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How Supporting Social Workers Creates Healthier Communities
By Betsy Cauble

This year’s rapidly climbing temperatures don’t just affect your weekend outings—they have real impacts on mental health as well. Extreme heat can creep into all areas of life, leading to increased anxiety, stress, and cognitive impairment. July promises more heat, shining a light on the need for robust mental health measures. With 1 in 5 adults already experiencing a mental illness, America’s growing mental health crisis has highlighted the integral role of social workers in a healthy society—and underscored the current shortage of social workers.

The need for social workers has far outpaced the number available, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With only about 730,000 social workers spread across a country of more than 330 million people, the shortage affects the daily lives of countless Americans—and contributes to burnout among social work professionals.

Additionally, those social workers are spread across a wide swath of different practices, including child welfare, private practice, and school social work. While a county may have a healthy number of private practice social workers, for instance, school districts could still struggle to hire enough for their schools, leaving many students without needed support and guidance.

Rigorous requirements and demands, coupled with low compensation, have driven many social workers out of the field. Becoming a licensed social worker requires a master’s degree, saddling many with student loans that are hard to pay off on a social worker’s salary, often in the $50,000 range. The interpersonal demands of helping clients through some of their most difficult life events also result in high burnout rates. Without sufficient support, social workers cannot, in turn, continue to support their clients, and communities pay the price.

Many steps need to be taken to create a sustainable environment for social workers. First, licensing exams must be updated. Outdated licensing exams are a barrier to entry for some, especially minorities. Social workers also need pay increases. Social workers deserve fair compensation for the hours they work and the expertise they bring to complex, emotionally heavy situations.

Despite the struggles, hundreds of thousands of social workers remain in the field, spurred on by the opportunity to help others navigate life well. The most meaningful rewards of social work are intangible, measured not in dollars but in relationships and a simple act of gratitude from a child whose life is now more hopeful. Watching families regain their strength after loss, connecting a child with a lifelong family, helping students learn how to build meaningful friendships—are just a few of the many ways social workers contribute to our society.

— Betsy Cauble, PhD, MSW, is a board member at Preferra Insurance Company RRG, a behavioral health liability insurance company overseen by social workers, and the retired department head and associate professor of social work emeritus at Kansas State University.