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Social Work Month 2023: An Expert's Advocacy Guide

“There’s a place for social workers anywhere where human beings are being served. We serve the gamut from prenatal through end-of-life. We are there for all populations across the globe because social workers exist in every continent in the world.”

Dr. Angelique Day, Associate Professor in the School of Social Work, University of Washington

Social workers are a vital part of our society, providing vital services to individuals, families, and communities. They support those facing poverty, homelessness, abuse, and neglect and assist people facing various other issues. Social workers also advocate for their client’s rights and interests in the political arena by working with local, state, and federal government bodies. They can also work in healthcare to help individuals manage complex medical needs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), there were 708,100 social workers across the US. Many of these social workers were employed in individual and family services, the field most often associated with social workers. However, most social workers were employed in other fields, including ambulatory care centers, mental health, and state and local government. Social workers earn a median annual salary of $50,390. Social workers employed in family services or mental health tend to earn a little less than the average, while those working in healthcare or other fields tend to earn more.

To be state licensed as a social worker, candidates must complete a bachelor’s or master’s degree in social work. Many licensed social workers choose to work in mental health care services offering unique care.

“We train social workers to think of the person and environment. It is not just about focusing on the individual, but how does the individual interact and live within the larger aspect of the environment, such as their work, school, or home,” shares Dr. Angelique Day, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. “In social work, we are focused on a systems level, and how a person is being successful in the environment they engage in daily.”

Addressing mental healthcare needs in this holistic way is problem and solution-oriented and allows clients to take actionable steps to improve their circumstances. “We help them understand and connect the dots. If a person is coming in for a mental health challenge, we ask them what is happening in their life that might be exacerbating or impeding their ability to change their circumstances. We ask many more questions and dive deeper to understand the whole picture of what’s going on that leads people to come with their particular needs.”

Keep reading to learn more about different careers in social work, top online educational programs, and how to get involved with Social Work Month.

Meet The Expert: Angelique Day, PhD

Angelique Day

Dr. Angelique Day is an associate professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. She earned her PhD in interdisciplinary health science from Western Michigan University, a master’s of social work from Michigan State University, and a bachelor’s of science summa cum laude in sociology/psychology from Central Michigan University.

Her research focuses on foster care youth, exploring college retention rates for this population compared to other low-income first-generation students and investigating the effects of “youth voice” on child welfare, education, and health policy initiatives.

The Importance of Social Work Month

The work of social workers can often go unnoticed, which is why recognizing Social Work month is important not only for the professionals in this field but also for clients who may need their services.

“I think social workers work really hard, and we tend to be an undervalued profession,” says Dr. Day. “Having a month to raise awareness about the importance and value of social work is important because it elevates us to the public. It also reminds people of the various aspects of work we do to support our communities.”

Publicizing Social Work Month can also help the general public better understand the breadth of the work in this field. “Most people, when they think of social workers, think of child protective service workers and that we exist because we take people’s children away,” laments Dr. Day. “Child welfare is only 18 percent of our field, and child protective services is an even smaller percentage of child welfare. We are in a lot of different spaces. We need to improve the visibility of who we are, where we work, and what we do so that folks don’t see social workers as scary people. We’re pretty cool people to partner with, and we’re trained to help our communities be as successful as possible,” reminds Dr. Day.

Careers in Social Work

Social work is a very broad field with many career options. “I think one of the most attractive things about a social work degree is that you can try out and work in so many different areas. You can’t get bored in our field,” says Dr. Day.

Become a Mental Health Counselor

“A large majority of our students who come into our program are very interested in serving in the mental health field, whether it’s with children, families, or aging and older adults. We have a large percentage of social workers who are in mental health,” shares Dr. Day.

After completing a master’s degree in social work and getting licensed, MSWs can work directly with clients in private practice, community health centers, hospitals, schools, and other organizations. Counselors can specialize in substance abuse, couples therapy, trauma counseling, children, and more.

Become a Medical Social Worker

Medical social workers work with patients and their families to address social, emotional, economic, and environmental needs that can affect a patient’s health. They collaborate with other medical professionals to assess patient needs and provide support to ensure the best possible health outcomes.

They may also coordinate access to community resources as necessary. “We have a lot of social workers in hospital settings where they are focused on physical health, equal access to care, quality of life, and advocating for people who are living with disabilities or chronic illness,” says Dr. Day.

Become a Political Social Worker

While it may not seem obvious, the political arena is one area where social workers are critical. Political social workers work alongside politicians to effect change through policy and legislation. They focus on understanding the effects of public policies on individuals, families, and communities, as well as analyze their clients’ economic, political, and social conditions to address systemic issues that exacerbate issues such as homelessness, poverty, and health disparities. Dr. Day was a Congressional Fellow, assigned to Congressman Danny K. Davis’s Office. She was responsible for developing the member’s child welfare and higher education legislative portfolios and provided leadership in planning events for the Joint Congressional Foster Youth Caucuses.

Online Social Work Training Programs

Here are three online options for social work education.

Columbia University – School of Social Work

Students can complete their master’s of social work degree at Columbia University’s School of Social Work. Columbia students will enjoy access to comprehensive training, modern teaching methods, and strategies to advance society through this program. The online option further allows for a unique experience that includes all the benefits of the on-campus master’s program. There are several timeline options for students, including an advanced standing for applicants with education and experience in this field, a full-time two-year option, or a flexible part-time program.

This program provides students with a comprehensive education, combining research, clinical practice, and evidence-based decisions. It is led by outstanding faculty who are conducting award-winning research. The Online Campus option offers students access to an array of events and resources and the ability to complete field placements near their homes with support from the Field Education Department.

  • Location: New York, NY
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Tuition: $1,782 per credit

Arizona State University – Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions

The online master’s of social work at Arizona State University offers students the opportunity to understand the issues facing society’s most vulnerable and learn how to promote social justice while finding practical solutions. Through this program, students will be prepared to work with individuals, families, and communities anywhere in the world. Graduates of this program are eligible for professional licensure in the state of Arizona.

Students will receive comprehensive instruction on various social issues through asynchronous classes, two synchronous professional seminars, and 960 hours of hands-on field education. Pre-placement for fieldwork can be arranged through the School of Social Work’s Field Education Office to find relevant internship sites in a student’s area that meet school and CSWE standards.

  • Location: Tempe, AZ
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Tuition: $807 per credit

University of Michigan – School of Social Work

University of Michigan School of Social Work students can complete an online master of social work degree. This program is offered in full-time and part-time formats allowing students to balance their studies with work, family, and other commitments.

The Interpersonal Practice in Integrated Health, Mental Health, and Substance Abuse pathway featured in this degree focuses on the connection between physical, mental, and behavioral health. Students will learn to provide high-quality care for improved outcomes through comprehensive approaches to health care, interprofessional education opportunities, and collaborations with integrated health teams.

  • Location: Ann Arbor, MI
  • Duration: One semester
  • Accreditation: Council on Social Work Education (CSWE)
  • Tuition: $128,422 for the entire program

Advice and Resources for Starting a Career in Social Work

Being a social worker can be challenging for many professionals. “Social work is so very hard. Many of us in social work have had some type of personal or professional experience that has drawn us to the field. I would encourage new professionals to dive into that and ask, ‘Why are you here? What is your purpose, and what do we hope to get out of it?’” says Dr. Day.

She continues, “It is a tough job, so you need to know the reason and the fire that is bringing you to this profession. You will need to rely on that fire to keep you going. We want people in the social work field who are in it for the long haul to properly support clients. If you don’t do some of the inner thinking, it could be very quick in and out, and we don’t want to expose our most vulnerable clients to people who aren’t invested in them and this career. When that happens, it perpetuates their distrust of systems.”

Because this career can be so difficult, social workers must take care of themselves. “This isn’t a job where you go home at five o’clock, forget what you did all day, and just move on. Social work is hard to put away, and you need a high level of self-care so that you don’t burn out,” says Dr. Day. She also adds, “it’s important to actively pursue social work jobs where you feel like you have good support from your supervisors and colleagues because this is hard work.”

There is no one size fits all form of self-care for social workers. “The biggest part of self-care is processing what happened at work and finding what helps you to center yourself, relax, and be your best self,” suggests Dr. Day. “It will look different for every person, but it is critical to do this conscious processing to figure it out.”

Here are some resources for aspiring and current professionals in this field:

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.