Social workers are key to healthy communities
The National Association of Social Workers calls social work a “helping profession” that’s focused on the well-being of others. Social workers are inherently community-minded, whether they’re intervening in child abuse and mental health crises or helping people access child care, healthcare, food stamps, or other lifesaving resources.
Social determinants of health
Social workers are well-versed in the social determinants of health, which acknowledge that the environments people live in shape their health, health risks, and outcomes, as well as their quality of life.
The social determinants of health are grouped into five categories: economic stability, education access and quality, healthcare access and quality, neighborhood and built environment, and social and community context. Together, they make it clear that arming someone with the knowledge that they should eat healthy or stay employed isn’t enough to overcome inequities.
How social workers address the social determinants of health
Addressing the social determinants of health is key to social work. Social workers focus not only on the person but also on the person’s environment. They’re also always looking to see what external factors might be hurting someone they’re trying to help. That’s important because social workers tend to focus on people who are vulnerable, experiencing homelessness, or oppressed.
Their goal is to improve quality of life, and they have the numbers to make an impact. The U.S. is home to more than 600,000 social workers — more than psychiatrists, psychologists, and psychiatric nurses combined.
Social work makes communities safer
Good health is key to community safety, as evidenced by the social determinants of health.
How the social determinants of health impact neighborhood safety
Economic stability. Some 10% of U.S. citizens live in poverty, making access to healthy foods, safe housing, and healthcare more difficult. Individuals with steady employment are more likely to rise out of poverty. Social workers help individuals gain access to employment assistance programs such as career counseling, as well as child care, food, and housing assistance services.
Education access. Children from low-income households, as well as those who experience discrimination, are more likely to struggle with academic subjects and less likely to gain safe, well-paying jobs. Social workers work with families both at home and in school environments to help make sure that children remain in school and succeed.
Healthcare access. The connection between health and safety is clear. A recent study published in medical journal BMJ Open found the more money spent on social and public health services at the state level, the lower the homicide rate. Social workers have a big role to play in helping communities access affordable healthcare services, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated health and safety concerns.
Neighborhood environment. Social workers aim to help individuals get away from violent environments. If a neighborhood is plagued with crime and violence, that environment impacts a person’s health directly or indirectly in many ways. It can lead to increased risky behaviors such as unsafe sex, heightened risk for substance use and abuse, and higher likelihood of perpetuating or being victimized by intimate partner violence. It can also lead to premature death, increased anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as decreased quality of life because of fear, higher rates of obesity, and long-term behavioral issues in children.
Social context. Positive relationships are essential to individuals’ well-being, reducing the mental and physical impacts of crime, discrimination, and other negative influences. Social workers are tasked with intervening when family relationships are at risk and providing support to those lacking social or community support.
Where social workers improve well-being and safety
Social workers connect with citizens in a variety of settings. In hospitals, they help people recover from acute illnesses. In rehabilitation centers, they help those struggling with drug and alcohol use. In nursing homes, they help people live with illness and chronic pain. In homeless shelters and community health centers, they provide therapy and counseling. In schools, they provide student counseling.
Social workers are having a growing impact in criminal justice social work in particular because the U.S. prison population is the largest in the world. More former offenders are being released from jail and put back in the community, particularly in the wake of the pandemic. Those offenders need support to avoid reoffending.
Social work training makes social workers uniquely equipped to balance public safety with the need to rehabilitate offenders and help them reintegrate in their communities. Thousands of criminal justice social workers in the U.S. provide support in state and federal correctional facilities, city and county jails, drug courts, and mental health courts, as well as at community-based nonprofits that support offenders.
Community social workers are more important than ever
Like police, social workers are on the front lines. Since confidence in police is low and social workers are experts in various mental health and community crises, they are a more important societal tool than ever for building safer and healthier communities.
Community confidence in police
People’s confidence in the police is at its lowest yet at 48%, according to a 2020 Gallup poll. Furthermore, the gap between white Americans’ confidence and Black Americans’ confidence has never been greater: 56% of white people have confidence in police, while just 19% of Black people do. The confidence crisis stems from concerns over police brutality, use of force, and racism, issues that have arisen in part from police handling of nonviolent 911 calls — many sparked by mental health concerns.
How social workers assist police forces
Social work collaborations with police are not new. In fact, a systematic review of these joint efforts found they most frequently helped address major societal issues such as mental illness, crime, juvenile delinquency, alcohol use and abuse, and other substance use and abuse.
In its roadmap for reimagining public safety in the U.S., Human Rights Watch highlights how well-equipped social workers are to step in and help. Not only do they provide community-based interventions for prevalent conditions such as substance use disorders and mental health issues, but they prioritize community-based support too, offering career training, education, and child care. Finally, social workers play a unique role in improving vital services such as healthcare, education, and job training for those in and out of prison.
Prioritizing community safety
Social workers are compassionate and dedicated to improving people’s lives. No matter their specific field of work, social workers prioritize safeguarding human dignity, challenging social injustice, and addressing social problems. They know how to work within existing systems to make them better, and they understand the importance of addressing health inequities to build safer communities.
BMJ Open, “Spending on Social and Public Health Services and Its Association with Homicide in the USA: An Ecological Study”
Emerald Insight, “Police Social Work and Social Service Collaboration Strategies One Hundred Years After Vollmer: A Systematic Review”
Gallup, “Black, White Adults’ Confidence Diverges Most on Police”
Human Rights Watch, “A Roadmap for Re-imagining Public Safety in the United States”
Maryville University, “What Is Social Work? Definition, Careers, and Key Topics”
National Association of Social Workers, “Criminal Justice Social Work in the United States”
National Association of Social Workers, “What Are Social Work Values?”
National Association of Social Workers, “Why Choose the Social Work Profession?”
The New York Times, “Confidence in Police Is at Record Low, Gallup Survey Finds”
Reuters, “Dying Inside: The Hidden Crisis in America’s Jails”
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Social Workers
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Social Determinants of Health
World Prison Brief, Highest Bureau of Labor Statistics to Lowest — Prison Population Total