The Mental Health Component of Social Work


The number of people with mental healthcare diagnoses has been on the rise for nearly half a century. Ever since the 1970s, and the de-institutionalization of mental healthcare, people struggling with diseases of the mind and the issues surrounding them have been thrust back into communities.

With the rising number of people in need and the diversification of venues at which those needs are met, opportunities for mental health social workers have also increased, along with the number of potential employers and work sites.

The more recent emphasis on integrated behavioral health, including patient-centered medical homes, accountable care organizations and community mental health and substance abuse recovery models, introduces new opportunities to improve care coordination, reduce unnecessary service use, and make healthcare more effective, all typically the province of social workers.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 25% increase in health and mental health social work jobs over the next decade, making it the fastest growing service sector in the social work profession.

MSW Concentration in Health & Mental Health at LGC
To help meet that need, the University of South Carolina’s College of Social Work offers a 60-hour MSW program with a concentration in health & mental health at the Lowcountry Graduate Center in North Charleston. Students take foundation courses in their first two years and then focus on health and mental health issues the final year.

During the last two years of the program, students learn through field education internships at local human service agencies. A part-time program designed for working students, its classes are held at the LGC on weekday evenings and Saturdays.

“The Health and Mental Health specialization prepares MSW graduates to become leaders in this new era of health, training students to use evidence-based practices to promote health among individuals, groups, families, organizations, and communities,” according to USC’s website for the College of Social Work.

The Impact of Opiod Abuse
The opioid crisis has aimed a spotlight on mental health and substance abuse issues and focused community attention on the role social workers are playing to combat the epidemic.  Dr. Margriet Wright, a clinical assistant professor at USC and Charleston Site Coordinator for its MSW program, says graduates are well-positioned to deal with substance abuse on the clinical and policy levels. “We teach students how to conceptualize addictions and consider not just an individual point of view but also the broader public health issues,” she said.

Wright says the program is keeping up with the times by integrating ever more technology. For example, it offers an entire course on tele-mental health. This is increasingly critical considering the dire need for mental health professionals in areas outside the urban centers of South Carolina.

A study by the state found that while there is a mental health provider for every 320 people in Charleston County, those numbers are 1 per 798 in adjacent Dorchester and 1 per 1,261 in Berkeley Counties, still considered part of the Charleston Metro Area.  Other counties in the state, such as nearby Colleton, Hampton, and Williamsburg, are far more rural and thus represent a special population vulnerable to health and mental health disparities rooted in inferior access and quality of care.

While tele-mental health and other technologies can help bridge the gap, social work is still about human touch and hands-on relationships. The more master’s prepared mental health social workers out there, the more people can access the treatment and support they need from someone with a caring heart and significant expertise.