Person-Centered Model from a Social Worker Perspective Dealing with Mental Health

All social workers are to make one of the fundamental choices, when they start to work. They are to choose, whether to become person-centered or not person-centered in their practice. Social workers might listen to their service users, they are free to perceive them either problems, to be solved or aims to be met. Social workers are to be aware of the fact that their choice could define the effectiveness of their social work practice, but still never transform into person-centered practice. Person-centered approach has a great potential for application in the sphere of social work, however, only under the condition of the correct understanding of the basic rules and assumptions of the approach, as failures to interpret them correctly by social workers might lead to irreversible negative outcomes.

Assumption of fundamental values, origin & development

Nowadays there is a lot of interest regarding the application of the relationship-based approach in helping individuals in the frames of social work. On the one hand it seems logical to assume that there is a need to establish the social worker and service user relationship for the sake of making the practice successful. On the other hand relationship- based practice could be used for describing of a relatively wide range of types of work. Thus there might be controversies regarding the nature of the genuine and valid relational approach in social work. The person-centered approach was developed by Carl Rogers in the 1940s – 1950s and nowadays a lot of social workers are used to aligning themselves with this approach in terms of their philosophy. “For instance, Wilson, Ruch, Lymbery and Cooper (2009) refer to the therapeutic relationship conditions of empathy, unconditional positive regard and genuineness described by Rogers as essential communication skills for carrying out good-quality social work practice. As such, it might be assumed that social work is a person-centered practice.” (Murphy, et. al., 2013). The approach of Rogers was in contrast towards the dominating psychotherapeutic model of Freudian psychoanalysis, which was completely based upon the interpretative power of the analyst. Rogers continued to develop his humanistic approach and then he changed the name from client-centered approach to person-centered with the aim to prove that his theory could have been applied to any kind of human interaction, excluding the relationship between therapist and his clients. “In 1969, he published an educational text based on his person-centered approach called “Freedom to Learn.”  The publication of this Learner-Centered approach signaled a shift in Rogers’ focus from traditional individual psychotherapy to organizational and cultural change.” (Murphy, et. al., 2013). There were significant differences between the approaches of Freud and Rogers. In case of Freudian psychoanalysis the therapist was considered to know better, whereas in person-centered therapy the client is supposed to know more. In Freudian psychoanalysis the personal qualities of the therapist are of great value for the process, whereas his abilities to interpret and analyze are appreciated. Rogers assumed that the personal qualities of the therapist played vitally important role, even more important than his skills and techniques, applied by the therapist. “Rogerian psychotherapy really values reflective listening, being non-judgmental and valuing the client’s unique qualities and this includes not thinking of the client in terms of a diagnosis or a pathology” (Murphy, et. al., 2013). Freud used to divide the personality, but Rogers treated it as one thing. Rogers did not focus upon the problem, rather on the person and he stated that clients had the opportunity to resolve their own problems and they do not need direct help for this, just the correct conditions.

Those social workers, who prefer to use person-centered theory, tend to approach  service users first and perceive them as infinite values with worthiness and great potential. They do not look for the ways to fix these clients, instead they look for the ways to understand them. thus social workers turn into active listeners in order to make the conclusions about the position of the service users and their feelings about life and so on.

Current empirical support & measurement of effectiveness

One of the most important aspects in application of person-centered theory in social work practice is the ability to separate the person and his or her behavior. This does not mean to say that social workers are to accept, what individuals do, as there are such types of behaviors, which could be harmful to other individuals and thus should be considered wrong and unacceptable. The key point here is that an individual should not be considered bad even in case he or she had conducted some bad things.

The basis of application of person-centered theory in social work is putting on top the equal value and worth of each individual. If an individual had abused a child for example, this does not mean that he or she should be considered as deprived of this general value or worthiness. Both of them might need the help of social workers and they both should be treated as equal human beings. Certainly this is rather challenging for social workers, as they might develop strong feelings regarding the morality of such behavior. Here it is possible to use the “necessary and sufficient conditions”, developed by Rogers. “This means that a social worker can express their feelings about a particular piece of behavior, for example to say, “I know what you have done, and I don’t agree with it and I do feel uncomfortable when I think about it.” However they can then add something like, “However I think none of us should be judged by our behavior and that what you did is not the whole story of who you are as a person.” (Cloninger, 2004, p. 113).

This is not simple one of the techniques to be applied by social workers, when using person-centered approach, rather this is the core belief. Development of such belief is possible only under the condition of strict separation of individuals and their behaviors. In all other cases, these would remain meaningless words, having little impact upon people in cooperation with social workers. Still, if a social worker is able to perceive this as his basic principle, he would have the chances for adequate communication in this work practice.

Sometimes such honesty is not supported by social workers, as they assume that it is going to have negative impact upon the service user’s feelings. This assumption goes against the person-centered theory, as it is not possible to secure a genuine person-centered encounter with a service user in case of hiding of the real feelings of the social worker. So, it is not about sharing or not sharing of the personal feelings, rather about knowing exactly, when it is better to do it.

Perspective- symptom development, pathology, dysfunction

It is important to note that person-centered theory does not accept the idea of building any kind of identification between and individual and any aspect of his or her experience. This means that using such words as “an anorexic” or “a bully” is not allowed. No phrases, which could be related to the service users’ medical diagnosis, age, behavior and so on could be used by social workers. “According to the Person-Centered theory when working with some diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic depressive there is a huge difference between seeing them as a unique individual who experiences the world in their own way and seeing them as ‘a schizophrenic’ or ‘a manic-depressive.” (Murphy, et. al., 2013).

Person-centered approach to social work practice underlines the individual value of a person and his or her worth in their own right. In other words social workers, applying this approach, should be ready to accept the person’s experiences as valid and true for them and it includes the attempts to place yourself into the position of another person without, however, losing the sense of the world and individuality. It is possible to use person-centered approach even in situations, when social workers challenge various behaviors, for example if a service user is not able to take care of his or her children or has to remain in hospital against his or her will. The greatest mistake, which could be made by social workers, is to deny the fact that inadequate behavior of their service users will have consequences. Instead there is a need to keep this in mind, at the same time supporting the value and worth of the individuality of service users.

Role of social worker & ethical consideration

Person-centered theory should not be mixed up with active listening. Active listening could be of great help for treating other people with respect and reveal the potential of social workers as well as the speakers themselves. Still active listening is possible without person-centered approach application. Active listening is a good method for social workers, but could also used in a great variety of other professions and is not the obligatory sign of person-centered model. “It is possible to use the technique of active listening without having a genuine unconditional positive regard for the other person. It is therefore important when we claim to be using a Person Centered Approach that we are using the core elements of the theory and not simply applying a few of the more superficial techniques that come from the theory.” (Murphy, et. al., 2013).


Overall, person –centered approach could be successfully applied by social workers, in case they developed clear understanding of the core positions of this theory and the ways of practical application of it in their work.


Burns, T., Firn M. (2002). A manual for practitioners. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cloninger, C.R. (2004).  Feeling Good: The Science of Well-Being. Oxford University Press; New York

Murphy, David,  Duggan, Maria,  Joseph, Stephen. (2013). Relationship-Based Social Work and Its Compatibility with the Person-Centred Approach: Principled versus Instrumental Perspectives. The British Journal of Social Work, Volume 43, Issue 4

Sommerseth, Rita,  Dysvik, Elin. (2008). Health professionals’ experiences of person-centered collaboration in mental health care. Patient Prefer Adherence.

Wong, Kathleen M.,  Cloninger C. Robert. (2010). A Person-Centered Approach to Clinical Practice. Focus (Am Psychiatr Publ)

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