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Social Workers Speak to Hollywood!

Social workers Kathy Gurland (left) and Marleen Wong.

Social worker Kathy Gurland stood before an audience of more than 50 Hollywood writers, producers and researchers in Los Angeles on August 25 and told stories.

Stories of what it is like being on the front lines helping clients cope with cancer and mortality. Gurland talked about battling hospital colleagues to decorate a patient’s room in white because that color comforted her dying client. And funny stories, like the one about a man who wanted a Viagra prescription so he could enjoy his last days with his wife.

“Over the past 11 years as a licensed clinical social worker I have been afforded the honor and privilege of fulfilling the most satisfying roles I have ever played in my life — ones that far surpass any role I ever played on a stage,” said Gurland, who was an actress before going into social work career.

 She now runs “Peg’s Group,” a cancer navigation consulting company she launched to honor two sisters who died from cancer.

Gurland was part of a four-member panel at an Entertainment Industries Council Inc. briefing on Women’s Health at CBS Television City. The event was partly aimed at getting Hollywood writers and producers to include more social work issues and roles on medical, crime and other television programs and to use social workers as expert consultants. EIC held the event in partnership with the National Association of Social Workers Foundation and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA.

The other panelists were social worker Marleen Wong, PhD, LCSW, assistant dean and professor at the USC School of Social Work who was an original developer for the Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools Model and who has spearheaded mental health recovery programs and crisis and disaster training for school districts and law enforcement across the country; Vincent Felitti, MD, a founder of the Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine and principal investigator of the Adverse Child Experiences (ACE) Study; and Paul Barkopoulos, MD, a psychiatrist and UCLA professor who has worked to increase knowledge and awareness of mental health issues among health care providers and the public.

Wong has studied the effects of violence on young people. In some zip codes more than 90 percent of children have been exposed to life-threatening violence, which can leave them susceptible to post traumatic stress disorder.

“If you have been exposed to violence before 6th grade you are highly likely to have been expelled or failing school,” she said.

Fellitti said Americans may be wrong by thinking diet and exercise are the sole ways to lose weight. His research has found that growing up in a dysfunctional home can make a person more susceptible to weight problems, drug or alcohol addiction and other issues.

“Childhood experiences affect future physical health,” said Felitti, who wants television writers to write plots that help people become better parents.

And Barkopoulos said he is interested in the interface between “mind and body” when it comes to women’s health. A woman’s experience as a primary caregiver for multiple people makes her more prone to depression and other medical and mental disorders, he said.

The two-hour long EIC meeting was hosted by Sharon Lawrence, an actress who has appeared in “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and other television programs and movies.

“Women usually serve as the caretakers of society,” said Lawrence, who is pushing for more attention on improving treatment of heart conditions in women. “We are normally concerned with others’ health issues.”

National Association of Social Workers representatives at the meeting included Suzanne Dworak-Peck, a past NASW president and member of the NASW Communications Network Advisory Committee; Jennifer Watt, assistant director of the NASW Foundation; Gail Woods-Waller, NASW director of communications; and Greg Wright, senior public relations associate at NASW. The NASW California Chapter was also represented and Kana Enomoto, deputy director of SAMHSA, provided the closing remarks.

Representatives from dozens of networks and television programs, including “Huge” (ABC Family), “Grey’s Anatomy” (ABC), “Parenthood” (NBC), “The Good Wife,” “CSI” (CBS), and MTV Network, came to hear the presentation, which was held in Studio 58 where “The Late, Late Show with Craig Ferguson” is broadcast.

Following the briefing, NASW staff talked with participants about specific issues and characters. One writer who approached a NASW Foundation staffer wanted to find social work experts who could provide technical advice for an  upcoming show. Another television executive promised to connect NASW staff with a new show dealing with teens and weight issues, and immediately followed up by email.

“There is still a lot of work to be done developing these relationships, but the rewards will be worth it,” said Greg Wright, who manages NASW’s Web site. “Having more positive social work roles on television will ultimately generate more respect for the profession, attract more people to the field, and give consumers more information about the valuable services social workers provide.”

The Entertainment Industries Council, in collaboration with NASW, the National Association of Chain Drug Stores Foundation, and the National Association of  Broadcasters, previously hosted “Picture This: Women’s Health.” The event was a forum for health experts and advocates to recommend priorities for writers, directors, producers and other creative talent. To read the report on “Picture This: Women’s Health” click here.

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  1. I am happy that you mentioned Suzanne Dworak-Peck. Suzanne is the person who established the first link with Hollywood in the early ’80s. Suzanne, Nancy Anderson and George Anderson represented NASW at the Image Awards in Hollywood last spring.

  2. What a wonderful opportunity for social workers to meet with Hollywood. A deeper understanding of social work and how we as social workers impact people in their life situations is so very much needed. Thank you all who participated.

  3. There are so many areas in which social workers shine. It is sad that they are portrayed so poorly on television and in the movies.

  4. Maybe this way a lot of people will know what we do instead of referring to us as CPS workers when we do a lot more than that.

  5. I miss the Maxin character in “Judging Amy.” Now THAT social worker kicked butt!

  6. I agree with others that this is essential work to educate Hollywood, and by extension the world, about the fuller scope of what we social workers do. While it is true that the entertainment industry could benefit from a better understanding of the profession, the news media needs to be be informed as well. Just yesterday I heard a story on NPR about the dearth of PTSD treatment in the military due to a lack of psychiatrists, with no mention of the great work that is being, or could be, done by clinical social workers. We, as a group, spend so much time advocating for our clients that we tend to ignore advocating for ourselves. Self-advocacy is not selfish. The more people know about our profession, the more people we will be able to reach and help.

  7. Yes, social workers, when portrayed in tv, are frequently seen as being unsympathetic functionaries taking children away. Television has an awesome power to form opinion. With great power, as they say, comes great responsibility.

  8. Social workers takes the fall in child welfare because we are the lowest paid in the child welfare system compared to police officers, detectives, judges, medical professionals and attorneys. Unfortunately, in this country respect in the profession is associated with how much money you make. We need to do more lobbying in NASW to gain more respect for our profession. Social Workers only remove children from their home by order of judges, police officers but we take the down fall. Go figure!

  9. Social workers also play a valuable role in the school system. I was a school social worker for one yr.-grant position. My role was to work with elementary children and their families when there were truancy issues. My role was to complete …an assessment to determine the reason for the truancy of the child and work to address the problem to improve the child’s school attendance. Our school district showed major improvement with school attendance during this time, but because this was only a 1–yr demonstration grant, the school board would not fund this position. This is so sad because from my experience, social workers are usually the first to be cut in the school when there are budget cuts. I have had many teachers tell me that their jobs are made easier when they have social workers in the school system. Social workers deal with the family problems that are contributing to the students behavioral and academic problems. Lets face it, teachers need to devote all of their time to teaching academics but without social workers they also have to get involved with handling the psychsocial problems of their students which = less tme teaching our kids in the US. This is so sad!See More

  10. They should hang around in my office for a day. Now, THAT’S entertainment!

  11. I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hollywood aspect. There are no documentaries or movies to honor those social workers that have been killed while doing their jobs. Also, there are a couple of shows that take place in a medical setting that give nurses a large role. Hawthorne is an example. It would be nice to see a social worker in that same setting. Discharge planning can be a major part of a person’s hospitalization. Just a couple ideas.


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