The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Teaching Community Mental Health in California: A Statewide Content Analysis of Course Outlines

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 4:30 PM
Executive Center 2B (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Sarah Taylor, PhD, Assistant Professor, California State University, Hayward, Hayward, CA

The Mental Health Committee of the California Social Work Education Center (CalSWEC) supports the mental health curriculum at schools of social work across the state through various activities, including statewide quarterly meetings for faculty and mental health administrators and development of curriculum competencies. The Mental Health Committee also advances the values and goals of the Mental Health Services Act (MHSA), passed in California in 2004.  The MHSA seeks to transform the public mental health system in California by emphasizing new and innovative services, cultural competence, inclusion of consumer and family member perspectives, and use of evidence-based practices. This study explored how schools of social work in California have incorporated the CalSWEC Curriculum Competencies for Public Mental Health, key themes of the MHSA, and Knowledge, Skill, and Ability areas previously identified through mental health employer and alumni focus groups into their curricula.


In September 2010, mental health project coordinators at 20 schools of social work in California were invited to send syllabi that reflect the mental health competencies and/or values of MHSA. All schools responded (100% response rate) and sent in a total of 116 syllabi. Three trained Master’s-level Research Assistants and the Principal Investigator completed all analyses.

A survey for evaluation of the CalSWEC MH Competencies and key themes of the MHSA was developed. Data was entered into a Surveymonkey ( survey created for the study. To assess the Knowledge, Skills, and Ability areas, the Principal Investigator used DiscoverText, an online qualitative analysis software package ( to complete keyword searches. To supplement the survey and keyword searches, word clouds were used to visualize the most frequently-appearing words in the syllabi and in the research team’s open-ended responses.


Over 80% of course syllabi demonstrated coverage of cultural sensitivity, evidence-based practices, professional use of self, ethics, assessment and intervention.  Schools demonstrated emerging coverage (20-60%) in areas such as trauma, recovery, consumer empowerment, family member empowerment, and co-occurring conditions.

In addition to these themes, researchers also explored the use of assignments and innovation in teaching. Almost half (48%) of syllabi were rated as innovative by the research team. The innovative syllabi included assignments such as self-assessment exercises, a menu of choices, Wellness Recovery Action Plans, advocacy-related activities, and field trips.


Strengths of the project include the participation of all schools of social work in a large state, analysis of syllabi, which serve as the contract with students about what a class will cover, and the inclusion of MSW student research assistants who are consumers of social work education. However, as with any study of syllabi, the data available is limited to what appears in the syllabus, and may not be entirely representative of what happens in the classroom.

 Future research should include a detailed review of recovery-oriented courses, which could complement the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s Recovery to Practice Initiative. A two-year follow-up, to see how schools have progressed in incorporating the themes that were not as well covered would be helpful, as would a study focused specifically on first-year syllabi.