Increased mental illness has caused mental health care to become one of the fastest growing sectors of the medical industry. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, the types of mental illnesses afflicting such large numbers – nearly 44 million Americans annually – include schizophrenia, bipolar mood shifts, erratic behaviors, panic disorders, and depression. (see Mental Health Disorders).
According to Robert Whitaker in his book, “Anatomy of an Epidemic”, the number of adults on the federal disability rolls diagnosed with mental illnesses, ages 18 to 65, jumped from 1.25 million in 1987 to four million in 2007. In children, the numbers rose from 16,200 in 1987 to 561,569 during the same period.
The reason for this growth in mental illnesses is unclear. However, what is apparent is the need for more mental health workers – especially mental health social workers - to help care for the most vulnerable.
What is a Mental Health Social Work Career all about?
A career in mental health social work focuses on the needs of individuals suffering with mental illnesses, helping them maintain a normal life. In keeping with the social work mandate of improving the quality of life for all those suffering with a mental illness, these professionals strive to find services and facilities that help clients work and live independently.
Most mental health social workers function as part of multidisciplinary mental health teams working in hospitals, local government agencies, for-profit and nonprofit clinics, and community health centers. These teams typically include: psychiatrists or clinical psychologists who provide diagnoses; licensed counselors who provide individual or group therapies; specialists, such as speech therapists; and mental health social workers who work with patient outreach, rehabilitation, and patient monitoring.
Often, social workers are also licensed counselors. They meet regularly with their clients to help them follow through on goals they have set or to discuss issues that might be holding them back.
Getting to Know the Client
Initially, mental health social workers must get to know their clients by establishing a comprehensive case file, and monitoring the clients to ensure they comply with prescribed treatment plans. Creating and monitoring case files includes:
- Collecting information from clients and their families to help team members understand clients' situations. Interviewing clients to gain an understanding of how they perceive their problems.
- Working closely with multidisciplinary teams to create treatment programs and case plans that include diagnoses, prescribed treatments, and goals for becoming more independent.
- Locating appropriate resources that help clients resolve issues such as finding living arrangements, transportation, financial assistance, group therapies, or other therapeutic services.
- Serving as an advocate for clients in procuring social, medical, and legal services.
- Educating clients and their families about medical, nutritional, or home care needs.
- Monitoring services to ensure they're meeting clients' needs.
- Conducting periodic meetings with clients and their families regarding ongoing progress and treatment options.
- Screening clients for placement in specialized homes or treatment facilities.
- Identifying, recruiting, and assessing potential vocational providers.
- Maintaining case documentation including all records and correspondence.
The goal for social workers is to ensure that their clients' needs are being met, and that they have every advantage to function at their highest level. By getting to know their patients, listening to their perspectives, and observing their interactions, social workers become the experts on patients’ needs. This close relationship also allows social workers to become immediately aware of any changes in their clients' conditions.
What do Mental Health Social Workers Need to Know?
Mental health social workers need a good understanding of the many mental disorders and their symptoms. They must be skilled at counseling techniques and understand diagnostic procedures, therapeutic options, and mental health indicators. Their training must enable them to recognize vital changes in symptoms, and understand what those changes indicate.
But that's just the beginning of what mental health social workers need to know. They need to be adept at casework interviewing and observational techniques so that they are able to collect accurate information.
They must also be up-to-date on state laws and regulations regarding patient mental health rights, and the rights and responsibilities of social workers. And, they must understand social work advocacy, defined by Schneider and Lester in their book, “Social work advocacy, a new framework for action,” as the “exclusive and mutual representation of a client(s) or a cause in a forum, attempting to systematically influence decision-making in an unjust or unresponsive system(s).”
A thorough knowledge of the resources available in their communities is paramount and the ability to find the best options for their clients is crucial to their clients' recoveries. They must also understand the theory and organization of health and welfare services, the resources they provide, and the particular mental health program standards with which they are working.
Mental health social worker's observational skills must be astute in order to perceive the often subtle shifts that signal the onset of a mental health episode. Their communication skills must be equally perfected to get clients to discuss their mental states and to keep team members informed.
Mental health social workers are frontline workers, engaging directly with clients who need resources, counseling, and support. Most of these social workers have an MSW or master's degree in social work, making them among the best educated of the social services. Their training enables them to understand their patients, helping them work through the issues and pitfalls that stand in their way on the road to better mental health.
Mental health social work is challenging - requiring a good education, a keen understanding of people, and a compassionate nature. For social workers, changing the world often happens one client at a time, calling for patience and the ability to see progress in the smallest of steps.
Education Requirements for a Mental Health Social Worker?
According to a recent study by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), 79% of the 5,000 respondents had a master's degree (MSW) in social work. In many states, a master's is required; however, most states also have separate licensure procedures for those with bachelor's degrees (BSW), giving these professionals the required qualifications to obtain their MSW.
Attending a college with an undergraduate program in social work is an excellent idea. Although those with a bachelor's in psychology or sociology will probably find entry-level positions with state licensure, the process is a little less direct. Ultimately, an MSW is still the best path for advancement.
Determined students will find that volunteering, entry-level positions, or internships in their communities will help them start building experience. Listed on a resume or in applicant letters to colleges or graduate schools, these efforts speak to the dedication of students to the social work profession.
How Much do Mental Health Social Workers Make?
Mental health social workers' positions are projected to increase with the above-average growth of the mental health industry according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The median salary in 2010 for mental health social workers was $46,650 with a possible high of over $66,000 a year.