Social workers might be closely associated with protecting children, but there is so much more to their role. They help vulnerable children and adults, people with mental illness, the elderly and so many other groups of people who would struggle without support. Here are some of the reasons behind the increasing need for social workers.
A current shortage of social workers
The current shortage of qualified social workers is due to the rising need for trained professionals and the challenging aspects of the role. However, this lack of workers could work in your favor because it means it is a great time for you to pursue this field as a career. If you don’t have a qualification already, it is easier than you might expect to earn one.
Some people believe it is impossible to find the time to pursue a degree between work and family commitments, but with one of the licensed clinical social worker programs available, you could gain a recognized qualification that fits your schedule. Because it can be studied online, you won’t need to quit your current job until you’re about to start your new role as a social worker. You will need to have experience, but this can be gained from a work placement, and many local organizations will be happy to take you on for a short time and help you gain hands-on experience.
Your qualification will prepare you for working as a social worker, and although the job may be challenging, it will also be rewarding. You can choose to specialize and work with specific groups of people who need your help, or you can work with different groups of people, keeping your workload varied and ensuring no two workdays are ever the same.
The demand from elderly people who need support
As more people live longer, the problems of health issues and increased vulnerability among the elderly is magnified. In fact, the number of people over the age of 65 is estimated to continue rising to 84 million by the year 2050. This means that more people will be at risk for age-related illness, in addition to experiencing aches and pains and the deterioration of their mind and body. They will also have a smaller support network as many of their friends will have similar issues. Family members might not live close enough to offer much help, and they may also have their own families to look after and other commitments that prevent them from being full-time caregivers.
The American Geriatrics Society estimates that by 2030, 30% of Americans over 65 will require geriatric care. This could be in an outpatient setting, offering support and guiding them towards other agencies who can help them. It can also involve working alongside other professionals to ensure they understand and take the treatment offered.
Some elderly people, particularly those with dementia, might struggle to accept the fact that they need help or grasp why they can no longer live independently. If you work with someone who would receive the best care in a nursing home, it’s challenging to see them resist and let go of years of building up their life in their own home. This is just one reason for the increasing demand. It takes someone with a strong character and mental strength to work with people who may think they don’t want or need help. Despite this, as a social worker, you would need to understand that you are doing the right thing for them.
Domestic violence against children is another common issue you will come across as a social worker, unless you specialize in a different area. It is difficult to think about anyone being violent toward a child, and often the perpetrator is someone close to them. Again, it’s crucial to remember that as a social worker, your role will be to help the child.
Ideally, this will be an early intervention in which you work with the family, particularly the person responsible for the violence, and try to resolve this before the situation worsens. The preferred solution is to keep a child with their family and stop the physical abuse. This isn’t always possible, however, so you will need to be prepared to support the child in court and find them a suitable foster or adoptive family without disrupting their life too much. It can still be upsetting for them to be taken away from their home, even if the goal is to protect them.
It may mean moving them away from the area where they grew up, not just to find the most suitable home for them but also to get them a safe distance away from their abuser. This means having to adapt to a new area and a different school, and trying to make new friends while dealing with all the conflicting emotions they have about these changes. Part of your job will be to help with the transition.
Support for people with disabilities and behavior difficulties
Social workers will always try to help people with disabilities and behavioral difficulties to live as independently as possible. This could be in semi-independent living, where someone is around if needed but the resident has their own living space. They may just need help with shopping or buying the right thing, learning to cook and other day-to-day tasks.
With the right support, you can help them work if this is something they can do. For example, you could advocate on their behalf to get them an interview, help them with the process and get their employer to set up any adaptations they need to work with minimal supervision.
This is still a challenging role because there can be several upsetting reasons someone with a disability could need to be relocated. For example, they may have been living with a family member, but that person could have passed away. They may be upset and have trouble understanding or dealing with their bereavement, and they might also struggle with change.
For example, if someone has autism, they might have set preferences and routines and be unable to adapt. Therefore, you will need to help them adjust and put them in contact with organizations that can help with this. Some days will be rewarding and others will be more difficult, but if you have the mental strength and determination, the increased demand for social workers can improve your chances of having a long and successful career.
Adults with addictions
The rise in mental health problems, the cost of living and the instant availability of bad news both online and offline have all contributed to the rise in adults who have addictions. This could be to gambling, drugs, alcohol or anything else. Of course, addiction is complex and can’t be solely explained as any or a combination of the above factors, but there’s no denying these have contributed in some cases.
This also means a rise in the need for social workers who can help adults with addictions to overcome them and live a full and happy life. Alcohol and drug abuse can lead to serious health problems and cause the user to push friends and family away, even when they are just trying to help. As a social worker, it would be your job to steer them toward the right help, which could include anything from medical treatment if needed to counseling and mental health services.
It can be difficult to see people whose lives have been ruined by addiction, but the rewarding part of your role is when you get to work with other professionals and organizations to help the person with an addiction to turn his or her life around. It’s rarely easy, but if you are able to use your skills and knowledge to get through to people who initially don’t want help, you could make for a great social worker who specializes in helping people with addictions.
Covid and its aftermath left people isolated
Lockdowns and Covid-related restrictions may largely be a thing of the past now. However, those in poor health are still feeling vulnerable and taking precautions by socializing less often. This has changed the way they live and work, and it can have a negative impact on mental health.
This is just one more reason for the increased demand for qualified social workers. Isolation can lead to many of the issues already mentioned. Poor health and disabilities can get worse or lead to other issues if someone isn’t getting regular exercise or spending time outdoors and socializing with friends.
Of course, mental health is another complex issue, but physical and mental health are often closely linked together. Although exercise, socializing, working and being surrounded by colleagues can’t be prescribed as a cure for mental or physical health, they can have some benefits that reduce the severity of certain health problems.
As a social worker working with someone who is severely isolated, you might be one of the few links they have to the world beyond their doorstep. They may become overly anxious about venturing too far from home, and you will need to find a way to help them while creating a balance that doesn’t make them feel like you’re putting too much pressure on them.
Homelessness has increased
The increasing cost of living and rise in unemployment have also led to an increase in homelessness. Although many organizations are set up to help people who end up losing their home and having no permanent residence, this is another problem that leads to other issues. A homeless person can become dependent on alcohol or drugs, which can cause them to develop mental health problems or exacerbate existing ones. They may need extra help to get back into a routine in which they can work and pay rent or a mortgage in the long term.
There is no hiding how much people are struggling at the moment, and social workers can play an important role in meeting the demand for professionals to help and guide some of those who are struggling the most.
As a social worker, you can guide them to homeless charities and projects that can help them. You can also set up regular appointments to ensure they are on the right track and receiving all the support available to them. Although it can be sad to see someone going through these problems, helping them find a place to live and take the first steps to changing their lives for the better is another rewarding part of being a social worker.
The role can be challenging
As you can see, there are a lot of challenges involved in being a social worker. If this is something you value in a career, it’s worth giving it some serious consideration. Don’t worry if you currently feel unprepared for a role like this. When you study toward a qualification, you will learn all the practical knowledge you need. A work placement will give you a chance to put some of this into practice, often working with more qualified social workers. They will be able to step in if you’re struggling, and you will learn from them.
Social workers sometimes get a negative reputation when they investigate cases such as those involving potential child abuse, but it is important to remind yourself that the safety of a child is a top priority and it’s better to investigate and uncover a false claim than it is to risk leaving the child with parents or family members who could be hurting them. You will need to be resilient but show patience and understanding when confronted by people or their families who are resistant to your help.
The higher demand for social workers is partly because of the challenges involved in the role. Few people see the good work they do, and the news often focuses on failures rather than successes.
If you want to see whether you have what it takes to be a social worker, the first step is to learn more about earning a recognized degree before deciding if it’s right for you.