Mental health challenges in social work

It would probably surprise many people to learn that 60 percent of mental health care professionals are clinically trained social workers.[i] Psychologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses make up the rest of the industry, but their numbers don’t come close. Social workers are on the front lines of mental health care in the United States, making a difference in schools, clinics, community programs, hospitals, veterans’ centers and more.

“One of the most fulfilling aspects of working in the mental health field is being able to provide support to others during the most challenging moments in their life,” says Tyler McCord, a clinical social worker with a Master of Social Work degree, in Psychology Today.[ii] “Moreover, this profession provides the privilege of offering compassion, inspiring hope, and teaching others the necessary skills required to overcome their current circumstances.”

It is estimated today that one in every four American adults and one in every five teens experiences mental illness in any given year[iii], which includes everything from cases of mild depression to debilitating disorders like PTSD to severe forms of mental illness, like schizophrenia. In most cases, it is a social worker who first provides help.

The roles and responsibilities of social workers today

The National Association of Social Workers Press notes that social workers often have a difficult time answering the question, “What do  you do?” because the boundaries of the profession are so wide. Social workers are therapists, social services case managers and behavioral assessment experts. One might work with homeless people; another in disaster relief; still another in a high-school with at-risk students; still another in a hospice setting.

“The clients represent all populations of our society—children, families, and adults—who have problems that run the gamut of the human condition from substance abuse to developmental disabilities,” says the NASW Press in Chapter One of “What Social Workers Do.”[iv]

(POSSIBLE CUT) Social has a long history in the American mental health system, but it grew vastly in importance in recent decades due to the trend in de-institutionalizing of people who are mentally ill. [v] The events of 9/11 also changed the landscape. “Prior to 9/11, I don’t think many people gave too much thought to whether our public health infrastructure was able to respond to a national health crisis,” says Robert H. Keefe, PhD, LMSW, ACSW, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at University at Buffalo, in Social Work Today.[vi] Funding had been repeatedly cut as a result, which made the needs even greater. (END CUT)

Meeting the community’s mental health needs

Here are a few examples of how social workers rise to the challenges they meet every day:

  • With students performing poorly in school: A social worker is trained to look for the problems behind the problem. Is the student living in a home where education is not valued? Does he or she have time to do homework? Is there a language issue? Is the family so economically strapped that the student comes to school hungry? Is there a stressful situation that stems from peer pressure or bullying The social worker can do one-on-one counseling, call in community resources for the family, and mediate problems at school, getting the child back on track and looking to the future.[vii]
  • With veterans suffering from PTSD: The National Center for PTSD estimates the number of veterans who returned from Afghanistan and Iraq suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder to be between 11 and 20 percent of all those who served.[viii] Rates for PTSD in Vietnam veterans go as high as 31 percent.[ix] Those with the disorder constantly relive the traumatic events, which can cause stress, anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide. A social worker in this situation has a variety of skills to bring to the table here, including cognitive-behavioral therapy, eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and options for medication. He or she can also refer the veteran to alternative medicine techniques, which might include yoga, massage, meditation, hypnosis or acupuncture.[x]
  • With those addicted to drugs or alcohol: Drug or alcohol abuse often is the underlying cause of problems in other areas like family, school or work. What starts as a recreational activity or stress reliever can become an addiction, taking over more and more of the patient’s life in emotional, financial and physical Social workers are trained to understand the symptoms of substance abuse and can provide therapy, education and referrals to 12-Step programs or inpatient treatment.[xi] The social worker also becomes an aftercare resource and can counsel family members in addition to the patient.

Challenges? Yes. But rewards as well. “It is fulfilling to accompany people as they make changes in their lives to achieve improved health and well-being,” said Ned Presnall, a licensed clinical social worker with a Master of Social work degree who is executive director for addiction and mental health programs at Clayton Behavioral in St. Louis. “I feel that I have a privileged vantage point from which to witness the courage and goodness of human persons.”[xii]
[i] Testimony of the National Association of Social Workers, Wash. D.C., Submitted to the Senate Health Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions
[ii] Psychology Today, Tyler McCord, 23 Mental Health Professionals Interviewed About Their Jobs
[iii] National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Illness Facts and Numbers
[iv] NASW Press, “What Social Workers Do,” Chapter 1
[v] The Changing Role of the Social Worker in the Mental Health System by Uri Aviram, Department of Social Work and Social Welfare, Hebrew University of Jerusalem & Ruppin Academic Center, Israel
[vi] Social Work Today, Public Health Social Work: Now More Than Ever, by Kate Jackson
[vii] School Social Work Association of America, School Social Worker’s Role
[viii] National Center for PTSD, How Common Is PTSD?
[ix] NIH Medline Plus, National Institutes for Health, PTSD: A Growing Epidemic
[x] Social Work Today, Treatments for Veterans with PTSD: Outside the Traditional Toolbox
[xi] Social Workers Help Starts Here, How Social Workers Help Families of Addicts
[xii] Psychology Today, Ned Presnall, 23 Mental Health Professionals Interviewed About Their Jobs