Identifying the key factors shaping the construction of a social work identity in mental health
Document TypeMasters Research thesis
Access StatusThis item is embargoed and will be available on 2020-11-15. This item is currently available to University of Melbourne staff and students only, login required.
© 2018 Fiona Smith
A social work identity is ‘difficult to grasp’. Relevant professional literature is scarce, though some authors have recently acknowledged that ‘Social work identity is a contested concept.’ (Mackay & Zufferey, 2015). The notion of a distinctive and unique social work identity is not well recognised or articulated by experienced practitioners, nor does it appear to be adequately emphasised in social work education and training programs. These considerations have significant implications for the profession as a whole. They become especially critical in mental health settings in which adherence to their profession’s well-established values, theories and practice standards may bring social workers into conflict with views, norms, and practices mandated by the prevailing biomedical status quo. There is limited research on social work identity in mental health settings and even less pertaining to students’ efforts to construct a professional identity in such paradigmatically unfamiliar environments. The primary objective of this research was to examine how students understand, experience, and articulate their developing professional identity and to identify specific factors influencing the ‘identity work’ of social work students immersed in mental health settings. Students from one Victorian university undertaking placements within mental health were invited to participate. The project utilised a qualitative methodology with focus groups held prior to placement and individual interviews towards the completion of participants’ 70-day (500 hour) placements. Inductive and deductive methods were used to identify key themes in the resulting data. The thesis presents findings from interviews with students at the end of 70-day placements in mental health settings. Key findings relate to what participants bring to the placement, what they observe, and what they do during the placement. Responses to specific questions about identity were considered. As participants rarely commented on their experience of supervision, reflective processes were also investigated. As services providing mental health care and treatment are paradigmatically unfamiliar to social work students, interviews were analysed for evidence of resistance to the dominant biomedical discourse. These themes were synthesised in an effort to identify key factors contributing to the construction of a social work identity in mental health settings. When asked to talk about their developing professional identity in relatively unstructured interviews students struggled to relate to the concept of a ‘social work identity’ and were unable to articulate what it might be or involve. Students were more at ease describing specific roles they had performed during their placement. However, analysis of their reflections on what they brought to placement, what they observed, and what they did during placement provided rich descriptions of a range of the factors which contributed to and influenced their developing social work identity. Interviewing students on mental health placement highlighted some of the difficulties they and others have relating to the concept of a social work identity. Further research will be required to gain greater insight into factors influencing social work identity development in these unfamiliar settings.
Keywordssocial work; mental health; students; professional identity development; field education
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