Integrated Behavioral Health and Social Work

One of the core tenets of social work is that practitioners should meet the clients "where they are" by considering their physical health, socioeconomic and environmental factors, as well as their mental health. Increasingly, social workers are now being included in an area known as behavioral health, which is an area that coordinates mental health with medical care.

"The idea of behavioral health is that there’s one central person that can coordinate care with other disciplines and includes input from everyone," said Dr. Judith Siegel, professor of social work at NYU Silver. "It’s expanding the idea of care to the whole person and how stress and other factors impact a person’s overall well being."

For many patients, issues like obesity or diabetes are chronic conditions that can use high levels of stress and can impact work or school performance. Dr. Siegel said that many clients have to navigate the healthcare system and may end up going to five or more different agencies to address all their medical and mental health care needs.

"That also means that any one agency isn’t aware of the whole of a person," said Dr. Siegel. Because of this disparate care, providers at various agencies may not get the whole picture or fully understand the needs of their clients. The idea of behavioral health is that mental health providers are located alongside medical staff and they all work together closely to better understand and treat patients.

Dr. Siegel said that the idea of behavioral health has recently been expanding into schools. "Some schools in New York City now have mental health providers inside the school, including psychiatric care, social workers, nurses and guidance counselors - it’s essentially a health and medical clinic inside the school."

The benefit of this approach is that students don’t have to miss classes and be taken home or to the emergency room. Parents also don’t need to take time off work, find childcare or travel to various offices to get care for their children. Behavioral health can also help to prevent inpatient and outpatient psychiatric care as well as the overuse of emergency rooms, said Dr. Siegel. Although having a client go to just one location can be beneficial, behavioral health can also include various agencies or locations with a social worker being the point person and coordinating care.

The concept of behavioral health is relatively new, but it is showing great promise and is expanding rapidly in the field of social work. Dr. Siegel said that NYU Silver has been at the forefront of the behavioral health movement and is currently working to train students in this area. In September 2014, NYU Silver was awarded a $1.44 million federal grant from the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) to provide integrated health and behavioral health services to poverty-impacted youth in New York City. The grant will create a new fellowship award program for second-year students focused on behavioral health in combination with specialized courses and fieldwork at partnering nonprofit social service agencies. The project is also designed to prepare current agency-based practitioners for health and mental health care practice in the unfolding era of the Affordable Care Act.

"NYU Silver is helping to train behavioral health experts in order to fill the demand in the workplace in the next few years," said Dr. Siegel. “We are in the beginning stages right now but we expect that there are going to be many more jobs working in behavioral health.”