Health Care and Social Action: A Place for Social Workers to Contribute to the Five Year Plan

Jacqueline (she goes by Jacquie) Sullivan, a first-time Wilmette Institute learner from Norwood, Massachusetts, USA, weighs in on what she took away from the Wilmette Institute course Health Care and Social Action (faculty: Babak Etemad, Stephen Karnik, John Safapour). She is a semi-retired LICSW (Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker) who obtained her Master’s degree in social work from Boston College. She is also a member of the Academy of Certified Social Workers (ACSW) of the National Association of Social Workers. While raising two children, she worked for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts civil service for thirty-four years, diagnosing, treating, and referring adults with disabilities, as well as families with children and Medicaid. Since 2007 she has been employed as a geriatric social worker in rehab hospitals and nursing homes (in the private sector) and has presented at conferences on this specialty. Jacquie is now working on writing a chapter on how social workers or any caregivers can obtain a concise spiritual history of a patient, leading to better treatment plans and happier outcomes. She believes that such a history needs to be made a requirement, not merely an option, for health-care practitioners at all levels. Jacquie is also candid about how she sees social work contributing to the goals of the Five Year Plan.—THE EDITORS

by Jacqueline Sullivan

Finding a Link between Social Work and the Five Year Plan. What an important influence this course has had on my ability to write and get focused on spirituality and health! Without it, I might still be floundering around in social-work literature, trying to match the spirit of the Cause to whatever looked promising. I feel that the course has connected me to the goals of the Five Year Plan in a way I had never dreamed possible. At first I was a little taken aback at the level of philosophical and divine writings we were required to read, but this served to unfold the mission of the course. It took time for me to read and understand and respond to the questions not just because I could see the relevance to my personal mission—that of writing chapters for a book on spirituality and social work—but also for the galvanizing influence the Bahá’í writings have on my worldview as a social worker working in health care.

Finding a Voice for Writing about Spirituality and Social Work. The most important element of the course is that it has helped me to find my voice in developing not only a practical tool for spiritual assessment but also for linking up material for chapters on dealing with compassion fatigue, the role of wellness in preventing it, the role of prayer in healing, the biopsychosocial model and social work, and many other issues. For example, one of the highlights of the course for me was when Gity Etemad, a learner in the course, took the time to reply to me personally in the forum. When she responded to my comments on working in nursing homes and said that she had been invited to talk about end-of-life issues in nursing homes, I realized that the path is clear to begin writing about a Bahá’í model of caring for patients at the end of life and about death and dying from a Bahá’í perspective. It was as if angels in heaven had had shed light on what I am trying to do, and I am not alone in the universe. I felt ecstatic. But I am trying to find others who would join me in this endeavor. Part of social action is developing a sense of community, and we Bahá’ís are to write and reach out to professional associations as well as having our own Bahá’í associations. Am I the only writer who would join or help to create a “community of writers or interested professionals?” Those of us who are new to writing professionally need support. Please feel free to email me at  

Contributions Social Workers Can Make to Local Communities. I believe licensed social workers who happen to be Bahá’ís are a vastly underutilized resource for the Bahá’í Faith. Spiritual Assemblies and groups can use us to provide resources, help individuals and families who may or may not already have diagnoses, and, above all, refer needy people to resources in a tactful and compassionate way. This process will need to be formalized due to confidentiality laws, and social workers are well-trained in those ethics and practice.

Literature on Social Work and Spirituality.  During the past five years, the literature on spirituality and how it interacts with social work has burgeoned. Most of it covers the difference between religion and “spirituality” and the different religious and “spiritual” practices that cross ethnic and cultural lines that social workers are required to understand in their practice. I feel that, of all the health professions, social work is the most receptive to understanding and implementing the concept of the oneness of humanity (both East and West) as well as a holistic and spiritual view of what it means to be fully human.

Social workers literally interact with all provider levels as well as with the general public, and there is no place where we do not have influence. The problem is that there is so much literature written that I need a partner or fellow social worker to help sift through it and address the issues needed for a new paradigm.

The Need for a Solid Theoretical, Spiritual, and Psychosocial Model for a New Bahá’í Health Care Model. Finally, units three and five in the course had readings on current models of health and wellness and the unity of religion and medicine, which is fundamental and especially relevant to my writing. I have a copy of the HOPE spiritual assessment of open-ended questions where references to religion do not have to be made explicit; its distinction between a formal and informal spiritual history is very useful. A learner asked if the biopsychosocial (BPS) model is being replaced by the wellness movement, and I believe it is not. The BPS model remains the foundation of all clinical work for social workers, many of whom have to use the MDS systems and the newer Meditech systems, as well as the DSM-V mental illness diagnostic manual for licensed clinicians. However, by training and practice these model do not include the patient’s subjective experience, lacks the spiritual dimension, and clings to a “detached observer” or “reductionist” model of causation that does not see human suffering as a causation of illness. By contrast, social workers are increasingly saying that taking a spiritual history may be the missing element in treatment and will enhance trust and even prevent compassion fatigue. Also, I have always encouraged social workers to avail themselves of the “wellness” techniques of mind, body, and soul connective practices and have given workshops on defining some of these techniques.

However, what is missing is an integrated and solid theoretical, spiritual, and biopsychosocial model for a new Bahá’í health care model. I admire Lee Brocius, another of my fellow learners in the course, and her insight into a possible new Bahá’í health-care model that can imagine that an individual can be healthy on seven fairly equal dimensions of measurements and can obtain a “holistic” balance as in the “spokes of a wheel” and can thereby move forward. I can dream all I want about a new type of Bahá’í senior rest home or nursing home, but we need a solid model for it. I hope such a model will incorporate the “Writings Concerning Health, Healing and Nutrition,” a compilation that course participants received electronically. These quotations are seeds planted in our minds for further study and illustration. It is up to us health-care providers to provide illustrations as to why some things are contraindicated and why others are strongly advised. We are, for example, exhorted and commanded to pray for the sick. Soon it will become obvious to physicians why this is so. We are all, after all, made in the image of God. The Bahá’í writings are unique in defining health and wellness because guidance is universal and natural and scientific for this new era. The declaration that health is positive energy and that it is more powerful and can overcome negative energy is fundamental. No other religion has this basic tenet. Lee says she is writing a book including possible models of health care. Of course, I would like to see more studies on the power of prayer. The task ahead is great.

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