Despite use of the biopsychosocial model, many social workers may justifiably resist an overemphasis on the role of biological constitution in clinical practice. This may be related to the classic nature/nurture debate that suggests biology is related to the notion of determinism. A deterministic model is antithetical to some of the core beliefs of social workers and may elicit a defensible aversion to biology. Recently, there has been increased recognition that biology and environment are engaged in complex interactions, rather than opposing forces.
Epigenetics represents one aspect of biology that demonstrates how environment and experience dynamically interact with biology. Epigenetics, simply stated, refers to the study of the ways in which environmental conditions, including those involved in negative experiences (e.g., trauma), can actually shape how our genes operate. In this light, this roundtable will begin a dialogue about the role of epigenetics in social work practice. The presenter will focus particular attention on the understanding of how epigenetic mechanisms related to certain life experiences can negatively influence neurophysiology and brain development in ways that generate serious threats to life-long psychological well-being, and can impact multiple generations. Additionally, it will address the ways early life experiences (e.g., prenatally) may epigenetically program developmental trajectories that end in the challenging social and mental health outcomes.
This round table will ideally stimulate conversation regarding the epigenetic mechanisms that underlie various mental health disorders and the ways in which social worker interventions need to directly impact what is occurring in clients at the molecular level, in order to provide neurobiology-informed, individually-tailored interventions. This presentation will not simply usher participants towards a medical model, but rather, it will position epigenetics within the social work profession and its core values. In this regard, the presenter will address the way the concept of epigenetics perfectly aligns with social work perspectives, such as the person-in-environment, the biopsychosocial model, and attachment theory.