The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Living in the real world

I worry about the society we live in, the world we live in.  I’m currently reading about wilful blindness (blog/book review to follow another day) and it seems such a pertinent explanation for so much of what I see going on around me.

The illness age

We live in an age where increasingly we see the medicalisation of everything.  For example, can there be such a thing as an obesity epidemic?  The word ‘epidemic’ implies a medical illness or condition but is obesity itself an illness?  Might crisis not be a better word?  The medical model terminology can be seen increasingly applied to refer to other ‘problems’ such as alcohol dependency (eg reports on the recent tragic death of Charles Kennedy).  This is a relatively new trend in terminology but is it right?  Drugs, alcohol, food (especially fats and sugars), cigarettes, they all have addictive qualities.  So do a whole range of other things from adrenaline fuelled exercise to video gaming.  Are they illnesses?  I don’t think so, not in the traditional sense of discrete illnesses such as cancer, or diabetes, etc.  The danger in defining obesity and addictions as discrete illnesses is the effect that has on the approach to treatment, rather than trying to effect change.  It’s way more complicated than that.

We are learning more and more about how the brain functions and it seems that the problems, at an individual human level, stem from the way in which the brain works.  The brain is fundamentally lazy.  It likes to take the easy way out.  It likes repetition.  It likes habit.  In the very old days, these repetitions, going for the familiar and safe options, were life-saving and sustaining for primitive communities.  But its this very protective mechanism that makes giving up smoking so hard – if you normally light up after a meal the amygdala in the brain sends out signals to keep doing so immediately after every meal.  Next thing you know you have a lit cigarette in your hand.  The brain doesn’t like discomfort; it doesn’t like those painful thoughts.  Alcohol, drugs and even video games are a great way to block out painful thoughts and harsh reality.  Good for the brain’s comfort zone.  We think of these as emotional or mental health problems to start with but then there are the physical effects.  Just like other drugs, sugar floods the body with immediate ‘highs’, new energy, and feel good factors.

We know all these things (and too many more to mention here).  So why don’t we do something about all the crises we are facing in society?  A suggested answer is that we live in a society that is sick with the effects of greed.  Capitalism and the consumerism needed to keep it going are fuelled by greed and power.  Governments are influenced by the needs of big business.  Corporations are managed on the concept of financial growth.  Being a shareholder is an attractive way of earning money without working for it, there is a growth in pyramid selling (we don’t call it that any more but it still works the same way – I sell you something and get a little commission, get you to sell it to more people and get a little commission from every sale you make, and so it goes on, an easy way to make money, but only really if you are an early adopter).

Wake up calls

All those ‘illnesses’, from obesity to alcohol, drug and cigarette dependency, are fuelled by the values of a society that puts profit before people, that puts puts rights and freedom over support and protection.  But so many of those rights and freedoms are built on lies – compare how the cigarette companies knew for years about the cancer risks of smoking but concealed and denied the evidence.  The New Statesman brought out a book in the early 1980’s about the danger of sugar in the diet (Swallow It Whole by Hannah Wright) but it is only now, more than 30 years later, the message is getting louder.

Taking a line from The Matrix “you know there’s something wrong with the world”, a short True Activist video tells us to wake up.  It’s only one of an increasing tide of cries to pay attention, to put the iPhone down and look at the people and world around us, but I like this one because it’s not just about environmentalist issues, health issues, poverty issues.  It’s generic and it’s generically we need to wake up.  We need to pass up on the willful blindness.  Social work academics have been crying out against managerialism for years, but social workers have accused academics of living in ivory towers instead of the real world.  I did.

There have always been voices telling us to wake up.  George Orwell’s Animal Farm was always seen as a critique of communism, but it’s message can be applied equally to today’s effects of consumerism.  His 1984 Big Brother warning is increasingly ringing true in ways he could hardly have imagined.

Social workers are on the front line of dealing with the social crises that face our societies – obesity, poverty, the impact of welfare benefits sanctions, to name just a few.  David Cameron has called for there to be more use of social work skills and less theory.  But what are skills unless they are underpinned by knowledge (and experience)?  The College of Social Work is being closed.  The GSCC was closed in favour of Health registration through the HCPC.  Politically social work has been subsumed into education. The professional standing of social work has been subject to duplicitous moves – the introduction of the social work degree is now being undermined by threats to the university teaching of social work.

The academics’ cries for the re-politicisation of social work have been getting louder – or is it that only that I am noticing it more.  But as we face more austerity, more cuts to the vulnerable, more pressure on the bottom to support the top, I am seeing signs that the tide is turning.  Social workers are beginning to stand up and be counted.  We as a society may have just voted for another five years of Tory austerity (but that was perhaps more to do with lack of confidence in Labour’s ability to do any better) but more voices are clamouring to be heard in the face of society’s health and social crises.  If we each, one by one, try to speak up, to make a difference in our society, not just our individual work, the effect will be cumulative.   We can but try, the alternative is unthinkable.


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