable, which can make them feel Using an approach that actively includes patients in goal setting, social workers help them gain a sense of control.
- Focusing on resilience. The trauma-informed social worker also focuses less on an individual’s problems or weaknesses and highlights their strengths, encouraging resilience.
2. Integrating Technological Innovations
In the context of technology use in social work practice, social workers must take into account ethical issues, such as confidentiality, informed consent, professional boundaries, and professional competence, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
The “technology conversation” has another layer in social work practice. Technology has changed everyday life, yet inequities persist. Households making $50,000 or less a year still face disadvantages when it comes to internet access, according to Civic Science.
Therefore, when integrating technological innovations into social work practice, social workers must remember that part of their aim is to build equity for all people in every aspect of society, including technology. With the growing use of communication technology in social work practice, including psychotherapy, counseling, education, evaluation, and many other services, social workers have an ethical responsibility to remove technological barriers for clients.
3. Addressing Systemic Racism
Individuals can encounter overt racism, as in the use of racial slurs. They can also be victims of historical trauma, which affects people who are part of racial, ethnic, or cultural groups impacted by historical events such as colonization and slavery.
In both cases, systemic racism can be the root cause of the problem. Systemic racism, or institutional racism, describes the racial disparities embedded in laws and regulations. Discrimination born of systemic racism often manifests itself in the criminal justice system, the employment market, housing, education, and the health care system. For example, a recent Ohio University study reports links between racial/ethnic disparities and COVID-19 deaths. The findings show that societal factors, including racial segregation, rather than genetic factors, are the primary reasons for the gap.
Social work practice can support people who face systemic racism by helping to:
- Ensure equal access to high-quality health care, including mental and behavioral health and social services
- Achieve equal opportunity and justice for marginalized groups, including racial and ethnic minorities and indigenous people
- Promote racial and social justice in elections processes, like helping to register voters, and encourage participation in community activism
- Identify unjust norms and work to dismantle racist practices and policies
On an individual level, social workers can help address racism by working both with individuals who are the targets of racist acts and with those who have demonstrated racist views. Through these interventions — or as part of community development, social planning, community organizing, and social action — social workers can provide people with tools to help eliminate racism.
From Trends to Long-Term Change
Some social work skills are innate in individuals. For example, empathy, or the ability to understand another person’s experience, is critically important for a social worker. Having empathy is in someone’s nature, but they can cultivate and strengthen this quality through honing other skills, such as communication, organization, critical thinking, and active listening.
For example, a social worker can empathize with individuals impacted by trauma or systemic racism. But empathy without action is limited. Therefore, social workers are trained to advocate for their clients, identify the most relevant resources, and create and manage plans to help them.
Social work is an evolving field. Over time, current trends in social work may become more established and widespread components of an overarching strategy for the profession. For this reason, social workers need to be alert and adaptable in the face of future developments. They must also cultivate the skills to make meaningful change and deliver care to underserved communities.
Prepare to Make an Impact
Offering the opportunity to gain specialized skills, Ohio University’s online Master of Social Work program prepares individuals to put their desire to help people into practice across sociological, psychological, and developmental spectrums and help address some of the most pressing concerns of the modern era.
Discover how this educational foundation can empower you to serve those who are most at risk and open the door to a fulfilling and consequential career path.