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Navigating youth and their families through what is often a complex mental health system is a job that is frustrating but also an honor.  As a licensed social worker, my compass through the journey is guided by a group of core values. The National Association of Social Workers defines our core values as service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. When feeling frustrated about the work, grounding ourselves in these core values is a good place to start.

However, these values often lack an operational definition. In mental health or healthcare practice, how do these values play out?  How do you measure them? Enter the Society For Participatory Medicine, Manifesto. After a quick glance I see how both the Manifesto and core values of social work complement one another. The ability to share and listen, respect one another, share information responsibly, promote curiosity, and be a team builder are keys to good social work practice.

Working with children and families who require significant mental health intervention, they have been told by a variety of systems what to do for a long time. Schools, crisis services, hospitals, residential services, and in some cases authorities like Child Protective Services and Probation, have given advice on how to treat their child. What they often need is someone to simply listen to them. After months and sometimes years they have been talked at by these various stakeholders at community organizations. When people have experienced multiple mental health crises, they need to be talked with, not at. 

The SPM Manifesto highlights the importance of listening to where people have been and not just assuming that your words are what they need in a time of crisis. Asking open ended questions and not consistently trying to fix the problem can often be more powerful. We can create change by promoting inquiry and curiosity. We can hold space for our solutions while honoring the wishes of those in our care. With this comes respect and the need to acknowledge experiences without judgement. The mental health system is often prescriptive and ignores individual experiences. It is our job as professionals to honor individuals’ experiences. These principles begin to define the importance of human relationships and the dignity and worth of individuals.

Dignity is further given when families feel like they have choice. When in crisis, people often feel like they have no choice or options. Individuals have the right to be informed and question the choices being given. In order to feel control of their lives, people need choices and options. We need to do this with competence and in a way that sounds genuine. Providing people with information is often a social justice issue. People are not often equipped with all the information they need to make a decision. Giving this information furthers the ethical principle of integrity as well.

Last but certainly not least, being a team builder is key to giving life to social work values. A careful examination of how as providers we “treat people as partners, peers, and collaborators” challenges almost all the core values of social work.  Also how we “learn and respect people’s goals, values, and preferences” can change how we engage with individuals who are in crisis. As providers, we often feel like we have the answer, however that is often based on our goals and values not the values of the families we serve.

It can be hard work to look at ourselves as providers, but from an ethical standpoint it is key to look at the values of our profession and examine what they mean to the people we serve. Taking the time to examine the core values of social work and where they rest with the SPM Manifesto was a helpful exercise. I challenge you to see what the SPM manifesto means to you and your profession.  Social work values have found kinship with these ideas. My hope is that other professions will find it too.

Sean Erreger is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in Upstate New York. He’s had experience in a variety of mental health settings, primarily with youth and families. Additionally he is an adjunct instructor and also writes on his blog, entitled Stuck On Social Work .

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