Social workers help individuals, families and groups affected by mental illness to navigate complex feelings and develop positive coping mechanisms. They act as patient liaisons and collaborators to ensure patient wellness. They also work to understand patient medication, intended outcomes and possible interactions.
People who suffer from debilitating mental health conditions are all around us, but many of these people are not receiving adequate care. For example, the World Health Organization reports that schizophrenia affects 20 million people around the world, but over 69 percent of those effected do not receive appropriate care.1
One of the ways people who suffer from mental disorders can manage their condition is to take medication. This could be antipsychotic drugs or other agents. Dr. Kia J. Bentley is a long-time professor who publishes and teaches about social work practice. To better support clients and extend the conversation around taking medication, Dr. Bentley developed psychopharmacotherapy in social work courses.
Below we will cover theories about psychopharmacotherapy and its value in the social work field.
What is Psychopharmacotherapy and Why is it Important to Social Work?
Psychopharmacotherapy is the use of medication in treating psychiatric disorders. While social workers cannot prescribe medication, it is important for them to understand the medication prescribed to their patients, as well as help patients continue to advance and benefit from therapy.
The Role of the Social Worker
Social workers serve multiple roles. They support their patients as well as their broader health care team of physicians, psychiatrists and/or caregivers.
Psychopharmacotherapy improves a social worker’s ability to support patients through therapy. Social workers teach self-advocacy and help patients monitor their medication and its effects. Accomplishing all of these goals means that social workers must first understand how medications can impact the course of therapy, as well as each medications’ intended outcome and possible interactions with food and other medications.
Serve as a Member of an Interdisciplinary Team
Most patients with severe mental disorders have an interdisciplinary team of health care providers and caregivers that help them manage their condition and improve their lives. Social workers also work as a member of their patients’ team. They can help monitor and improve medication adherence or help a patient cope when the price of a drug increases.
Why Should Social Workers Know More About Medication Management?
Social workers are in a unique position to support their patients’ medication journeys. They can view their patients' needs from an internal and external focus and help to identify additional means of support. If social workers learn more about the medications their patients take, including their intended outcomes and reactions, they can be better social workers and better members of their interdisciplinary teams.
Be Responsive to Patients
Social workers who are fully informed about medications can be more responsive to their patients’ needs. They can help detect any problems and help patients follow the instructions around their prescribed medications. They may be able to advocate for patients if they observe a change in medication or dosage is needed.
Achieve the Goals of the Team
If they understand the basics of psychotropic medication, possible side effects and adverse reactions, social workers are better equipped to support the health care team’s goals. They can help ensure patients are taking the prescribed dosage and help them avoid relapse or overdose.
Discuss Patient Concerns About Medication
Social workers must know the name, necessary dosage and use of the drug so they can help their patients manage their medication. This helps build trust, too. Patients need to know they can talk openly about their medication concerns with an informed individual. If the social worker can't talk about medication, the patient may not feel secure enough to discuss any adverse side effects they may be experiencing.
Be Able to Identify Signs of Dependency and Abuse
Another reason social workers should be fully informed about medication is to monitor any signs of dependence or abuse. They might need to count pills, observe their clients taking medication, observe reactions or even transcribe a physician’s orders.
What Type of Medications Should Social Workers Know About?
While many patients internalize medication as a positive force, some may view it as a symbol of differentness and dependency.2 Below are the major types of medication that social workers should know about.
First, social workers should recognize the role neurotransmitters (the brain’s chemical signals) play in mental health. The most active neural connections grow. This can help social workers understand the concept that human biology can change over the lifespan in response to internal or external changes.3
Antidepressants increase the function of serotonin (the “feel-good” hormone), which can help patients achieve a better mood and more positive social behavior.
While antipsychotic drugs do not cure any condition, they can help to control symptoms so that patients can achieve some sense of normalcy.
Patients with bipolar disorder can benefit from mood stabilizer medications, which help to prevent manic and depressive episodes.
Anxiety disorders and substance use disorders (SUDs) often occur at the same time. Because of this, social workers should understand how to navigate the benefits and risks of anti-anxiety medication and closely monitor patients for SUD relapses.
Social Workers Can Help Patients Manage Medications
Social workers are perfectly poised to help patients manage and monitor their medications. Social workers should understand the different medications that might be prescribed to their patients, as well as how they may affect their patients.
Armed with the necessary psychopharmacotherapy knowledge, social workers can respond to patient experiences, negative side effects and positive outcomes. They can act as an extension of the health care team by helping patients carry out the advice of their health care providers while closely observing patients for any signs of drug abuse.
Provide the Best Possible Interventions
If you are looking to strengthen your capabilities or move into fieldwork as a social worker or counselor, consider how a Master of Social Work from Yeshiva University can help you. By earning an MSW, you will refine your skills, meet your clients where they are and provide the best interventions possible.
Yeshiva is nationally accredited by the Council On Social Work Education (CSWE). Our online Master of Social Work program offers a variety of specializations and training in advanced clinical practice.
1. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from, who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/schizophrenia
2. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from, socialworkpodcast.blogspot.com/2008/06/making-meaning-out-of-medication.html
3. Retrieved September 12, 2021, from, journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/698166