Our nation is experiencing a mental health crisis.
Anthony Estreet, Ph.D., M.B.A., LCSW-C
CEO, National Association of Social Workers
“Social workers are on the frontlines of this mental health tsunami.”
Blame the pandemic, which increased social isolation, anxiety, and economic stress on families. Or the divisiveness of our political system. Or the fact our nation is reckoning with entrenched systemic racism, higher rates of opioid addiction, and never-ending gun violence.
Just watching the news about issues like these can be stressful. No wonder all these factors have eroded the mental health of many Americans, prompting more people than ever to seek therapy.
Social workers are on the frontlines of this mental health tsunami. Social work is one of the fastest-growing professions in the United States, and more than 120,000 social workers work in mental health or treating people with substance use disorders, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to a recent public opinion survey from Ipsos, 1 in 6 Americans say they or a family member have been helped by a social worker. The most common setting where Americans are meeting social workers is in mental health, the survey said. And happily, 81% of the survey respondents said the social worker improved the situation.
However, social workers need help in addressing the crush in demand for mental health services. Here is what you can do:
Our youth are reporting more mental health issues. One way to address this need is to get more social workers in schools, where they can help students overcome issues like bullying and anxiety before these issues get out of hand. The National Association of Social Workers recommends at least one social worker per 250 students, and in distressed school systems, one social worker per 50 students. Unfortunately, few school districts meet this standard.
988 suicide and crisis lifelines are being set up across the nation to help people deal with mental health issues and to prevent deaths by suicide. Social workers often handle these telephone lines. Make sure your state and local 988 lines are properly funded.
Social workers enter the profession primarily because they want to help people. However, salaries could be higher (the median salary for social workers was $50,390 in 2021). The Ipsos survey found that half of Americans believe social workers are not paid enough. To address shortages of social workers providing mental health services, policymakers must support increasing their salaries.
Urge Congress to pass legislation that supports the social work profession, including the Improving Access to Mental Health Act, which would help add more clinical social workers to the mental health workforce by raising Medicare reimbursement rates. Social work can also be a risky job, so urge your members of Congress to support legislation that would improve safety for social workers.
The nation’s social workers are already an integral part of our nation’s efforts to improve the delivery of mental health services. They just need support from the public and lawmakers to keep doing the life-affirming work they do.