The Truth About the Social Work Profession

Photo By Tim Marshall


Before she became a professor at UK, Dr. Kalea Benner worked as a licensed clinical social worker focusing on mental health as a children’s counselor. Before her interest in working with kids, she invested her time with adolescents at a residential facility for mostly teenage girls.


However, she wanted to catch the problems that they were faced with in a more preventative manner, so she switched to working with children.


These kids were often brought in due to pre-school, elementary school or parental referrals. The counseling focused on the child but parents would also be closely involved. As Benner would say, “to facilitate change in their environment, it takes others [parents, teachers, etc.] to be involved with the child.” So it was not uncommon for her to be interacting and communicating with other people in that child’s life.


Often overlooked, I can attest to this in my own life, is the amount of courage it takes to seek help. Talking to a social worker is sometimes all it takes. She has seen people fight so hard without seeing a difference but counseling provides the ability to walk a path with someone and see where it is going. By dealing with the problems at the time and preventing problems down the road, a journey with her clients was created.


Kids that would come see Benner were often coming from abuse, neglect, violence or trauma, and suffering from depression, anxiety or reactive attachment disorders. These issues were often associated with stability in their home life. Substance abuse was another problem she saw, stemming from school and the residential facility.


All these struggles seem heavy, so I asked Benner how she was able to help her clients and see growth in their life. First of all, it all depends on the client. Listening and valuing what the client says is at utmost importance as a social worker.


She said that clients are the experts of their own lives. The biggest way to help was to accept them the way they are. Some people do come to her looking for “advice” but they really want “opinions,” which she can not give.


Benner thinks of herself as the facilitator to make those changes to form their life to the way they want it to be. A few clients would tell her what steps they need to take but there are always barriers holding them back. Benner would have frank conversations about why these barriers pop up is a part of healing. Being direct can be hard but it is important to say the things that need to be said.


“A lot of people don’t realize the depth or breadth of the profession. Social work isn’t a job, it is who I am. It is about seeing opportunities for people and evening the playing field. It is a social responsibility,”  said Benner.


The most challenging part of the job according to Benner was knowing that people are in pain and not being able to alleviate that pain immediately. “Grief” is a word that does not often come to mind when talking about social work. Even if someone has not died but a person is no longer in their life [inaccessible, unsafe to be around]. Knowing that grief is a process that takes time was a vital lesson.


A typical day for her was never typical. Her experience as a social worker was fun because it was always different and she could really thrive on that. Everyone is unique and different so she never felt bored with her job, despite having worked as a social worker for decades.


“Everybody has a story and it’s up to me to facilitate that story. It’s a cool role to have,” said Benner.