This essay will firstly define what discrimination is and what it means to discriminate against something. It will then explain what it means to discriminate against someone or a group in social work practice. This will be a very broad definition that encompasses a variety of different service user groups. Examples will be used to demonstrate what discrimination may look like in social work practice and everyday life. To gain a better understand the essay will critically explore theory and ideas around power and how power manifests between groups. This part of the essay will touch on the idea of ‘othering’. The essay will use social constructionism theory to analyse this concept of power.
The essay will then focus in on mental health. This part of the essay will firstly look at what a mental health problem is and explore the stigma of being labelled with a mental health problem. The essay will then go deeper to focus on how the western medical model can discriminate against Black and Ethnic Minority groups (BME), even if indirectly. The essay will then critically explore why BME adults, particularly men, are overrepresented in the mental health service. Links will be made to institutional racism and the fact that BME children are underrepresented in child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS).
In in broadest definition, to discriminate means to “differentiate” or to “recognise a distinction” (Oxford Dictionaries 2012). In this broad sense it is a part of daily life to discriminate. For example, an adult may discriminate between lanes on a motorway and a baby will often discriminate between a stranger and their caregiver. Discrimination becomes a problem when the ‘difference’ or ‘recognised distinction’ is used for the basis of unfair treatment. This is the discrimination that social workers need to be vigilant for.
Discrimination is not always intentional (Thompson 2009) and there are various types of discrimination (EHRC 2012). Discrimination can be direct, indirect, based on the perception that someone has a protected characteristic or discriminate against someone who is associated with a person who has a protected characteristic (EHRC 2012). The Equality Act (2010) also aims to protect people with a ‘protective characteristic(s)’ from victimisation, harassment and failure to make reasonable adjustments (Home Office 2012). Thompson’s (1997) PCS model demonstrates that discrimination is not always on a personal level and it is not just solely down to the individual. I will return to the PCS model later on in the essay.
Social workers act as ‘mediators’ between service users and the state. Social workers are in a role that can potentially empower or oppress (Thompson 1997). For this reason Thompson (1997: 11) argues that “good practice must be anti-discriminatory practice”. All other areas of practice could be brilliant and the social worker could have very good intentions but if the social worker cannot recognise the marginalised position of some of the people they are working with their interventions could potentially further oppress (Thompson 1997). Thompson (1997) reminds the reader many times throughout the book that “If you’re not part of the solution you are part of the problem”. I choose to include this because it reinforces that social workers need to challenge discrimination and take action against it. To accept it and to not ‘swim against the tide’ does indeed make us part of the problem.
Where does discrimination come from and why do people, institutions and systems discriminate against people? This part of the essay will critically explore the concept of power and social constructionism in relation to discrimination and social work. Power is defined by Haralambos and Holborn 2000: 540) very loosely as “the ability to get your own way even when others are opposed to your wishes”. This is of course a very simple definition of a complex concept. There are many models and theories around power. Thompson (1998: 42) identified a common theme of “the ability to influence or control people, events, processes or resources”. These common themes of power all have the potential to be used destructively in social work. Social workers have the ability and power to influence and control, whether this is on an individual personal level or as a gate keeper of services or agent of control. Social workers need to be aware of power as they work with people who are marginalised and powerless in comparison; people who social workers could potentially oppress and even worse, abuse.
Giddens (1993) makes close links between power and inequality.
EHRC Equality and human rights commission., 2012. [Viewed 2012.11.10] What is discrimination? [online]. Available from http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/advice-and-guidance/education-providers-schools-guidance/key-concepts/what-is-discrimination/
Giddens, A., 1993. Sociology (2nd ed). Cambridge: Polity
Haralambos, M, Holborn, M., 2000. Sociology themes and perspectives. London: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Home Office., 2012. [viewed 2012.11.11] Equality Act 2010 [online]. Available from http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/equalities/equality-act/
Oxford Dictionaries., 2012. [Viewed 2012.10.19] Discriminate [Online]. Available from http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/discriminate?q=discriminate
Thompson, N., 1997. Anti-Discriminatory practice (2nd ed). Basingstoke: Macmillan Press
Thompson,N., 1998. Promoting Equality challenging discrimination and oppression in human services. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press Ltd
Thompson, N., 2009. Practising social work. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan