Mom and daughter with doctor

By Care for Your Mind, based on material from the
National Association of Social Workers

March has been National Social Work Month, prompting us to look at the vital role of social workers in improving our health and society. Through this annual campaign, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and its affiliates and members inform the public and legislators about the crucial role social workers continue to play in improving the wellbeing of people and helping our nation become a better place to live. This year’s theme is “Social Workers: Leaders. Advocates. Champions.”

Social workers have a rich history of advocacy on behalf of disadvantaged people. For instance, social workers such as social reformer Jane Addams, former Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, and civil rights leaders Dorothy Height and Whitney Young have helped Americans secure voting rights, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and other programs that lift up members of our society. Advocacy is inherent in social work, as social workers advocate on behalf of their clients individually and collectively and voice their concerns to officials in local, state, and national governments.

Social workers are trained to look at situations in a holistic way, helping bring together people and communities to find ways to address pressing individual, group, and societal issues such as hunger, affordable housing, equal rights, and making organizations and government accountable. The NASW Code of Ethics calls on members of the profession to enhance human wellbeing and meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention on the needs and empowerment of those who are vulnerable, oppressed, or living in poverty. The best approaches satisfy the Triple Aim of better care for patients, better health for communities, and lower costs.

The role of social workers becomes increasingly important for people with mental health conditions as the mental health workforce is not growing quickly enough to keep up with demand for services. Clinical social workers are the largest group of mental health providers in the United States, comprising some 60% of mental health care professionals. Social workers are employed in public schools, health care facilities, family service programs, long-term care facilities, child protection services, and veterans’ hospitals. In fact, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs is one of the biggest employers of social workers with a master’s degree. Currently, the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook projects a 16% increase in social work employment from 2016 to 2026 – nearly 110,000 jobs – far in excess of the 7% average for all occupations.

Assuming that the health care system continues to move in the direction of integrated care, we will see more patient-centered medical home-based practices, in which a behavioral health consultant is embedded in a primary care setting. Making care accessible through the primary care provider’s office will likely mean that more people have their mental health attended to promptly. For many practices, that role is filled by social workers. Better integration of mental health services requires increasingly more social workers.

Social workers help people in their everyday lives and in times of challenge and change. They factor in the spectrum of health determinants and influences that are unique to each person and family, so each receives customized care. As important as social workers are now, they will only become more essential in the future as mental health care becomes more accessible through primary care practices and other locations. We encourage you to support the work of social workers in improving the lives of individuals and families and our society.

Your Turn

  • In what situations have you found social workers helpful?
  • How do you think the mental health system should better utilize the talents of social workers?

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