SSA Centennial - Mental Health

Generations of clinicians have graduated from SSA to work in agencies armed with state-of-the-art theories on what works best to help individuals in need. Many of those models were formulated at the School, where, at key moments in the evolution of thought on clinical practice in social work, SSA's faculty has been at the intellectual vanguard.

Some observers have identified a "Chicago School" of clinical social work that pushes against an overly psychological model of working with clients. But SSA's first landmark book on the issue, Professor Charlotte Towle's Common Human Needs, actually helped introduce psychotherapy to the profession of social work.

The book came close to having no impact at all. First published by the U.S. Printing Office in 1945, the book was the source of controversy a few years later during the burgeoning Red Scare, due to a few phrases that critics said were linked to "socialized content." The FSA stopped publication and destroyed the printing plates, and only the intervention of the American Association of Social Workers, which published the book in 1952, kept the text in circulation.

"She was one of the first to show the link between social realities and psychological states," says SSA's Helen Ross Professor Emerita Sharon Berlin. "It was an important step for the field, and her ideas had wide impact within SSA and the social work community."

Before long, the adoption of a psychotherapeutic perspective had become ascendant in the field—too much so for SSA's Samuel Deutsch Distinguished Service Professor Helen Harris Perlman. In Social Casework: A Problem-Solving Process, she argued that in-depth study wasn't always necessary and could even impede progress. The core idea of Perlman's approach was that success could be achieved by separating a client's intertwined problems into manageable segments and focusing on one specific issue at a given time. The book, originally published in 1957, has sold nearly 200,000 copies and has been translated into more than ten languages.

Perlman's central insight was expanded and reworked in the 1970s in the task-centered model, a short-term, problem-solving approach to practice that was built from empirical studies of effectiveness at SSA by faculty members William J. Reid and Laura Epstein. "It's really the precursor to what we call today evidence-based practice," says SSA's David and Mary Winton Green Professor Tina Rzepnicki, who was one of the masters students testing the theory in their field placements when she herself attended the School. "Since the book was first published in 1972, it has remained influential in the shaping of contemporary practice."

The Chicago School continues today, as SSA faculty provide further guidance about how to match the insights of multiple theoretical perspectives to the needs of individual clients. Berlin, who retired from SSA a year ago after more than 40 years in the field, published Clinical Social Work Practice: A Cognitive-Integrative Perspective in 2002, which melds many complex theories in the service of finding the best approach for each client. Senior Lecturer William Borden has also published on the importance of a balanced, informed theory, most recently in Contemporary Psychodynamic Theory and Practice.

"I think SSA's legacy around these issues, even going back to Charlotte Towle, is the desire to develop frameworks that really connect with what practicing social workers need to provide the best help to their clients, as well as the willingness to question the standard assumptions of the day," Berlin says. "Over the years, the progression of thought has always been guided by this spirit of pragmatism. SSA scholars have been willing to look far and wide to find theoretical perspectives that might open up different avenues for helping, but these various theories are only interesting if they actually connect with clients and provide traction to them." 

Published in the Fall 2008 issue of SSA Magazine

-Carl Vogel