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Social work: mental health practice and other specialisations

Photo: Social work: mental health practice and other specialisations
Social work is one of five core professions in the mental health field and is the second largest allied health sector providing mental health services. The profession involves working closely with people diagnosed with serious mental health conditions and associated problems, but there are many specialisations.

The Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) states that all qualifying courses must have a core mental health curriculum requirement. However, there is the opportunity to specialise in many areas, including mental health, child protection, disability, schools, family support, youth, aged care and family violence.

What is an accredited mental health social worker?

Social workers who want to specialise in mental health can apply for Accredited Mental Health Social Worker status, which allows them to access government-funded programs. This accreditation enables social workers to provide their services in private practice similar to psychologists.
What do mental health social workers do?

Social workers with accreditation in mental health are recognised providers who can deliver clinical social work services in mental health settings. Like other mental health professionals, mental health social workers use a range of interventions, such as cognitive behavioural therapy, relaxation strategies, stress and anger management and narrative therapy to treat many mental health disorders, including:
  • Depression and other mood disorders
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Psychosis
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Relationship problems
  • Life crises
  • Adjustment issues
  • Trauma
  • Family conflicts

Social workers who want to be recognised as a specialist can undertake the AASW’s Distinction Credentialing Program, which is an accreditation program of specialisations in the areas of family violence, supervisor, clinical, disability, aged care, and child protection.

Other specialisations in social work

Social work is a diverse field, and social workers work in many settings, including mental health clinics, hospitals, family violence agencies, schools, child protection settings, in legal offices and courts.

They work with a variety of clients from individuals, to families, groups and entire communities, explained Christine Craik, National President of the Australian Association of Social Workers.

“Social workers do counselling, group work, research, policy, evaluation, and community work.  There are so many areas where a social worker can make a difference,” said Ms Craik. 
  • Aged care
  • Child protection
  • Health
  • Leadership and Management
  • Mental Health
  • Refugees and Asylum Seekers
  • School of Social Work
  • Disability
  • Hospitals

How do social workers specialise?

When students graduate with Bachelor or Master of Social Work, they have a qualifying degree. The credentialing occurs on graduation via a program assessed by the AASW.

“How a social work student decides on a career pathway will depend on many factors including their interests and strengths, the work placements they undertake as part of their degree and the philosophy of the social work program they undertake,” said Ms Craik. 

The area of specialisation depends on interests, which are often motivated by the reason for studying social work in the first place, explained Sharon Kelly, a first-year student of a Bachelor of Social Work at Griffith University.

“Those who choose to specialise either come from a helping profession and want to further their ability to help in a specific field, or they have a particular social interest.

“We undertake two elective subjects in my degree, and two field placements of 14 weeks, which gives us an opportunity to develop an interest in a particular area or to find out if it’s not the area we thought,” said Ms Kelly.

Growing up in West End, a Brisbane suburb notorious for homelessness, Ms Kelly was no stranger to the plight of the socially and financially disadvantaged.

“When I got older, I learnt about the reasons people experience homelessness, such as mental health, substance abuse, lack of affordable housing and domestic violence.

“I've had friends with substance abuse problems as a result of untreated mental health issues, and I feel that my interests, for now, lie with dual diagnosis and homelessness.

“I say 'for now' as the further into my studies I go, the more I learn about other areas. I’m doing a criminology subject at the moment and am becoming interested in forensic social work.

“I’ve always been someone who stands up for equity, which I think all social workers strive for.

“The great thing about this field is that there are so many areas you can work in, and who knows what areas lie ahead,” said Ms Kelly.

The reason people choose social work as their career is just as diverse, said Ms Craik.

“We always ask our first years why and get a variety of answers. 

“Most want a career where they can make a difference, whether to individuals, groups, families, communities or government policy, that will impact the lives of others. 

“They talk about wanting a meaningful career, one that is not just a job, but a career that reflects who they are and enables them to live their values. 

“Many want to change the world - so they are doing the right degree for that,” said Ms Craik.

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Haley Williams

Haley Williams has a Bachelor of Communication in Journalism and over a decade of experience in the media, marketing and communications industries.

She is a widely published journalist with a particular interest in writing magazine features on parenting, health, fitness, nutrition and education.

Before becoming a freelance journalist, Haley worked as a writer for NeoLife (a worldwide nutrition company), News Limited and APN News & Media.

Haley also has extensive experience as an SEO Content Writer and Digital Marketing Strategist.