Wounded Healers: A Multistate Study of Licensed Social Workers’ Behavioral Health Problems

Apr 30, 2018

group of people put their hands together in a semi-circleThe Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung conceptualized the idea of “wounded healers” to refer to helping professionals who experience personal challenges that affect their work. Jung proposed that the physician who has experienced adversity is better equipped to understand the causes and amelioration of a patient’s suffering but may also experience limitations as a result of this personal history.

Others have also applied this concept has been applied to social workers and other helping professionals, describing the ways in which personal behavioral health challenges may present both assets and liabilities to professional practice, including social work. How do social workers reflect this “wounded healer” understanding of professional caregiving?

A recent study published in the journal Social Work looks into the data regarding social workers and their prior and current personal experiences with mental health, addiction, and coping strategies. The results of the study from New York University Professor Shulamith Lala Ashenberg Straussner, PhD, LCSW, New York University Associate Professor Evan Seinreich, PhD, LCSW, and Bridgewater State University Associate Professor Jeffrey T. Steen, PhD, LCSW, are revealing.

The study’s authors looked at social workers’ past and current problems with mental health, alcohol and other drug (AOD) use, gambling, and tobacco use. The researchers report that over four out of 10 participants experienced mental health problems before becoming social workers, over half experienced these problems over the course of their social work careers, and over a quarter were currently experiencing such problems. Nearly one in 10 respondents reported a history of alcohol problems and almost 6 percent reported a history of drug problems.

Although only 2.4 percent of participants reported AOD problems at the current time, nearly 10 percent reported having had AOD problems before becoming a social worker and 7.7 percent reported AOD problems during their social work career. Fewer than 1 percent reported ever having gambling problems. Tobacco was used by 29.8 percent of respondents in their lifetime, with 17.9 percent reporting that they had completely stopped using it. Therefore, only 11.9 percent of social workers were current users of tobacco.

By far, the two most common psychiatric diagnoses reported by participants were depression and anxiety. Over a quarter of respondents reported a history of depression before becoming social workers, which increased slightly to 29.2 percent during their social work career. Over 14 percent of respondents stated that they were currently experiencing depression. Similarly, anxiety disorders increased during the careers of social workers and remained high, with over 17 percent of respondents stating they were currently experiencing such symptoms.

Approximately eight percent of participants reported experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder before their social work careers, which decreased by more than half at the current time, as did the level of eating disorders. Although the rates of bipolar disorder were not high, they remained relatively stable over time. The other three diagnoses reported by over one percent of respondents were attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, obsessive–compulsive disorder, and learning disorders, all of which decreased slightly over time.

The researchers further teased out from the data differences by age, sex, and race and ethnicity. One notable finding of the study is that the overall rates of reported mental health problems increased after the participants became social workers, but AOD problems decreased. This finding could possibly indicate that being a social worker increases the risks of mental health problems and may be reflective of the workplace stress experienced by social workers.

The results of the current study appear to indicate that working in the field of social work does not increase the risk of AOD problems but may actually be protective in regard to substance misuse. The researchers speculate that it is also possible that some individuals who develop or continue to encounter AOD problems may not be able to maintain their positions over time and leave, or are forced out of, the social work workforce. They call for further research to help better understand these issues.