About social workers

Social workers are university-trained professionals who help people improve their wellbeing and manage issues or difficulties in their lives. Social workers have training in counselling, child wellbeing and family support, which means that they know how to help families and children who are having difficulties.

Social workers support people with issues like mental health, trauma experiences, family relationships, family violence, grief and loss, homelessness, and misuse of alcohol and other drugs. They work with individuals, families, groups, communities and organisations.

Social workers focus on more than a person’s individual issues. They also look at other things that might be causing difficulties. For example, a social worker helping someone with a mental health issue would look at the symptoms of the condition – for example, low mood – and at other things in the person’s life that might be contributing to the issue – for example, a relationship breakdown, homelessness, unemployment, family violence and so on.

Social workers try to help people manage all their issues. And they try to get people to use their own strengths as part of sorting out their problems.

Many social workers have jobs as case managers, which means they work with people or families to identify changes that people need in their lives. Case managers link people with the agencies and programs that can help them. They aim to ensure that all professionals working with a particular person or family are connected with the person or family and with each other.

Social workers might also be employed as counsellors, family support workers or community development workers.

Social workers are employed in many government, non-government and community agencies – for example, hospitals, community health centres, early intervention and child protection programs, family support services, schools, employment services, justice services, housing services and disability and aged care services.

Social workers might also help to develop social policy and put it into practice, as well as advocating for changes to social policies that are unjust, unfair or discriminatory.

Many social workers are now working in private practice. They can provide services under Medicare or other government programs like Better Access and Access to Allied Psychological Services (ATAPS).

Why you or your child might see a social worker

Social workers can offer counselling, casework and social support to you, your child and your family. A social worker can help if you have special or complex needs or are having difficulties that you’re struggling to manage on your own.

Social workers can also help you identify and connect with appropriate services that you might not have known about.

A social worker can help if you or your child has a mental health condition, disability or serious illness. Other reasons to see a social worker might include:

  • current or past experience of abuse or family violence
  • problems with a relationship in your life – for example, a divorce or separation
  • problems with alcohol and other drugs or gambling
  • difficulties with parenting
  • difficulty coping with significant change in your life, like loss of employment
  • difficulty coping with the loss of a significant person in your life, including pregnancy loss.
You don’t need a GP referral to see a social worker, but your GP or child and family health nurse is always a good place to start if you’re worried about your child or your family situation. These health professionals can help you decide whether to see a social worker and help you find someone who’s right for you.

Before going to a social worker

If your GP suggests you or your child should see a social worker, it’s a good idea to talk with your GP about the following things:

  • Why you’re going to the social worker: talk with your GP about why you or your child needs to see a social worker. Is there anything you can do while you’re waiting for an appointment?
  • Waiting list: services often have a priority access system based on urgency and need, so it’s worth asking how long you might have to wait before you can get an appointment to see the social worker.
  • Making an appointment: you might not always be able to organise an appointment with your first call. Some agencies might call you back to discuss your particular needs or send you a letter when they have an appointment available.
  • Location: find out what type of social work service will be best for you and your child – for example, a public or private hospital service, a community health centre, a non-government family support agency or a private practitioner. Also find out the location of the service that might be best for you. You might have to travel further than you expect, depending on your needs.
  • Cost: how much will the appointment with the social worker cost? Services can be free or you might have to pay a minimal fee. Social workers working in private practice might charge a higher fee. If your GP recommends counselling for a mental health or related matter, you can speak with your GP about help with costs. For example, your GP should be able to tell you whether you can get a Medicare rebate or other financial assistance.

You can talk about these things and any other questions you have with your GP before you see a social worker. You could also ask the social worker’s agency or clinic when you make the appointment. It’s a good idea to write down any questions you have, so you don’t forget.

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