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Using a Holistic Care Approach in Social Work

March 17, 2019

As a young adult, Dr. Maurya Glaude began working for the federal government, helping to connect individuals and seniors with disabilities to much-needed financial assistance. However, while Glaude valued her contribution, she realized that something was missing. Despite her efforts, many of her clients remained isolated, and the inequalities in their lives persisted. That was when she discovered the holistic approach to compassionate care that would define much of her career in social work.

“I realized that, yes, we can provide financial assistance,” Glaude explains. “But we were only giving a part of what the individual needed.” What was missing, she believes, was a sense of wholeness: a vision of the individual as a whole person, considering not only their finances but also their emotional, physical, social, and community-based needs.

A master’s program in social work, she reasoned, would be a place to put together all the pieces of the wholeness puzzle. “I wanted to learn the skills to fill in the gaps, via one-on-one micro-level services as well as programs and policies that brought the whole picture together for the most vulnerable among us.”

Taking a holistic approach in social work is a fundamental strategy because it allows the social worker to generate a higher level of compassionate care. This can broaden the possibilities for forging a deeper connection with the individual, and this improved rapport can potentially lead to better, more impactful results. Those seeking an advanced degree in social work can use the program’s coursework to understand how this holistic approach fits within the context of a social work career. 

What Is a Holistic Approach in Social Work?

A holistic approach in social work expands a social worker’s support to encompass the whole person. The social worker will examine an issue from different perspectives and determine how it impacts a person’s well-being. They consider intersecting circumstances and factors, such as their age, sexual identity, faith, life experience, and cultural heritage.

This approach can help social workers accurately assess how they can best support their clients. This might mean developing appropriate strategies and identifying relevant resources and support systems, such as civic event groups, religious organizations, cultural and heritage associations, youth organizations, or veterans groups.

A holistic approach requires the social worker to develop cultural competence. This allows social workers to approach each situation with cultural sensitivity, and understand that a strategy that may work for one individual will not necessarily work for another. 

Pursuing Social Work as a Career 

It was in an abnormal psychology class, as a psychology major at Texas Southern University, that Glaude discovered one piece of her own wholeness — a longing to pursue social work as a career. She learned with fascination that there was a profession in which she could provide care for vulnerable populations affected by trauma, poverty, and other high-stress circumstances. She was immediately drawn to the social justice and advocacy components of the position.

Seven years after her initial spark of curiosity, Glaude followed that instinct and moved to New Orleans to pursue her Online Master of Social Work (MSW) at the Tulane University School of Social Work. She credits the program with helping her to develop the assessment skills that later allowed her to direct social service programs that drew from the existing resources within a community. She learned that the most successful community-based programs build on partnerships with local industries and mobilize existing assets and resources to sustain a community for years to come.

The Holistic Care Approach in Action 

Just eight months after graduation, Glaude put those skills to direct use by providing door-to-door mental health services after Hurricane Katrina. Throughout St. Charles and the greater New Orleans area, she also implemented her newfound skills in matching short-term needs, such as for furniture and toiletries, with long-term needs through case management. As always, even in the midst of environmental trauma, she looked at the bigger picture of what would help individuals and communities maintain success. Rather than tending simply to individuals’ material needs, she was able to concentrate on their whole selves. 

However, it was her Tulane field practicum at Catholic Charities, where she was subsequently hired, that stirred one of her most persistent clinical passions: working with adolescents. Glaude discovered a natural affinity for working with youth who are managing high-stress situations and navigating the transition from childhood to adulthood. After earning her master’s degree, she managed 14 adult social service programs and developed numerous initiatives aimed at strengthening and educating children and youth.

That extensive practical experience informed Glaude’s decision to pursue a doctorate at the University of Houston. In working with a cluster of young adolescent women who were experiencing intimate partner violence, she noticed a problem. The available diagnostic and treatment tools were designed for older populations, not teens.

The Impact of the Holistic Care Approach in Social Work 

Taking a holistic care approach in social work can allow social workers to view social work issues on a micro and a macro level. At a micro level, social workers may be able to use it to find the root cause of an individual’s situation. This can better allow the social worker to connect the individual with support groups and systems that can improve their daily living and well-being the most. 

At a macro level, social workers may be able to identify patterns within root causes that point to an overarching issue, such as one of social work’s grand challenges. Social workers can use this information to advocate for changes that may work toward reducing the negative impact of the issue within a society. An advanced degree program’s curriculum typically features coursework that allows students to cultivate the acumen needed to spot these patterns and become agents of change for the good of the community.

Additionally, these programs can teach students how to apply a holistic approach through various social work specializations. This can let them develop the expertise needed to help people dealing with specific social work issues. It can also help them develop specialized knowledge that may allow them to develop more complex, intricate advocacy strategies.

How to Maximize Opportunities With a Holistic Care Approach in Social Work 

Glaude’s persistent desire to bridge gaps and address disparities when she sees them led her to research intimate partner violence, mental health, and substance use among adolescents in her doctoral program. In her own words, the studies she conducted complemented what she learned in her master’s program, and allowed her to have both research-informed practice and practice-informed research. Her students at Tulane appreciate that she can bring in real-life examples of how practice might inform a research question or project.

Glaude’s work draws from her rich background as a hands-on practitioner in community-based programs and a community-engaged researcher. Glaude is interested in involving communities directly in programmatic change, so holistic paradigm shifts can occur from the inside out. “And in turn,” she wonders, “how can this influence policy, so as to increase opportunities for success among youth?”

Indeed, just as she first discovered in the early years of her career, Glaude is most interested in maximizing opportunities for wholeness and health — not only for the individual but for communities at large. She explains: “Being a woman of color with a bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degree, I have great responsibility and privilege that I need to use to mobilize and bring resources to communities. I use my privilege and my resources to bring opportunities to communities that would not otherwise have access to those resources.” She encourages her students to use their own privilege to be in union and solidarity with the communities they serve.

Become an Impactful Agent of Change 

Applying a holistic approach in social work can help social workers deepen their relationships with their clients and understand how different circumstances affect them. This can ultimately lead to more effective, better-informed social work practice. 

Tulane’s Online MSW program can help you build the knowledge and skills needed to develop these important holistic strategies. Our program can help you to develop expertise in key social work concepts like social justice and advocacy. It can also allow you to apply your knowledge in social work areas that are most relevant to your professional interests. 

Learn how we can help you strive toward success in a critical field.