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Mental health is critical to a healthy life. But millions of Americans struggle with depression, isolation, fear, and anxiety. Americans also lack access to the quality care and support they need to combat these conditions.
According to recent data, mental health has become a significant issue in the country, with 90% of Americans saying it is now a crisis. The same survey showed that Americans do not believe mental care services are accessible for everyone despite the growing societal awareness of the importance of mental health.
While there are several reasons that prevent Americans from accessing quality mental care, everything points to an overburdened healthcare system that cannot deal with the increase in mental health issues. Not every American can access quality mental care services. Data shows nearly half of American adults and children living with mental health conditions go without any treatment.
With the severe shortage of healthcare professionals, the need for social workers to develop treatment plans for those struggling with mental health professionals has become more important than ever to curb the mental health crisis. This article discusses several ways social workers can help with the ongoing mental turmoil in the country.
What is the US mental health crisis?
Before going deeper into the role of social work in mental health, let’s first examine the US mental health crisis. How did the US reach this point? Isn’t the US one of the leading countries in medical innovation?
Although reasons vary, experts believe the current US mental health crisis can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the world struggled with the global pandemic, the lives of individuals and families across the country changed abruptly. This, in turn, resulted in feelings of social isolation, grief, and sadness.
Only a year after the pandemic, the National Alliance on Mental Illnesses reported that one in five Americans experienced mental and emotional distress. The same data added that the rates of depression tripled during the height of COVID-mandated lockdowns which was already on the rise due to other pre-existing factors like poverty, drug abuse, employment challenges etc.
How can social work help?
Now that the reasons for the ongoing US mental health crisis have been established, you might ask how social work can help.
Promote mental health awareness
The importance of promoting mental health awareness cannot be understated. By promoting mental health awareness, social workers can reduce the stigma and encourage more people to seek treatment.
Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all formula, but here are a few ways a social worker can accomplish this.
Educate the community about mental health
Social workers can offer information about mental health and resources to reduce the stigma and inspire those who need it to get help. They can do this through workshops, presentations, and other outreach programs. Social workers can also work with schools and local organizations to provide education about mental health and help everyone understand the importance of seeking assistance when required.
Organize and support mental health events
Few people seek mental health treatment because not everyone is comfortable discussing it. Social workers can make mental health discussions more open by organizing and supporting events, such as walkathons and fairs, to promote awareness and understanding of mental health issues.
Work with journalists and the media
Beyond creating an open dialogue, working with journalists and the media allows social workers to encourage a fresh approach to explaining and coping with mental health issues. By doing so, they can make mental illnesses less foreign and intimidating.
However, it is worth noting that promoting mental health awareness is more than providing information and resources. It is also about developing a supportive and inclusive environment for those struggling with mental health issues. Social workers can assume a critical role in creating this environment and positively impacting their community.
Counseling and therapy
The importance of counseling in ensuring good mental health is vital. Through counseling, individuals can overcome the mental and emotional distress associated with their respective situations. The advantage of therapy and counseling is that they provide individuals with a safe space in which to talk about their feelings and thoughts without being judged.
Many people struggling with mental health issues do not seek help because of the stigma associated with counseling. However, avoiding counseling can only lead to their mental health deteriorating even further.
As part of their training, social workers learn evidence-based techniques that enable them to guide clients toward their goals and enhance their overall quality of life. Depending on the individual’s diagnosis, a competent social worker will use multiple approaches when counseling and treating mental health patients. Some of the techniques used include the following.
Cognitive behavior therapy
Mental health social workers use cognitive behavior therapy techniques to help individuals whose thought patterns worsen their problems and reinforce self-harming behaviors. This means assisting clients in identifying and reframing negative thought patterns and recommending deep breathing and relaxation exercises for anxiety.
Family therapy is another way for social workers to help mental health patients. Social workers often start with an evaluation that considers cultural perspectives while observing family roles and dynamics and assessing family history for any mental health diagnosis. This allows social workers to communicate more effectively with their clients and find more personalized treatment plans.
Mental health social workers use task-centered practice to build on the client’s strengths and resiliency. It emphasizes the process of goal-setting and problem-solving. This process is reiterated constantly until the initial problem is resolved. It starts by identifying the issues contributing to mental stress and developing measurable goals. Once an action plan has been established, social workers will discuss possible outcomes and relate them to the presenting problem.
Counseling and therapy with a social worker also help individuals recognize their triggers and learn how to cope with them appropriately. Through this process, they can work towards rebuilding bonds with family and friends, build their interpersonal skills, and work on changing or permanently altering self-destructive behaviors.
Connect individuals with resources
Most individuals suffering from mental health issues have little or no access to quality care. Mental health issues can result in physical problems and damage an individual’s overall well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, stress can make chronic health issues more problematic and result in patients using tobacco, drugs, alcohol, and other substances.
Since social workers collaborate with healthcare workers, they can assist clients in finding the needed help. Social workers can assist clients in various ways, from locating mental health services to advocating for policies that improve the overall mental health of a specific demographic.
By advocating for individuals with mental health issues, social workers can ensure that these people are not forgotten. Since there is a stigma around mental health, it is not uncommon for individuals to shrug it off instead of seeking treatment to resolve their difficulties and achieve their full potential.
Social workers strive to eliminate these barriers and ensure mentally vulnerable patients can access the resources they need to grow and participate fully in communities. By doing so, they can empower individuals to stand up for themselves and deal with their issues head on rather than ignore them.
Advocating for policy change
Social workers can also work to advocate for policy changes that will enhance mental care in the country. This can be through increased funding for mental health services or altering the mental healthcare system. Other ways social workers can advocate for policy change to address the mental health crisis follow.
Work with grassroots advocates
Social workers who work directly with individuals and families to address mental health issues can engage in local advocacy efforts. This means joining local organizations, attending societal meetings and hearings, and contacting their elected representatives to express their support for mental health policies.
Use social media
Social media can be a powerful tool for advocacy for mental health social workers. Social media allows social workers to share information about mental health policies, advocate for change, raise awareness, and generate support from individuals from all walks of life.
Speak before legislative committees
Social workers can also testify before legislative committees to analyze and advocate for policies that support and promote mental health. This can be a powerful way to impact policy and bring attention to the problems affecting mental health of social workers and their clients.
Recognize social injustice
Ignorance about community inequalities does nothing to address mental health disorders and other issues. To achieve mental health equity, communities must initially dismantle social injustice by emphasizing equity over profits.
According to recent data, social injustice is widespread in the US, affecting rural, urban, and suburban areas. Social workers must identify social injustice before they can advance practices and policies that support equity in mental health access and care.
Through this process, social workers can establish equity and fairness throughout all aspects of mental healthcare within their respective communities. By doing so, they can fight for greater power and influence. For instance, if their community is dealing with mental health injustice, they must identify the root cause of it.
This can be related to discrimination, care shortage, or significant misinformation across specific neighborhoods. By identifying the issue firsthand, mental health social workers can find more effective solutions and deal with the problem correctly to ensure success. Furthermore, social workers must transform the cognitive healthcare system to make progress by dismantling the underlying structural forces of discrimination, oppression, sexism, and racism.
How to become a mental health social worker
If you are still reading this, there’s a good chance you want to be a mental health social worker. Social work can be a rewarding career. As a social worker, you will deal with individuals from all walks of life. This, in turn, will deepen your understanding and knowledge of human relationships and lead to value-added leadership and communication skills.
What’s more, social workers also operate with a healthy level of autonomy as they help clients discover and decide how to accomplish their goals. This independence can be a valuable advantage for professionals seeking a more flexible work schedule.
Best of all, social work is in high demand, so it gives you job security. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the social work industry is growing faster than the average, seeing a 16% increase in employment opportunities.
The following section will provide you with a step-by-step guide on how you can become a social worker.
Obtain an undergraduate degree in social work
The initial step toward becoming a mental health social worker is to earn an undergraduate degree in social work. More often than not, bachelor’s degrees are the minimum academic requirement for entry-level mental health social worker positions.
While working towards their undergraduate degree, students will learn about different mental health conditions, the intricacies of counseling, and psychology. They will also undergo written and practical examinations to sharpen their analytical skills for observing behavioral and social stressors.
Pursue a master’s degree in social work
After completing their undergraduate degree, top mental health social workers consider an advanced degree. With an advanced degree from a prestigious academic institution such as Florida State University, they can learn more about the intricacies of social work today and apply preventive strategies to help clients.
While studying for an advanced degree, students perform supervised visitations to apply their skills and complete a field research seminar to receive hands-on experience. This enables them to dig deep into specializations that correspond to the foundations of social work. During this time, they learn the process involved in social change and how they can interact with systemic diversity and economic equity.
Now, you might ask what to expect from an advanced degree in social work. Depending on your chosen academic institution, you will be exposed to discussions about social welfare policies, human behavior, human development, medical health disorders and diagnosis, child welfare policy, and motivational interviewing techniques.
When choosing a Master of Social Work program, please consider their concentrations and how they align with your personal and professional goals. MSW programs offer at least several concentrations, which are areas of specialization that tailor your education to your career. For instance, if you want to work in the mental health industry, find a related concentration and look for programs focusing on that area.
Moreover, it would help if you also examined the course curriculum before committing to an online academic institution. Most organizations carry out extensive research to see whether specific regulatory bodies recognize the degree you achieved. This way, they can ensure you have the academic expertise and training required to perform your responsibilities and do work that benefits the organization.
So, how do you know if your chosen university is the right one — or how do you define the right academic institution in the first place? Ask other online students, and they will recommend their preferred universities. That said, choosing the best university is a more personal decision. What might be effective for your friends and coworkers might have a different impact on you.
A great place to start is checking online university rankings. Some only provide you with overall rankings, while others might have several tables for each degree program. Either way, look for the student-staff ratio at the university you pick. It is better if the percentage is smaller. You can ask questions and learn the material more quickly in smaller online classes.
When evaluating the curriculum, ensure that the social work program will tackle the essential foundations of social work, such as social justice advancement and mental health. Alternatively, you can explore all your university’s resources for its social work students.
Your university has many study and learning materials, even if you are taking social work classes online, to ensure your success. You can improve overall learning and compete in a global workplace by utilizing all the available resources, such as online guidance counselors and virtual learning tools. Toward the end of your master’s degree program, consider completing an internship at a local mental health institution. This can help you build the foundational experience and necessary skills to join the workforce.
Get a license and become certified
After completing your educational requirements, the final step is to obtain a state license. Each state has its own license requirements, but most require the completion of an MSW and two years of clinical experience. Upon passing an exam by the Association of Social Work Boards, you can earn a license.
If you want to pursue a mental health social worker job, taking certification examinations such as the Certified Social Worker in Health is recommended. By earning this certification, you can demonstrate to your prospective employers that you have a high level of professional excellence as a social worker in the healthcare industry.