The Mental Health of Social Workers

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Did you know that more than 60 percent of mental health professionals are social workers? The unique challenges social workers face can put them at higher risk of developing adverse mental health. Check out the state of mental health among social workers—and how you can help.

This blog is part of a series addressing mental health issues in a variety of communities. Consider checking out our other articles on minority mental health, homelessness mental health, men and mental health, and refugee mental health.

Social Workers Are Mental Health Workers

Did you know that more than 60 percent of mental health professionals are social workers?

If this number surprised you, you’re not the only one. In fact, when asked to name a mental health professional, the majority of people think mainly of doctors like psychiatrists and psychologists. While these workers play an important role in mental health care, they make up less than one-fourth of total professionals in the field.

The reality is that mental health care extends far beyond the doctor’s office—it is primarily led by community social workers. Therapists, outreach coordinators, and non-profit organizers all fall under the umbrella of mental health professionals. More often than not, they are also social workers. 

With social workers leading the way for mental health care, it’s sometimes easy to assume they are immune to mental health challenges. However, social work comes with its own set of unique mental health stressors. Unfortunately, communities often overlook those stressors.

Continue reading below to better understand the state of mental health among social workers, and check out our suggestions on how to manage burnout and other mental health challenges that accompany this valuable profession. 

Mental Health and Social Workers

There’s no way around it—social work is a demanding job. The stress that comes from large workloads, late nights, and tough conversations can be heavy.

Research shows that social workers experience higher-than-average depression and anxiety, no doubt exacerbated by the pressure from knowing they may be the only lifeline for people who are in difficult situations (i.e., those experiencing domestic violence or homelessness). Additionally, the energy and care social workers put into their work is not always reciprocated.

“It’s hard to be in nonreciprocal relationships all day,” says licensed social worker Danna Bodenheimer. “Sometimes we get thanked and sometimes we don’t. Most times we don’t. And the need to be seen shows up somehow, in our waking life or sleep.”

Burnout is, time and again, the number-one determinant of adverse mental health among social workers. Burnout (the feeling of being empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring) can occur in any profession, but it seems to be extremely prevalent among social workers. In fact, more than 75 percent of social workers report experiencing burnout at one time in their career, with about 39 percent reporting it at any given time.

stressed woman working

Burnout: The feeling of being empty and mentally exhausted, devoid of motivation, and beyond caring. Often a symptom of adverse mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

Managing Social Worker Burnout

If you’re a social-service organization not actively addressing mental health care for your social workers, there’s no time like the present to start. 

Addressing the mental health of social workers is not just a nice thing to do—it can actually improve various outcomes at both the individual and organizational levels. Among social workers who felt supported in their mental health challenges, more than 75 percent expressed being better able to perform as a clinician. 

The best part about social work and mental health is that there are many ways to start addressing it today. The first—and perhaps most critical—element is to work on ending the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Despite the advances mental health workers have made surrounding the conversations about mental health, stigma still exists. Organizations can work to end this by making space to talk about mental health, acknowledging the need for mental illness accommodations, and allowing for feedback from their team. If you’re a social worker, check to ensure your workplace is making steps toward this kind of system.

Sacrificing your own mental health in the service of your job, however noble it may be, is not sustainable.

The Future of Social Worker Mental Health

Ending the stigma is just the beginning of addressing social workers’ mental health. Experts agree that a robust mental health program for social workers involves several steps:

  • establishing healthy work and home-life boundaries,
  • remembering the “why” of social work,
  • learning and understanding your personal limits,
  • reducing caseloads when necessary, and
  • developing robust support systems.

All these steps can help social workers maintain a healthy relationship with their profession and their mental health.

Overall, one thing is clear: while the unique challenges social workers face can create additional challenges surrounding their mental health, they need not be limited by it. As we work together to take care of our local social workers, they will be better equipped to take care of our communities. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health concerns, there is help. Consider reaching out to these resources below:

  • SAMHSA Mental Health Hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
  • National Suicide Prevention Line: 800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741741

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