Celebrating Social Workers on Screen

Shay SorrellsSocial worker Shay Sorrells

Social worker Kathy Gurland is heartbroken over the lack of social worker characters on TV. “I happen to love ‘House,’ but where is the social worker?” she said.

Gurland, a former actress and founder of PEG’S Group, a cancer patient navigation service in New York, isn’t waiting in the wings for change. As a member of the NASW Communications Network advisory committee, she and other social workers try to increase the visibility and improve the image of social workers in entertainment media.

Gurland and other advisory committee members met with television producers and writers in Los Angeles in August. The Entertainment Industries Council, a nonprofit organization devoted to accurately depicting health and social issues in the media, facilitated the meeting, which dealt with the portrayal of women’s health issues.

NASW Senior Public Relations Specialist Greg Wright, who also attended the meeting at CBS Television City, said the depiction — or lack thereof — of social worker characters on TV is not representative of real life.

“We hope to change that,” Wright said. “Social workers are an integral part of the health care delivery system, but often times, their role in TV medical dramas is not apparent.”

Wright pointed out that shows such as TNT’s “HawthoRNe” or FOX’s “House,” medical dramas that take place in hospitals, rarely depict social workers even though members of the profession work in every U.S. hospital.

“More often than not, doctors or nurses seem to be doing the jobs of social workers on these kinds of TV shows,” he said. “Or, when social workers are depicted, they’re often portrayed as adversarial — trying to take away someone’s custody of their child, for example.”

Wright and Gurland agree that one obvious reason for this misrepresentation is that writers, like the general public, mistakenly believe social workers work mainly in child welfare.

Changing that misconception will take time. “But we’re making inroads,” Wright said. “We made several contacts.”

Gurland presented case scenarios to the writers and producers. “I wanted to show the diversity of relationships social workers have with clients,” she said. “We do so many different things. In my practice I play the supporting role of navigator, advocate, counselor, friend, educator, investigator, ally, coach, emotional guide, problem solver and witness to their challenging life journey.”

Said Wright: “Having more positive social work roles on television will ultimately generate more respect for the profession, attract more people to the field and give consumers more information about the valuable services social workers provide.”

University of Southern California School of Social Work Assistant Dean Marleen Wong also participated in the event, sponsored by the NASW Foundation and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Wright was back in Los Angeles in October to attend the fifth annual Voice Awards ceremony at Paramount Studios. Sponsored by SAMHSA, the Voice Awards — of which NASW is a partner — honor Hollywood writers and producers for their accurate and respectful portrayals of people with behavioral health problems.

Social worker Shay Sorrells, who appeared in NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” and Rebecca Volberg, who works in standards and practices for ABC Family and the show “Huge,” attended as special guests of NASW.

“It was at times very moving,” Wright said. “Many of the honorees were everyday folks who’ve overcome mental health issues and gone on to become valued members of their communities.”

This year’s Voice Awards focused on portrayal of military members’ behavioral health issues. Wright said shows like “Army Wives” and “Grey’s Anatomy” have spotlighted post-traumatic stress disorder — of great importance to social workers, as the Department of Veterans Affairs is the No. 1 employer of master’s-level social workers.

NASW’s Sharon Issurdatt, a licensed clinical social worker, was a judge for this year’s awards. She said it is encouraging when the media portrays mental illness accurately: “The media is a powerful force in people’s lives and can help raise awareness of mental health issues in ways that NASW or SAMHSA and others might not be able to.”

For more on the Voice Awards and social workers’ take on the media, go to Social Workers Speak.