For more than a century, social workers have been pivotal in helping people overcome challenges they face navigating their lives, from food and housing insecurity to personal relationships and workplace issues. In addition to helping members of their community address life’s difficulties, social workers fight for social justice and advocate for the underserved.
These current issues in social work exist on both the micro and macro levels of social work practice. This means there is plenty of work to be done to ensure the future of social work.
This overview examines the most prominent issues and trends in social work practice and considers how earning an advanced degree in social work can prepare individuals for success in social work.
What Are the Current Issues in Social Work Practice?
The social work profession is continuously evolving, which means that social workers must be adaptable and creative to meet new challenges and trends. For example, the COVID-19 pandemic forced social workers to completely retool how they work with their clients due to public health concerns. Social distance measures meant social workers had to find new ways to meet with clients, such as via telehealth appointments.
Even though some of the pandemic-related challenges have abated, the social work field is constantly evolving and new initiatives are being created to strengthen it. The following breaks down some of the most important current issues in social work.
Grand Challenges for Social Work
In 2016, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare (AASWSW) developed an initiative to promote social progress using science and knowledge. Its flagship program, known as the Grand Challenges for Social Work, has since become nationally recognized for its focus on promoting individual and family well-being, creating a stronger social fabric, and fighting against harmful elements within society, such as marginalization and exclusion.
The Grand Challenges for Social Work identifies 13 specific challenges across the three main organizational goals relevant to the social work profession.
Promoting Individual and Family Well-Being
Individual and family well-being is the most narrowly focused goal the Grand Challenges for Social Work aspires to achieve. The organization points out four main objectives:
- Ensuring that children have the resources to prevent and receive treatment for behavioral, emotional, and mental health issues
- Closing the healthcare gap so that underserved and impoverished communities have access to basic healthcare resources
- Supporting healthy relationships as a means to curb interpersonal violence
- Providing educational and skill development opportunities that advance long and productive lives for older adults
Creating a Stronger Social Fabric
Connections and relationships among the individual members of a community contribute to a strong social fabric. The Grand Challenges for Social Work identifies four objectives to achieve this:
- Eradicating social isolation by educating the public on its dangers and encouraging human service workers to address it
- Ending homelessness using proven approaches, affordable housing policies, and new innovations
- Creating social responses to issues that threaten communities and their environments
- Using technology and analytical techniques to address society’s most vexing problems that affect the vulnerable and marginalized
Many societal issues go unnoticed by most but significantly impact those affected. The Grand Challenges for Social Work notes the following five ways to improve society:
- Eliminating racism, xenophobic behavior, and racially-biased policies
- Embracing a “smart decarceration” strategy that proactively reduces the number of people who are imprisoned
- Increasing financial security for those who are at risk of economic hardship
- Reducing the extreme economic inequality between the top 1% and the rest of the population
- Achieving equal opportunity for all by addressing injustice, harmful stereotypes, unfair practices, and societal inequality
Current Trends in Social Work
While the Grand Challenges for Social Work outlines some of the most current issues in social work practice, other trends will continue to shape the field and create more effective services. Below are some current trends in social work.
Substance Use Disorders and Treatment
Many social workers encounter individuals who have been affected by substance use or misuse. Social workers can provide integral education, counseling, policies, interventions, and more to support individuals, communities, and loved ones who may be affected by substance use or misuse.
Social work practice should prioritize effective substance use treatment, resource development, and availability of services in these areas. Some centers, such as Florida State University’s Stoops Center for Communities, Families and Children also prioritize training and conscientiousness in understanding how substance use can affect individuals in all stages of life.
Working With Youths
Children and young adults face a variety of unique challenges. Effective social workers will continue to provide care to youths on many different and emerging issues. Trending issues that children and adolescents face include:
- Gender identity issues
- Online harassment
- Challenges related to social media
- Ease of access to inappropriate digital content
- Learning issues
- Addiction issues
Cultural Competence and Diversity
Social workers work with individuals who have varied, intersectional identities. Social workers trained to be culturally sensitive are better prepared to communicate with and serve a wide range of clients and should be encouraged to commit to lifelong cultural learning. This can facilitate the social work process, build trust, and mitigate miscommunications. Additionally, social workers should remain current on trending cultural issues.
Diversity and representation is also an important part of delivering culturally competent services. Social workers who represent the population they work with may have a more in-depth understanding of certain issues, biases, or circumstances, and clients may feel more comfortable working with someone whose identity more closely resembles their own.
Integrated healthcare is an approach that features a high level of collaboration between health professionals. Social workers join forces with physicians, nurses, psychologists, and other healing professionals to develop a holistic approach to care. The approach's distinguishing characteristic is the sharing of information among interdisciplinary professionals considering the biopsychosocial needs of patients to provide more integrated care.
Technology for Mental Health
Telehealth has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, and it’s often used to deliver mental health and counseling services, making it a rapidly evolving current tool used in social work. It can help mitigate location barriers and increase accessibility for patients who may not be able to make in-person visits, which can also increase continuity of care. Social workers will continue to use telehealth tools, apps, and services to deliver clinical care, mental healthcare, and social support to clients through various digital platforms.
Careers in Social Work
The field of social work has several viable career paths to explore. Per a recent ranking published by the U.S. News and World Report, the following are five of the top jobs in social work.
Mental Health Counselor
Mental health counselors provide guidance and support to patients who are experiencing mental health or emotional issues. Typically, they work in outpatient facilities or clinics. Common conditions they treat include:
- Emotional trauma
- Substance misuse issues
- Bipolar disorder
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earned a median annual salary of $49,710 as of May 2022.
Substance Use and Behavioral Disorder Counselor
A substance use and behavioral disorder counselor is a social worker who specializes in working with individuals and groups who have been affected by substance use disorders (SUDs). They typically provide support and guidance to help patients mitigate and overcome SUDs and related issues.
According to the BLS, substance abuse, behavioral disorder, and mental health counselors earned a median annual salary of $49,710 as of May 2022.
School counselors work with school-aged children in academic and developmental capacities. They often collaborate with teachers and parents to deliver the guidance and support children need, including learning issues in the classroom and conflicts with other students.
According to the BLS, school counselors earn a median annual salary of $60,140 as of May 2022.
Community Health Worker
Whereas most counselors work one-on-one or with small groups, community health workers operate at a more macro level. In their role, they identify health and wellness risks that pose a threat to members of their community and advocate for resources and community aid. They also help coordinate care or resource allocation among communities.
According to the BLS, community health workers earn a median annual salary of $46,190 as of May 2022.
Clinical Social Worker
Licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs) possess an advanced education that qualifies them to diagnose and treat an array of mental, emotional, and behavioral health issues. LCSWs also serve as advocates for their patients, helping them secure the resources and services to help treat their respective conditions and support them with any other issues they may be affected by.
Payscale reports that clinical social workers make an average annual salary of $71,570 as of August 2023.
Help Resolve Current Issues in Social Work With an MSW Degree
The current issues in social work demonstrate the ways that the field is evolving to meet societal changes. Getting involved with organizations like the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) is a great way to stay informed and find opportunities to volunteer.
But first, you need the right social work education. Students in Florida State University’s online Master of Social Work degree program are part of a top-ranked social work program. Enrolling in our online MSW can give you access to experienced educators and skilled practitioners who can prepare you to lead the future of social work.
The program covers the best clinical practices for treating addiction effectively and working with clients with mental health challenges, as well as other advanced clinical competencies essential to social work practice. Further, the program prepares students to take the state board’s licensing exam, an essential step to becoming a licensed social worker.
Learn more about how to become a licensed social worker to see how a degree in social work positions you to make a positive impact in the profession.