The practice of social work in the field of mental health is one which continues to fight to enhance the wellbeing of those living with a mental illness. Mental health disorders have been ranked as one of the main contributing factors towards the decrease of people’s health and wellbeing in New Zealand. Oakley-Browne, Wells, and Scott (2006) suggest that mental disorders are common in New Zealand predicting that 46.6% of the population will experience some form of mental illness in their lives. With the numbers disturbingly increasing every year, social workers have a vital position in the future of mental health services.
At a glance, the role of social workers in mental health consists of case management, education and support, advocacy, counselling, groupwork, community development, and policy development (Chenoweth and McAuliffe, 2012). Social workers are also positioned within a multi-disciplinary approach to mental health which encompasses a variety of health care professions that collaboratively seek to provide the best support possible for people and their families. Yet, the extent of their role in the field of mental health goes much further.
Social workers make a considerable contribution to the field of mental health by including a biopsychosocial framework to the assessment of individuals within the multi-disciplinary team. Too often the opinions of medical professionals are driven from the perspective of the medical model which traditionally views mental illness as a disease. As Engel (1989) states;
“The dominant model of disease today is biomedical, and it leaves no room within its framework for the social, psychological, and behavioural dimensions of illness”
Using the biopsychosocial model as a framework in the assessment of mental health enables social workers to assess the needs of people from a broader perspective that also addresses the social determinants that can adversely impact mental wellbeing.
The strength of social work practice lies in the ability to critically reflect on practice. No two situations are ever the same. There may be similarities in situations that can assist the assessment process based on practice wisdom but relationships and context make every experience unique and therefore requires social workers to assess each situation equally as its own condition. In the reflective process, social workers draw on their knowledge, skills, and values to form a framework of practice that fits their field of practice and their practice beliefs (Chenoweth and McAuliffe, 2012). The beauty of social work practice is that it has the flexibility to alter practice methods to suit any situation by altering the knowledge and skill required while maintaining fundamental values such as social justice, human rights, and anti-discrimination practice.
Challenges that social workers are currently faced with remain in the grasp of government policy. The latest cash injection of $244m over the next 4 years is only a drop in the ocean when distributed across the 20 district health boards. The Mental Health Foundation (2017) stresses the governments need to step up and work collaboratively to develop new approaches to mental health that build resilience and wellbeing. Suggestion have been made to reduce the social drivers of mental health problems i.e. abuse, poverty, adequate housing, and addressing stigma and discrimination (Mental Health Foundation 2017). Fisher and Baum (2010) articulate the scope in which public policies need to include the effects of social conditions for overall health outcomes. The government needs to seriously address these issues if we are to see significant changes in the increasing rates of mental illness in New Zealand….and social work will be there every step of the way.
Chenoweth, L., & McAuliffe, D. (2012). The road to social work & human service practice: An introductory text. (3rd ed.) Cengage Learning Australia.
Engel, G. L. (1989). The need for a new medical model: a challenge for biomedicine. Holistic Medicine, 4(1), 37-53.
Fisher, M., & Baum, F. (2010). The social determinants of mental health: implications for research and health promotion. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 44(12), 1057-1063.
Mental Health Foundation. (2017). Politicians must step up and work together. Retrieved from: https://www.mentalhealth.org.nz/home/news/article/158/politicians-must-step-up-and-work-together
Oakley-Browne, M., Wells, J. E., & Scott, K. M. (2006). Te Rau Hinengaro: The New Zealand Mental Health Survey: Summary. Retrieved from: https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/mental-health-survey-summary.pdf