Nov. 7, 2002
Vol. 22 No. 4

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    Berlin’s social work theory garners prize

    By William Harms
    News Office

    [Sharon Berlin]
    Sharon Berlin

    Sharon Berlin, who has spent her career studying the effects of interventions on people’s lives, has proposed a model of social work that addresses both problematic internal thought processes and external hardships.

    Berlin, the Helen Ross Professor in the School of Social Service Administra-

    tion, is being recognized for her work this weekend with the 2002 Richard Lodge Prize from the Adelphi University School of Social Work. The prize honors people who have made significant contributions to social work theory.

    The prize recognizes Berlin’s efforts to develop a theory for social work practice that builds on traditional cognitive therapy. Berlin’s model focuses on how individuals construct meaning in their lives, and how that meaning is confirmed or challenged by current life circumstances. She has written extensively, and she recently published Clinical Social Work Practice: A Cognitive-Integrative Perspective, based on her research and her own experiences as a social work practitioner.

    In the book, Berlin explores the use of the cognitive-integrative perspective, and how it builds on traditional cognitive therapy methods to respond to the complexities of life situations. The traditional therapy focuses on changing the way people think about their experiences. “The idea is that over the course of repeated experiences, we all lay down memory records about who we are, what life is like, and how things tend to go for us in our relationships with others,” she said. These memory records give individuals set ways to understand and respond to life’s situations.

    Berlin, who has worked with mental health clients, including women suffering from depression, explained, “The usual cognitive approach to working with people with depression, for instance, is to try to get them to look at their depressive thoughts as their own subjective creations and help them see more positive ways of responding to life situations.”

    But this approach does not work well when people are overwhelmed by immediate problems. While the traditional therapy helps to map out the complex psychological dynamics that shape behavior, “very little attention is paid to what is actually going on in the life of the person… where do they live, do they have enough to eat, do they have a job, who do they hang out with, who is there to help them, what are their sources of joy and pleasure?” Berlin said.

    Rather than only focusing on how the person thinks about his life, the social worker must help create new options or opportunities. “This could mean helping the client get better housing… or cutting through bureaucratic red tape for the client so that he can get services he needs,” said Berlin. With this broader focus, Berlin added, the social worker need not suggest to a person who feels deprived, scared or depressed that he is creating his own problems.

    One case that illustrates the effectiveness of this perspective is a woman named Carol in Berlin’s book. “Carol felt depressed and worthless–in her words, ‘like a nobody.’ She also was a very concrete thinker and for her, her thoughts about herself also were her reality,” Berlin explained.

    Like many of the clients social workers see, Carol struggled with multiple problems. She worried constantly about making ends meet, appeasing her long-term boyfriend and managing her two disrespectful teen-aged sons.

    “It didn’t work to suggest to Carol that her thoughts about her own worthlessness were a big part of her problem. What the social worker did, however, was to help Carol learn, step by step, how to set limits on her sons and to extract more respect from her boyfriend. As she did that and they responded, she discovered that her previous impressions of her self were just thoughts and not the way things had to be.”

    Like Carol, Berlin explained, “Many social work clients have had so many experiences of being shut out and depri their sense of their own capacity is limited. It is very important that they begin to build up memories of taking effective action on their own behalf.

    “Clients who tend to see the world and themselves in very concrete terms are just dumbfounded by the instruction to consider their thoughts or responses as mental habits,” Berlin said. “But once we have painstakingly figured out what they might do differently to improve their circumstances and have… done everything possible to tip the deck in their favor… only then can they look back at their previous way of understanding and say, ‘Well, that is what I used to think.’”

    In addition to her latest book, Berlin wrote Informing Practice Decisions with Jeanne Marsh, Professor in the School of Social Service Administration.

    Berlin has been a faculty member at SSA since 1985 and previously served on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She received a B.A. from the College of Idaho, and a Master of Social Work and a Ph.D. in social welfare, both from the University of Washington.