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Winter 2024 Issue

Education: Mental Health Support in Social Work Graduate Programs
By Arlynn Baer, MSW, and Rebeca Campos Baccas, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 24 No. 1 P. 8

Future social workers learn the fundamentals of their roles in the field—to apply values, principles, and techniques to help communities and individuals obtain services and counseling to improve their daily lives. These are the fundamentals of training during the two years of the master’s degree program. Future social workers learn to see the worth of the client and understand their needs from a social justice perspective.

What’s not addressed during graduate education is the stigma of mental health issues among social work professionals and how students themselves can be affected by this stigma. Due to the rigorous demands of the MSW programs (such as completing classwork, unpaid part-time fieldwork, and part-time or full-time paid work to make ends meet), priorities and responsibilities shift, often leaving students’ mental health needs unmet, denying students a sense of healing while simultaneously increasing their imposter syndrome symptoms. Second-year students have to transition from students to professionals quickly while feeling the effects of stigma and imposter syndrome. This creates an obstacle as they become mental health providers without receiving proper mental health care themselves. Second-year students often focus on finding a job and passing a licensing exam, and the skills for addressing stigma and mental health are overlooked by educators and peers.

Anxiety and Depression in Social Work Graduate Students
Anxiety and depression are some of the most common mental health illnesses in the United States. In 2019, on average, 8.1% of adults aged 18 and older had symptoms of anxiety disorder, 6.5% had symptoms of depressive disorder, and 10.8% had symptoms of anxiety disorder and depressive disorder.1 In graduate students, 17% of incoming students reported moderate to severe depression symptoms, and 14% reported moderate to severe anxiety.2 In a 2011 study, 37 first-year and 28 second-year MSW students were asked to report on measures of self-esteem and depressive symptoms.3 Qualitative interviews revealed that second-year students who were already in the field scored significantly lower on measures of sense of accomplishment than did their first-year counterparts.3 The first-year students also scored higher on measures of self-esteem and lower on depressive symptoms, with many second-year students revealing they felt anxious, overwhelmed, and incompetent in the field.3 As such, these studies revealed that second-year students experienced higher levels of anxiety, depression, being overwhelmed by pressure, and self-doubt compared with first-year students.

The Power of Stigma
There are negative views suggesting that those with mental illness, no matter the severity, are low functioning and have trouble fitting into society—views held by individuals across many generations and professions. Even in the social work profession, there’s a stigma surrounding mental health professionals who experience anxiety or depression. With the high occurrence of anxiety and depressive feelings, especially among second-year students, there’s a corresponding experience of mental health stigma. This occurs because social workers are exposed to the most severe symptoms of mental illness in others during periods when they are also suffering.

The experience of feeling stigmatized causes more anxiety and depression. Stigma creates feelings of isolation, loneliness, and internalized perceptions of failure. Even though social work students are surrounded by those who care deeply, they can often feel alone in their anxiety and depression. These feelings can create a cycle that promotes imposter syndrome in soon-to-be social workers who feel unfit for this profession due to mental health issues and will cause more anxiety and depression. Stigma and imposter syndrome correspond with the rise of self-blame and the drop in one’s perception of self-worth.4 As a result, students may not disclose these rising feelings or seek support due to self-blame. The stigma surrounding mental illness in today’s society can negatively affect the success of future social workers by creating an environment in which imposter syndrome is prevalent but not acknowledged or discussed.

Stigma and Its Effects on BIPOC Social Work Students
Student demographics can also play a part in the impact of mental health stigma. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) are underrepresented in higher education and workplace environments in the United States compared with their white counterparts. Research has found that minorities are underrepresented in higher education levels, and ethnic minorities compose only 21.4% of graduate education enrollment.5 Among the inevitable effects of working in a white-dominated economy or learning in a white-dominated education system as part of the BIPOC community are feelings of insecurity or self-doubt and traits corresponding with impostor syndrome.5

Previous research has attributed factors such as family environment, parenting style, generational documented status, race, and socioeconomic levels as determinants of imposter syndrome. BIPOC students experience more discrimination than their white counterparts in mental health programs. There’s a direct link between BIPOC students’ mental health and levels of burnout to the experience of discrimination in their respective graduate programs.6 Research has shown that there are high levels of adverse childhood experiences within the BIPOC community, which can influence students’ imposter syndrome as they navigate social class, immigration status, first-generation difficulties, and intersections with mental illness, community, and cultural stigma.7 BIPOC students’ lived experiences before and during graduate degree programs directly affect how they process mental health stigma and imposter syndrome in their careers.

Necessary Changes
The experience of stigma by social work students related to their mental health issues must be addressed in classroom and field placement settings. Social worker students and interns frequently speak about the mental health issues of their clients rather than their own. The program curriculum must address the mental health stigma and imposter syndrome so universities and professors can better understand students’ experiences and the impact of their workloads. A strength-based approach emphasizing students’ skills and providing support networks can benefit students’ mental health. Establishing a strength-based approach in social work graduate programs can help create a more inclusive and supportive learning environment where individuals with mental health challenges are valued for their unique strengths and abilities. This can help reduce mental health stigma in the classroom and beyond.

— Arlynn Baer, MSW, is a recent graduate of NYU Silver School of Social Work and has six years of experience in youth development and outreach for different rowing programs. She spent the last year working in research for in-patient psychiatric support and previously worked with elementary and middle school-aged students at a school in Newark, New Jersey. Baer hopes to continue working with school-aged youth in the sports social work field.

— Rebeca Campos Baccas, MSW, is a recent graduate of NYU Silver School of Social Work and has several years of experience working with unaccompanied youth and families. She has prior experience working with former inmates in a reentry program with domestic violence survivors and spent the last year researching in-patient psychiatric support. She hopes to combine her interest in macro and micro settings to work in immigration reform and policy-making to work with undocumented children.


1. Center for Disease Control; National Center for Health Statistics. Estimates of mental health symptomatology, by month of interview: United States, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhis/mental-health-monthly-508.pdf. Published March 2021.

2. Hoying J, Melnyk BM, Hutson E, Tan A. Prevalence and correlates of depression, anxiety, stress, healthy beliefs, and lifestyle behaviors in first‐year graduate health sciences students. Worldviews Evid Based Nurs. 2020;17(1):49-59.

3. Covarrubias I, Han M. Mental health stigma about serious mental illness among MSW students: social contact and attitude. Soc Work. 2011;56(4):317-325.

4. Clark P, Holden C, Russell M, Downs H. The impostor phenomenon in mental health professionals: relationships among compassion fatigue, burnout, and compassion satisfaction. Contemp Fam Ther. 2021;44(2):185-197.

5. Ahmed A, Cruz T, Kaushal A, Kobuse Y, Wang K. Why is there a higher rate of impostor syndrome among BIPOC? Across the Spectrum of Socioeconomics. 2020;1(2):1-17.

6. Basma D, DeDiego AC, Dafoe E. Examining wellness, burnout, and discrimination among BIPOC counseling students. J Multicult Couns Devel. 2021;49(2):74-86.

7. Slopen N, Shonkoff JP, Albert MA, et al. Racial disparities in child adversity in the US: interactions with family immigration history and income. Am J Prev Med. 2016;50(1):47-56.