Human Dignity and Worth
If the social work profession holds that every human being has unique worth
and is entitled to wellbeing, self fulfilment and self determination (consistent
with the rights of others) then the interplay of these must be considered
when working with those experiencing mental health issues (AASW, 2002,
What would you do?
Imagine you are working in a Job Network agency with a woman in her 50s who recently
separated from a partner of 30 years after many years of abuse. She has been unable to
attend interviews for positions due to feelings of lethargy and sadness and is in danger of
having her Government benefit cut off.
She does not wish to accept her GP’s recommendation for anti-depressants, stating that she
believes her sadness to be natural and healthy given her life experience. How would you
begin to balance your agency mandate and the needs of the woman concerned?
Issues to consider include: how might you maintain the dignity and respect of
people accessing your service? Are basic human rights according to the
United Nations Universal declaration of Human Rights being maintained?
Are you able to support individual autonomy and a sense of personal
responsibility when working with someone with a mental health concern?
Can the collective needs of the community be enhanced by your practice
with a vulnerable member of that community? What are your ethical
How can social workers consider principles of social justice in relation to
people with mental health issues?
What would you do?
Imagine a young man whom medical experts have diagnosed with schizophrenia. He is
currently in the Townsville lock up, after committing an armed offence, awaiting Court
appearance. You have worked with this young man in your capacity as a youth worker for the
Vietnamese community. What might be some of his basic human needs? Are there areas
where an equitable distribution of resources to meet his needs might be called in to question?
Does he have fair access to public services and benefits to achieve human potential? Why or
why not? What barriers might there be to equal treatment and protection under the law?
This principle asks social workers to reduce barriers and expand choices for
all, with a special regard for those disadvantaged, vulnerable, oppressed or
with special needs (AASW, 2002, p.8). Action to advocate for change is used
to challenge social structures that maintain inequalities and injustice. Social
workers are asked to work towards the elimination of violations of human
rights. Can you think of policies or processes that may require advocacy in
order to support this young man’s needs? What systems might require more
significant action in to ensure dignity, safety and fairness for this young
Service to Humanity
According to the Code of Ethics, service to humanity is a primary objective of
our work and involves placing the interests of human wellbeing and social
justice before a worker’s individual aims, views or objectives (AASW, 2002,
What would you do?
You have recently begun working as the overnight worker in a women’s crisis accommodation
service. During the handover meeting with colleagues you are informed the youngest
resident, Talia aged 19, is ‘renowned her skills in manipulating’ new workers. The other
worker tells you Talia was diagnosed with Borderline Personality disorder and suggests you
ignore any ‘histrionic’ behaviour. At 3 a.m. you are contacted by Talia stating that she is
suicidal and that the Mental Health Service refused to see her.
What do you think may be important to consider with Talia to enable her to
manage personal and social difficulties and in order to obtain essential
resources and services? What needs of your own might be in conflict with
the needs of Talia at this point? How would you use your power and
authority as a worker in ways that serve humanity in this circumstance? In
what way would your response be recognising and respecting individual and
collective goals, responsibilities and differences?
Do you know what borderline personality disorder is? Do you think it matters
whether you know what it means? If yes, you think it matters, where might
you go to get some information about this? Why might it be important or not
important to do this?
Working with integrity includes honesty, reliability and impartiality (AASW,
2002, p.9). When putting this value into practice, you are expected to
ensure your conduct in the work place is responsible and of a high quality,
promotes the principles of social work and is impartial. Reflective practice
provides an opportunity to check out that you are not imposing your own
values, views and preferences on the people with whom you work.
What would you do?
You are working as a community development worker in your local government. Recently the
State Government has relocated a man who was convicted of child sex offences and murder.
The man was assessed by forensic psychiatrists as having a mental illness and he has spent
many years serving out his conviction in a prison psychiatric ward. After ongoing treatment
and careful evaluation, he has now been released. The media has publicised his new
location. The community is distressed and angry.
Your task is to work with the community to find some way of balancing this man’s right to
secure accommodation with the community’s concern for safety. You have two small children
and are unsure yourself, deep inside, about how you feel about living in the same area as this
The final value outlined in the AASW Code of Ethics assumes that it is not
enough to merely have a commitment to social work principles; you are
expected to continue to develop competence through out your career
(AASW, 2002, p. 10). Learning doesn’t ‘end’ when tertiary qualifications are
attained. Instead, workers are expected to continue professional education,
to use supervision in order to identify training needs and to in turn contribute
to the information and training of other social workers.
What would you do?
Hooray! Not only have you completed your studies, graduated and rediscovered life without
assessments hanging over your head, you’ve scored the position of your dreams. This is the
job you imagined yourself doing, the one that kept you going during those days (weeks?
Months? Years?) you wanted to throw the towel in. Of course, you feel a little out of your
depth but it looks like your manager is pretty supportive about you continuing your training.
She has asked you to jot down some suggestions for training you’d like to do during your first
year out. You know that returning to Uni is not an option right now – you’d rather chew off
your left arm than write another essay just yet. And your partner/children/friends might leave
home. What other training options might there be? What are the areas you’d like to develop
once you are in the workforce? How might you go about seeking these out?
In relation to your mental health practice, this value suggests that you remain
open to analysing the nature of the needs of the community in relation to
wellbeing, consider innovative strategies and techniques and continue to
develop a personal philosophy of practice.
The AASW developed specific standards for competency in relation to
mental health social workers, guiding professional skills and self reflection
regarding areas of strength and areas requiring further work. You will find the
AASW (2004) Final Report on the development of Competency Standards
for Mental Health Social Workers (2nd edn) in the Book of Readings for this
iv. Tensions between social work and the mental health sector
At times you may notice a certain tension between some areas of the mental health
sector and a social work concept of the social and contextual position on mental
health and mental illness. An acknowledgement of tension is not intended to
denigrate different beliefs and practices underlying different professional responses
to mental health. As is the case with many sectors of work in the human services
field, a diversity of response may offer greater choice for an individual seeking
support in relation to mental health issues.
Tension is often an outcome of the different values of a medical model view of
mental health/mental illness and the social model of mental health/mental illness.
Again, many health professionals who embrace a medical model of mental health
would argue that the past 30 years has brought significant changes to their practice
and that social factors impacting on mental health are often considered during a
mental health assessment… Remember Larissa’s journal entry (pp.13-14)? She
found the visiting psychiatrist was as sociologically aware as social workers.
Similarly you will find mental health workers who would describe themselves as
having a sociological model of mental health and yet facilitate a response to the
issue of mental health that focuses on bio-chemical change. It is useful to remember
there are no absolutes… and making assumptions about another person’s practice is
not a useful way to build relationships across disciplines.
Perhaps it might be convenient to return to the concept of a continuum, with the
sociological model of mental health on one end, considering the role of context,
values and beliefs; and on the other a pure form of the medical model, where mental
illness is considered on an individual level as a result of a biochemistry ‘problem’ that
requires fixing. The values and principles from both the AASW Code of Ethics and
Mental Health Competency Standards suggest that social workers will practice in
ways that acknowledge the socio-environmental context even when working within a
service that is influenced by the medical model. So what does this mean in practice?
iv. So what can a social work role involve?
In order to consider different ways of working we will look at a particular practice
example: young men living with depression and attracted to other young men.
Social workers celebrate difference: in this case, rather than assuming
everyone should be similar, behave in the same way to the same set of rules
based on the dominant culture, a social worker might honour the many
variations between young men. The knowledge that same-sex attracted young
people are at a higher risk of completed suicide than other young people
could be another area of considerations in the first contacts with individuals or
Living in a world that is hetero-centric, the absence of images of others in
same sex relationships can contribute to feelings of isolation and difference.
Our world is dominated by pictures, media images, TV shows, movies and
resources for young people that show only heterosexual relationships. In
addition, the social judgements and stigma about being attracted to other men
can have a powerful effect.
With this in mind, a worker might focus on finding strategies, resources and
images that see difference as a good thing, rather than cause for censure. On
an individual level, workers can support young men on a journey of
acceptance around difference. At an organisational level there are many
opportunities to consider how your work place contributes to the assumption
that people are heterosexual. Are there posters or resources with same sex
couples? Do intake forms assume young people have a mother and a father,
rather than two dads or two mums? At a community level you may advocate
for change in community assumptions and consider challenging media
messages or social expectations that not only assume heterosexuality but
Social Workers are interested in choice for consumers, their family and the
community in relation to mental health: Rather than assume there is one right
way to ‘treat’ mental illness, social workers aim to support the individuals or
community to identify the solution that best works for them. It may be that
some young men choose to use street theatre to raise awareness of the
needs of young people who are same sex attracted and become involved in a
peer support network considering strategies to promote wellbeing and mental
health. In order to facilitate change, social workers are expected to advocate
for self determination to be upheld. Advocacy may occur within a
multidisciplinary team (advocating the needs of a particular young man with a
medical professional on team), at a systems level (challenging hetero-sexism
and homophobia within services to young people) or at a societal level
(becoming involved in human rights activism for all people who are same sex
In keeping with the principles of respect, social workers are aware of the
impact of language. You will notice in this package and in the readings that
care is now taken in avoiding where possible language that is labelling or that
totalises the person. For instance, it is generally accepted that describing
someone by their mental health issue e.g. ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘a
depressive’ is not appropriate. Continuing the practice example, care is
taken with the way the mental health issue is described and with the sexuality
of young men. Rather than describe the young men as ‘depressive’, the term
‘living with depression’ is used.
In relation to sexual preference it is useful to remember that the terms ‘gay’ or
‘homosexual’ or ‘bisexual’ just don’t fit for all. Most workers choose to be
guided by the person or group involved as to their preference if a word is to be
used to describe a sexual preference. It may sound convoluted or confusing
but care with language is simply another strategy to introduce an alternative
way for the young men to think about how they might prefer to describe
themselves. And language can act as a form of social action: refusing to
assume that we know how others see themselves.
Social workers seek to facilitate participation: In this case it could involve
inviting young men who are attracted to other young men and experiencing
depression to be involved in the development of appropriate responses to
their particular community and to young people in general. Participation is
more than simply asking a group about their thoughts on an issue. It is about
ensuring an environment that is safe, respectful and truly responsive to the
opinions of community members. Participation of consumers in mental health
services has been a key platform of State and Federal social policy responses
to mental health and you will find discussions on participation throughout the
Social workers are working towards social change: rather than stay focussed
on issues at an individual level, social workers consider how change can
occur in order to address the broader contextual issues that impact on mental
health. Again, this is a responsibility that is not always expected of the
psychologist, mental health nurse, medial practitioners or other professional in
the mental health sector. For these professionals, work may finish when the
consumer/ client/ patient is ‘better’. The social worker, however, continues to
explore strategies for addressing issues that get in the way of health &
wellbeing for all.
Consider the practice example used in this unit: working with young men living
with depression and attracted to other young men. What particular issues of
social justice would you want to keep foremost in your mind? What are some of
the social justice/injustice issues experienced by these young men? How might
you respond as a worker to the needs of this particular community?
Ten marks out of fifty for Assessment 1 relate to an understanding of how mental
health and mental illness can impact on human rights and social justice. You might
want to consider how the ideas from this unit can relate to the issue of
a) What is different about a social work role on a multidisciplinary team? What
are the underlying principles that guide social work? Are these really any
different to other professions in the mental health arena? Why or why not?
Housing services may comprise of multidisciplinary teams too; positions may
be filled by staff from nursing, youth work, psychology and other disciplines.
b) Stating the importance of ‘human rights and social justice’ is relatively easy;
the challenge is applying these concepts to practice. How might you begin to
look at the human rights implications of service delivery in a particular
agency? If you have had no contact with accommodation services and don’t
know where to begin a critical analysis, consider starting a thread on the
discussion board of LearnJCU asking for more information from other
c) The idea of participation is raised in the AASW Competency Standards and in
your second reading. Why is participation so important to social work
practice? Could the idea of participation be included in your assignment?
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