Clinical Social Work at the Austen Riggs Center: Part 2 - The Role of Riggs Social Workers with Families
by Aaron Beatty
Family work is an important part of the treatment at Riggs for many patients and their families. A licensed, clinical social worker who is part of each patient’s treatment team serves in the role of family liaison and family co-therapist. Riggs social worker Daltrey Turner, LICSW, remarks, “The basic tenets of social work are a systems approach to understanding peoples’ troubles and people having agency in their own lives … both of those tenets are right at home in this institution [Riggs].”
With a patient’s authorization, a social worker at Riggs serves as a family liaison, the primary contact for family members. As Turner states, “It allows patients to have room in their relationship with their psychotherapist … and gives family members security in having a contact here, so they don’t feel disconnected.”
During the six-week Initial Evaluation and Treatment phase, social workers take a comprehensive three generation family history, “so that we have a better understanding of the patient in the context of their family,” says Turner. During this process, intergenerational traumas, strengths and dynamics that resonate within the family are often discovered. Turner explains: “The process is informative, but it’s reassuring to patients that we’re not taking the view of ‘You’re the problem in the family.’ And it’s also reassuring to the parents, who start to understand that we’re not looking to blame them; their parenting occurred in the context of what they experienced as children in their own families of origin. Not looking to blame and not identifying one person as the problem is helpful for the whole system.”
Two specific ways social workers engage with families during treatment at Riggs are through patient-centered family work and family therapy.
- Patient-centered family work – In this role, a social worker, along with a patient’s individual therapist serve as co-therapists in “patient-centered family meetings,” where the patient and his/her family members gather (in person or via the telephone) to discuss a range of topics including how treatment is going, upcoming events (visits home, etc.) and discharge planning.
- Family therapy – Similar to family work, a patient’s social worker and individual therapist serve as co-therapists, but “the focus of family therapy is the family system,” says Turner. Common goals of family therapy include learning to communicate better and deal with certain emotions like anger, conflict, envy, competition, jealousy, sadness or grief. This requires families to work with the co-therapists to “tolerate these emotions, to be able to speak to them, to share them and be able to still feel connected to each other on the other side,” says Turner. She continues by saying “when families are comfortable enough having conversations with each other and working things out with each other and understanding each other … that is a skill that they have that stays with them.”
There are many unique elements to the treatment at Riggs. Turner believes “the ongoing intensive work with families that we’re able to do here [at Riggs] is very different; many programs are time limited or focused more on symptom alleviation for the identified patient. What we’re asking families to do is to broaden the picture and look at the whole family system.” She elaborates by saying, “Patients are looking to change; they are looking to grow. If we can bring families along on that journey and have them be a part of it, the entire family will be in a much better position to keep the progress they have made solid and continue to move forward.”
Check back next week to read Part 3 about the role social workers play in discharge planning.
Read Part 1 – What Has Changed and What is Unique?