SOCIAL & COMMUNITY

Career Journey: Social work.

Not everyone can handle the realities of this industry.

As much as I’ve always had a fascination about the AOD (Alcohol and Other Drugs) and criminal justice field, the social work industry kind of fell into my lap; I didn’t seek it out. Basically, I was fortunate that a rehabilitation program decided to give me a job. And that, as they say, was history.

Throughout my social work degree, I had the opportunity to write numerous papers and essays relating to the drug and alcohol field and the concept of recidivism (the tendency of criminals to reoffend) within Australian society, allowing me to build on my fascination with the field.

So when someone offered me a job helping to reduce recidivism and assist those struggling with lifelong addiction I jumped. I probably would have said ‘How high?’ at the time too.

I’m a helper and I’ve always been that way and frankly, I really enjoy it. In my final year at high school I’d narrowed my (somewhat grandiose) ideas down to two options, either social work or teaching.

Still not knowing which to pick and needing to finalise my uni preferences, I decided to seek out more life experience. I was fortunate enough to go on a kind of ‘gap year’, where I spent four months in Ghana, West Africa volunteering and teaching primary school children. It was during this experience I realised that, despite my initial thoughts, I wasn’t the greatest teacher. When I arrived back in Australia, I knew social work was the career for me. I haven’t looked back.

Can a textbook teach you to be a good social worker?

I really believe that the social work degree I completed at The University of Sydney did its best at preparing us for what was happening in the social work world. Granted, you can’t learn everything at uni especially for social work as a lot needs is picked up ‘on-the-job’.

Nevertheless, the social work degree is incredibly useful as it’s a fully comprehensive four-year degree with 1000 hours of mandatory experience that we completed over two different placements. This was aimed at giving us diversity in placement experiences and learning in the field while having slightly reduced responsibility. In saying this, my second field placement was pretty full-on.

I was a part of the Wayside Chapel’s Day-to-Day Living team and our focus was working with and advocating for, people experiencing significant mental health issues, drug and alcohol addiction and chronic homelessness. Midway through my placement I was charged with assisting one of our older participants on a house visit with an aged-care assessment team. This participant lived in a beautiful home nearby, the one in which she’d raised her family, however, it was becoming overcrowded due to her issues with hoarding.

This I soon learned was part of her mental health; she’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia and acute anxiety. Her voices advised her to hoard belongings whilst her anxiety and paranoia increased due to the hoarding but fed into her voices, creating a never-ending cycle.

The hoarding was fairly intense in that she was unable to walk into many rooms of the two storey house. In fact, I only made it to the lounge room (directly off the front door). The hoarding was unhealthy and unhygienic hence the interaction with an aged-care team. Unfortunately, this woman refused any assistance (including washing of plates) from the aged-care team and as we were unable to provide any help. We were forced to leave her in an unkempt and unhygienic living condition.

This placement experience gave me a pretty good idea of what I had gotten myself into. But at the same time, this injustice only encouraged me to delve into the depths of this world.

Why chose this career?

The most rewarding part of social work is probably when a client has an ‘Aha!’ moment i.e. when their face lights up because whatever you’ve just said finally makes sense to them. Some other rewarding parts are when client graduates (from the program) and moves on to bigger and better things. It’s . amazing to see them come back into the office, looking fantastic, just to say hello. It’s so rewarding to know you’ve made a difference not matter how big or small.

I believe social work is one of the most diverse, flexible and challenging professions you’ll find. Our degree is an all-encompassing degree, affording us the ability to learn as much as we can about as many social service areas as possible.

For example, we’re trained counsellors, allowing work in private practice or government and non-government sectors but are also trained as advocates for those who experiencing an injustice while simultaneously being able to ascertain information, understand, assess and refer individuals to appropriate services.

In my experience I’ve known social workers who have worked in AOD, mental health settings, hospitals, hospices, multiple FACS sectors (e.g. child services or housing or disability and aged care), youth-specialised mental health, private practice counselling services, academia, domestic and family violence, rape crisis, Lifeline, etc.

The placement experience gave me a pretty good idea of what I had gotten myself into. But at the same time, this injustice only encouraged me to delve into the depths of this world.

Balancing their life vs. your life.

Years ago, when I would tell people I was becoming a social worker, their first reaction would be, “Make sure you don’t burn out”. Of course, I was young and a little arrogant and would respond, “Of course I won’t”.

Fortunately I never burned out, at least, not completely. I wish people had suggested I learn to take care of myself rather than just say, “Don’t burn out”.

I think I might have paid more attention to a positive, “Please take care of yourself” kind of statement because as social workers we’re taught to reflect on our responses, reactions, thoughts, behaviours etc.

In saying that, I know that when I first started out social working, I threw myself into everything. I did as much as I could for as many people as I could and I wish I’d learned earlier when was appropriate for me to step back, reflect and allow others to build their own mastery.

If this sounds like it could be for you, find the course you need.

Career Journey: Social work.
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