Popular culture is not kind or fair to social work case workers. Movies and television abound with lawyers and police officers, but the social workers who labor alongside them? Not so much. When we do see a social worker, they’re usually an overworked bureaucrat too busy or incomptent to do anything but make a bad situation worse.
Fortunately, social work case managers are a hardy lot; most just toss the unfair depictions onto the pile of challenges they face daily in providing essential service to their clients. And the work is truly crucial. Case workers assist clients in procuring critical government and other social services to which they are entitled. They help them navigate our confusing healthcare system to ensure they receive timely and effective treatment for physical and psychological ailments. They assist with housing, schooling, food, clothing, and other essential needs.
Social work case workers in movies and television are props used to amplify conflict. In real life, they reduce or eliminate conflict. That may not make for great television, but their clients aren’t characters on a television show, so that’s fine.
Anyone who has ever benefited from a case manager’s interventions understands the value they provide as well as the many skills required to provide it. In this piece, we’ll define the top 8 social work case manager skills one needs to be successful in this field as well as how to develop your social work case manager skills with a master’s degree.
Given the complicated nature of the social work case management role, it’s not surprising that practitioners need a host of skills at their disposal to do their jobs effectively. Below is a list of some of the most important and pertinent skills that case managers employ to fulfill their case management responsibilities.
Active listening is a valuable skill in all interactions with fellow human beings, but it is essential in social work. This boils down to both hearing what a client is saying as well as signaling that you’re hearing them. The ability to dialogue with a client on their terms, without injecting your preconceived notions and potential biases, is an important communication skill and the first step towards establishing trust in a clinical relationship.
Care coordination is, perhaps, the skill most emblematic of the case manager’s role and an essential component of case management services. It involves performing a needs assessment of the client, determining which individuals and/or organizations are best suited to meeting those needs, and ensuring that all involved, including the client and their family members, have the information they need to deliver the appropriate care or intervention. An effective case manager can formulate a care plan that essentially posits the various stakeholders as team members in a larger endeavor, thereby fostering the sense of a strong collective effort.
In social work, crises can emerge with alarming suddenness. A client’s complex needs in these instances can relate to matters like domestic violence and mental health issues and often require quick interventions and decisive problem-solving. With their knowledge of the client’s circumstances and the availability of appropriate social service resources, case managers are uniquely qualified to intervene in crises.
While care coordination focuses on the needs of clients, human services works at the macro level, addressing the larger system of care: social services, mental health services, service providers, community resources, nonprofits, and advocacy in general. Through regular assessment of the overall framework of care management, social work case managers can help identify areas in need of improvement, leading to better outcomes in terms of the proactive prevention of problems and more efficient and effective service delivery. The hope is that all of this effort will result in a better quality of life for the whole community served by said system.
It’s vital for case managers to have knowledge and work experience in mental health care to appropriately support any clients displaying symptoms in this realm. Case managers must be able to conduct mental health assessments to identify any issues; develop appropriate and effective treatment plans in collaboration with their clients; and connect the client with providers, referrals, and resources to help address the matter.
Behavioral health is distinguished from mental health in that mental health relates to determining the existence of and interventions for a psychosocial problem. Behavioral health involves identifying, addressing, and monitoring the behavior that can cause or exacerbate other problems that people with mental health or substance abuse issues often experience. This, too, is reflective of the case manager’s need to develop a complete, holistic view of clients’ needs.
Many social work clients receive their healthcare benefits through the federal Medicaid program (and many older clients also receive health insurance coverage through Medicare). Case managers must be well-versed in Medicaid’s eligibility requirements and adept at navigating its system to connect their clients with their healthcare entitlements so they can access the medical, mental health, and substance abuse care they need.
Discharge planning—much like coordination of care—is a critical skill for case managers working in a hospital, substance abuse, rehabilitation, or other care setting. The case manager’s role is to ensure that the client can adapt to their former environment upon discharge and is set to receive the appropriate follow-up care and/or resources in the community that they require for their well-being.
In addition to the skills outlined above, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has established a social worker Code of Ethics and the NASW Standards for Social Work Case Management, a ten-point list that encourages clinical social workers to be mindful that their work takes place on multiple levels. Clients must always engage actively in their cases, the security and privacy of clients must be strictly maintained, and case managers should adjust their caseloads so as not to be overwhelmed and cause their work to suffer as a result.
If the job description of a social worker or social work case manager speaks to you, you should investigate the possibility of obtaining your Master of Social Work (MSW) (you’ll need a bachelor’s degree in almost any major or a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) to be admitted to an MSW program). A master’s in social work is a graduate-level degree that prepares social work students for a successful career in the field. It also enables them to pursue licensure and practice social work in their state (and qualify for a host of case manager jobs). These MSW programs are accredited by the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), which oversees standards for licensure and ethics and is the sole social work accreditation body in the US. Also, an MSW is required if you intend to practice as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).
There are plenty of excellent MSW programs to choose from, including those offered at Tulane University and Virginia Commonwealth University. Many schools offer online or hybrid courses geared to students who need to work while they earn their degree—and online programs also expand the number of programs you can consider applying to, as you don’t need to move to where the school is located to attend. Both Tulane and VCU offer online options.
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