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Russel, Gill, Coyne, and Woody (1993) discuss the family origins of master of social work (MSW) students, investigating whether such students came from dysfunctional families more frequently than other students (namely, students of guidance and counseling programs (GCP), education programs, and business programs). The literature review conducted by the authors revealed several findings.
For instance, social work learners come from families with alcoholics very often, and significantly more often than business students; social workers are disproportionally firstborn kids and overachievers; mental health issues are rather common among psychotherapeutic professionals; etc. Noteworthy, the findings of social workers often originating from dysfunctional families are stated not to permit for making “conclusions about their mental health or about their skills in helping others” (Russel et al., 1993, p. 122).
The study by Russel et al. (1993) used a questionnaire to compare the MSW students with other students, as mentioned before. MSW students were found to come from families where there were alcohol abuse, sexual addiction, drug abuse, and/or violence significantly (α=.05) more often than at least two of the other three groups of students (Russel et al., 1993).
Also, MSW students significantly more often reported being insulted or sworn at by their parents than business students; and MSW students significantly more often experienced their parents saying something “for spite” than GCP students, and than education students. In addition, MSW students significantly more often experienced sexual abuse of various types; and, although MSW students did not suffer from depression significantly more frequently than other learners, their depression rates were significantly greater.
Finally, MSW students significantly more often were using or used in the past the services of counseling than some other learners. In general, MSW students experienced some family dysfunction in 73.1% of cases, whereas GCP learners experienced it in 68.2% of cases, education learners – in 44.9% of cases, and business students – in 36.9% of cases (Russel et al., 1993).
It is important to take away the fact that among MSW students, more individuals tend to have suffered from dysfunctions in their families than among other learners. As Russel et al. (1993) stress, while this should not be used to judge their professional skills, many MSW students may require counseling or similar services themselves, e.g. when they realize that they were abused, experience painful memories, etc.
While perhaps initially surprising, the finding that MSW students more often have experienced dysfunctions in their families than other learners seems understandable; such dysfunctions may motivate individuals to become social workers (although, clearly, this assumption should be studied in more detail).
It is impossible to agree or disagree with statistical findings; however, one should probably agree with the conclusion that some social work learners may require additional counseling services during their studies (e.g., when they recollect some traumatic events from their past) (Nichols & Davis, 2017). However, the statement that applicants to social work programs should be questioned about dysfunctions in their family seems ethically problematic, and difficult or impossible to realize.
When it comes to the problem of social workers themselves suffering from past and/or current traumatic experiences, it is noteworthy that while such experiences may not necessarily affect their future professional performance, they might, in some cases, do so. Clearly, this problem requires further investigation; on its basis, it might be deemed important to create some additional counseling programs or introduce some additional courses for social work students which would help them to deal with these problems.
As for the proposal to check if applicants to social work programs have suffered from family dysfunctions, such an offer seems ethically problematic (Minuchin, Colapinto, & Minuchin, 2006): will this cause applicants coming from dysfunctional families to be discriminated against, and what should be done about it at the stage of the application? In addition, perhaps the fact that most social work students come from dysfunctional families makes these people better social workers in the future. It should be explored how to minimize the (potential) drawbacks of such origins on social workers’ professional qualities, and how to maximize the (potential) benefits that they may provide.
Minuchin, P., Colapinto, J., & Minuchin, S. (2006). Working with families of the poor (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Nichols, M. P., & Davis, S. D. (2017). Family therapy: Concepts and methods (11th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.
Russel, R., Gill, P., Coyne, A., & Woody, J. (1993). Dysfunction in the family of origin of MSW and other graduate students. Journal of Social Work Education, 29(1), 121-129.