Changing Role of the Social Worker in the Mental Health System

Changing Role of the Social Worker in the Mental Health System
Changing Role of the Social Worker in the Mental Health System

Katie Krukenberg is an MSW graduate (2006) from Florida State University and a licensed clinical social worker in North Dakota. She works at the University of Mary and is an assistant professor of social work as well as the director of field education for the social work program.

Social work is a versatile field, with social workers employed in a variety of settings. While serving a wide range of clients in various capacities, social workers address any number of challenges faced by individuals, families, groups and communities. Many if not all settings have some overlap with the mental health system, even if that is not their primary focus of service delivery. It is essential that social workers are well educated on both mental health challenges faced by clients as well as resources available in their communities. The knowledge and skills students acquire in Florida State University’s MSW program can help equip them for the various and changing roles of social workers in the mental health system.

Social Worker Positions in the Mental Health System

Traditional roles social workers have held in the mental health system include working as case managers, advocates, or educators. Social workers with an MSW and clinical licensure are also employed as therapists working with individuals, couples, families, or facilitating group therapy. Social workers might be employed in settings where the specific focus of service delivery is targeting mental health of clients, such an inpatient hospital settings, outpatient counseling agencies or as mental health case managers. In these roles social workers provide a number of services included in all facets of the mental health system spectrum, from intake and assessment to referral or direct service provision.

Growing Need for Social Workers in Host Agencies

An emerging trend in social work is the growing need for social workers in host agencies, or settings where the primary focus of service delivery may not be social work in nature. Social workers in host settings will typically work as part of a multidisciplinary team. This enables social workers to serve as advocates on behalf of their clients, and may provide the opportunity to help educate other team members serving the same clients. Host settings employing social workers may include schools, hospitals, the military, services for homeless populations, and the criminal justice system, among others. One benefit to have social workers in these settings is to minimize the time it takes for a client to get the needed services, as well as eliminating the need for referrals and long wait times to access outside services.

Emphasis on Prevention and Early Mental Health Intervention

Each social work setting serves people who may have mental health needs that run the risk of going undetected or unmet without trained mental health professionals able to assess and intervene. This creates more of an emphasis on prevention and early intervention, rather than a “wait to fail” model that requires a crisis before mental health supports are sought out. With social workers in settings to assist with screening, assessment, referral, and intervention, mental health needs can often be addressed more quickly, promoting better outcomes for the client as well as the agency.

Effectively partnering with clients to address mental health needs can alleviate the strain on other systems, allowing for more effective service delivery community wide. For instance, youth struggling with mental health challenges may perform poorly in school or pose a safety risk to others. Hospitals, homeless shelters, and correctional settings often experience a revolving door of people cycling through their settings which continues or worsens when mental health is left untreated. Within the military, there is better understanding of the impact of PTSD now than ever before – but without effective intervention for this there is potential for negative impact to soldiers and their families. With social workers in place to provide prevention related activities as well as early intervention, clients and communities as a whole benefit.