Managing a Difficult Diagnosis

How UT Health Austin social workers help patients manage a difficult diagnosis

Reviewed by: Benjamin Ehrenfeld, LMSW
Written by: Ashley Lawrence

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If you or a loved one was recently diagnosed with a life-altering medical condition, you are likely experiencing a roller coaster of emotions. Part of you may be relieved to finally have an answer to an ongoing problem, while another part of you may be anxious or scared about what the future holds. UT Health Austin social workers are here to help you navigate this difficult journey.

The Role of a Social Worker

Social workers enhance the social functioning and overall well-being of individuals, families, and communities. At UT Health Austin, social workers are often a part of the patient’s care team, helping patients manage their diagnosis as well as any personal, social, or emotional difficulties they may be experiencing.

“Social workers support patients in their social, mental, and emotional health,” explains UT Health Austin social worker Benjamin Ehrenfeld, LMSW. “In my role at the Multiple Sclerosis and Neuroimmunology Center within the Mulva Clinic for the Neurosciences, this could mean doing a certain amount of counseling therapy with a patient. Or, it may even mean connecting a patient with services in the community to help navigate dysfunction in the social systems, such as access to affordable housing or financial support for necessary medications.”

Support for Patients

There are many forms of therapy social workers use to support patients. Ehrenfeld tends to use narrative therapy to help patients identify a preferred story they tell about themselves in relation to their diagnosis. To do this, he helps patients identify stories and discourse related to their diagnosis, and oftentimes, patients express feelings of anxiety, fear, or depression. Then, he helps patients externalize their problems by talking in terms of the relationship the patient has with those problems. Together, they build a preferred narrative in which the patient can coexist with their diagnosis.

“For some, it’s a relief to finally know what’s going on. But for others, their world could be falling apart, because it’s no longer what they knew it to be,” says Ehrenfeld. “Our goal as social workers is to help people move from what they know about their diagnosis to what is possible to know. I want my patients to get unstuck in the fears and anxieties about what they may have heard or have been told about their diagnosis and to begin to build their own story about their diagnosis that gives space for that diagnosis to exist.”

The three most important things patients should know are:

  • You are not your diagnosis: While your diagnosis may insert new challenges into your life, it does not encompass all of who you are. The things you care about are still a part of your life. You can find new ways to incorporate the things that you love.
  • It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling: Give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling, and if you are finding you want to feel something more or different, you don’t have to work through those feelings alone.
  • You don’t have to face it by yourself: Sometimes, keeping your diagnosis to yourself can cause both internal and external turmoil, leaving you feeling all alone. Reach out to friends, family, or even a neighbor that you feel safe talking to. If you find that you want to build your support system, seek out local support groups and other help.

“Social workers help fill the gaps that they are able to fill in their patients’ healthcare,” says Ehrenfeld. “If we cannot fill those gaps, we work to identify who can. If we discover that nobody can fill those gaps, we advocate for systems and services to exist that are able to. If the gap is impossible to fill, we are here to help patients cope.”

If you are receiving care at UT Health Austin, you can ask to speak with a social worker.

To make an appointment with UT Health Austin, call 1-833-UT-CARES (1-833-882-2737) or visit here.

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.