Fields in Social Work Practice
- Mental Health and Clinical Social Work
Clinical social workers are the largest group of professionally trained mental health providers in the United States, supplying more than half of counseling and therapy services. All clinical social workers must have a Master of Social Work (MSW) degree and they must be licensed or certified in the state in which they practice. Social work is designated as one of the four core mental health professions under federal legislation that established the National Institute of Mental Health.
- Aging and Gerontology
The U.S. population is aging. This translates into a tremendous need -- and a variety of opportunities -- for social work with older persons and their families. Working with older adults can mean involvement with active, healthy clients as well as those who are ill, in settings that range from adult day care centers and nursing homes to hospital, public agencies, and private corporations. Social workers form an important link between seniors and the services designed to help them.
- Child Welfare
Child welfare social workers are advocates for America's most silent minority: our nation's youths. The social worker's job is to help ensure the health and well-being of children, primarily by supporting and strengthening their families. Intervening when children are abused or neglected, when a family is in trouble, or when parents have problems is both difficult and challenging, requiring training, skill, and sensitivity. Often a social worker's intervention makes a critical difference at a key moment in a child's life.
- Public Welfare
For more than four decades, public welfare has provided income and support services to society's most vulnerable people - children, the ill, the elderly, the disabled. Social workers are primarily the administrators, managers, and program evaluators of the public welfare system.
- School Social Work
Many school systems employ social workers to help children with emotional, developmental, or educational needs. Working with teams of other school personnel, social workers help children with physical or learning disabilities or emotional problems or who face child abuse, neglect, domestic violence, poverty, or other problems.
- Justice and Corrections
Social Workers can be found in courts, rape crisis centers, police departments, and correctional facilities. Social workers can be probation and parole officers, they can help with victim assistance services, help police with domestic disputes or provide trauma and critical incident services to enforcement officers. Corrections and justice is a field where a social worker can focus on rehabilitation and the constructive use of authority.
- Developmental Disabilities
People with developmental disabilities, which can include mental retardation, cerebral palsy, autism, epilepsy, and other conditions, may at some time seek out social services. The goal of the social worker is to assist such people in improving their functioning and social adjustment which can mean the difference between merely surviving or leading a productive and joyful life.
- Occupational Social Work
Occupational social workers help workers with problems that affect their job performance and satisfaction. Social Workers may help corporations reengineer their structure and methods to improve efficiency, creativity, productivity, and morale or they may be involved in job counseling or organizing. A growing practice area for occupational social workers is in employee assistance programs (EAPs). Many employee assistance programs have extended their role for corporations to the management of mental health benefits.
- Health Care
Social workers are needed in hospitals, clinics, and other medical and health care settings to facilitate medical emotional treatment. Social workers are vital members of the health care team, working in concert with doctors, nurses, and other health and mental health professionals. They sensitize other health care providers to the social and emotional aspects of illness.
- Community Organization
A social worker in community organizing usually works with an existing organization to tackle issues that concern people in a building, neighborhood, workplace, or community. Community organizers coordinate and facilitate activities to improve social conditions, enhance the quality of life, and bring people into the political process. Many social workers in this field go on to head policy or advocacy organizations. Others become elected or appointed public officials.
- International Social Work
The functions of international social work are nearly as diverse as the people served. The work can involve direct services in refugee programs, relief efforts, inter country adoptions and development, health care, and education. The United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) employs social workers in both urban and rural projects. For those practicing in this exciting field, language abilities and a desire to travel are a must, as is an appreciation of other cultures. With our growing comprehension of the interdependence of nations, there is expanding potential in international social work.
- Management and Administration
Social work administration includes many elements common to administration in other organizations, but it also entails knowledge of human behavior, social problems, social services, and values. Administrators chart the course of virtually all social services and can make a real difference by ensuring that agencies provide quality services equitably to those in need.
- Policy and Planning
Social workers in this field address problems such as child abuse, homelessness, substance abuse, poverty, mental illness, violence, unemployment, and racism. They work to improve systems by analyzing policies, programs, and regulations to see which are most effective in solving these social problems. Work in the policy and planning field earns social workers the satisfaction of knowing they are pressing our society to improve the quality of life for all of its members.
There is a natural progression in the careers of many social workers from activism to leadership. Increasingly, social workers are holding elective offices from school boards to city and county governments, from state legislature all the way to the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. For those willing to roll up their sleeves and participate in the political process, a social work degree and experience can provide the tools to be successful and foster positive change.
One of the most absorbing roles in professional social work involves expanding the profession's knowledge. Social work researchers achieve this by investigating the effectiveness of approaches, methods, or programs in assisting clients. Social work researchers also help agencies provide services more effectively and contribute to efforts to support and promote social change.
The content of this page is from the pamphlet "CHOICES Careers in Social Work" developed by the National Association of Social Workers, Washington DC (NASW), 750 First Street, NE, Suite 700, Washington, D.C. 20002. Used with permission.
Updated: November 13, 2006