Out of the Vortex

GSSW authors Hopps and Pinderhughes advocate group therapy for 'overwhelmed' clients

By Sean Smith
Staff Writer

"As a social worker, you are up against a vortex," said Graduate School of Social Work Dean June Gary Hopps. "It can be very easy for clients to be pulled down by any of a number of issues, whether it's alcoholism, family violence or teenage pregnancy - which may be occurring all at once."

Addressing the needs of these "overwhelmed" clients - those who face numerous emotional, physical and psychological problems, magnified by poor living conditions - has long been one of the most difficult challenges in social services. Clinical, one-on-one intervention is the traditional method for assisting these clients, but a new book authored by Hopps and Adj. Prof. Elaine Pinderhughes (GSSW) advocates another, increasingly popular approach: group therapy.

In Group Work With Overwhelmed Clients , Hopps and Pinderhughes discuss the characteristics of a technique they have long advocated. The book extols the benefits of group therapy to deal with the stresses of addiction, gang membership, disease, immigration, and as a way to improve job preparation, sex education and parental responsibilities.

Graduate School of Social Work Dean June G. Hopps (left) and Adj. Prof. Elaine Pinderhughes-"One thing that became clear is that the group approach helps people deal with the phenomenon of toxic communities," said Pinderhughes. "To really empower people, you have to be aware of what goes on in their community, both the positive and negative." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
"Most books on groups have focused on single-issue therapy," said Hopps. "But this publication presents an integrated treatment approach, showing that the sharing, support and empowerment of a group can be life-transforming.

"It can be the means for social workers to help their clients climb out of the vortex."

One particular concern shared by Hopps and Pinderhughes is children's vulnerability to dysfunctional family relationships, which can be exacerbated by the "toxic communities" in which they live.

"Think about the child whose parents are addicted, and whose grandparent, unable to cope, is forced to give up that grandchild to an overworked, flawed foster care system," Hopps said. "Is there a promising future for that boy or girl? If you multiply this scenario block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, what you have are a number of fragmented and disconnected families and neighborhoods that create individuals who have not learned to care for, or about, one another."

Pinderhughes added, "One thing that became clear is that the group approach helps people deal with the phenomenon of toxic communities. To really empower people, you have to be aware of what goes on in their community, both the positive and negative."

The very nature of a group - where members sharing common problems can develop bonds, derive support and validation from one another, and benefit from the role model provided by a professionally trained facilitator - can be a major factor in successful interventions, Hopps and Pinderhughes say.

The book examines the framework for group intervention, offering a profile of at-risk parents who need therapy and describing the qualities a group leader should possess to be effective.

One chapter details the use of group intervention in rehabilitating gang members, analyzing a Boston gang known as the S Street Lions to illustrate the dynamics of gangs. Practitioners must have this understanding, Hopps and Pinderhughes say, to develop strategies for combating the forces that create gangs.

"For many youths, gangs are a refuge from structural problems, such as weakened urban infrastructure and ineffective schools, police, public maintenance and other service systems," Hopps said. "The underground economy represents more stature to a poor, troubled youth, and the gang also provides needed connectedness and often serves as a surrogate family."

One important facet of group intervention, Hopps and Pinderhughes say, is for the practitioner to hold high expectations for his or her clients.

"We found that with high expectations come high results," Hopps said. "The practitioners who tended to be successful were not condescending, were demanding, and believed in their clients. Above all, they are confident professionals. A practitioner who sets high expectations also can accept a client who becomes self-sufficient."

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