On October 15, Dr. Shulamith Lala Ashenberg Straussner, GSS ‘72, was honored in Washington, D.C. as a Social Work Pioneer by the National Association of Social Workers Foundation (NASWF). Straussner was elected by her peers based on her 40+ years of achievements in the social work profession.
Straussner is a recently-retired professor at the New York University Silver School of Social Work, and an internationally recognized authority on clinical approaches to substance abuse. For more than 40 years, she has led the charge to prepare social workers to work in the field of substance abuse. In 2000 she founded the Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, the only social work journal dedicated to problems of alcohol, tobacco, drug, and other addictions, and has served as its editor ever since. Straussner was also a founding member and chair of the NASW Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs Section.
We sat down with Straussner to speak about her career, motivations, and advice she has for young social workers breaking into the field.
So, how does it feel to be a pioneer of social work?
I don’t really know what a pioneer is supposed to feel like, but it was a very nice occasion. I met some friends whom I haven’t seen in a long time, and it’s nice to be recognized by your profession.
Why did you want to become a social worker?
It was an accident. I was not planning to become a social worker, and actually I had no idea what social workers did. I was studying for a doctorate in Psychology, and the program I was in switched its focus, and I was very unhappy with it. So I figured, I don’t want to continue in that school.
I was telling a friend that I really didn’t like what was happening in this school, and she said, well, my best friend is a professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service, maybe you should talk to him.
So she made an arrangement for me to see him within two or three days. I went to Fordham to meet with him, and I talked to him about how I was very much interested in family therapy and family dynamics, and he said, well, it sounds like you could fit in within social work.
When I applied, it was quite late in the year, so he wasn’t sure if they would even consider me, and they did, and within two or three weeks I was accepted as a student at Fordham.
What are some things that have changed in the field of substance abuse since you’ve been working in it?
Well, first of all, even the terminology has changed. When I started there was no “substance abuse” field. There was alcoholism, and then some people worked with drug addicts. The idea that they might be combined just didn’t exist.
Once I started learning more, it seemed obvious that with addictions, whether it’s substance abuse or gambling or whatever, there is a lot in common. So that’s something that I learned over time.
And what hasn’t changed? Some of the stigma. It’s still there. In spite of everything we know today as addiction being a brain disease, people are still stigmatized. So that’s a shame.
Why do you think there is such a stigma? And is there any answer to quelling that?
Well, it’s like many things: some don’t like people who are different, who have no control over their behavior at certain points. So, we kind of put them down.
We all have something that we can become addicted to, or can do something that other people may not approve of. So we need to recognize that these are not bad people; they just have a problem that they need help with.
You grew up on three different continents, and came to the United States without even knowing English. How difficult was that adjustment?
My home state is Texas, so the culture shock of coming straight into Texas took some adjustment. I came to America with my mother, because even at that point there was a quota on immigrants, and my father and my sister could not meet the quota, so they had to stay behind for a few years. That was difficult because we couldn’t all be together, and there was a culture shock. But what I found fascinating was the different people, and making friends across a lot of differences.
A few years later we moved to New York, which was another culture. I like challenges, and I like different things. And so I guess that was part of the challenge of my life. Just adapting to different situations.
Your current research is on “wounded healers”. What are wounded healers, and why are they important?
Part of my job at NYU as a full-time senior faculty member was to read student applications for the school. I was struck by how many of them came from families that had substance abuse and mental health issues. There were a lot of family problems. By going to social work school, some of these students wanted to heal themselves and their families. That’s the concept of wounded healers. These are people who are wounded themselves, and they want to help others and themselves.
Carl Jung wasn’t the originator of the term, but he was the first one who really addressed that in a professional sense. I wanted to study the students who then became professionals, and see how having that kind of family history affected them, or interfered with their lives.
I was teaching a course on addiction, and about half my class always talked about their own family. So that kind of reinforced my idea. I didn’t want to just have my own subjective opinion. I wanted to really research the whole area. With two former doctoral students we did a survey of over 6,000 licensed social workers in different states to study the impact of their own and their families’ health and mental health issues. So far we have published around 8-10 papers (see https://wp.nyu.edu/socialworkers/?p=235) and have considered writing a book on our findings.
If you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice on your first day of social work school, what would it be?
Hang in there. You never know what to expect. Be open to opportunities. You never know where your life will lead you.
What do you think are some of the necessary characteristics of someone who wants to specialize in substance abuse?
You have to deal with frustration. Some people don’t recover, and others recover and then relapse. So you just have to accept that it’s not smooth sailing from the beginning. Just because someone comes for treatment, that doesn’t mean it’s going to work, at least not immediately. So just accept that human beings go back and forth.
What do you think is the next big thing for social work?
Dealing with the changing political climate, as well as climate change. You never know what’s going to happen politically, and social work certainly depends on governmental supports that are not always available. So it’s really difficult to know how to plan.
If I was an administrator, I really would have a hard time planning long term, because you never know what’s going to happen, and things do change.
What’s your favorite thing to do in New York City?
Go to the theater. Just walk around the streets and just enjoy New York City. I live not far from Central Park, and it’s just wonderful to be able to go there.
What was your favorite thing to do in Texas?
I rode a horse. I wasn’t good at that.
What is your favorite movie?
Anything with good character development. I can tell you what I don’t like more than what I do like. I don’t like horror movies. But I like mystery movies. I like movies that challenge you intellectually.
What is a question you wished people asked you, but they never do? And what’s the answer to that question?
What will make the world better? I don’t have an answer to that.
What’s the story behind the name Lala?
It started as a kind of a nickname. According to my parents, I was a cute baby, and they thought I looked like a doll, which is called “lala” or “lalka” in several Slavic languages. So the name stuck over the years even when I was no longer a cute baby.