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An Integrated Approach to Social Work is Valuable — Here’s Why

Written by Dr. Holly Oxhandler on 01.17.19

One of the first things I remember in looking back on my social work journey was learning the phrase biopsychosocial-spiritual. Social work as a profession trains practitioners to use a unique lens to see and value each individual as a holistic being.

This biopsychosocial-spiritual or integrated approach evaluates a client’s physical and biological makeup, their psychological, emotional, and mental health, their social supports or environments, and their religion or spirituality - what they consider to be sacred. This approach also respects each client’s individuality.

Approaching social work from an integrated and holistic viewpoint is essential for professionals to best serve their clients. Read on to learn how to practice this approach and how the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University has integrated it into their curriculum.

Explore Baylor University's digital resource page: Master of Social Work — The  MBA of the Helping Professions!

Understanding an Integrated Approach

Not only is a social worker trained to see each of the many areas of a client’s life, but they are also trained to recognize that each area is interconnected and all individuals navigate these areas very differently.

For example, a major depressive episode may cause one client to retreat from his core group of friends, and another to wrestle with insomnia. Likewise, one client might respond to a physical illness by deeply wrestling with his higher power to make sense of the diagnosis, whereas another client with a similar illness may find a sense of peace and comfort from her faith community. Very few things, if any, impact only one area of our holistic lives.

Social workers must understand and consider the holistic nature of the human person. A well-trained social worker is skillfully able to ask the appropriate questions to better understand the whole picture of what is happening in a client’s life. They are also sensitive to recognizing all of the areas impacted by their presenting clinical issue. Not only do social workers look at these areas in the lives of individuals, but they are also trained to assess and treat or make a referral for treatment within families and communities.

Social workers should only assist clients with issues they have been trained to deal with and should be able to refer clients to a provider with a different area of expertise or training when appropriate and when the issue is beyond their own training and competency. For example, a social worker may refer a client to a medical doctor for physical health concerns, or a religious leader for a spiritual crisis. Both of these situations would require the social worker to know the qualifications and approach of these professionals, before referring clients to them.

The Ethical Integration of Faith In Social Work Practice

In the same way a social worker would assess for the client’s physical health, mental and emotional health, and the social supports clients have and need, the same is true for their spirituality within this valued holistic, biopsychosocial-spiritual perspective. Of course, like any other area of practice, social workers must be aware of their own personal beliefs and ensure that their commitment is to the client’s interests and they are not imposing their beliefs on the client.

Previous research has indicated that 77 percent of adults in the United States consider their faith to be important to them. Therefore, ethically and appropriately assessing and integrating a client’s religion and spirituality into mental health treatment can improve clinical outcomes. Additionally, another study found that the majority of clients responded favorably toward integrating religion and spirituality in practice and treatment.

However, while recognizing that many clients may consider their spirituality to be important, social workers must evaluate the degree to which, if any, a client is relying on their faith, higher power, religious coping skills (e.g. meditation or prayer), or religious community to cope with the presenting clinical issue. Sometimes those resources can be positive and promote resilience through difficult seasons, while other times they can be negative and harmful as they relate to the presenting circumstance.

The Integrated Approach At Baylor University

One of the unique characteristics of the Garland School of Social Work is its focus on the ethical integration of faith in social work practice. The National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics includes attention to religion as an area of diversity, as does the Council on Social Work Education’s accreditation standards.

At Baylor University, the ethical integration of faith in social work practice is so important that it is included as the tenth competency necessary for graduation, and is infused throughout the master's in social work curriculum.

As social workers continue to engage clients with a wide range of diversity in every area of their lives, religion and spirituality cannot be ignored. It is critical that social workers, at the very least, assess this area of a client’s life as they engage in ethical, holistic, biopsychosocial-spiritual social work practice.

Want to learn more about what a Master’s of Social Work degree entails, and how it can prepare you to make a difference in the lives of individuals? Explore our digital resource: Master of Social Work - the MBA of the Helping Professions.

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Posted by Dr. Holly Oxhandler

Holly K. Oxhandler joined Baylor University’s Garland School of Social Work in Fall 2014, upon completing her Ph.D. at the University of Houston. Her research focuses on the intersection between ethical and effective integration of clients’ religion/spirituality and the evidence-based practice process in mental and behavioral health treatment. She developed the Religious/Spiritually Integrated Practice Assessment Scale, which assesses mental healthcare providers' attitudes, perceived feasibility, self-efficacy, behaviors, and overall orientation toward integrating clients’ religion/spirituality in practice.

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