The Importance of Mental Health Social Work

View all blog posts under Articles | View all blog posts under Master of Social Work

A mental health social worker provides counseling to a student at school.Many people across the U.S. experience mental health issues that negatively impact their lives and those of their family, friends, and co-workers. According to a 2022 report from Mental Health America, nearly 20% of adult Americans experienced a mental illness in 2019 — almost 50 million people — and more than half of adults with a mental illness don’t receive treatment. The same report revealed that 15% of youth (ages 12 to 17) experienced a major depressive episode in the previous year, with more than 60% going without treatment.

Social workers can play a part in alleviating this problem by helping individuals receive the care and assistance they need. Those specializing in mental health social work can use their knowledge and skills to understand and assist those experiencing mental health problems. Anyone interested in this vital role should consider how earning a master’s in social work can benefit them.

What Is Mental Health Social Work?

Mental health social workers diagnose, treat, and provide resources to clients directly or in collaboration with other mental health professionals, such as psychiatrists and therapists, depending on their clients’ needs. They offer therapy to individuals and families as well as crisis intervention and advocacy services.

Mental health social workers also offer case management services, assisting their clients in finding treatment within their budget and matching them with an appropriate counseling program. On a larger scale, these social workers may manage outreach and prevention initiatives within communities to ensure that those struggling to find mental health assistance can get the care they need.

Hospitals, residential treatment centers, community groups, and government agencies employ mental health social workers. While many of these social workers work with clients individually, some advocate for the broader field of social work at the local, state, and federal levels. Social workers also may assist in the development or improvement of social programs, services, and policies that affect large groups of people, a field that is often referred to as macro social work.

The Impact of Mental Health Social Work

While misconceptions about the effects of mental illness on an individual’s overall health can lead to stigmatization, underplaying its complications can have cascading effects on other aspects of an individual’s life and the lives of their families and communities. A study by The Lancet Psychiatry found that those who suffer from depression are 40% more likely to develop cardiovascular and metabolic diseases than the general population; for those who have serious mental illnesses, the risk is nearly doubled.

Aside from the physical toll mental illness can take on a person, it also places stressors on family members. The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that children whose parents have a mental illness are at high risk of experiencing depression, anxiety, and poor social functioning, indicating that unless it is adequately treated, mental illness can affect future generations.

Mental illness also has broader societal impacts. According to 2020 data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more than 20% of those experiencing homelessness have a serious mental health condition that can affect their ability to access treatment and secure stable housing. Across the board, mental health social work professionals are needed to assist those experiencing difficulties stemming from various mental health issues such as stress, social anxiety, and addiction.

Social workers must obtain a clinical license from the state where they wish to practice to provide many mental health services, including diagnosis and treatment. Earning a Master of Social Work (MSW) can help professionals develop the necessary skills to provide these services, and is essential for licensure. Licensed clinical social workers can directly assist their clients as well as advocate for mental health within their communities.

Overcoming Barriers to Mental Health Services

Despite the harm that mental illness can cause, stigmas and other obstacles often prevent potential clients from receiving care. Many who need mental health services lack the financial means to pay for it and may feel embarrassed using assistance programs to cover the financial gap.

Some people hesitate to seek care because of stigmas around mental illness, such as the fear of seeming weak or unstable. These obstacles particularly affect communities that have experienced a history of misdiagnosis due to racism.

Scheduling difficulties, transportation challenges, and complicated or strict criteria to qualify for assistance programs are also hurdles that those already experiencing hardships from mental illness may need to navigate to receive appropriate care. These barriers are more likely to affect those living in low-income communities, as they have more limited access to the resources needed to seek help.

Mental health social workers can share information and promote systemic changes that can help people overcome these obstacles. Like other clinical social workers, they often become leaders among their peers, given the high caliber of their education and experience. They can use that recognition to raise awareness around mental health issues and push for programs to better assist those most in need within their communities.

Help Others Be Their Best

Mental health issues affect people from all walks of life, and those experiencing societal and economic hardships may struggle to access care. Often these individuals need an advocate to assist them, which is where a mental health social work professional can make a difference. Those passionate about advocating for better mental health and becoming leaders in their field should consider Regis College’s online masters of Social Work program.

The program provides exciting opportunities for individuals who want to make a difference in the lives of others. The curriculum is built for professionals interested in advancing in their current roles, including gaining licensure, as well as anyone pursuing a new career in social work. Discover how Regis College can help you support society’s most vulnerable.

Recommended Readings

De-escalation Skills and Tips for Mental Health in the Community

The Fascinating History of Social Work in the U.S.

How the MSW Prepares you for Clinical Social Work


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

BMC Public Health, “Intersecting Systemic and Personal Barriers to Accessing Social Services: Qualitative Interviews in Northern California”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, “Family Functioning in Families Affected by Parental Mental Illness: Parent, Child, and Clinician Ratings”

The Lancet Psychiatry, “The Lancet Psychiatry Commission: A Blueprint for Protecting Physical Health in People with Mental Illness”

Mental Health America, 2022 State of Mental Health in America

National Alliance on Mental Illness, Mental Health by the Numbers

National Association of Social Workers, Types of Social Work

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, “Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2021, Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, “HUD 2020 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs Homeless Populations and Subpopulations”