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Message From the Dean

15 March 2013 No Comment

Richard-BarthsmallThis month the School of Social Work is proud to join 200 other schools and departments of social work and about 300,000 U.S. social workers in celebration of Social Work Month. Lately, we have had much to celebrate: Mary Richmond, the mother of social work education, was a Baltimorean, and our own social work department at the University of Maryland Medical Center is one of the oldest in the country.   

With the nation’s attention increasingly turned toward understanding the social epidemiology of our problems, this is a significant time for social work. In the recently released, National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded volume, Shorter Lives Poorer Health, comparing health outcomes across developed nations, the National Academy of Sciences indicates that “the U.S. health disadvantage has multiple causes and involves some combination of inadequate health care, unhealthy behaviors, adverse economic and social conditions, and environmental factors, as well as public policies and social values that shape those conditions.” The new report demonstrates that the chances of making it to age 50 are significantly lower in the U.S. than in comparable countries. Even among the health conscious and the privileged, Americans live shorter lives than people in other developed countries. 

Robert Kaplan, PhD, director of the NIH’s Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research, concluded, in his recent remarks to the Society for Social Work and Research, that about half of all health problems have a behavioral health contribution such as violence, poor habits, mental illness, addiction, or poor self-care following medical treatment. 

No simple explanation accounts for these results. Poor access to quality health care, and our lower use of primary care providers may be part of the puzzle. But, as the report suggests, much of the problem lies on the edge or, even, well outside of the health care system. For males, 19 percent of the difference between the U.S. and the average of the comparable countries in deaths prior to age 50 is attributable to homicide. Another 34 percent comes from the difference in accidents, and about half of these accident-related deaths are from transportation crashes. The U.S. is second in deaths resulting from poisoning. We lead the group of nations in the prevalence of obesity and overweight youth, in adolescent pregnancy, and in the number of youth infected with HIV. 

As a public health community, we have a lot of work to do. Social work must be a significant part of that work because the risks go well beyond smoking, diet, and low use of seat belts or motorcycle helmets. These harms also originate in extreme social stratification and the consequences of disadvantage and social injustice.  

We educate graduate students to help reduce these risks and to succeed at every level of intervention from clinical work to leading political organizations. The breadth of this work is needed, more than ever, to cross all conventional economic, organizational, and international boundaries in this world without walls. Our faculty, staff, and students are primed to accelerate the difference we have made for more than 50 years. 

We began in a warehouse and now we are housed in three buildings and implement projects in more than a dozen states and three countries.  

The School’s 50th anniversary last year has now been succeeded by intense efforts to look forward five decades. We envision the growth of social work that has greater involvement in prevention and health promotion—important complements to our historic role. We very much look forward to working with all of our University of Maryland partners as we reach out to grasp the future.

Very truly yours,

Richard P. Barth, PhD, MSW
Dean and Professor
University of Maryland 
School of Social Work

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