Mental Health Consequences of These Pandemics

Published on : July 24, 2020

About Social Work Responds
The Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), and the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) are committed to collaborating on the range of issues affecting the social work profession and the people and communities we serve.


CSWE: The Journal of Social Work Education compiled a collection of free-access articles with a focus on race/racism, oppression, social justice, and related topics that social workers and social work educators are committed to addressing and resolving. These articles have been accessed more than 2,400 times collectively and will be available through September.

ASWB: Responding to a recent call to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion, ASWB has challenged its members (social work regulatory boards) to look at their board composition, identify whether voices are missing, and implement an action plan by recruiting members to fill any gaps. Social work regulatory boards are embracing the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better; then when you know better, do better.”

NASW: A new nationwide NASW Racial Justice Workgroup includes representatives from all 55 chapters and the national office. In communities across the country, NASW is hosting town halls, webinars, online advocacy days, and member focus groups to inform work that eliminates racist policing, addresses racial disparities in social and health services, and prepares more social workers for culturally competent practice. Visit the NASW Racial Equity website for the latest information.

Mental Health Consequences of This Pandemic

COVID-19 has revealed racial disparities that illuminate institutional and systemic racism. We need to be responding to both pandemics. It is necessary for us to consider how our programs, approaches, and initiatives address the ways the public health pandemic, which is unabating, and the centuries-old pandemic of racism collectively affect our nation's mental health and well-being.

A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation in April found that nearly half of Americans reported that the coronavirus pandemic had a negative impact on their mental health. Since then, polls by health systems, universities, and others have shown that Americans are experiencing higher levels of stress due to COVID-19. We have seen this in social work practice and education. In a recent survey CSWE conducted with the California State University, Sacramento, Division of Social Work, 80% of students indicated that their mental health has been adversely affected due to COVID-19.

A substantial body of evidence shows that racism also causes toxic levels of stress. Starla Simmons, LCSW, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) Steve Hicks School of Social Work, aptly noted during a virtual UT Austin event that “being Black is a pre-existing condition” for numerous health and social problems. Let’s pause to think about that.  What happens to an already at-risk population when the stress brought about by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates existing disparities and anxieties? This level of stress will undoubtedly lead to long-lasting emotional trauma.

Many studies have demonstrated an association between adverse childhood experiences and numerous conditions in adulthood, including depression, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, and other physical and mental health issues. Our jobs in social work often place us at the center of helping clients and communities respond to these issues. If we are practitioners in health care and mental health, we have direct experience treating the results of life trauma. If we are working with children in schools, we are helping students and their families overcome emotional and often financial barriers to successful education. And our student field placement experiences and coursework prepare new professionals for a world that is grossly unequal and downright hostile to many of the vulnerable people we serve.

As we have discussed in previous Social Work Responds issues, licensed clinical social workers are prepared and ready to respond to the challenges of racism and mental trauma. Currently, 55 U.S. states and territories license clinical social workers. Many of these essential professionals provide behavioral health and psychiatric services in settings as varied as hospitals, clinics, correctional facilities, schools, military bases, and in private practice.

At entry to practice, social workers seeking clinical licensure must demonstrate competency on the licensing exams in diversity and discrimination and in the intervention process to address symptoms of stress-related trauma. Moreover, all states require licensed clinical social workers to pursue ongoing professional development and continuing education for license renewal. Six states specify ongoing education requirements for clinical practice, nine states specify cultural competence requirements, and four states specify suicide prevention requirements.

COVID-19 is now making the societal challenges that social workers have experienced, studied, and researched for generations as clear to others as they have always been to us. As a country, we must work intentionally to reduce the impact of this prolonged stress on the lives of individuals, families, and communities of color.

What Can We Do?

  • Name the problem.  Let’s agree to name racism as a preexisting condition that needs to be addressed along with responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Prioritize mental health.  This country has given only lip service to mental health parity. Let’s use this moment to make our aspirations a reality. 
  • Challenge ourselves and the systems in which we work to address both pandemics.


CSWE now offers the Specialized Practice Curricular Guide for Trauma-Informed Social Work Practice. The free resource addresses the needs of individuals, families, and communities increasingly exposed to toxic and traumatic stress and confronts issues involving justice, obtaining legal redress, and seeking protection against further harm.

Licensure itself is often cited as an institutional barrier, particularly to people of color, although research by Beth Redbird (2017) counters that assertion by arguing that licensure creates a set of institutional mechanisms that enhance entry into the occupation, particularly for historically disadvantaged groups.

NASW offers numerous courses on trauma-based care and cultural competence through its online CE Institute. Several new webinars address trauma and health disparities in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.