Reflections on the Strength-Based Perspective
This paper is about my reflection of the basic concepts of the strength-based perspective based on a series of readings in my MSW course social work 700, combined my previous social work practice to illustrate what has resonated or challenged me, the pro and cons of this perspective, and the limitation of this of perspective exposed in my practice.
I think the advantage of the strength-based approach is that it enables social worker to build up a caring relationship with clients and encourages social workers to convey a message of being there for a person with unconditional trust, love, and a sense of compassion. A social worker that looks beneath a person’s negative behavior and sees the pain and suffering does not take the person’s behavior personally. They actively listen to and get to know the talents of people and convey the message that they matter. As Gary (2011) specifies clearly, the conventional helping model sees the person as the problem; expresses a language of doubt; distances the worker from the client in unequal, controlling, and manipulating relationships; strips problems of their context; and supposes a disease with a cause and a solution.
By contrast, the strengths-based approach focuses on setting up relationships based on mutuality, affirmation of human dignity. It recognizes the power inequality between client and social worker and holds that social workers must change the way they think about clients. The strengths-based perspective favors an inductive approach, whereby insights emerge through the relationship with the clients and the stories they tell.
The basis of the strengths-based perspective is grounded in human beings’ natural potential to grow and heal, on their capacity to identify wants; on the strengths of the person and environment. It views the person as rational and self-determining, and able to make his or her own choices and decisions. It holds each person responsible for his or her own behavior and recovery. It also indicates the client can only do this with the intervention of the strengths-based social worker. The social worker trusts the client, explores and discovers what the client wants, uses the client’s own words, makes an assessment and reaches mutual agreement Gray (2011).
2. Evaluation and critique
When I did my volunteer position at Toronto Hong Fook Mental Health Association,I observed that immigrants suffer several psychological stressors when integrating into Canadian social and career life. As a volunteer Program Assistant at Hong Fook Mental Health Association (Toronto), I coordinated monthly workshops for immigrant parents with children suffering from mental health problems. I learned that cultural barriers and the “labelling effect” have hindered them from accessing mental health services available in either mainstream or ethno-specific agencies. Indeed, a great amount of groundwork needs to be done in order to pave the way for Asian immigrants with mental health issues to share their experiences in a safe environment and to access appropriate therapy or services.
During my work, I observed that the agency uses a strengths-based perspective which stresses the inherent strengths of the client and uses these strengths to aid in recovery and empowerment. It is about re-framing social workers’ perception to find good aspects even if one is in the worst situation. The strengths-based perspective emphasizes the power and authority barriers between social worker and client by placing the social worker in the role of a partner or guide. However, I noticed that this perspective places too much responsibility on the individual and the social worker for achieving change, not taking the entire social structure into consideration. As Healy (2005) points out, in mental health risk assessment, a primary focus on client strength may increase some clients’ vulnerability to harm themselves and others. Also, the concept of the strength is a culturally loaded term, for what counts as “strength” in one context may be seen as weakness in another.
My practice exposed limitations of this conventional model used for servicing marginalized immigrants. I hold that this Intervention model utilized by service providers overlooks socio-economic and social structural factors, including poverty, discrimination, unemployment and policy “glitches” as social stressors that arguably position marginalized immigrant youth and seniors to the point of having breakdowns or mental health issues. What is often absent from conventional behavioral models is a critical analysis in relation to historical /social context of oppression that blocks them from employment or financial advancement opportunities in a subtle way.
The Hong Fook Mental Health Association stresses that environmental factors and cultural barriers are reasons that result in mental health problems among immigrants’ children. However, I support using a critical anti-racist framework to examine the complex issues that confront marginalized people. If we only focus on cultural issues, it will hinder our understanding of the influence of race and racism against individuals and families. Focusing on race can result in a structural analysis taking into consideration the historical and current consequences of being a person of visible minority in society. It becomes vital to explore how race is interwoven with other forms of oppressions that intersect people’s life both historically and currently while the historical context continues to have an impact on current context (Maiter, 2009).
The strengths-based perspective stems from philosophical foundations; it is dangerous to go too close to contemporary neoliberal notions of self-help and self-responsibility and ignore over the structural inequalities that hinder the personal and social development. It fails to take account of evidence of the relationship between structural inequalities, such as race and class, or of mental illness, poverty, and so on. Its political conception of self-responsibility comes to the political notion of the conservative New Right, which sees as devolving social responsibility from neoliberal governments onto the individuals Gray (2011).
Taking my family experiences as an example, prior to our immigration to Toronto in 2007, my son was one of the top students in a key high school in Beijing. When he arrived here, he was 15 years old and the English language became a barrier for him. When he spoke English in class, some Canadian students laughed at him, and later he spoke haltingly while he expressed his ideas in English. The following year, his English teacher discouraged him and advised him that “You should prepare yourself for colleges and you are not suitable to stay in this class”. My son was stubborn and he often studied and practiced with his English until 3:00 in the morning. Although later, he received offers from several universities, he continues to be depressed and isolated from student activities.