Congratulations to the thousands of social workers graduating from Master of Social Work programs nationwide. Statistics are being compiled for 2022; however, according to the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), more than 25,000 social work students graduated from accredited Master of Social Work programs in 2021. If you are among the 2023 graduates, welcome to the noble social work profession. You should be proud to complete rigorous training carefully designed by scholars with CSWE. It was challenging, I am certain. Pat yourselves on the back and take time to breathe, but not for long. We need you now more than ever. If you have not paid attention, a mental health crisis—particularly among young Americans—is convulsing the United States.
According to a report from the American Psychiatric Association, 37 percent of Americans rated their mental health as fair or poor at the end of 2022, up from 31 percent at the end of 2021. Trends among young people are alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control’s 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 42 percent of high school students reported experiencing persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up from 37 percent in 2019 and 31 percent in 2017. Twenty-two percent of high schoolers reported seriously considering suicide in 2021, up from 19 percent in 2019 and 17 percent in 2017.
Social workers are crucial in meeting this mental health crisis as the largest group of mental health providers nationwide. We are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat behavioral health problems and assist individuals, families, and communities with getting needed support and resources. Many other issues, such as homelessness and an aging population, will require our attention. However, there is a shortage of social workers. Researchers at the Cleveland Clinic predicted that in 2016 the number of states experiencing social worker shortages would jump from 20 to 38 by 2030, with a national shortfall of about 200,000 social workers. Most social workers earn their licenses and go into direct practice.
Some social workers will focus on macro practice and pursue administrative careers with nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Others may focus on policy and advocacy and find work with research institutes. Fewer social workers will think outside the box, take their social knowledge and skills into legislative settings, or seek elected office. These are critical positions for social workers, often on the front lines in making policy decisions. The research and advocacy help to make the case for the resources needed to provide the services and treatment for direct service providers. Political social workers work to get legislation enacted.
I have met hundreds of social work students who are interested in the bigger picture. Like me, many choose the social work profession because they believed the knowledge and skills they gain will help others deal with the challenges of their lives, but when exposed to policy curriculum, see the opportunity to effect change on a larger scale. My clinical MSW is useful in so many ways. I remember sitting at my desk on the Hill, thankful for the competencies that helped me navigate the dysfunction in Congress.
Providing external supervision for Columbia University social work students in the policy concentration has connected me with many gifted students who will one day make their mark in the policy arena. These students intern on the Hill, at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Brookings Institution. I attended Howard University School of Social Work’s graduation ceremony at the invitation of two incredibly talented students who completed their practicum requirements with CRISP. Monique Rowell had the distinction of achieving a 4.0 grade point average, and Avah Toomer was awarded the Eva M. Stewart Agency-Based Education (formerly Field Education) Exemplar Award.
Dean Sandra Edmonds Crewe presided over the ceremony, punctuated by enthusiastic cheers from graduates she described proudly as “Howard-prepared” social workers. A highlight of the event was an inspiring keynote by Dr. Halaevalu Fonongava’inga Ofahengaue Vakalahi, the new President and Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Social Work Education, who counseled students that words matter, that “aloha” is more than just a greeting. It has a deeper cultural and spiritual significance to native Hawaiians. For them, aloha is a way of life and being in the world. It is a way of showing respect, compassion, and love for oneself, others, and the environment.