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Social workers are the largest providers of mental health services in the United States (Masiriri, 2008; National Association of Social Workers, n.d.; Scheyett, 2005; Zellmann et al., 2013). Mental health social workers are known as clinical social workers, psychiatric social workers, psychotherapists, or behavioral health care specialists. These professionals help diverse individuals and families experiencing mental or emotional disorders manage social problems and life’s challenges.
Social workers provide mental health services in multiple settings, including the following:
Community mental health programs: Social workers oversee assessments, interventions, and evaluations of people and programs related to mental health services.
Disaster relief programs: Social workers plan and implement international and humanitarian relief and response efforts for victims of natural and other disasters.
Employee assistance programs: Social workers counsel employees with personal problems and workplace issues, on a time-limited basis. Social workers manage conflicts and provide information, referrals, and counseling to people experiencing problems with their physical or mental health.
Hospitals and skilled nursing facilities: Social workers facilitate intakes, discharge planning, and monitoring of ongoing acute and chronic care needs. Social workers also practice in what have traditionally been called “psychiatric hospitals,” where mental health intervention is the primary reason for hospitalization.
Mental health literacy: The term mental health literacy, first used by Australian researcher Anthony Jorm and his colleagues in the late 1990s as an extension of the term health literacy, refers to being able to recognize disorders and obtain mental health information (Mendenhall & Frauenholtz, 2013). Literacy facilitates understanding. The NASW (2017) has identified universal access to health and mental health care as one of social work’s top priorities and includes health literacy in its initiative. However, largely excluded from the formal list of priorities is the need for mental health literacy.
Military and veterans services: Social workers provide direct service, supervision, administration, research, and policy formulation related to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Rehabilitation programs: Social workers support clients in recovering and rehabilitating from mental health and co-occurring disorders.
Schools: Social workers help teachers and educational professionals evaluate students’ behavior at school to provide early intervention; share information with students, teachers, and administrators about mental health and mental illness; and guide schools toward funding to expand mental health services.
Private practice: MSW-prepared practitioners with an LCSW or licensed independent social worker (LISW) credential (depending on state requirements) may engage in independent practice and bill for third-party reimbursement from insurance companies. Individuals or two people or more may own a private practice where they counsel clients and/or run therapeutic groups (Carney & Jefferson, 2014). Social workers often enter private practice groups with other professionals (e.g., psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists). Although private practice may seem lucrative and a highly desirable mode of practice, private practitioners essentially run businesses and accordingly need to be attentive to marketing, collection of fees, accounting, rental of space, and establishing means for supervision and accountability.
Inpatient and outpatient clinics: Social workers help clients adapt to significant lifestyle changes related to a loved one’s death, disability, divorce, or job loss; provide substance use treatment; and help people who experience anxiety, depression, a crisis, or trauma.
Interprofessional practice settings: Implementation of mental health services can also occur in the context of interprofessional practice settings. For example, Long and Rosen (2017) describe the provision of mental health services by social workers at an eye center in a college of optometry.
Telehealth: To provide effective mental health treatment to youth, 21st-century mental health social workers must cross the digital divide and offer online and mobile options to support youth (and perhaps people of all ages) who wish to successfully manage their mental health problems. Computer-mediated activities, such as e-therapy, can be used to help people who comfortably use digital technology and the Internet. Some treatment approaches can be applied even better in virtual environments, such as exposure-based therapies, which help many struggling with phobias or PTSD issues. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, mobile health technologies have been used more and more. Into the future, it may become even more imperative for mobile technologies in mental health–related activities (mHealth) to be adopted for use—especially in rural communities (Baffour, 2017).
What might be attractive to you about working as a clinical, psychiatric, or other mental health social worker, in a public mental health setting or in private practice?