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Public Knowledge of and Attitudes to Social Work in Scotland

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Chapter Six: Attitudes Towards Using Social Work Services

This section looks at attitudes towards approaching social work services for specific forms of help, and how they would feel about doing so.

Likelihood of Approaching Social Work Services

Overall, respondents were willing to approach their local council's social work services. Respondents were provided with 4 hypothetical scenarios and asked to what extent they would be likely to approach social work services for each scenario. The scenarios were: an older person not coping on their own, a person with a disability, children and families having fairly serious problems and someone who committed an offence.

Figure 6.1: Likelihood of approaching social work services
Fig6-1

As figure 6.1 (above) illustrates, majorities of respondents were likely to approach social work services for 3 out of the 4 scenarios, although the degree varied depending on the case. Four in five respondents said they would be 'very' or 'fairly likely' to approach social work services for help or advice for someone with a disability, 79% for someone who was old and not coping on their own, and 72% for help and advice for children and families who are having fairly serious problems. Respondents were least likely to say they would approach social work services for help and advice for someone who had committed an offence, with 46% saying they would be likely, in that situation.

The results varied little among different subgroups of the population but people who held a generally positive impression of social workers were significantly more likely than those who held a negative view to say they would approach social work services for a person with a disability (86% versus 72% respectively), children and families having fairly serious problems (78% versus 65%) and someone who committed an offence (49% versus 34%).

This question also featured in a survey into public perceptions of social workers carried out in 2000 on behalf of the Scottish Executive (Scottish Executive, 2000). The results for the two studies are remarkably consistent.

Survey respondents' professed willingness to approach social work services in the situations just described, may belie a degree of confusion over the extent to which social work services are directly accessible to the public. In the focus groups, many participants suggested it would be unusual for a person to approach social work services themselves, as the 'normal' procedure would involve them being referred by an intermediary agency, such as a GP or a health centre. In discussing this issue, several people pointed out that they would not know where to go to access their local social work department.

Is there not a tendency to feel that you have to be referred to the social work rather than actively seek help?
(Male, ABC1, 45-54, Aviemore)

I don't think you'd automatically think to go to a social worker though. You'd go through a doctor.
(Male, 18-24, Edinburgh)

If I was to have to go to social work, I don't know where I would start to try .… obviously the phone book but do you know what I mean? I don't know where to start.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

I wouldn't know where they were!
(Female, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

Alternative Sources of Help

The focus group research also indicated that people's propensity to approach social work services may depend, to a large degree, on whether or not they feel that alternative sources of support are available to them. Across the focus groups, participants tended to say that their GP or health centre would be their first port of call if they needed help with personal or family problems. The Citizens Advice Bureau was also widely mentioned, and appeared to be held in fairly high regard. Several of the younger participants said that they would, approach their family or friends for help before involving an outside agency. In general, participants conceived of social work as a 'last resort' and something not to be considered lightly.

Citizen's Advice here are fantastic. If they don't know they'll find out and they'll point you in the right direction. They're one of the best ones in this area.
(Female, ABC1, 45-64, Aviemore)

I think the citizen's advice are very good. They go and see what they can do for you.
(Female, C2DE, 45-64, Stirling)

Everybody's got a special friend that they know they could, I assume they could trust! Nine times out of ten everybody has a friend that sometimes would be easier to talk to than their mum or dad. I think if you're going to turn to a Joe Bloggs stranger and ask for help then you'd probably ask your friend first.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

If you're older you get your family to help of if you can afford it you hire a home help or something like that. The social work would be the last stage.
(Male, 18-24, Edinburgh)

Attitudes Towards Using Social Work Services

Survey respondents were presented with a battery of attitudinal statements about using social work services, and asked to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with each. The results provide an interesting insight into perceptions of social work services, building on findings presented in earlier chapters.

Although there is a general acceptance that, ' most people will come into contact with social work services at some point in their lives' (65%), a majority (58%) of respondents also agreed that ' if [they] were using social work services, [they] wouldn't want other people knowing about it'. Similarly, 31% agreed that '[they] will never be in a position where [they] will need to use social work services' and a quarter (25%) agreed that ' social work services are for other people, not people like me'. These results reinforce the view evident in the focus groups that people do not tend to envisage themselves approaching social work services. Moreover, and consistent with results from other research, they indicate that there is a degree of stigma associated with using these services.

Figure 6.2: Attitudes to social work services
Fig6-2

As table 6.1 (below) shows, attitudes varied to a degree among different sub-groups of the population. Men were more likely than women to agree that, 'social work services are for other people, not people like me', and to agree that 'most people will come into contact with social work services at some point in their lives'. Meanwhile, older people were more likely than younger groups to agree that ' most people will come into contact with social work services at some point in their lives' and to disagree that ' if I were using social work services, I wouldn't want other people knowing about it'. In part, this may reflect the fact that older people are more likely than younger people to have used social work services. The survey showed that users' attitudes towards social work services tend to be more positive than those of non-users.

Table 6.1: Attitude toward using social work service, by key sub-group
Q From your own experience or from what you have heard, to what extent do you agree or disagree with the following?

Social work services are for other people, not people like me

If I were using social work services, I wouldn't want other people knowing about it

Most people will come into contact with social work services at some point in their lives

I don't think I will ever be in a position where I need to use social work services

% agree

Base: All respondents, 1,015

All

25

58

65

31

Men

29

60

67

32

Women

20

57

63

29

16-24

29

59

59

40

25-34

23

57

65

33

35-44

23

64

60

31

45-54

22

66

62

27

55-64

22

60

71

24

65+

27

45

73

28

Users

17

53

81

21

Non-users

29

61

55

37

Source: MORI

The focus groups shed further like on attitudes towards using social work services and on the associated stigma. It was repeatedly suggested that people are often reluctant to ask for help -whether from social work services or some other source - as they are 'too proud' or worried about how they will be perceived by others. This tendency was seen to be particularly pronounced among older people.

I think I would be. I've never been in the situation. I think I would be willing to admit I needed help. It's like with a lot of things a lot of people, as you say, pride, you just don't want to admit to other people because other people, unless they've been in the situation you're in, wouldn't know.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

Let's be honest if you're over a certain age you were brought up that that was the stigma for to ask for help.
(Female, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

However, there was also a consensus that there is more stigma associated with using social work services, than with using other sources of support. In large part, this was felt to stem from a perception, mentioned above, that social work is predominantly concerned with very serious problems or difficulties. Related to this, a few participants suggested that using social work services might be seen by wider society as a sign of failure, inadequacy or an inherent inability to cope.

When they hear the word 'social services' or 'social worker' it puts them in mind something's very, very wrong.
(Asian female, Glasgow)

When you ask for social work help you're admitting failure aren't you?
(Male, C2DE, 45-64, Stirling)

If it's a social worker they assume it's to do with something bad. They assume it's going to be about something that you're not able to do. As you say if you're going to the doctor it might be because you're not well. The social worker, it's like the end of the line kind of thing. That's how I see it. There's no one else to help you.
(Female, 18-24, Edinburgh)

People probably think [a person receiving social work services] is inadequate. They might think the family's inadequate and they can't even look after people in the family.
(Asian female, Glasgow)

However, it was also clear from the focus groups that the level of stigma associated with using social work services varies for different types of service. In general, and consistent with findings from the survey, receiving help or assistance with an older person or terminally ill person was deemed more acceptable than receiving help with more 'personal' difficulties such as problem children, financial troubles, or alcoholism. That said, some of the older Asian participants felt uncomfortable with the idea of asking for help to look after an elderly relative as they felt that this was very much their own responsibility.

It would depend on what the social work were in for as well. Probably for instance if it was somebody in the house that was mentally ill or something … That would be a stigma. You wouldn't want to tell somebody that their son or whoever it is was mentally ill and the social worker was coming in for that purpose.
(Female, C2DE, 65+, Dundee)

But it does depend surely on whether people are wanting help for things like infirmity … or if it's financial, people are going to be very reluctant.
(Male, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)

Everybody has elderly parents and eventually as the population is growing older, you are going to have problems, so nobody really minds. It's when you get to the other matters, withdrawing into yourself or into your family.
(Female, ABC1, 45-64, Aviemore)

I know if I need I wouldn't get any help for my mum, I volunteer myself.
(Female Asian, Glasgow)

Notwithstanding the above comments, there was a general consensus that the stigma associated with using social work services had generally lessened over time - both because it has become more socially acceptable to ask for help per se, and because the problems for which social workers provide help and assistance have become less taboo.

Years ago if somebody's daughter ended up in the family way they were taken away. They were taken away someplace else. We don't want to know. Nowadays, I remember seeing in the papers last year, over 50% of kids born in Scotland were out of wedlock.
(Male, C2DE, 45-64, Stirling)

People sometimes are reluctant to admit they've got Alzheimer's. I've noticed a number of people that are slipping a bit that people talk about it now much more freely than they used to. It's not quite as taboo a subject as it used to be. You used to not admit it!
(Female, ABC1, 65+, West Linton)