Social workers in the US are involved in several areas that are crucial to building a well-functioning society. Over the course of their career, social workers deal with the fields of mental illness, unemployment, community building, access to healthcare, and family matters. One of the most important and most complicated fields, however, relates to that of chronic illness. Although helping patients deal with chronic illness does come with significant challenges, it can also be one of the most highly rewarding approaches a social worker can take.
This article examines why chronic illness is such a relevant topic in today’s society, some typical strategies employed by social workers when assisting people with chronic illnesses, and how they can help empower clients through self-management and building resilience. In addition, it will also explore how social workers can build up their expertise in this field through a combination of formal education, field experience, and a commitment to lifelong learning.
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A common issue
The National Health Council reports that approximately 133 million Americans suffer from some form of chronic illness, which is defined as a health condition or disease that is persistent or otherwise long-lasting in its effects. While some chronic illnesses can be well-managed and may only impact the sufferer’s life in a more limited way – at least in the short-term – others can dramatically alter the quality of life of not just the sufferer themselves, but also that of the people around them. Examples of chronic illnesses or conditions include asthma, multiple sclerosis, severe back pain, obesity, high blood pressure, and cancer, as well as age-degenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.
While the severity of a chronic illness can vary, both in terms of the type of illness and the impact it has on the individual over time, the fundamental issue remains the same: learning to cope with the ill effects of the illness. This involves patients doing their best to live a lifestyle that mitigates some of the worst symptoms, and finding ways to deal with the negative impact it might have on the daily life of themselves and their loved ones.
In each case, a social worker can be assigned to provide assistance. This can happen in a variety of settings. A social worker might be assigned to a hospital or health clinic to provide initial guidance for someone recently diagnosed with a specific condition, for example. In other cases, they might be asked by the individual concerned or a member of their family to help find better ways to manage, particularly if their health is deteriorating.
So, what kind of strategies might a social worker employ for chronic illness, and how can they be crucial in helping patients get through some of the hardest moments and ultimately thrive in an adverse situation?
Planning the future
One of the main issues that patients may experience is being unable to access the resources they need to manage their care. In this case, the first step for the social worker may be to help the patient understand exactly what their illness entails, and what kind of treatment options are available. Typically, the social worker will help their client to construct a detailed plan about not only treating the illness, but also all other aspects of life that it may impact. By doing this, the social worker can help their client take control of the situation. As part of this plan, the social worker can help their client identify any healthcare-related services they may require and how best to access them.
Social workers may also be called on to help manage the practical and emotional aspects of chronic illness. Particularly with more severe issues, the mental toll that it can take on both the individual and their loved ones can be significant, and feelings of anxiety, grief, and depression are common. In addition to providing advice, social workers may also recommend counselors who specialize in this area to provide targeted assistance.
Some people suffering from chronic illness may also experience, or be worried about, reduced earning capacity, as their ability to work or their mobility may be reduced. They may also be concerned about how the illness may impact other areas of their lives, from their personal relationships to recreational activities such as sports and vacations. Here, the onus is on the social worker to work with the client to identify personalized strategies that empower them to manage their illness and related issues to the best possible extent.
Learning to manage
Encouraging a high degree of self-management is a key part of the approach to chronic illness of most social workers. In addition to learning ways to cope with specific emotional issues and life situations, it is equally important for people suffering from chronic illness to manage both their treatment and their symptoms in the long term. When faced with the adversity that particularly severe chronic illnesses may present, it is important for the client first to be prepared to ask for help and assistance. Then, they may build a significant amount of resilience and independence so that they can confront the challenges at hand themselves.
Typically, social workers will work in cooperation with the client, their loved ones, and medical staff to ensure the illness is managed as adequately as possible. This could be something as simple as ensuring that the patient takes their medication on a regular basis. This will also often include aspects such as living a healthy lifestyle, promoting exercise, and encouraging dialogue with other family members so that everyone is on the same page when facing the illness.
In most cases, the main focus is on learning to accept the presence of a chronic illness and maintain as positive an attitude as possible to the circumstances. For example, social workers may encourage their clients to celebrate any achievements or milestones in their journey, and also discuss how to best react to the inevitable setbacks that will occur on the way. Similarly, social workers may also educate the client’s loved ones on the importance of providing encouragement and praise, the best way to offer support, and how to cope if they themselves become overwhelmed at any point.
The importance of preparation
Naturally, any social worker who takes on the responsibility of assisting people with chronic illness will need to rely on a high level of preparation and education. After all, each type of illness comes with its own challenges and difficulties, and it is also vital to understand the specific context of the patient. So, what path is recommended to take for people interested in working in this area?
To become a qualified social worker, it is first necessary to obtain a bachelor’s degree, usually in any subject. In almost all cases, this should then be followed by a Master of Social Work (MSW). One particularly popular option today among prospective social workers is to pursue an online MSW. In addition to having reduced costs compared to an on-campus degree, an online program also offers a high degree of flexibility. It is especially suitable for anybody who has prior work or family commitments that make it more difficult to attend in-person courses.
Often, it is worth checking which programs are available for certain areas of the US. For example, Florida State University offers an online MSW for Georgia residents where students have the opportunity to learn a range of skills and strategies that can be useful when assisting clients with chronic illnesses. Florida State University’s program includes research-based, nonspecific components of therapeutic work, such as therapeutic alliance, empathy, and goal consensus/collaboration. It also covers more specific topics, such as validated treatments that have been proven to work in context. In addition, students have the chance to understand the wider context of health and society through studies of human behavior and the social environment. There is also a particular focus on issues of mental health and child welfare, and the opportunity for students to gain practical experience through field placements.
A lifelong calling
Even upon graduation, there is much for social workers to learn, particularly if they are interested in specializing in helping people cope with chronic illness. Although most social worker graduates will typically work in a variety of different settings in their first few years, those who are interested in working with medical issues may decide to look for jobs in this specific field. For example, they may try to find a position in their local hospital or contact a patient’s association or group to see if anyone requires assistance. Wherever they work, there is no question that the initial role will prove to be invaluable in their future career.
Of similar fundamental importance is the process of lifelong learning, a vital process in the field of social work to ensure both sufficient up-to-date technical knowledge and an understanding of the various contexts that clients may be in. In fact, many social workers rely on mentoring schemes for the advice and counsel of more experienced colleagues, particularly in the early years of their careers. Of course, peer-to-peer conversations are often equally valuable, providing the opportunity to discuss professional questions and show vital emotional and intellectual support.
In addition, many social workers also join either broader or more specialized professional organizations. These can not only provide advice and assistance in finding a job or managing finance, but also help social workers locate relevant online or in-person further training courses and conferences. Finally, most of the best social workers also devote themselves to further study in their own time through private reading or researching online. In each case, the principle is the same: taking the time to extend their breadth of knowledge so they can offer the best possible level of assistance to their clients.
Making a difference
Choosing to help clients deal with chronic illness is one of the most important and potentially far-reaching decisions that a social worker can make. Naturally, any social worker operating in this area requires not only a thorough grounding in their chosen field, but also a large degree of resilience and determination. This enables them to offer support to their clients for the long haul, as well as understand and empathize to guide clients through the difficulties and challenges of their situation.
Next steps to combating chronic illness
The best social workers combine all these qualities to make a real difference in the lives of clients and their loved ones. Regardless of the age, condition, or socioeconomic situation of the sufferer, chronic illness is difficult to manage, and many people find themselves unprepared for the changes it may entail. As one of the primary carers involved, using a holistic approach, the role of a social worker is of vital importance. For this and many other reasons, it remains one of the most significant and well-respected career paths available.