Book review: Social work and Spirituality by Ian Mathews

Social Work and Spirituality

Ian Mathews

Learning Matters

ISBN 9781844451944

This is a most timely book by Ian Mathews, a respected lecturer with a longstanding record in practice, writes Peter Gilbert.

Just as health and social care have become increasingly disillusioned with arid targets and oppressive and uninspiring managerialism, words and phrases such as spirituality and dignity are back on the agenda.

Mathews addresses a major paradox, however, as to why social work “often seems to be oblivious” to spirituality as an agenda.

Psychiatrists, occupational therapists and nurses have been discussing spirituality and bringing it into practice over recent years, but social work, which prides itself as being a holistic profession, seems to find it a difficult subject to grapple with.

Mathews argues that “social work is impoverished because of its lack of engagement with spirituality”, and that we all need to be aware of our own inner spirit and that of those we work with.

Mathews sets spirituality within the national occupational standards, which students and practitioners will find helpful. He starts by defining spirituality, and its differences and congruences with organised religion.

As the cultural mix of the UK broadens, a person’s religion will be an increasingly important element in care. But many people define themselves as “spiritual, but not religious”, and respected commentators such as Moss, Holloway and Gilligan have pointed to this unmet need.

The book has helpful chapters on the cultural context of spirituality, communities, and on working with older people, people with disabilities, those in mental distress and children. Researchers such as David Hay have pointed to the innate spirituality of children and how this is often ignored to the detriment of childcare.

My only slight disappointment is that the book does not refer to some of the North American approaches to social work and spirituality, but this is a minor quibble.

As research by the National Institute for Mental Health in England has found, service users are increasingly wanting attention to their spiritual and/or religious dimension. Social work students are also voicing an increasing desire to discuss this as a part of their professional practice.

My thanks to Ian Mathews for addressing this need so cogently.

Peter Gilbert is professor of spirituality at Staffordshire University, and former director of social services for Worcestershire

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