In many ways, becoming a social worker means preparing for a career that requires constant response to whatever societal issues arise. More than simply oriented around established practice areas—like hospice care or child welfare—the demands of social work as an industry are ever-evolving. At its core, social work is defined by relevance, advocacy, and action in any area where the need arises, not by a fixed set of disciplines.
LGBTQ rights, school violence, and global and international services are among the most pressing issues requiring the urgent attention and engagement of social workers. As a result, new social work concentrations have developed to address these issues—which means new career opportunities for current and aspiring social workers.
According to the Williams Institute, a think-tank at the University of California-Los Angeles School of Law, approximately nine million Americans are lesbian, gay or bisexual, and an estimated 1. 4 million Americans identify as transgender.
As a result of historic and present bias, the LGBTQ community remain vulnerable to discrimination and violation of basic human rights. Victimized for their differences, LGBTQ individuals are at an increased risk of harassment, assault, hate crimes, and bullying. LGBTQ social work supports this population, ensuring their safety and equity, and addressing the impact on their mental and emotional health.
A subset of social work in this area focuses on the mental health and gender identity issues for children and youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning. LGBTQ children and youth struggle to define their sexual identity, question who they are, and fear rejection from their families and peers.
The social work industry has rightly supported the LGBTQ population, but so far curriculum offerings in this practice are slim. Most social work programs do not formally address training and competency in serving the LGBTQ community. The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE), the accrediting body for all social work programs, encourages the inclusion of curriculum focused around LGBTQ practice, but does not require inclusion for accreditation.
To deliver mental health services to any population—including LGBTQ youth and adults—aspiring social workers are required to pursue a clinically focused curriculum to qualify them to become mental health clinicians. Any student can then build expertise in LGBT practice by securing a field placement working with this group. If this is your area of interest, it’s important to determine whether the social work programs you’re considering offer LGBT-oriented field placement.
Some programs offer electives focusing on the LGBT population, and/or are staffed with faculty whose areas of expertise include LGBT issues. In choosing a bachelor’s or master’s social work program, consider those social work schools engaged in LGBT initiatives, projects, and research. And if you identify as LGBTQ, know which schools are openly supportive of matriculating LGBTQ students.
“When I asked my field instructor for advice, she retreated to the safety of agency policy,” writes Dr. Lori Messenger, Ph.D., a professor at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. Messenger reflects on her experiences as a 26-year-old lesbian pursuing an MSW in 1994, noting that she is “struck by the many ways in which the social work profession, and the larger social and political cultures that surround us, have both evolved and failed to evolve.”
MSW programs offering educational and fieldwork training in LGBT issues are increasingly available, but can still be difficult to find. To research social work programs and better understand what the field of LGBT practice fully entails, the below list of LGBTQ social work programs hopefully serves as a helpful starting point.
Finally, you can visit the National Association of Social Work (NASW) website, where there is a dedicated section on social work practice with the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) population. The NASW has established a national board to convene on LGBT practice issues and offers helpful resources to those actively serving the LGBT community.
There are a couple of significant practical considerations:
- A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in social work
- A license to practice or required social work certification
Credentials vary among careers, states, and territories. Licenses include:
- Certified Social Worker (CSW)
- Clinical Social Work Associate (CSWA)
- Licensed Advanced Practice Social Worker (LAPSW)
- Licensed Advanced Social Worker (LASW)
- Licensed Baccalaureate Social Worker (LBSW)
- Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW)
- Licensed Graduate Social Worker (LGSW)
- Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker (LICSW)
- Licensed Mental Health Professional (LMHP)
- Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW)
Most of these licenses require a Master’s or Doctorate, along with additional coursework or clinical internships. ( )
A survey of 2017 social work graduates by the National Social Work Workforce Study found that social workers with Master’s degrees and Doctorates made substantially more than those with no advanced degree. ( )
- People with MSW degrees made $13,000-plus more than those with only BSW degrees
- MSWs make more in large cities or urban clusters
- People with doctorates earned $20,000 to $25,000 more than people with only MSW degrees
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Violence in schools is undeniably a serious problem, one that tragically appears too frequently in headlines.
With an increase in deadly shootings and unacceptable rates of other violent incidents in schools, the NASW advises the educational community to place more social workers in schools to prevent and address this violence. “School social work services should be provided at a ratio of one school social worker to each school building serving up to 250 students, or a ratio of 1:250 students,” NASW explains. “During intensive needs, the allowed ratio of 1:50 is suggested.”
Social anxiety, isolation, bullying, microaggression, competitiveness, and increased pressure to “fit in” are just some of the issues facing K-12 students around the country. While there are many root causes contributing to school violence—social media being chief among them—the frequency of school violence and conflict has changed the landscape for all students in America.
School violence social workers offer hope. As trained clinicians, social workers can reduce and prevent violence in schools by assessing risk factors and heeding the warning signs of violent and threatening behaviors. School violence social workers can intervene before tragic events happen, introduce conflict resolution measures, and work to build safer school communities. When such acts of violence cannot be prevented, social workers are called upon to provide crisis support.
While many MSW programs offer dedicated tracks in school social work, such training may not fully provide for a specialty in school violence or addressing trauma. Aspiring school social workers may want to consider credentialing in trauma social work practice during their BSW or BSW schooling or as a post-grad.
Below is a sampling of MSW programs offering a school social work specialization or certificate (note: these programs position students to fulfill local state requirements or pass licensing exams in order to practice school social work).
In global and international social work, there are as many ways to serve as there are nations and communities to help. Whether assisting refugees amid the devastation of war or helping individuals access safe food and water, global and international social work is crucial.
Global and international social work spans humanitarian efforts in high-need villages and countries as well as underserved populations in the United States, with efforts including:
One of the most high-need areas for global and international social work intervention is in the current crisis of immigrant families who are separated and detained at the U.S. border. Here, licensed social workers with bilingual skills address the impacts on family separation, and help them resettle in the United States.
Want to save the world? Here’s a sampling of pioneering global and international social work study programs.
(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)
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