As people live longer (but not necessarily higher quality) lives, there will be a continued need for social workers to provide casework, advocacy, individual and family therapy. Generally, social work positions are divided into two main areas: professional and paraprofessional social work. A paraprofessional is generally classified as a case aide, a technician or a peer. These positions tend to rely more on personal attributes, such as life experience and personality, than level of education. People in these positions usually perform basic counselling or provide concrete services that do not require clinical skills.
Social workers practise in a number of settings, including family and children services, the education system, medical institutions, mental health facilities, substance abuse treatment centres, and through clinical social work.
Family and children services
Social workers in this area work to improve the social and psychological functioning of children and their families to maximize the family's well-being. Some social workers assist single parents in locating child care and dealing with parenting alone; they may arrange adoptions for people who want to adopt and for those who want to have their children adopted; and they help find foster homes for neglected, abandoned or abused children. In addition to abuse and neglect services, these social workers also focus on areas, such as family communication, adjustment to changes within families (like divorce or marriage), and they can also provide marriage counselling to couples.
School social work
Public and private schools at all levels employ social workers to address issues such as truancy, teenage pregnancy, suicide and mental illness. They may be called upon to advise teachers on coping with disruptive students, and they also teach workshops to classes on topics, such as self-esteem, sexuality and violence in the home. Parents and social workers combine efforts when family life disruptions, such as death, divorce or even the birth of a new sibling, have an effect on the student's learning.
Medical social work
Medical social workers provide individuals and families with the psychosocial support needed to cope with chronic, acute or terminal illnesses, such as Alzheimer's, cancer, AIDS and other medical conditions that cause a disruption to regular life. They also advise family caregivers on the prognosis of the person's condition and how best to care for the person at home, or they'll recommend a nursing home or hospice care when necessary. Social workers provide counselling to patients on what to expect as their condition progresses, to alleviate some of the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. These social workers also help plan for patients' needs after discharge from hospitals or rehabilitation centres by arranging for at-home services, from meals-on-wheels programs to oxygen equipment.
Mental health social work
Mental health social workers work in inpatient settings such as psychiatric hospitals, or in outpatient services at therapeutic centres or community mental health programs that provide counselling and medication monitoring outside the hospital. Social workers in these centres often work closely with other providers, medical doctors, case managers and family members to ensure that all are aware of the client's treatment and their roles in the process.
Substance abuse social work
Social workers in the substance use and addiction field are trained to treat clients in a holistic manner, taking into account a person's physical environment, family support system, spiritual beliefs and cultural attitudes alongside the addiction. This field is a good example of how the diverse and flexible skills of social workers can adapt to a number of different issues.
Clinical social work
Clinical social workers rely on a variety of therapeutic theories and tools to help individuals, couples, families and groups with mental, behavioural and emotional issues, including eating disorders, depression and personality disorders. Unlike other areas of practice, clinical social workers are defined more by how they work than where and for whom. For instance, clinical social workers practise in schools, mental health agencies, private practice and community-based organisations, whereas those who practise school social work are only found in schools or school-based settings.