Putting Theory into Practice: The Heart of Mental Health Field Work

After two years of working at a community mental health agency, it was time to sharpen my skills and earn a Master of Social Work degree. When the population you work with is mostly dual diagnosis teetering between the lines of homelessness and hospitalization, merely practicing good ol’ fashioned active listening is not enough. Here are a few great tools I’ve learned from my first-year classes through the MSW@USC that have helped more effectively serve my clients.

Theories, Theories and More Theories

Sometimes you wonder just why you need to learn about theory. Without a working knowledge of social work theories, like Erikson’s stages of development or Cass’ identity model for LGBTQ, behaviors are just behaviors. Learning the theoretical backbone of human development helps paint a fuller picture of not just the “who” and “what,” but more importantly, the “why” people do what they do. If you don’t have a good understanding of these concepts, you may take the wrong approach when working with your clients and miss an opportunity to discover their past, their present and their future.

Being an Effective Policy Advocate

We should all remember that providing quality care to clients goes beyond the one-on-one, and we are part of a larger system governed by laws and policies. So often in the mental health field, funding is cut, which greatly affects the well-being of our clients. It’s important to look at the policies in place that influence our work and speak up for our clients when they cannot speak up for themselves. Sometimes it takes the eyes of a compassionate and determined social worker willing to advocate for the rights of our clients to make the biggest impact.

Motivational Interviewing

Before we start our foundation-year field placement, MSW@USC students take course work in evidence-based motivational interviewing. A huge part of your role as a social worker involves motivating change in your clients. Whether it’s a change in a self-destructive behavior or an addiction, motivational interviewing has been the cherry on top of great tools. A majority of my clients have an extensive substance abuse history, and their addiction has replaced genuine engagement in the community, negatively affecting their personal relationships. Mental health issues are hard to treat until the underlying co-occurring substance abuse disorder is first addressed. Supporting a client through the stages of change can be incredibly beneficial to encouraging someone along their road to recovery.

Sharing Stories

Another piece that has been beneficial to me in preventing burn-out has been the opportunity to talk about my work challenges with classmates and professors. A great part of being in a virtual classroom full of people who don’t know the specific clients you work with can give you a fresh perspective. Of course, we always respect HIPPA and other issues of confidentiality in our class discussions. Dealing with different personalities all day long can be difficult, but the knowledge and expertise of professors and classmates are valuable assets to sharpening my skills. I can always count on consulting with my supervisors and co-workers, but my classmates and professors challenge me always to think outside the box.

The further into the program I go, the more tools and skills I see I’ll gain to be even more effective. Most importantly, I realize I have to be open to new ideas and strategies. Applying what we learn from the program to our field is probably the smartest decision I’ll ever make.


Peggy Chen is an MSW@USC student from the San Francisco Bay Area. She currently works in a community mental health agency with adults and transitional-aged youth with mental illness, who have a history of homelessness and/or frequent hospitalization. Peggy can be found at her LinkedIn profile.