A Day In The Life Of A Mental Health Social Worker

I grew up surrounded by social work values and was inspired early on to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. My grandparents took in foster youth for more than 50 years and it was through connecting with these children and hearing their stories that my passion was ignited. This experience led me to pursue volunteer opportunities in the field, which affirmed that social work was the right match for me. I went on to earn my Bachelor of Arts in psychology and social behavior as I continued to gain experience working with children. I felt that my psychology degree balanced out nicely with my graduate social work education and left me with a wide range of knowledge.

During my first year of graduate school, I interned for child services. I did weekly home visits with foster youth around Los Angeles and helped support their families in reunifying. I also co-facilitated a substance abuse group for teens involved in both the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. I loved working with foster youth, but felt limited in my role with child services and decided that becoming a therapist would be a better match. It was during this time that I fully realized the importance of education for these children and the barriers they face as they are often pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Along with my Master of Social Work, I got a Pupil Personnel Services (PPS) Credential, which is required in California to provide school-based mental health services as a psychiatric social worker (something that I may pursue in the future). To get this credential, I interned during my second year for a nonprofit mental health agency that contracted with their local school district. There I provided short-term therapy to students on the campuses of an elementary school and a middle school who were experiencing moderate behavioral issues.

After graduating, my agency hired me on as a full-time clinician. Since then, I have taken on many different roles with their various programs. The population I work with has also changed drastically since my time as an intern. I now treat serious mental health and behavior issues and can diagnose and provide more long-term mental health treatment. Most of my clients have Medi-Cal/Medicaid, and with that comes complicated paperwork. I am constantly learning from my experiences and the knowledge imparted on me by my talented supervisors. I’m currently working on gaining licensing hours, as well as completing the requirements to become a registered play therapist. During my typical workweek, I work four long days and then get Fridays off (which I love).

On Mondays, I work at the branch of our agency that deals with early childhood mental health. I provide child-parent psychotherapy to families with children ages 2 to 5. Our clients have developmental delays (including social-emotional development) due to experiencing early trauma, abuse, neglect and prenatal drug exposure. Seventy-five percent of our children are involved in the child welfare system and have serious behavior and attachment issues. I get to work with a multidisciplinary team of specialists including a child psychologist, pediatric neuropsychologist, pediatrician, public health nurse, occupational therapist and speech therapist. We also have “parent partners” that help parents with the school, special education, individualized education program (IEP) process, and “family partners” that provide in-home “wrap-around” services and connect families to other resources such as housing and food. It is an amazing program that has excellent results and can completely change a young child’s trajectory.

On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, I start my day at an elementary school, where I provide individual and group therapy to students. I also consult with teachers and administration, do crisis evaluation, connect families with resources and run classroom workshops. It rarely happens, but at any time I can be dispatched to another school in the district that is experiencing a crisis to provide immediate and short-term crisis and grief services. After school, I head back to my agency where I see adolescents for individual and family therapy. Between clients, I get as much paperwork done as I can, but things often come up and I usually end up doing some of my paperwork at home each week.

Being a social worker is challenging, yet rewarding work. Some of the hardest moments for me have been when foster youth prematurely terminate services and are abruptly moved to a new placement. It is difficult to see the progress they have made along with the immense amount of work they have left to do, and know that the reality is that they may not get the treatment or support that they need to thrive at their full potential. On the positive side, I get to empower parents and see children make breakthroughs on an almost daily basis. I have seen amazing transformations, and I am constantly in awe of my clients’ immense strength.

Even as a first year intern with child services where I felt out of my depth and limited in what I could do, I was able to reunite a teen, who had been abused in the system and was at risk of aging out completely disconnected, with his long-lost aunt who had been searching for him for years. During graduate school I sought support and guidance from my cohort, and found what they offered me invaluable. I now continue to connect with other social workers through the online community and run a blog for new social workers that aims to share resources and ideas for therapeutic activities at http://creativesocialworker.tumblr.com/ 

The author of this guest post is a mental health social worker in Los Angeles and requested to remain anonymous.