An Interview with Debra Stang

debra stangDebra Stang received her BA in psychology from the University of Kansas in 1990 and her MSW, also from the University of Kansas, in 1996. Since then, she has worked in several settings in the healthcare field. Debra is currently employed at a short-term physical rehabilitation facility where she helps clients deal with the effects of serious illnesses and injuries and sets up the equipment and services to help them return to their homes. Stang is the author of the following books:

We would like to thank Debra for taking the time to talk to us today.

1. Why did you choose the field of social work rather than psychology, counseling or another helping profession? What circumstances or influences led you to pursue a career as a social worker?

This is an interesting question because my undergraduate degree is in psychology. I backed away from that field because I believed psychology often downplayed key environmental factors that strongly influenced outcomes for groups and individuals. For instance, I remember going through a whole unit on women and depression without ever once hearing the male instructor talk about sexism or gender bias.

After I graduated from college, I became involved in the local chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW). Many of my friends in that group were social workers, and I liked the social work philosophy of working to create the best possible fit between people (or group) and environment. I also liked the fact that the NASW Code of Ethics challenges social workers to identify and attempt to rectify social problems.

When I was ready to return to school, I decided I wanted to go for my MSW. Because I had always had an interest in the medical field, the majority of my classes focused on healthcare and gerontology.

2. How has your career grown and developed over time?

Many of my classmates got their degrees intending to eventually move into supervisory and management positions. Those were never my goals. My favorite aspect of social work has always been client contact, so I tend to go where my interests and client needs take me.

Since I got my degree in 1996, I’ve worked in the emergency room of a large, inner-city trauma center; a home health agency; a memory care facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias; and two hospices. I’m currently employed by a facility that provides short-term physical rehabilitation for clients recovering from illnesses, injuries, and surgeries.
One of the ways my career has developed is using my writing skills to help clients and their families. I’ve written packets of information, pamphlets, and handouts for trauma survivors, families struggling to communicate with loved ones with dementia, and family members trying to find ways to explain death to children. I have also written, or ghost written, several books related to healthcare and mental health.

3. What do you see as the top social issues facing social workers today?

There are many different fields of social work, and I suspect each field has its own unique challenges and issues.
In the medical field, one of the biggest issues I face is the constant reduction in resources to help meet client needs. One program, for instance, originally developed to help lower-income clients receive non-medical, in-home support now has a two-year waiting list. It’s of no help at all to those who need assistance immediately.

4. What advice would you give to new social workers entering the field?

Take stock of your interests and abilities and be selective when accepting work. There’s a lot of pressure for new graduates to apply for anything even vaguely related to social work and to jump at the very first job offer. That road, however, often leaves new social workers stuck in positions that don’t interest or challenge them at all. Being in a job you don’t like can lead to boredom, frustration, burnout, and even giving up and leaving the field altogether.

It’s wiser to evaluate job openings and offerings carefully to determine whether or not they are a good fit for you and your interests. Yes, it might take a little longer to find that first job, but you’re bound to be happier when you do.

5. What are two or three top recommendations that can help social work graduates keep their skills current and continue learning after graduation?

Continuing education is vital to your social work career, especially with the state of knowledge in the different social work fields evolving so rapidly. There are several ways you can stay current:

  • Make friends with social workers as well as other helping professionals and exchange knowledge with them.
  • Join professional organizations like NASW.
  • Subscribe to professional journals in your field.
  • Attend continuing education seminars. Most states require you to receive a certain number of continuing education units (CEUs) to renew your license.
  • Read books related to your field of practice. If buying books is too expensive, check out your public library or your university library.

6. What is the key strength you bring to your career and how would you advise new graduates to mine their own strengths to further their careers?

I believe I bring several strengths to my career including intelligence, a strong work ethic, integrity, and creativity. My key strength, however, is probably my ability to empathize with clients. “Start where the client is,” was one of the first and most important pieces of advice I heard in my MSW program, followed closely by, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”

Every social worker brings different strengths to the field. In order to tap into your unique gifts, think about the factors that led you to social work in the first place. You may also want to talk with trusted social work peers and instructors about your strengths as a professional. Those who know you well sometimes pick up on valuable traits that you may not even be aware of. Once you’ve identified your key strengths as a social worker, look for a career that allows you to use your talents for the greatest good.

7. What can social worker students do to improve their competitive edge in the current job market?

Although you don’t want to be a “jack of all trades but master of none,” it’s a good idea to get a well-rounded social work education. For instance, even though I knew I wanted to work in a healthcare setting with older adults, I also studied child development, human sexuality, mental health, research methods, statistics, and social work policy and procedure. This extra knowledge has helped me in my practice and given me an edge in job interviews.

Another way to improve your competitive edge is to ensure you stay up-to-date on new theories and research in your area of practice. Nothing can kill a job opportunity faster than quoting outdated research or embracing a treatment system that has – often for good reason – fallen out of favor.

8. Social work can be rewarding but challenging as well. What self-care strategies do you recommend for new social workers?

I live with bipolar disorder, so self-care has had to become a vital part of my practice. Here are a few suggestions for new graduates entering the field:

  • Be very aware of your own health and mental health issues. Monitor them closely and take care of yourself with the same compassion you would show to a client.
  • Make healthy choices. You know the routine: at least eight hours of sleep a night, plenty of water, healthy foods, and moderate exercise three or more times each week.
  • Maintain a strong, vibrant social support network.
  • No matter how much you love your job, never let it consume your life.
  • Social workers are vulnerable to conditions like burnout, compassion fatigue, and secondary (vicarious) posttraumatic stress disorder. If you find yourself struggling with these problems, seek counseling.

9. Can you give an example of an interesting project or case that you have worked on and your role in helping to achieve a positive outcome?

When I started my job in the emergency room of the trauma center, I noticed that family members of seriously ill or injured patients were largely ignored. They were typically ushered into a small waiting room where they might stay for hours before a staff member had time to update them on their loved one’s condition.

I saw this as a nightmare for the families as well as a public relations nightmare, so I spoke to the doctor in charge of the ER about the situation. He gave me the green light to form a committee and explore some alternatives. The committee consisted of me and two other social workers, two chaplains, two doctors with reputations for being patient advocates, and three nurses. It didn’t always go smoothly, but within six months, we had a new protocol in place. Families of critical patients were greeted at the door by a social worker who escorted them to a much-improved family waiting room. The social worker was responsible for bringing them updates on their loved ones every fifteen minutes. A doctor had to make an appearance and speak to the family at least once an hour. This continued until the patient stabilized, died, or was transferred to a different part of the hospital.
We also began experimenting with inviting family members back to the treatment rooms to watch the doctor work on their loved ones. (A social worker always accompanied them as a support.) We encouraged those who lost a loved one in the ER to view the body and stay with the deceased as long as they wished. Again, social workers and chaplains stayed beside the families to provide emotional support and information about the next steps.

Our family support program proved to be a huge success, not only with families but with emergency room staff and throughout the hospital as well. I was just glad that families – as well as patients – were getting their needs met, and I was proud to have been a part of that initiative.

10. Is there any further advice you would share with students concerning social work as a career?

Social work is an extremely rewarding career. I can’t imagine doing anything else with my life. But it can also be an extremely challenging career.

I’ve been a social worker for nearly twenty years. During that time, I’ve been privileged to work with many amazing and courageous people during some of the most difficult times in their lives. I’ve helped family members learn to find new ways of connecting to loved ones with dementia. I’ve had hospice patients die in my arms. I’ve arranged equipment and services so that a stroke patient could go home to his family instead of to a nursing home.

I’ve also been spat upon, slapped, kicked, cursed at, and called some of the most vile names in the English language (and a few other languages as well). One man threw a full urinal at my head. A grown woman pitched a temper tantrum, complete with jumping up and down and screaming like a banshee, in my office.

My experiences, both at the positive and negative ends of the spectrum, are not unusual for most social workers. In this profession, you will experience every possible side of human nature. Emotions can run very high. Don’t let the challenging cases tear you to shreds, and don’t let them fill you with self-doubt. Stay strong and stay open to the priceless gifts social work has to offer.