Mental Health Social Work Guide - 2024

Social Worker License

by Social Worker License Staff

Updated: December 29th, 2022

There is currently a huge push to de-stigmatize mental health disorders in our society. It isn’t easy to get people to recognize that taking care of their mental health is as important as monitoring their physical health. That requires dispelling myths surrounding mental health that many of us believe. There is misinformation about what mental health conditions are and why they occur that needs to be corrected. Once those corrections are made, we can begin to address the stigmas about what it means to seek treatment. 

These stigmas often come from oversimplified stereotypes that make sweeping generalizations about those living with mental health conditions. The misrepresentations are negative, offensive, and, most of all, inaccurate. Those with depression are often labeled with incorrect pejoratives: lazy, self-consumed, etc.. Or, someone with high anxiety levels may be seen as standoffish. 

Misconceptions about mental health will cause those who believe they are experiencing symptoms to stay quiet. They don’t want the ridicule and judgment that comes with admitting they need help. Not receiving the help they need means they will be less likely to find decent housing and a job and develop long-term relationships. Those are all aspects we need in life to help integrate us into mainstream society. Without having the assistance they need, those living under mental health stigmas will see their conditions worsen. 

The isolation can lead to feeling hopeless, internalizing negative beliefs, shame, and decreased self-esteem. That’s what makes the mental health social worker’s job vital in this field. They advocate eliminating stigmas and encouraging those who need it to get into a treatment program.

Why do we have mental health social workers?

Mental health social workers commit to performing academic research on the subject, developing and implementing treatment plans based on research, and employing prevention methods. It’s estimated that a clinical social worker provides 65% of mental health services in the United States, so the training for this position is thorough. They provide counseling, psychotherapy, and mental health strategies to help clients cope.

In 2020, it was found that 1 in 5 U.S. adults experienced mental illness, while 1 in 20 experienced a serious mental illness. That amounts to 52.9 and 14.2 million people, respectively. At least 21 million people will experience a major depressive episode each year, and 48 million people will live with an anxiety disorder. 

Anyone working in the mental health field has a lot on their plate, but since social workers are in the field regularly, they constantly use their special skills to navigate situations. Not only do they help individuals, but families and communities are within their purview. 

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for those between the ages of 10-34. Overall, it is the tenth leading cause of death and has increased 35% since 1999. Many families need a well-trained social worker who can identify mental health symptoms and warning signs family members don’t recognize. 

About 150 million people live in areas that have been designated as having a mental health professional shortage. In the U.S., 11% of adults with mental health conditions don’t have insurance, while 11.3% of those with serious mental health disorders are uninsured. For anyone under 45, the most common reason for hospitalization is a mood disorder. And, 20.8% of the homeless have a serious mental health disorder. There is no doubt that our communities are affected by mental illness, and social workers typically provide the care and treatment the community requires. 

Mental health social workers work with the uninsured to locate programs that accept them. They fill in the gaps in areas where mental health professionals are scarce and visit hospitals to work with doctors and nurses on post-discharge care. Social workers will find adequate housing for the homeless populations with mental health issues. Mental health social workers are one of the most valuable resources in a community and do everything within their power to take care of its members. 

What do mental social workers do?

Building relationships with people, organizations, and community decision-makers

An example:

Lisa recently gave birth but is experiencing overwhelming feelings of sadness she’s never had before. Lisa smiles and puts on a brave face in front of family and friends, only to cry uncontrollably when she’s alone with the baby. Lisa finally got the courage to tell a close friend, who recommended that Lisa visit a healthcare facility that helped her cope with her feelings after giving birth. Lisa takes the advice and is seen by a social worker who begins to ask questions to assess the situation.

This first meeting is a pivotal moment in Lisa’s relationship with the social worker. The goal is to get Lisa to open up and describe her emotions, but she is at a very vulnerable point in her life. Asking her to open up to a complete stranger asks her to trust someone she doesn’t know with her most intimate feelings. That’s why it’s necessary for healthcare social workers to develop their empathy skills to form a connection with the client. 

The social worker must provide an environment where the client feels safe to build the relationship. Once they’ve gained the client’s trust and established a rapport, the client will allow the social worker to guide them on their mental health journey. As the client progresses, social workers continue to build on their relationship by teaching coping methods as they adapt to new changes. 

For mental health social workers to be effective, they must also build relationships with organizations and healthcare resources in the community. They need a strong network to lean on when helping clients who require a wider scope of services to manage their mental health. Social workers give referrals for medical specialists or day-to-day necessities like food and housing. If they don’t work at establishing and maintaining relationships with frequently used resources, the assistance clients need may be delayed. 

Diagnosing mental health conditions

Diagnosing mental health conditions is a process that involves a clinical assessment of the client’s needs, strengths, and challenges. For these reasons, mental healthcare social workers must be licensed before engaging in clinical practice. There is specific training and education needed to work independently and diagnose community members with mental health conditions. 

Healthcare social workers will uncover the client’s goals and the resources available to reach those objectives. Family members, close friends, coworkers, and others the client interacts with regularly may be interviewed to gain a wider perspective of the issues and symptoms the client experiences. They are also questioned to determine whether the client is surrounded by a group of people who will be positive and healthy influences during the recovery process. The client needs a strong support system to have a successful outcome for any treatment. If the social worker doesn’t believe the client’s support network is beneficial to their recovery, they will advise the client on how to address those issues.

Once all of the information is gathered, the social worker will evaluate their findings. They may seek a peer’s opinion to ensure the diagnosis is correct before proceeding to the next step. Then, a treatment plan is devised to encourage the client’s strengths and help them meet their challenges. 

The plan is enacted, and the social worker’s job has only just begun. They will provide the guidance and therapy the client and their family need to improve the situation. The social worker educates the client and their family members on the diagnosis and what steps will be taken to manage the condition. 

If medication is part of the treatment plan, the possible side effects are discussed, and any concerns are addressed. Family members are encouraged to ask any questions they have, no matter how silly they may seem, so they completely understand the diagnosis and their role in their loved one’s recovery. 

Receiving a mental health diagnosis can be difficult for a client who is undoubtedly experiencing a flood of emotions. To ensure they keep a healthy state of mind, social workers will provide therapy for clients and family members having a hard time coping. 

Provide guidance and therapy for individuals and family

Counseling takes place in a group or individual sessions, both of which help in their own way. Individual therapy promotes a sense of privacy, allowing more reserved clients to open up and share freely. In group sessions, everyone can share their experiences, and hearing what others have gone through can provide much-needed insight into their own issues. It also lets clients know they aren’t alone in their struggles. 

Healthcare social workers look to provide clients with a wider range of services to address the needs discovered during counseling sessions. Therapy is used to reduce symptoms and help clients recognize situations that can trigger their condition. Healthy techniques for dealing with triggers are taught, and social workers will refer clients to resources that enable them to continue improving and live independently or with the proper assistance. 

The client’s progress is monitored and tracked through follow-up visits. During these visits, the social worker records each interaction to refer to later when completing intervention evaluations. Family members are also questioned about the client’s progress, difficulties experienced while administering care, and successes in the treatment plan. 

When family members are unsure of how to handle a particular situation, they can reach out and ask the social worker for guidance. The family members will get the information needed to keep their loved ones on the right path. When a crisis-level emergency occurs, such as a drug overdose or suicide attempt, social workers are there with their expertise to diffuse the situation. 

Once the crisis is over, notes are taken about what did and didn’t work for future reference. 

The elderly population often suffers high rates of depression. Losing friends they’ve known for decades, social isolation, and health issues that limit their mobility are just a few of the matters contributing to their feelings of loneliness and despair. They begin to withdraw, and social workers are often tasked with making arrangements for their care and support. 

As relatives grow older and develop mental health issues, their family members may not be in a position to have the elder live with them. Those currently caring for the elder will find mounds of red tape and delays when trying to locate facilities offering specific care needs. For example, those with dementia cannot be placed in a healthcare facility that doesn’t specialize in care for that issue. They need a trained team of people dedicated to keeping them safe. 

Or, the family can take the elderly member in, but they will need help caring for them at home. The social worker can find a program to provide nurses with specific time frames or days when the family travels out of town. 

If a child or adult experiences a psychotic episode, the social worker can arrange for in-patient care and transportation to take the client to the facility. They will work alongside doctors, counselors, and nurses to establish a treatment plan. Collaboration is a significant element of the social worker’s job. They usually need a team of people working toward the same goal to get the client the appropriate level of help for their issue. 

There are instances where parents have a mental health crisis, and care has to be arranged for the children. Social workers will find a relative or temporary home for the children to stay in as they assess the parent’s situation. Long-term care may have to be arranged if the crisis is ongoing or in-patient treatment is recommended. 

Ensuring people’s safety

Those with mental health issues are more likely to be victimized than others. Social workers must ensure clients are safe in their environments. That includes home, work, and school. Children with mental health issues are at high risk for abuse since most families are equipped or knowledgeable enough to identify the signs. They may mistake the child’s condition as a disciplinary issue and double down on harmful corrective actions. It’s up to the social worker to step in once their trained eye notices signs of physical, mental, or emotional abuse. 

The same is true of adults living with a mental health disorder. Family members may not fully understand the condition and therefore mistreat the client. Social workers will educate family members and lay down the rules that must be followed for their client’s recovery. 

Stand up for people’s rights and improving community services

Protecting those with mental health issues from discrimination is another aspect of social work. Advocacy brings awareness to mental illness and breaks down some of the misinformation continuing to stigmatize the condition. Advocacy is how policymakers and legislators are persuaded to make and enforce laws to protect those affected by mental illness. 

Suppose there is a local business, or national one, discriminating against those with mental health conditions. In that case, you will find social workers using their skills and education to make a difference. They will organize and mobilize groups to protest in person or online and petition legislators and law enforcement for assistance. Mental health social workers will stand up for the rights of their clients and others affected by mental illness. 

As they protect clients’ rights, social workers also improve community services. Their work demands landlords provide adequate living quarters and foodbanks receive the funding and donations needed to feed impoverished families. As they fight for their clients, social workers improve conditions for everyone in the community. 

What are the typical educational requirements of mental health social workers?

Mental health social work is a rigorous and demanding occupation. As a social worker specializing in this field, you are responsible for making decisions that completely alter a person’s way of life. Diagnosing and treating patients is not something our society takes lightly, and those entrusted with the privilege are expected to operate with an elevated sense of ethics. Social work degrees can only be earned from college or university programs accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). 

Most entry-level social work positions only require a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as psychology. Future social workers are required to take classes in human behavior, cultural diversity, case management, social welfare policy, and research methods. It takes four years to complete the necessary 120 credit hours to earn the BSW. 

Social workers must be able to provide clinical services to diagnose and treat patients. That will require a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree, which can be obtained after earning a bachelor’s degree or BSW. MSW programs take two years to finish unless you are eligible for an accelerated program. The advanced programs allow you to earn the degree in one year. 

You’ll have to select a specialty at the graduate level to build your knowledge in that area. Choosing mental health means many of your classes will focus on that field of study. Other MSW program coursework includes dynamics of racism and oppression, human behavior and the environment, couple and family therapy, assessment and diagnosis, and substance abuse. 

Practicum fieldwork is a part of the curriculum. That is where students hone their skills by practicing with individuals, families, organizations, communities, and other groups they would encounter as professional social workers. This practice work is done under the supervision of an experienced and most likely licensed social worker. 

Most MSW programs require you to complete an internship as part of your education. The internship places you with a social service organization, school, or government agency where you’ll work under their supervision. Supervised experience is a requirement for licensure, so if you plan to work independently or open a private practice, this is the educational route you need to take. 

Licensure requirements change from state to state, so it’s best to check with your local licensing board to determine what is needed to apply for a license to practice clinical services. License titles also differ as you cross state lines, but the qualifications are similar. The exams you must pass don’t differ and are administered by the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB). Once you pass the master’s exam, the ASWB will grant your licensure to practice clinically in your state

Mental health social workers wear many hats and are crucial to bridging communication gaps between clients, families, and the community. They can connect those in need to resources to help them become functioning and productive members of their communities and offer therapeutic services. The contribution made by mental health social workers is immeasurable. If you have a great amount of patience, empathy, listening, and organizational skills, don’t hesitate to join the social work career and begin making a difference.