Challenges Faced by Social Workers in Mental Health Social Work Today
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 and the director of field education for the social work program.
Social workers are a valuable asset to agencies serving clients with mental health needs, and are increasingly found in an ever growing number of settings. It is essential that social workers are well educated on mental health as well as strategies to address the increasingly complex situations they encounter. Students in Florida State University’s MSW program will gain valuable knowledge and develop a skill base to address the challenges faced by social workers in the mental health field today.
What challenges are faced by social workers in mental health social work today?
While efforts have been made in recent years to reduce stigma around mental health, this is still an area of great difficulty. Social workers are both mental health advocates and educators, serving to reduce this stigma through these roles. People experiencing mental health difficulties might feel embarrassed, ashamed, or worried that they will be viewed as weak. They might fear that their employment could be in jeopardy or that they will be looked down upon by family members or friends. Culturally, experiencing mental health difficulties or seeking the help of a counselor may be considered taboo, further increasing the shame experienced by individuals or families. Some clients or family members may have a strong unwillingness to explore potential treatment options such as medication or counseling. Others may be unsure who to turn to when experiencing mental health challenges. In these situations social workers are well positioned to partner with clients, meet them where they are, provide education around mental health issues, and either provide clinical intervention or make referrals for these services.
2. Access and Affordability
There are a variety of factors that might impact the accessibility or mental health services in a community. These might include lack of insurance or coverage for mental health services, lack of personal or public transportation, hours of availability of an agency conflicting with client’s family or work obligations, language and other cultural barriers, or citizenship status. Agencies that are overwhelmed by community mental health needs might have wait times of several months or longer for initial appointments with providers, and inpatient settings are often full with waiting lists. Mental health settings are also often directly impacted by federal and state budget decisions, or affected by managed care guidelines for length of treatment that will be covered by insurance. Another barrier may simply be lack of available services. This is particularly challenging in rural areas, where mental health services are often scarce or nonexistent. Social workers can serve clients well by being knowledgeable about community resources, eligibility guidelines, and how to eliminate barriers to accessing services. Where service delivery gaps are identified social workers can serve as advocates and work to impact policy at the macro level to ensure that service delivery is adequate to meet the needs of their communities.
3. Challenges of Interdisciplinary Teams
One way to increase accessibility of services and early intervention is by employing social workers in host settings, host agencies, or settings where the primary focus of service delivery may not be social work in nature. Host settings employing social workers may include schools, hospitals, the military, services for homeless populations, and the criminal justice system. While employing social workers in these types of settings is beneficial for the client and the agency for various reasons, it also presents challenges in working as part of an interdisciplinary team. Settings whose primary focus is not mental health may have lack of education regarding mental health needs. Other team members may not see the value of the social worker's work with the client, particularly if they do not understand mental health or feel that there are other more important competing priorities. 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. Social workers are also able to advocate on behalf of their client as well as provide education on mental health related information to other team members.
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