What the Heck is Clinical Social Work? A Student’s Perspective

Clinical Social Work. I didn’t want it. I didn’t know what is was. About a year ago, I sat in my boss’ office and asked her if she thought I should pursue clinical social work in grad school. I remember her saying yes, but I don’t recall the reasoning.

At that point, my perception of clinical social work was something that was done in a hospital. It required medical knowledge and the ability to have a “strong” stomach because medical stuff was intense. I expertly lacked both of those qualities. But what the heck. Here I had a choice to pursue something that I kind of was comfortable with, macro social work, or something that seemed incredibly out of me league, clinical social work. So naturally, a chose clinical social work, because I was going to grad school to challenge myself and expand my opportunities.

Clinical social work education is an interesting experience to say the least. It’s going through lecture after lecture, not learning how to interact with others, but learning how other’s interact with others. It’s learning loose ethical guidelines to life’s most difficult decisions under the guise of professionalism, but also taking into account personal values and beliefs. It’s being asked at 9 PM on a Tuesday night how you would respond if a person tells you they want help in planning their suicide. It’s sitting in silence after a professor proposes an idea to the small cluster of students shoved in a too small room. It’s not knowing what to say or how to respond, because there really is no correct answer. Clinical social work education is working for free for an agency that gives you a pink balloon to hold on to as you blindly step into a room with a human with real world struggles. It’s feeling like you succeeded one minute, and experiencing great waves failure the next. It’s hoping you didn’t harm the situation, and wondering if you even helped.

Clinical social work education is the want to run away from the institutions, legal systems, and governing agencies that seem to mess most things up for the people you partner with. The process is realizing that you need to refute most mainstream, majority culture ideals while working alongside systems that reinforce those ideals.

Clinical social work is realizing and/or reinforcing that racism, capitalism, and -isms are not made up to explain certain conditions, but are driving forces that dictate our lives. Clinical social work is challenging everything we believe, because most of it is not true. It’s realizing that if we do not challenge ourselves, we are the problem, and we will continue to be the problem.

Clinical social work is becoming a therapist, a counselor, a clinician. The process tends to usually trade in the words “social work” for something more official or professional sounding, as I learned in my ethics course. Clinical social work is looking at a human with struggles and joining that person, regardless of their motives or goals in life, regardless whether you would “get along” or befriend them outside of work. Clinical social work is developing an intimate relationship with another human in professional setting. It’s listening a lot, and sharing little. It’s the process of realizing that people who have “problems” don’t really have problems, but are assigned to deal with the yuck of life for some societal reason or another.

Clinical social work doesn’t have to happen in a hospital. In fact, this experience has taught me that the best social work that happens, is outside of formal walls. It occurs on the terms of the person who has sought help. It happens in parking lots with the windows rolled up to prevent passer-byers from hearing intimate admissions of fear and shame. It happens in small, shared and under decorated school offices that only few are aware exist. It happens in homes where so much evil has happened, its hard to breathe. It happens in meetings with school administration, where tempers rise and you can only respond with poise. It creates moments of profound creativity and real emotional connection, that can not be faked. It’s holding that connection with so much truth it overwhelms you, and then letting it all go at the end of your work day. It’s carrying stories and circumstance, and allowing the experience to change a little piece of you every time.

Foodie, Traveler, Social Worker, Child and Family Therapist, Future LICSW

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