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SSA Centennial Celebration
Profiles of Distinction Series

Sharon Berlin

Helen Ross Professor Emerita, School of Social Service Administration

By encouraging practitioners to consider their clients’ life circumstances in addition to their self-realities, Sharon Berlin reoriented the traditional cognitive approach and changed the field of contemporary social work. She is a pioneer in integrating research methods and practice strategies, recognizing that they have a synergistic relationship: just as science can inform practice, clients and practice can build knowledge.

“Cognitive theory says that people are meaning makers. Whatever a person thinks a thing means, that’s what it is. But the idea behind cognitive theory is to help people expand their realities.” Taking the concept one step further, she adds, “The theory also states that people’s sense of helplessness, or an overriding sense of sadness, are a function of negatively biased understanding of their prospects in the world. That seems overly simplistic to me. It puts all of the onus on the person. From my earliest social work training, I learned that part of the reason people feel so demoralized about their lives is because their life situation leaves them with so few options.”

Born and raised in Idaho, Ms. Berlin earned her bachelor of arts from the College of Idaho. She launched her career in social work as part of the childcare staff at the Children Home Society in Seattle, Washington. While in Seattle, she pursued both her master and doctoral degrees in social work and social welfare from the University of Washington. She also completed a post-master’s program in community mental health at the School of Social Welfare, University of California-Berkeley.

Ms. Berlin relocated to the East Coast to be a staff social worker at the Connecticut Child Study and Treatment Center in New Haven. Upon her return to Seattle a few years later, she became involved in organizing one of the first feminist counseling centers in the region. A later faculty appointment in the School of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison brought her closer to Chicago. Ms. Berlin first came to SSA as a visiting associate professor in 1983, joining the faculty full-time in 1985. After her retirement from the School in June 2007, she returned once more to Washington State, settling on Whidbey Island.

While cognitive-behavioral therapies are now widely recognized as highly effective treatments for many physical and mental health conditions, Ms. Berlin was one of the earliest contributors to intervention research in this area.

After finishing her dissertation on cognitive-behavioral models of practice, Ms. Berlin continued working on empirical studies of psychosocial intervention. Keenly interested in cognitive psychology and feminism, she began to apply core concepts in cognitive theory to developing clinical models of social work practices, emphasizing their potential benefit in the care of oppressed and underserved groups.

Her thoughtful, ground-breaking research, and unique approach, have been captured in a number of works including: Social Work Research and Abstracts in 1980, Behavioral Methods in Social Welfare (edited by Steven Schinke), Informing Practice Decisions (with Jeanne C. Marsh), and Clinical Social Work Practice: A Cognitive-Integrative Perspective.

Beyond her many scholarly achievements in the field, Ms. Berlin has personally embodied the ideals of social work by giving generously of her time to help improve the lives of those around her. As a teacher, she was known for encouraging curiosity and rigorous thinking among her students, while instilling an abiding appreciation for social work practice and scholarship. She introduced courses on cognitive approaches to practice, comparative social work treatment systems, social psychological foundations of clinical practice, and human rights. She received the SSA Excellence in Teaching Award in 1996. Ms. Berlin served as associate dean and chair of the doctoral program at SSA, mentoring several doctoral students who have since gone on to leadership roles in the profession. During her tenure at the School, she chaired or participated on over 40 dissertation committees.

While producing path-breaking scholarship as well as teaching graduate and doctoral students, Ms. Berlin also directed the National Institute of Mental Health Services Research Training program. She also continued to work as a practitioner, most recently volunteering as a clinician for the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture.

Her remarkable commitment to her research, her students, her colleagues, and the tenants of social work are perhaps best summed up by Ms. Berlin herself. Professionalism, she has written, “is nothing unless it is exercised within a framework that actively honors the full human dignity of fellow souls.”

Sharon Berlin

Sharon Berlin