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Exploring Connections Between Social Work and Mental Health

October 04, 2023
Mental health assessment of teenage boy

Clinical social workers have a difficult but important job, centered around promoting emotional, behavioral, physical and mental health for the people in their care. Working with such sensitive topics isn’t just for anybody; social work requires a specialized skill set and temperament, so almost all social workers must complete higher education and specialized training. This usually means they must obtain a master’s degree, complete a supervised internship and pass a licensing exam before they can fully practice. This advanced learning allows them to provide mental health diagnosis, individual and group therapy and other support services for clients.1

Since mental health is such a vast and complex discipline, there can be a lot of different approaches for how to work within it. And, as we learn more about mental health issues, behaviors and treatments through ongoing research, social workers will continue to evolve and grow their techniques as well.

Continue reading to learn about the essential role that social workers play in mental health care and the various psychotherapy modalities they use to assist people with mental illnesses, substance abuse disorders and other challenges.

Understanding Mental Health in Social Work

Many social and environmental factors influence mental health, including family issues, insufficient food, lack of education, lack of social connections, socioeconomic status and urban crowding. Individuals and communities experiencing these challenges may need support from trained mental health professionals to improve their mental health and overall well-being.2

Clinical social workers address these issues and positively impact their clients’ mental health by providing psychoeducation and therapy. They also advocate for people dealing with addiction, depressive symptoms and mental health disorders and connect them with resources such as counselors, medications and rehabilitation.3

Role of Social Workers in Mental Health

Social workers promote mental health by offering direct clinical services for individuals, families and communities. For example, they can develop treatment plans for people with mental illnesses and provide crisis intervention for people in distress. They also offer case management services and advocate on behalf of their clients in court and other situations.4

On the community level, these professionals support mental health by providing outreach and education. They may also develop and implement government policies that foster mental health, or can be used as consultants to inform political leaders.5

Clinical Assessment and Mental Health Diagnosis

Clinical social workers use various assessments for mental health diagnosis. Examples of diagnostic tools used to screen clients for mental illness include the Ask Suicide-Screening Questions Toolkit and the Screen for Child Anxiety Related Disorders.6,7 These evaluations allow social workers to detect symptoms and diagnose mental illness based on standardized criteria.

Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Modalities

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health, so social workers typically use a variety of interventions and therapies. For example, the way they approach youth mental health problems is vastly different than those of adults, and they will need to use a different vocabulary to create a connection. Common psychotherapy modalities include:

Trauma-focused Therapy

Trauma-focused therapy is designed for children and adolescents with emotional problems caused by traumatic experiences. This can often result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an increasingly prevalent psychological health disorder. Trauma-focused treatment involves psychoeducation to help parents understand their children’s mental health, relaxation techniques and trauma narration.8

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT helps patients recognize and alter negative automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions. Social workers use this treatment for clients with eating disorders, substance abuse and other psychiatric disorders.9

Supportive Counseling

Also known as talk therapy, supportive counseling helps patients adopt healthier behaviors through praise, self-esteem building and coping skills. Social workers use this versatile treatment for many disorders, such as anxiety and schizophrenia.10

Social Work in Psychiatric Settings

Social workers can collaborate with doctors and psychiatrists in hospitals and other healthcare settings.5 These specialists use many techniques to support psychiatric rehabilitation and recovery, including:

Dual Diagnosis Treatment

Dual diagnosis refers to patients who have mental health difficulties and substance use disorders simultaneously. Healthcare professionals treat both conditions using techniques like CBT and medication.11

Addiction Treatment

Evidence-based interventions for substance use disorders include CBT and group therapy sessions. Social workers can also use dialectical behavior therapy to teach patients to change negative emotions that may contribute to substance use.12

Social Work in Community Mental Health

Social workers can develop many programs to foster community mental health, including:

  • Peer Support and Recovery Services: People who have recovered from a mental illness or substance abuse use a disorder coach and advocate for patients13
  • Assertive Community Treatment Programs: This program provides people with severe mental illnesses with rehabilitation and support services, such as family education and peer support14

Social Work in Schools and Educational Settings

School social workers provide adolescent mental health services and social-emotional learning programs for children, teenagers and young adults. They teach students strategies to cope with bullying, hostile school climates, social isolation and other issues.5 The state of youth mental health will set the foundation for the rest of their lives, so it's critical that social workers can identify, manage and treat

Social Work in Trauma and Crisis Management

Social workers play a critical role in crisis management. They support individuals and community groups during disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic by offering trauma-informed interventions and inviting the community to participate in recovery efforts.15 This helps to create a social connectedness They also practice critical incident stress management by helping law enforcement, emergency service workers and other first responders cope with traumatic events.16

Cultural Competence and Anti-Oppressive Practices

According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), professionals in this field must develop cultural competence to work effectively with clients from all backgrounds. Standards for cultural competence include:17

  • Advocating for social justice and equality
  • Developing cross-cultural knowledge
  • Embracing diversity
  • Confronting systemic inequities and oppression

Ethical Considerations

Social workers are responsible for treating their clients ethically. Every day, they're faced with complex issues, varying emotions and sensitive information that they must treat with respect and care. The NASW’s Code of Ethics offers guidelines for ethical behavior, such as:18

  • Ensuring that clients give informed consent before receiving services
  • Encouraging client autonomy
  • Maintaining confidentiality and setting firm boundaries
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest
  • Using respectful language

Self-Care for Social Workers

Professionals in this discipline often face challenging situations, such as helping traumatized individuals and juggling many responsibilities. But in order for their work to be effective, they need to prioritize their own mental, emotional and physical health. As a result, professional self-care is a vital part of social work and may include:19

Self-Care Activities

Social workers should focus on their own personal relationships and health outcomes as much as they do for their clients. Self-care routines like daily exercise and avoiding overwork can increase resilience and decrease burnout. They can also seek social support from friends, colleagues and family.20

Grief and Loss Counseling

Because of the nature of the work, social workers may experience the death of their clients and coworkers with whom they have close relationships. To deal with the difficult loss of these personal relationships, social work professionals should attend grief and loss counseling and ask for help with work responsibilities.21 They should also seek out other outlets for feeling connected to friends and family members.

Collaboration and Interdisciplinary Approaches

Many social workers collaborate with interdisciplinary teams to ensure clients receive effective treatment and continuity of care throughout their recovery.4 For example, they may work closely with nurses and psychiatrists to care for a client with multiple mental and behavioral disorders.

Stay Up-To-Date With Emerging Trends in Mental Health Social Work

Learn about the latest developments in mental health social work with Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work program. You’ll learn about cutting-edge approaches and technologies as you take courses like Cultural Diversity, Social Gerontology and Social Work Values and Ethics. You’ll also sharpen your skills by receiving mentorship from our prestigious faculty and participating in fieldwork experiences with leading organizations like Johns Hopkins Hospital and the American Red Cross.

Apply today to accelerate your career.

  1. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-2
  2. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from ncsc.org/__data/assets/pdf_file/0025/70864/Social-Determinants-of-Health.pdf
  3. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6576136/
  4. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from abcsw.org/what-is-clinical-social-work
  5. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/social-workers.htm#tab-2
  6. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from nimh.nih.gov/research/research-conducted-at-nimh/asq-toolkit-materials
  7. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from aap.org/en/patient-care/mental-health-minute/screening-tools/
  8. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from childwelfare.gov/pubpdfs/trauma.pdf
  9. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK470241/
  10. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from psychnews.psychiatryonline.org/doi/full/10.1176/appi.pn.2020.6a31
  11. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/24426-dual-diagnosis
  12. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from americanaddictioncenters.org/therapy-treatment
  13. Retrieved on September 19, 2023, from samhsa.gov/brss-tacs/recovery-support-tools/peers