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Social work 

Social work
Social work

Margaret Holloway

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date: 03 July 2022

The last 20 years have seen some interesting developments in the relationship between social work and spirituality in healthcare. First, there are signs that after a history of suspicion, social work as a profession is cautiously engaging with spirituality, both as something to be taken account of in their interactions with individuals, families, and communities, and as something which potentially should be a focus for social work interventions. An increasingly widespread acceptance of the significance of spirituality is a major step forward for a profession that, for a long time, viewed anything to do with religion as inappropriate for social work intervention and was, if anything, inclined towards the view that religion, for many service users, particularly those with long-term mental health problems, was often part of the problem. A second important development is social work’s rediscovery of the importance of health, including physical health, to overall wellbeing. Social work since the 1970s has operated from a social structural theoretical foundation, which sees problems as socially situated, if not created, and itself as the guardian of social explanations, fiercely opposed to ‘the medical model,’ which it characterized as unfavourably pathologizing the individual, placing the responsibility to ‘cope’ or to change, squarely in the court of the individual and family. However, the once rather entrenched positions adopted by medical and social model proponents have seen a welcome and increasing integration of perspectives in pursuit of quality health and social care. It may be that the reader does not recognize the picture painted above. In its crudest form, it relates primarily to social work in northern Europe, and countries such as Hong Kong and Australia, where the British influence was strong in the early development of social work practice. In the USA, the influence of faith-based social work organizations, as well as a markedly more religious society, has produced a different approach, although a tendency to draw the boundaries sharply between professional and client also led to sensitivity about charges of proselytizing when it came to religion. In the countries of central Europe, many of whom have set up social work services much more recently, the old hang-ups have not held the same sway. In order to look at social work practice and spiritual care, therefore, it is important to review its historical development, as well as to examine the current picture.

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