How to Use Your Social Work Degree to Help Decriminalize Mental Illness

Lena Borrelli picture
Lena Borrelli
Updated April 29, 2021

When something is wrong, and there is an issue, we rely upon the police to help us. They are often the first to respond to a crisis, arriving on the scene to provide support. But what happens when the police get it wrong? 

Body cameras have been quickly revealing a trend in the U.S. that law enforcement needs to address. While George Floyd is arguably one of the most publicized cases of police-caused fatalities affecting the Black community, there are far too many other victims. Police-involved shootings involving victims like Walter Wallace Jr., Daniel Prude, and Patrick Warren have all put a stain on the collective American psyche, shaking our common dependence in the American justice system as we struggle to find ways to prevent such losses from happening again. 

Police officers carry a heady responsibility on their shoulders, their jobs covet the closest of scrutiny, especially where mental health is concerned. Every year, two million people with mental illness are imprisoned in U.S. jails. It is no small number, especially considering that 15% of men and 30% of women have a severe mental health illness. They are also mostly non-violent offenders, lending to the overall miscommunications of mental health within U.S. policing and legislature. 

Mental health professionals are increasingly emerging as the leaders to help resolve some of the resoundingly fatal interactions between law enforcement, social work, and the mental health community. As cities around the country begin to implement crisis response programs, it is creating an increased demand for mental health professionals and clinicians. For those considering pursuing a degree in mental health and substance abuse, there’s no greater time.

We take a deep dive to see how social work and crisis intervention can help make a difference in 2021’s America.

What Is The Role Of Mental Health Professionals?

Job security is of major concern to many students when picking a field of study, but mental health is one area that is expected to increase in demand, with jobs for mental health and substance abuse social workers expected to increase by 17% by 2029.

With this heightened demand, social workers can partner with police to better address mental health and substance abuse while also supporting 911 emergency calls and improving anti-racism measures. 


One way to help reduce misunderstandings and miscommunication is for social workers to become more involved in officer training. With their training, mental health professionals can teach law enforcement to prioritize crisis de-escalation in order to avoid potentially violent situations.


Crisis intervention teams (CITs) are one possible solution that can help. Also known as the Memphis Model, the CIT model is designed to help law enforcement better recognize and respond to mental health-related emergencies without the use of force. According to the National Council for Behavioral Health, over 700,000 individuals and 2,700 police departments have already received CIT training. The program also pairs officers with trained mental health professionals who can better facilitate mental health crises on calls.


Despite the importance of social work in police departments, very few directly employ social workers. In light of recent events, many police departments are being urged to make direct hires for social workers. These professionals can work directly alongside law enforcement each day to educate and promote healthier ways of addressing mental illness. 

Organizational change

Another idea that is heavily advocated is the use of 988 hotlines to address mental health rather than the traditional one-size-fits-all approach to 911. It is estimated that as many as 10% of all 911 calls are from individuals with mental illness. As of July 2020, 988 is the new contact number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, with the American Association of Suicidology urging the following: “When you’ve got a police, fire or rescue emergency, you call 911. When you have an urgent mental health need, you’ll call 988.” 

An NASW social justice brief entitled “Reimaging Policing: Strategies for Community Reinvestment” highlights a critical point. “Possibilities exist for developing new and exciting areas of police social work practice, and numerous initiatives are underway that have contributed toward resolving a number of issues related to police overinvolvement and escalation. Although more outcome studies are needed to assess the efficacy of police social work interventions, working through these issues can enhance police social work practice.”

Is Social Work The Right Career For Me?

Sometimes, to understand a field, we must look to the experts.

For Wendy B. Pitts, her work is especially critical because she serves as a licensed social worker and school mental health therapist in alternative education. In the evenings, she maintains a private practice for adults and provides clinical supervision to new social workers looking to become licensed in Maryland.

Pitts explains that she “works for students who have been removed from their traditional school, primarily for behavior reasons.”

She offers her advice for students considering her niche. “The types of personality best suited for school social work are those who are flexible and have a lot of patience,” she advises. 

“Flexibility is important because you never know what issues your students are coming in with that day, and you need to be prepared and willing to carry that load with them. If their parents put them out of the house the night before, that day will involve making sure they are fed, have clean clothes, and understand why you have to call Child Protective Services.”

The profession can also be far from predictable as Jason Phillips, a licensed clinical social worker, explains, “There's never a dull moment in the mental health field.” 

He adds that social workers should always be ready to pivot and understand the best approach to take with their clients. “There are times when a client is stable and sober for months or years; then they experience a traumatic event and relapse. As a substance abuse counselor, my job is to stop the bleeding, meaning assess and treat as quickly as possible.” 

As a clinical therapist, Dian Grier of Choosing Therapy has over 13 years of experience, but her average day can be much different from Phillips. “A typical day in addiction work may include one-on-one sessions, as well as groups. We drive to the women’s homes to meet with them at times,” she adds. “Now that I am in private practice, I am seeing more variety, but I generally see five to seven clients a day.”

She takes a moment to offer her advice to those considering a career in social work. “The great thing about being a social worker is that there are so many needs and jobs we can take.”

“As an administrator who hires people who come into the field, I am really looking for people who have compassion,” says Fran Myers-Routt, Clinical Director at addiction treatment facility River Oaks Treatment Center in Riverview, Florida. “That may not necessarily be part of a curriculum that is learned, but the ability to empathize with the patient, know how much pain they might be in, know why they may be angry and other emotions they may feel is important. It’s that understanding and compassion for their situation that can help you unpack what’s going on with them and help them as they need.”

There are several ways in which one can contribute to the field of social work. 

Career Paths for Social Workers 

These four types of social work jobs are especially critical to resolving police-led shootings against those with mental health disorders.


More than 600,000 inmates leave U.S. prisons each year in need of a social worker to help them get their lives back on track. The greatest goal of these social workers is to prevent recidivism by helping these individuals make healthier choices, so they do not return to prison. 

This can be an excellent fit for students with a concentration in criminal justice. Working within this role, you can also find similar positions with juvenile detention centers, police departments, court systems, and rape crisis centers.  

Non-Profit Groups

Many non-profit groups are designed to provoke change and create greater advocacy. Non-profits tend to focus on a specific niche within the industry, which offers professionals the opportunity to hone their skills in a more specialized area of their choosing. Social workers can create deep, lasting relationships with their clients and the communities they serve, making for a very rewarding career in social work. 

Examples of careers in social work include homeless shelters and health clinics, in addition to disaster response and human services. These positions also tend to be more flexible about educational requirements, allowing students and budding professionals the opportunity to benefit from hands-on experience in a real-world classroom.

Community Clinics

Social workers who work within community clinics have the unique responsibility of serving as part of a greater team. These social workers collaborate directly with patients and their families, helping families navigate the medical system while coordinating with other medical professionals on non-medical patient care. Social workers counsel patients and families through a myriad of issues, such as mental and emotional stress, in addition to family and money-related issues. They also promote mental and emotional health through short-term therapy via one-on-one or family counseling. Based on these sessions, social workers then relay that progress with the larger medical team assigned to the patient’s case. 

In addition to community clinics, social workers in this role can also work at hospitals and other healthcare establishments and organizations. It’s a position that typically requires a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) degree with a focus on psychosocial evaluation, crisis intervention, and psychotherapy. 

Government Agencies

Several federal, state, and local government agencies are all in need of trained social workers. Social workers can work for government agencies, for agencies that work directly with clients, or as an independent social worker contracted by an agency. This can allow for greater freedoms within the role and your day-to-day. 

Examples of government agency jobs for social workers include foster care agencies, schools, senior living facilities, nursing homes, and military-related services. 

Examples of Government Agencies for Social Work

OrganizationsNotable detailsTypes of positions
Social Security Administration (SSA)Largest government employer of social workers with more than 26,000 positions• Program analysts
• Eligibility workers
• Community-outreach workers
• Program administrators
Veterans Administration (VA)More than 9,000 social work positions between 57 facilities in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and six territories • Case managers
• Clinicians
• Hospital administrators 
• Administrator for community-based outreach programs
Department of Defense (DOD)
Civilian positions, plus over 500 social work positions for active military personnel • Army
• Navy Air Force Marines
• DOD facilities 
Department of Justice (DOJ)Over 5,000 direct social worker roles• Parole and probation agencies
• Community offender reentry programs
• DOJ policy analysts 
Health and Human Services (HHS)Positions addressing mental and community health, in addition to HIV/AIDS and substance abuse through the Office of the Secretary and the following agencies:National Institutes of HealthAdministration for Children and FamiliesAdministration on AgingHealth Research Services Administration (HRSA)Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA) Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) • Project officers 
• Policy analysts
•Researchers Administrators

What Do Community Mental Health Crisis Programs Look Like?

Today, cities all over the country are beginning to implement crisis response programs. This has placed a renewed spotlight on the importance of mental health professionals and clinicians, and it is creating enormous demand in the job market for trained, experienced professionals who can help reverse this harrowing trend. 

Portland, Oregon’s CAHOOTS program has been a turning point for police, showing that sometimes mental health situations require patience and compassion in place of the traditional tactics that often accompanies today’s police and civilian encounters.

Another example of change is the cabinet-level Albuquerque Community Safety Department of Albuquerque, New Mexico. After the murder of George Floyd, city officials changed tactics and began employing unarmed social workers instead of traditional police officers to respond to select 911 calls. Calls include those revolving around mental health, addiction, intoxication, and the homeless with a focus on violence prevention and mental health support.  

Some communities have chosen to adopt a pre-arrest diversion program called the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD). The idea of this program is to provide reliable alternatives to criminal imprisonment by instead focusing on the issues behind the behavior, such as mental health or poverty. The program seeks to identify and treat these issues with intensive psychosocial assessments and support via long-term treatment and housing.

Mental Health and Crisis Resources

These are difficult times for everyone, but there are plenty of resources to help when you need a helping hand. Many of these organizations are also on the cutting edge of advocacy efforts, offering up-to-date resources on an evolving basis.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)1-800-950-6264
Text “NAMI” to
NAMI offers mental health and suicidal crisis support with state chapters to provide local resources, education, and advocacy.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 1-800-662-HELP (4357)SAMHSA’s National Treatment Referral Helpline offers a 24-hour mental health hotline and online Behavioral Health Treatment Locator.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline988 or 1-800-273-8255Trained crisis workers can help those who are struggling by talking and developing a plan to keep all involved safe.
National Association of Social Workers (NASW)1-800-742-4089
Monday–Friday, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. EST
Since 1955, NASW has been uniting social workers to provide the latest research and advocacy efforts. Find a local chapter for community resources and support.
National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)1-866-615-6464
Monday–Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST
Provided by the National Institutes of Health, this federal department offers a mental health support hotline with a live online chat support option.
Mental Health America HotlineText “MHA” to 741741MHA offers a crisis text line to provide support and resources for mental health issues and challenges, including a peer-run warmline from people in recovery.
Crisis Text LineText “CONNECT” to 741741The Crisis Text Line skips phone support and instead offers 24/7 crisis counseling via text from trained counselors.

Reimagining the Role of Social Workers 

A mental health disorder is largely a hidden illness that can lead to severe consequences for those who could most benefit from medical and psychiatric help. Law enforcement needs to invest in skills and professional crisis intervention, giving departments an opportunity to replace weaponry and haste with patience and understanding. 

 Police can receive better training that allows them to identify and diffuse non-threatening situations without fatal violence. It is also critical that our communities step up to embrace these individuals with better support systems and resources that can save lives. Social workers play a crucial role by using their training and skills to defuse potentially dangerous and even fatal situations — a role that we find ourselves especially in need of as a country, given current events. 

“Racism is America's defining social problem,” writes the National Association of Social Workers’ North Carolina Chapter in a statement. “Racial justice should be at the heart of social work practice.”

It’s a call to arms for students looking for a reliable field of study. Social work can offer the opportunity to truly make a difference in America’s most underserved communities, saving lives and improving your local neighborhoods, one block at a time.

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