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What does a Mental Health Social Worker do?

By Dorothy Distefano
Updated May 17, 2024
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A mental health social worker is a professional who treats people with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues. The treatment may include individual or group therapy, crisis intervention, teaching of necessary skills for day-to-day living, and more. These social workers may work in in-patient or out-patient settings.

In general, a social worker provides services that help people deal with problems or issues that arise in their lives. They may provide counseling, therapy, or practical assistance with situational crises. A bachelor’s degree is generally recommended for people who are interested in this field, and a master’s degree is necessary for some positions that have higher levels of responsibility.

The duties of the mental health social worker are dependent upon the setting and individual job expectations. In in-patient settings, where patients reside in a supervised facility, the social worker may help with discharge planning. This can include self-medication training, acquiring housing, organizing out-patient therapy or programs, or ensuring that the patient has adequate support after discharge.

In out-patient settings, this professional can take on multiple roles. In an employee assistance program, the worker may be available to assist people with work-related stresses, or to cope with personal issues that are affecting the ability to work effectively. In substance abuse clinics, the role may include counseling and intermittent drug testing.

Some social workers work in private practices rather than for or through an agency. Clients schedule appointments directly and present issues that dictate the focus of therapy.

Crisis intervention is a short-term therapeutic relationship in which the social worker assists an individual who needs help dealing with a sudden loss or change in situation that has proven to be beyond his coping skills. This could be related to an event, such as an earthquake or fire, assault, illness, or the death of someone close to the patient. The purpose of crisis intervention is to improve coping skills for optimal functioning through the duration of the crisis situation.

A mental health social worker may facilitate therapy sessions in either in-patient or out-patient settings. Individual therapy may focus on the issues related to the diagnoses. The social worker's goals usually involve encouraging compliance with prescribed medications and helping patients to develop skills for dealing with issues related to everyday situations.

Group therapy sessions generally include patients with similar emotional, mental, or social issues. A social worker may facilitate sessions to keep interpersonal interactions from becoming antagonistic and to maintain the appropriate focus. There are various types of group therapy, including general group, drama therapy, or music therapy.

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Discussion Comments
By Sporkasia — On Feb 13, 2014

When times get tough for local and national governments financially, one of the first areas to get cut is mental health assistance, and people who have chosen social work careers in mental health find themselves with heavy work loads and not enough coworkers.

By Animandel — On Feb 12, 2014

When a person dealing with mental illness leaves a facility and attempts to reenter life beyond the controlled context of a hospital a mental health social worker can be invaluable.

Anyone considering combining a job in social work and a mental health career should be prepared to be a caring counselor and a strict and consistent motivator. The work is taxing, but it can also be rewarding.

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