"Many people have limited knowledge of what social workers do," says Adrienne Pisoni, one of two 2008 graduates of the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work to win a coveted clinical fellowship at Harvard University. "In clinical settings, social workers are often doing the exact same work as clinical psychologists."
The nine-month Harvard fellowship is an intense, diverse, real-world introduction to individual and group therapy on a college campus. Pisoni works at Harvard University Health Services alongside psychology and psychiatry fellows.
The day-to-day work of all the fellows—regardless of their discipline—is exactly the same: providing therapy and counseling for students. Pisoni says this sometimes surprises people who don't realize the many diverse roles social workers play both in clinical and administrative positions.
At Harvard University Health Services, there's a constant influx of new clients with a wide range of mental health concerns: depression and anxiety, eating disorders, family and relationship issues and academic problems. When the students are assigned a therapist, there's absolutely no differentiation made between whether they are assigned to a social worker or a psychologist because they both serve the same role, says Pisoni.
One difference that social workers bring to clinical settings is the theoretical framework in which they are trained. While psychologists are trained to focus mainly on the individual pathology of the client, social workers are taught to also examine individual problems in the light of broader systems that might create or exacerbate them.
"Social workers are trained from a social justice perspective," adds Pisoni. "Ethically, we're required to work toward the ideals of social justice and promote these in our clients."
Another misconception about social workers and counseling in general is that therapists just talk clients through their problems without basing their techniques and strategies on proven research.
"There is increased attention to evidence-based research in social work right now," says Pisoni. "The GSSW does a very good job of giving students a strong theoretical base and stressing the importance of evidence-based practice, so when you go into practice in the real world, you don't take your work lightly. You need to be constantly vigilant and aware of the new findings in research and practice."