LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas is commemorating the anniversary of a school of thought that not only put the School of Social Welfare on the map, it changed social work and education across the globe.
KU is marking the 25th anniversary of a seminal publication touting the Strengths Perspective, a revolutionary way of approaching social work. The perspective has helped individuals recover from mental health, substance abuse and numerous other issues in a way that previously hadn’t been done.
“For the preceding century at least, social work looked at as ‘what’s your problem, and how do we solve it,’” said Alice Lieberman, professor of social welfare and director of the bachelor’s of social welfare program. “This really turned that model on its head as helping professionals began to inventory not only the talents and resources of the client, but their dreams and aspirations. No one ever solved their problems with resources they didn’t have, and no one has ever realized their potential by relentlessly focusing on their problems.”
While the idea of focusing on an individual’s strengths and available resources to solve a problem may seem like common sense, it wasn't at the time. Patrick Sullivan, professor at Indiana University's School of Social Work, worked with Professor Charlie Rapp, who was instrumental in developing the Strengths Perspective, in the early 1980s as a case manager on the pilot project. The perspective was first enacted with seriously mentally ill individuals at Bert Nash Mental Health Center in Lawrence. Sullivan returned several years later as a doctoral student and was working with the perspective when the seminal 1989 article, authored by Rapp, Sullivan, Ann Weick and Walter Kisthardt was published.
“It’s omnipresent now,” Sullivan said of the Strengths Perspective. “But when we went out and started giving presentations on it, people would literally get up and leave.”
Sullivan and colleagues had documented enough successes and potentials with the perspective that they submitted an article on the approach to Social Work, the leading academic journal in the field. While there was some initial resistance from the journal’s reviewers, eventually they decided to run the article. The ramifications were felt soon after.
Social workers, mental health professionals, educators and others working in social welfare at nearly every level began focusing on individual’s strengths, abilities and personal goals to set treatment and recovery plans. Sullivan credits Weick, former dean of the social welfare school, for not only championing the Strengths Perspective from an early date but for recognizing its potential and using it as the foundation for KU’s program.
“Ann is brilliant. I really can’t say that enough,” Sullivan said. “She picked up the Strengths Perspective and saw it on a slightly different conceptual level than others. This resonated in many ways. Not only did she lead the KU School of Social Welfare based on the principles of the perspective, she helped take it beyond the university. I don’t think you can overstate the impact the Strengths Perspective had in social work, in education, in practice and more.”
The perspective has permeated social work on many levels internationally but was also key to making a name for KU. Faculty have continued to research and refine the program, basing new projects and services on its foundations, and they have written at least nine books on the perspective and its applications. Dennis Saleebey, professor emeritus, was instrumental in elaborating and expanding the applications of the perspective and taking it to wider social work audiences. He also edited the first book on the perspective, “The Strengths Perspective in Social Work Practice,” which has gone on to several new editions.
“It provided an identity for the school. There are presently nearly 500 schools of social work around the country, but few can claim as sharp an identity as this school, and even fewer are linked to a philosophy that has had as profound an impact,” Lieberman said.
The perspective’s also has also led to recent developments in the field such as the shared decision-making model. Just as treatment used to focus on the problem, psychiatric care for decades involved a visit from a doctor who would prescribe medications or treatments and move on. Under shared decision-making, individuals provide feedback, ask questions and discuss everything from what they want to achieve to potential side effects of medication in helping plan a course of treatment, making them true partners in their own recovery.
“It’s a much broader assessment and becomes a question of ‘what do you want this medication or this treatment to do for you?’” Lieberman said of shared decision-making. “As a result, compliance goes up because people have ownership in the process. It’s putting the consumer or recipient of care back in the driver’s seat.”
KU will mark the anniversary with speakers and presentations at its annual Social Work Day on Friday, April 11. The event will bring more than 350 social workers and alumni to campus as well as feature presentations by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Leonard Pitts Jr. and clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner, one of the nation’s most respected voices on the psychology of women and the process of change in couples and families.
Meanwhile students, educators, social workers, care providers and individuals around the world will continue to put the Strengths Perspective, a once seemingly radical idea, to work every day.