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NASW Research Journal: More Training Needed to Handle Difficult Situations

Social workers need training to deal with difficult or violent clients and manage their feelings to protect themselves mentally from such outbursts, according to an article in the current issue of the National Association of Social Workers’ Social Work Research Journal.

Violence against social workers is common and the aftermaths of such incidents can leave social workers feeling angry, ineffective or afraid to do their work. Researchers from the Bob Shapell School of Social Work in Tel Aviv and the LaTrobe University School of Social Work and Social Policy in Australia analyzed 130 “critical incidents” reported by Israeli social workers.

Some social workers reported being punched by clients or witnessing clients do violent things to others. For instance, one saw a drug-addicted client hold a knife to his girlfriend’s throat. Others are traumatized by things they witness, such as a child being removed from an unsuitable home or listening to clients recount being sexually abused.

Besides getting training on how to handle such incidents and protect themselves, social workers also need supervision that helps them deal with such situations effectively, researchers said.

Q: Social workers have been injured and even murdered while on the job. Do you get training on how to avoid or defuse potentially violent situations or resources to handle the emotional aftermath of such scenes?

The National Association of Social Workers offers members an array of cutting-edge publications. For information on  NASW books and journals visit the NASW Press Web page by clicking here.


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  1. I worked in the mental health field for 3 decades; safety of staff was not a priority for any agency. I think social workers who are injured or killed, need to sue their employers for negligence. (Obviously, their families would file a suit in the case of a death.) Secondly, as a trained instructor in self-defense I think social workers should be armed with at least pepper spray. I carried out the civil detention laws in two states, and believe that violence can be predicted, but again, agencies provide little training or resources based upon research; their focus is on suicide prevention. Finally, we need to quit repeating this mantra “Mentally ill people are not dangerous” – this is a blatant lie. I have been tracking massacres for years – 50% are committed by persons with mental illness. Those who have both mental illness and substance abuse problems are at higher risk for committing violence.

  2. I suggest several approaches to take with violence. First if you have a work setting in which you may see violence frequently, get your own help, be it a colleague, or your own therapist. Talk about the experience with other staff.

    Get some maritial arts training. While I don’t advocate laying a hand on anyone, martial arts training, can give you the confidence to get out of any situation where you may feel at risk. Martial arts training is also an excellent stress manager.

    Lastly, if you find yourself in consistently dangerous situations, demand improved security measures from your employer, and if that does not occur, leave the job. It is not worth being hurt and traumatized repeatedly if your employer won’t make changes to help you.

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