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The Growing Importance of the Clinical Social Worker

February 20, 2023

Demand for behavioral and mental health services is soaring, and the U.S. faces a challenging shortage of qualified professionals to meet it. According to a report from health-focused nonprofit KFF, the COVID-19 pandemic has only made matters worse. For example:

  • Approximately one-third of men and about half of women surveyed by KFF reported downturns in their mental health since the start of the pandemic.
  • One-fifth of adults reported that the pandemic had a major effect on their mental health.
  • According to a separate report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the problem has been particularly acute for young people, with half reporting symptoms of depression during the pandemic.

Many different professionals are qualified to deliver behavioral and mental health services, but the clinical social worker role has become pivotal. Trained to evaluate, diagnose and treat mental illness and behavioral issues, clinical social workers can address critical needs and help fill gaps in mental health care.

Those who aspire to practice clinical social work should consider exploring the benefits of an advanced education and learning more about the field and its importance in promoting behavioral and mental health.

The State of Mental Health Care in the U.S.

Each year, millions of people across the country are affected by mental health concerns. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, each year in the U.S.:

  • 20 percent of adults experience mental illness.
  • 17 percent of young people between 6 and 17 years of age experience a mental health disorder.
  • 8.4 percent of adults will likely experience a major depressive episode.
  • 19.1 percent of adults will likely experience anxiety disorders.

Rising Demand and Access Issues

Driven in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, demand for behavioral and mental health services has skyrocketed in recent years. For example:

  • In 2022, the Association of American Medical Colleges reported that, at the height of the pandemic, 40 percent of adults experienced symptoms of depression or anxiety.
  • When the American Psychological Association surveyed psychologists in 2022, it found that:
    • 79 percent of psychologists reported increases in patients with anxiety disorders.
    • 66 percent of psychologists reported increases in patients with depressive disorders.
    • 64 percent of psychologists reported increases in patients with trauma-related and stressor-related disorders.

Given the increase in demand for mental health services, coupled with serious access issues, the unmet need for mental health services is huge. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, as of December 2022, 158 million people in the U.S. lived in federally designated mental health professional shortage areas. The federal government identifies these areas based on criteria including population-to-provider ratio and travel time to the nearest care source.

In Virginia, for example, a 2022 report by the Virginia Health Care Foundation found:

  • 93 of Virginia’s 133 localities were considered mental health professional shortage areas.
  • Virginia ranks 39th among U.S. states for access to mental health care and 41st for availability of behavioral health workers.

States that neighbor Virginia also have a dearth of mental health care providers. According to Mental Health America, West Virginia and Tennessee, for example, ranked 29th and 45th for access to mental health care in 2022.

Conversely, several Northeastern states provide better access to mental health care. For example, New York and Massachusetts ranked 15th and second, respectively.

In addition to shortages of mental health professionals, other barriers to behavioral and mental health access in the U.S. include:

  • Inability to afford services
  • Lack of broadband connections for telehealth
  • Lack of community-based mental health interventions
  • Lack of insurance
  • Stigma related to receiving mental health services

What Is Clinical Social Work?

Individuals exploring social work as a career path should understand what clinical social work is and the basics of practice. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) describes clinical social work as a specialty practice that concentrates on assessing, diagnosing, treating and preventing mental illness as well as emotional and behavioral disturbances.

According to NASW, clinical social workers represent one of the largest groups of mental health providers in the country, and in some rural areas, they are the only mental health service providers.

Clinical Social Work Scope of Practice

The Clinical Social Work Association explains that clinical social work comprises four major areas: * Biopsychosocial assessment and diagnosis (including using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to conceptualize the issues a client faces) * Counseling * Psychotherapy * Social casework

Holding a master’s degree is a prerequisite for earning licensure as a clinical social worker. The expertise clinical social workers gain through a master’s education, alongside the postgraduate experience they acquire under clinical supervision, prepares them to seek state licensure and to begin serving clients.

What Does a Clinical Social Worker Do?

Examining what clinical social workers do to support their clients helps explain why they are integral to improving the state of mental health care. Clinical social workers’ responsibilities include:

  • Using diagnostic tools to assess clients, understand the state of their mental and emotional well-being, and diagnose mental health disorders or developmental disabilities
  • Treating clients using techniques such as therapy or by teaching coping mechanisms
  • Collaborating with physicians and other mental health professionals and making referrals to ensure that clients receive the services outlined in their treatment plans

Specific Types of Services Clinical Social Workers Offer

The services clinical social workers provide vary based on their clients’ needs, which is why education and experience are crucial to prepare them for the diverse range of clients they see. They may offer services such as:

  • Biofeedback
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy and other evidence-based treatments
  • Crisis intervention
  • Meditation
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Talk therapy
  • Visualization

Clinical Social Work Specializations

Clinical social workers can specialize in various areas, working with different populations in a wide range of settings. For example, they can:

  • Apply their expertise to substance use social work
  • Become a hospice social worker
  • Work in nursing homes or rehabilitation centers
  • Assist veterans with their mental health needs
  • Focus on providing child and family services
  • Open their own private practices
  • Work in community mental health centers, mental health inpatient facilities or nonprofit agencies serving specific populations

Because clinical social workers have such a varied skill set and the services they provide are so important, their expertise is in demand virtually anywhere where people are in need. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, is the largest employer of social workers in the country, with more than 17,000 master’s-educated social workers on staff.

Clinical Social Workers Address a Great Need

Clinical social workers’ efforts are vital to meeting the growing demand for behavioral and mental health care. The work of these professionals helps clients make real improvements in their lives.

Individuals interested in social work can explore Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program format to learn how it can help them achieve their career ambitions. With an evidence-based and trauma-informed approach, the program prepares students to pursue a career path that helps others thrive.

American Board of Clinical Social Work, What Is Clinical Social Work?

American Psychological Association, “Psychologists Struggle to Meet Demand Amid Mental Health Crisis”

Association of American Medical Colleges, “A Growing Psychiatrist Shortage and an Enormous Demand for Mental Health Services”

Clinical Social Work Association, CSWA Code of Ethics

Focus, “Challenges and Opportunities to Meet the Mental Health Needs of Underserved and Disenfranchised Populations in the United States”

KFF, “Women’s Experiences with Health Care During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Findings from the KFF Women’s Health Survey”

Mental Health America, Ranking the States 2022

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers

National Association of Social Workers, Clinical Social Work

National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Workers: Mental Health and Clinical Social Work

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Lifestyle and Mental Health Disruptions During COVID-19”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Health Resources and Services Administration, Health Workforce Shortage Areas

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services – Health Resources and Services Administration, Scoring Shortage Designations

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, VHA Social Work

Verywell Health, “What Is a Clinical Social Worker?”

Virginia Health Care Foundation, “Assessment of the Capacity of Virginia’s Licensed Behavioral Health Workforce”

The White House, “Reducing the Economic Burden of Unmet Mental Health Needs”