Open Spaces for Dialogue: Promoting Mental Health as a Social Work Education Methodology

Nov 17, 2017 | Article

Hubert Kaszyński, Katarzyna Ornacka, Olga Maciejewska Jagiellonian University in Kraków


Presented herein are the results of the first Polish research study promoting mental health in student groups and applying it in social work education. This project was situated within a broader framework: an emergent upwelling of persons experiencing mental health crisis in Poland. Support for these individuals is associated with unique educational practices. Included, too, is an analysis of this promotion of mental health which emphasizes direct contact with individuals experiencing deep emotional difficulties in order to 1) overcome the associated stigma, and 2) shape the professional attitudes of social workers. Academics, social work students, and experienced social workers cooperated in a 4-year study carried out by three, cooperating local institutions: a university teaching social workers, an NGO dedicated to education inclusive of persons with emotional difficulties, and a bureau for the disabled involved in the promotion of mental health for students and academics. Each institution was responsible for one educational dimension – “hope”, “plasticity” and “subjectivity” – relevant to the creation of a culture of recovery. The aim of participatory action research was the identification and critical analysis of key aspects of training which would facilitate the creation of open (non-oppressive) spaces for dialogue, relevant in the education of social workers. Detailed questions focused on: 1) more effective leveling of the playing field for those teaching about their experience and those receiving training (e.g., social work students); and 2) working not only with the experience of deep mental health disorders, but also with socalled common mental health disorders, widespread in the practice of social workers. The research study involved a cycle of training by experienced moderators, designed for academic staff and students. A group of 625 people participated, with varying intensity, in 35 training sessions dealing with a range of mental health disorders and mental illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia, depression, anorexia, anxiety, Asperger’s syndrome, etc.). Further, the authors discuss the main outcomes, indicating that a basis for social worker education should entail the following policies: 1) creating a culture of collaboration that refers to the concept of open dialogue, 2) shaping an interactive structure of acknowledgment, instead of the more traditional structure of dominance; and 3) maintaining within the group an emotional atmosphere of openness to suffering. In conclusion, the authors approve the participation of
students with emotional difficulties in social work education (in addition to the traditional service users involvement model) due to better bridging of the perceived dichotomy between mental health and mental illness. Emphasized, however, is that the basic success criterion for this particular form of education is voluntary and diverse participation of students, both as those sharing and those learning. Thereby, the authors warn against mandatory educational elements in social work, but encourage curricular design inclusive of self-motivated, individualized, and optional possibilities for acquiring valuable professional competence.

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