Careers in Social Work


Social workers have a long tradition of helping people and working for social justice. They work with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities. Social workers can be found in a wide variety of roles and settings. Following are some areas of focus related to health care. In addition to the roles that are listed, social workers can also do research and serve as administrators.

Health/Medical Care

Work settings: hospitals, clinics, health maintenance organizations, nursing homes, clinics, public health facilities

Typically, social workers in health/medical care settings work as part of a team that includes physicians, nurses and others. Their roles can include:
(1) helping to assess the needs of patients and families; (2) helping patients and families develop and carry out a plan for coping with an illness and any problems related to the illness; (3) educating physicians, nurses and others about the psychosocial needs of patients and their families; and (4) coordinating the services needed by patients and their families.

Substance Misuse and Addiction

Work settings: outpatient and inpatient treatment centers, community mental health centers, residential treatment settings, youth treatment centers

Roles include: (1) case management; (2) crisis intervention; (3) doing individual and group therapy; (4) doing individual and family counseling; (5) identifying/developing community resources; and (6) educating individuals, families and community members.

Elder Care

Work settings: senior centers, nursing homes, mental health centers, family services agencies, health-care facilities, private practice

Roles include: (1) counseling elders and their families; (2) advocating for older adults; (3) identifying and coordinating needed services; (4) facilitating support groups; and (5) running workshops for elders and/or their caregivers.

Children, Youth, and Families

Work settings: child care centers, head start centers, elementary and secondary schools, counseling centers, private practice, public agencies

Roles include: (1) counseling with students and families; (2) educating families and teachers about psychosocial issues; (3) advocating for children and youth; (4) facilitating groups of children and families; and (5) identifying and using community resources.

Community Organization

Work settings: community action agencies, community centers, advocacy organizations, government (local, state, national) organizations

Roles include: (1) helping communities identify their needs and ways to help themselves; (2) coordinating/facilitating activities to improve quality of life; (3) advocating for change; (4) facilitating group and community meetings; and (5) helping identify resources.

For more information on these and other areas of focus, see the
National Association of Social Workers' web page Choices: Careers in Social Work. Other career areas include public welfare, child welfare, justice/corrections, international social work, management/administration, policy and planning, and research.

Health Issues in Indian Country

Mental health problems, alcoholism and substance abuse are major health issues among American Indians and Alaska Natives. Depression is prevalent, and the suicide rate is alarming, particularly for young people. Many of these problems stem from social injustice.

Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, Hunkpapa, Oglala Lakota, PhD, MSW, links mental and behavioral health issues to historical trauma and grief.

Spero Manson, Pembina Chippewa, PhD, points to the highly stressful environment in which many American Indian and Alaska Native people currently live. He emphasizes that the health issues facing Indian and Native people "are not a statement about moral weakness or characterlogical weakness of Indian and Native people….In fact, it’s incredible that Indian and Native people are as resilient and vibrant and optimistic as they are. This really speaks to the strength of our people.”

Need for American Indian and Alaska Native Social Workers

American Indian and Native Alaskan social workers are more likely than non-Native people to be able to understand and connect with Native people and their culture. They are also more likely to be able to create new models and policies that are helpful to indigenous people. Josie Chase, Mandan/Hidatsa and Yanktoni/Hunkpapa, MSW, says, “Healing needs to come from within our culture.” Priscilla Day, Anishinabe, EdD, MSW, professor in the department of social work at the University of Minnesota Duluth says, “We need people who can help build the capacities of communities from the inside out.”

Dan Edwards, Yurok, PhD, a social worker, who is an educator at the University of Utah, says that the already high demand by tribes for American Indian and Native Alaskan social workers is likely to increase as more tribes take control of their health care services. Also, indigenous social workers are needed by Native people in urban areas.
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Parts of this article were originally published in the Summer 2000 issue of
Winds of Change. (The cover artist is Helen Hardin, Santa Clara Pueblo.)