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Alternative therapies can enrich practice

By Rena Malai, News staff

Hearty laughter, colorful paints and a beloved country song all have something in common — they can be vital tools for social workers to enhance their practices.

Laughter may quite possibly be the best medicine, says NASW member Lisa Wessan, who adds that she appreciates the absurdity of life without falling victim to it.

“If the universe serves you lemons, make some lemonade,” she says.

NASW member Eileen Wallach says art is incredibly therapeutic for her, particularly when it comes to working with clay.

“It’s a very forgiving process — you can mush it up and start all over,” she says. “Even breaking a terra cotta pot is symbolic, because you can always pick up the pieces and begin again.”

IPods became a platform several years ago for NASW member Dan Cohen to bring music into a nursing home on Long Island, N.Y., so residents could listen to their favorite songs.

“The therapeutic outcomes are significantly different if someone listens to music they really love,” Cohen says. “These nursing home residents have had to leave behind their friends, houses and families. They shouldn’t have to leave behind music too.”

These three social workers found an alternative medium to enhance the way they help people, and using creative approaches like laughter, art and music can provide clinical practitioners with a unique way to reach out to clients.


Wessan says she doesn’t consider herself to be a goofy person. In fact, she’s a bit on the serious side. But she definitely has a sense of humor and knows how to spot the same quality in others.

She is a clinical social worker in Westford, Mass., and uses humor and laughter when working with her clients — whether one-on-one or in group workshops. This doesn’t necessarily mean people come into her office and immediately start to laugh, although she says sometimes this does happen.

Her approach is more about helping clients see the silver lining, and the potential humor, in their situations.

“There are two parts to the Chinese symbol for crisis: One part means danger and one means opportunity,” Wessan says. “Someone who comes to me in a crisis — whether they’re going through a divorce, their kids are getting bad grades, they can’t sleep, whatever — we try to find the blessing in the situation.”

For example, if someone comes to her in distress because they’ve been diagnosed with diabetes, Wessan says she will point out how the diagnosis can open up an opportunity to eat healthier and exercise.

“I start helping them see how being angry at their diagnosis is absurd,” Wessan says. “Learning how to accept the situation and then take action is far more productive.”

Wessan started to explore using laughter therapeutically right after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. At the time, she was in graduate school at Hunter College School of Social Work in New York.

From the February 2015 NASW News.


  1. This article stresses the importance of being where the client is. Humor and Music are 2 areas that I agree can help people cope with their distressful situation. Recognizing how to listen and validate our clients needs is paramount.

  2. Christina D'Antoni

    I really enjoyed this article, even a few months late as it is ;) As a school social worker at the middle school level, I utilize art, music, and humor when I counsel students as much as I possibly can, and my students love it! Using these non-traditional methods for differently-abled learners is one of the best methods I’ve found to establish trust/rapport, and help the students (and me!) stay constantly engaged in the therapeutic process.

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