Social workers are the No. 1 mental health providers in our country. Their intersectional approach incorporates, mind, body, and environment for solutions to mental well-being.
Yamile M. Martí Haidar, Ph.D., M.A., LMSW
Associate Professor of Professional Practice, Columbia University
“In my clinical experience, I have witnessed firsthand the importance of context and how it affects the prognosis and intervention.”
As social workers, we provide services with an understanding of how systemic inequities impact our lives — this makes us mental health providers who are also strong advocates, policymakers, community liaisons, and so much more.
Our training prepares us to recognize the multiple identities that a family, individual, and community have and how they are all interconnected. We are often the one professional in the room who knows about the diagnosis/condition, the family composition, identity, culture, religious beliefs, support systems, history of trauma, economic status, and many other elements that impact treatment and well-being.
The power of context
In my clinical experience, I have witnessed firsthand the importance of context and how it affects the prognosis and intervention.
I worked with a family whose child was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder. The child lived with his mother, father, and two younger siblings. The father was not fluent in English, which led the family to rely heavily on Mom to connect to services — oftentimes with no translator or a native language provider. They had a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment.
The child was washing their hands constantly and sometimes locked themselves in the only bathroom in the apartment for hours. This created additional hardships — the parents were sometimes late for work on top of the time they needed to take off for appointments; they had to constantly purchase soap to serve the need of their child; and everyone in the household had a different way to cope with their reality: mom was accommodating, dad would try to set limits, one sibling was upset, and the other was confused.
This diagnosis would have impacted any family immensely. The socio-economic status, limited space at home, language barriers, and lack of knowledge of resources compounded the difficulty and shaped the way in which we would support this family.
A total approach
Social workers in this case considered this context, as we are trained to better work with the individual by understanding the environment they live in. This framework helped the team responsible for supporting this child design interventions that would also support the family members who were incredibly devoted to their care.
The wrap-around approach included cognitive behavioral therapy for the child; psychoeducation for the whole family; building relationships with the school to better advocate on the child’s behalf; and couple’s therapy sessions for the parents, while also connecting them to the other resources available to them from additional service providers.
Our mental health and well-being does not exist outside of the environments we are part of. Social workers understand and work with individuals, families, and communities because we believe the answers will always be within the source.
As we celebrate 125 years of the social work profession as we know it, let us continue to lift up the work of social workers and their contributions to the field of mental health practice.