Social work has a long and distinguished history of service to persons with mental disorders and their families. A career in this dynamic field can be
challenging and rewarding. In most jurisdictions in Canada, social workers in mental health have a minimum of a Bachelor of Social Work degree and are registered with a provincial/territorial body that holds them accountable for competent and ethical practice. A Master’s degree is often required.
A role for social workers was established early in Canada’s history of service delivery in the field of mental health care. Care for the mentally ill was
institutionally based for the first half of the twentieth century, with a period of de-institutionalization beginning in the late 1960s, preceding the
current emphasis on community-based care. Throughout these changes, the role of social workers has evolved from providing social histories and
supervising community placements to being a member of an interdisciplinary team or an independent practitioner.
Social workers recognize the complexity of the social context. Social work goes beyond the medical model’s focus on individual diagnosis to identify and address social inequities and structural issues. A distinguishing characteristic of social work practice is the dual focus of the profession:
social workers have ethical responsibilities to address, simultaneously, both private troubles and public issues.
Many of the roles performed by social workers are common to all mental health disciplines. Work in the area of mental health provides an opportunity for social workers to practise collaboratively with allied professionals while maintaining the integrity of their knowledge and skill base. Social workers provide direct services to individuals, couples, families, and groups in the form of counselling, crisis intervention, and therapy, as well as advocacy, coordination of resources, and case management.
Social workers in mental health are also involved in the planning and delivery of a variety of services, such as building partnerships among professionals, caregivers, and families; collaborating with the community, usually with the goal of creating supportive environments for clients; advocating adequate service, treatment models, and resources; challenging and changing social policy to address issues of poverty, employment, housing, and social justice; and supporting the development of preventive programs. Prevention is a focus at many levels, including early intervention, individual and public education, advocacy, and improving access to services, resources, and information. These roles fit well into the primary health care model.
Mental health settings usually encompass services in three broad areas of health care: prevention, treatment, and rehabilitation. Individual social
workers may practise exclusively within one area or cross the boundaries of all three in response to diverse client, family, and community needs.
Although formal mental health services are generally delivered through the public service in Canada, voluntary or private sector agencies as well as
private practitioners also play major roles in most provinces and territories. Social workers in mental health can be found in a variety of settings—large institutions, hospitals, in- and out-patient facilities, community clinics, community-based organizations, or private practice.
Since its inception, social work has focused on the social contributions to emotional well-being and mental health. As health care moves towards a
“population health” approach that emphasizes the importance of social and psychological determinants of health, social workers will continue to make a significant contribution to the health care/mental health team. It is expected that the profession will play a strong leadership role in this field in the decades ahead.