The basic understanding of the helping profession revolves
around the idea of giving assistance. Under the overarching umbrella of
“helping professions”, it is easy enough to mistake one with the other.
However, while they all work towards the same goal, they are fundamentally
In this paper we will evaluate the similarities and differences between these 3
professions in the following aspects: (i)
the primary mission and purpose of the professional, (ii) values and
ethics, (iii) knowledge base about human behaviour, and (iv) practice skills and
planned change process. While bearing in mind that psychologists and counsellors have roots in
the same discipline (Brady-Amoon & Keefe-Cooperman, 2017).
primary mission and purpose of the professional
The general perception of these 3 helping professions is to help
individuals identify problem areas in their lives and develop skills to
overcome those problems. The differences lie in how they are carried out.
According to the Singapore Association for Counselling,
counselling cover processes of interviewing, assessment, testing, guiding, and
helping individuals to cope, manage or solve problems and plan for the future
(Kuna, 2015). A counsellor’s position would serve to assist a person or family
with a specific problem, develop positive coping strategies within themselves
and build capabilities to enable them to adapt to their environments.
Psychology, on the other hand, brings to mind a more
“scientific” structure to the helping domain. According to the American
Psychological Association, (American Psychological Association, n.d.) psychologists
assess behavioural, mental function and well-being, while studying how human
beings relate to each other work to improve these relationships. Mental health
and behaviour are assessed through psychological testing to describe, explain,
predict, and reshape behaviour.
The most “involved” would seem to be social work as it goes
beyond the individual and delves into the community the individual is immersed
in. The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human
well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular
attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed,
and living in poverty (National Association of Social Workers, n.d.).
Probably the most extraordinary aspect that differentiates social work from the
rest would be the aspect of advocacy, in the sense of developing and improving
social policy. The advocacy role, from a social context, includes the
redistribution of power and recourse to an individual or group, guarding their
rights and preserving their values, conserving their best interests and
overcoming the sense of powerlessness (Pardeck, 1996).
Where counselling and psychology serve to empower individuals to problem solve
on their own in order to adapt to their environments. Social work serves to
connect these individuals or families with resources, services and
opportunities while also influencing the environment to form an infrastructure to
support the individual.
Values refer to our conviction and attitude that provide
guidance in our day to day life while ethics refer to conducting ourselves in a
morally upright manner (Corey, 2003). The two are usually used interchangeably
but they are not identical.
As social workers, counsellors or psychologists, our
professional relationships with our clients exist for their benefit. According to National Association of Social
Workers (NASW) (2017), the following are the broad ethical principles based on
social work core values of services: dignity and worth of person, integrity,
importance of human relationship, competence, and justice.
These values being humanistic in nature are common to not just counsellors,
psychologists and social workers but are values that can be threaded through
all helping professions. Dignity and worth of person is concerned with treating
individuals with respect and compassion, regardless of the individual’s
differences, cultural norms and ethnic diversity (NASW, 2017). Integrity
compels one to be honest and righteous, it is a core ethical principle for all
helping professions who are entrusted with much responsibility in the
rehabilitation of their clients (Corey, 2003). All three professions require
the cooperation of their clients, and human relationship is a vehicle that can
be leveraged on to facilitate positive change.
The three professions also must be knowledgeable within their areas of
competence including the different legislations affecting their different
groups of clients – for example children, women, disabled, vulnerable adults,
etc. (NASW, 2017).
Extrinsic resource-based vs intrinsic
Social work is about “person in environment” which means it
links an individual with sets of system that provide the individual with
resources, services and opportunities (Higham, 2006). Thus, in social work, the
values and ethics are basically characterized as derivatives in the interaction
between the collaborative parties involved in the life of the individual. For
example, in helping an individual to develop and adjust to changes, the focus
will be on the extrinsic relationship between the individual with the environment.
Whereas, in the profession of counselling and psychology. Focus is on the
governing of interpersonal values and rights of the individual which is an
Knowledge base about human behaviour
Psychologists, counsellors and social workers share an
interest in the study of human behaviours. Theories of human behaviour have postulated
over two millennia. Collectively, they emphasized the importance of biological,
learning, cognitive, psychological and environmental factors.
The biological viewpoint posits that human behaviour is
influenced by organic factors. Genetic defects, constitutional liabilities,
brain dysfunction, etc., play significant roles in shaping human behaviour
(Coleman, Butcher, & Carson, 1984). Damage to the frontal areas of the
brain through trauma, is associated with either passivity and apathy or
impulsivity and a lack of ethical restraint (Crockett, Clark, & Klonoff,
Social Behaviourist Perspective
Behaviourists and social learning theorists focused on how
people learn by acting on their environment. Ivan Pavlov’s seminal research on
classical conditioning showed that behaviour can be shaped and conditioned
(Pavlov, 1927). In addition to conditioning, Bandura and Walters (1963)
emphasized the importance of observational learning or imitation. Ellis (1970)
believed that core irrational beliefs were the cause of most maladaptive human
Freud (1946) introduced the idea of three subsystems within
an individual’s personality – the id, ego and superego. The ego mediates
between individuals and their environment, protecting them from becoming
overwhelmed by impulses. Freud theorized that internalized experience shaped
personality development and functioning. Erikson (1950) provided a psychosocial
development perspective, charting human behaviour and development through
stages, with each stage marked by specific tasks and challenges.
Psychology, Counselling and Social Work –
Convergence and Divergence
Psychologists employ scientific methods to study human
behaviour, emotions and mental processes to derive theories, while counsellors
apply these theories in therapies. Both share an overlapping focus on human
behaviour, albeit one that tends to focus largely on the individual, often in a
clinical setting. Like psychology and counselling, social work shares a kindred
interest in human behaviour, and subscribes to the theoretical perspectives
outlined in preceding paragraphs. However, unlike psychologists and
counsellors, social workers are by contrast directly involved with individuals,
families and communities to effect change.
This difference is significant, and accounts for a divergent approach to understanding
human behaviour. Social work emphasizes knowledge of human behaviour from a
“person-in-environment” (PIE) perspective that focuses on both the individual
and their environments (Mattaini & Meyer, 2002). This is not a new
approach; the General Systems Theory (Bertalanffy, 1969) considers how
interrelated components within a system interact, and are both affected by, and
exert influence on the environment. From a human behaviour perspective, the
social worker is concerned about the individual’s bio-psychosocial-spiritual
make-up, their role and place within society, and how they strive for
equilibrium. This approach makes for a more holistic understanding of human
behaviour and clearer insights to how change can be facilitated.
skills and planned change process
As defined by Sheafor and Horejsi (2008), planned change concerns itself with
the deliberate design of a plan for which to modify “some specified condition,
pattern of behaviour, or set of circumstances in an effort to improve a
client’s social functioning or well-being”. Process suggests that this includes
a logical sequence of phases. Practice skills are techniques employed by the practitioners
in these processes.
For the purpose of this discussion, this planned change process will take the
form of the Problem-Solving model (Compton, Galaway
and Cournoyer, 2005) which
consists of 4 phases: engagement, assessment, intervention and evaluation.
In the engagement phase, all 3 professions faced similar
difficulty in getting clients to adopt a collaborative partnership. This is attributed
towards the power imbalance which is brought on due to the association between
helping professionals and the larger powerful networks which they are often a
part of; these networks usually have connotations of judgement, punitive
measures and control (Compton et al., 2005). It bears to note that current
social work discourse displays increasing sensitivity towards this power
imbalance and acknowledges the need to minimise this disparity (Sheedy, 2012).
In the assessment phase, counsellors and psychologists
traditionally utilise a cognitive behavioural approach to assess the
individuals’ mental state, thought process and attitude. These are done in
clinical sessions between the counsellors/psychologists and client. Guided by
the PIE principle which perceives the individual in relations to his
environments and its elements (Kondrat, 2013), social workers’ assessment goes
beyond the individual to assess his environment. An assessment of the
environment would look at the capacity of the environment to support the client
and his systems. An example could be an assessment of the housing authorities’
policies to determine eligibility or barrier of service for the client’s access
to public housing.
Another difference is the pathological approach that often follows practice
skills such as cognitive behavioural therapy which is often employed by
counsellors/psychologists. This placed an emphasis on the problems and what
understandably follows is the fixation to “fix what is wrong” (Magyar-Moe, Owens, &
Governed by the strength based approach which place emphasis on a person’s
strength and inherent capabilities as opposed to the problems, this is done in
practice through strength based conversations where your questions can be
reframed in a bid to uncover strengths of the client. An example shared by Compton et al. (2005) is by asking the client to describe
exceptions to their current issues and subsequently analyzing these exceptions to
Intervention and Evaluation
Similarly, in the intervention and evaluation phase, the PIE
principle guides the social work practitioner to work with and evaluate the
person and his interconnected systems in a broader perspective as opposed to interventions
and evaluation targeted at the individual in his entirety. Through its advocacy
function, contemporary social work has progressed beyond an individual to wider
social issues such as “power, culture, social and economic injustices” (McLaughlin, 2009). By linking
individuals’ symptoms with the social root causes, social workers also
facilitate the rise of social capital. This achieves a more sustainable outcome
as it prevents members of the community from being disenfranchised due to
similar social root causes. Social capital primes the ground for collective
actions to rectify problems faced by the collective (Coleman, 1988).
By evaluating the differences between the 3 professions, we
can identify uniquely defining principles and approach such as PIE and
strengths approach that inform social workers and their practice. Through this
paper, we can see that these principles permeate and influence every aspects of
social work such that the profession is able to distinguish itself from other
helping professions such as counsellors and psychologists.
By developing its own theories and drawing on the theories that originated from
other disciplines. Social workers are able to develop a holistic approach in
looking at an issue and resolving them with a more sustainable outcome. (1,919